Raising the roof


RESTORATION:St Mary’s has undergone a €2 million restoration. JAMES GIBBONSvisits the Haddington Road landmark

LMOST 100 YEARS after St Mary’s Church, Haddington Road was made famous in James Joyce’s Dubliners, it has reopened after extensive repair work. In The DeadJoyce describes how Mary Jane “was now the main prop of the household, for she had the organ in Haddington Road”. While the Telford organ, which has also been played by Gerard Gillen, professor emeritus in music at NUI Maynooth and Ite O’Donovan, director of the Lassus Scholars, remains intact, much of the fabric of the building has been repaired or replaced in a refurbishment costing around €2 million – much of it paid for by wealthy parishioners.

The church will officially reopen tomorrow and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin will officiate at an 11am mass. There was a “soft opening” for parishioners a fortnight ago, which President Michael D Higgins attended. The President and his wife Sabina got married there in 1974. Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his wife Fionnuala were also married there.

President Higgins recalls unveiling a plaque there to the poet Paddy Kavanagh, in the company of his brother Peter Kavanagh. Kavanagh’s funeral was from the parish, which includes Raglan Road and stretches from the Grand Canal to Herbert Park and from the railway line to the east and Upper Leeson Street to the west.

The modern parish of St Mary’s was created in 1876 when the older parish, with the cumbersome title of “Irishtown, Donnybrook, Ringsend, and Sandymount”, was subdivided. The church, which can also be accessed from St Mary’s Road, has two grand Victorian parish houses alongside the Dylan hotel. The interconnecting houses are home to parish priest Msgr Patrick Finn and three assistant priests, Fr Patrick Claffey, Fr Eoin Cassidy and Fr Michael Collins.

The church dates from 1839, and although the architect’s name does not appear in the parish records, it is known that work began on it in 1835, the same year Thomas Hamilton, earl of Haddington, departed as viceroy and left his name in Dublin 4.

In 1898 the frontage was altered to the design of JJ O’Callaghan, an advocate of the Gothic style. This was followed by the addition of the bell tower, designed by Walter Doolin, who was responsible for the terrace balustrade at Belvedere in Westmeath.

Alfred Ernest Child arrived in Dublin in 1901 to take up the post of instructor in stained glass at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. A window painted by him in 1903 is in the right hand wall of the nave. This was the same year the artist Sarah Purser founded An Túr Gloine (Tower of Glass) studio. A baptistry window was painted in 1910 by Beatrice Glenavy, who worked with her.

Early photographs show decorative stencilling to the fan vaulting over the altar. This was replaced in later years by the designs of Harry Clarke, and later still by marble cladding. A series of winged angels by Harry Clarke, which were discovered behind the pipes of the church in 1968, were restored and framed and until recently were shown in the Millennium Wing of the National Gallery.

Tomorrow’s re-opening will be a celebration for Msgr Patrick Finn, who started fundraising almost as soon as he moved to the parish eight years ago. “Shortly before I arrived here in 2003, one of the gargoyles on the tower crashed down through the roof of the church and slates were blowing off the roof on windy days.”

“The church was in dire need of refurbishment. The roof was about to collapse,” says chairman of the pastoral council Margaret Downes. Downes, an accountant who worked with Coopers Lybrand, was the first female director of Bank of Ireland. She helped raise the €2 million-plus needed for renovations. “My main aim was to get the funds for the church, and then to see that we had a church that is dignified and elegant.”

Political advisor PJ Mara chaired the building committee and donations began to roll in. “We just got in at the right time,” says Msgr Finn. “In the modern age I don’t want to be talking about finance when people are suffering. We couldn’t do it now – we couldn’t even start it.”

When the project commenced in 2007 and the roof was opened up, there was, according to Monsignor Finn, “one enormous beam in particular over the sanctuary area and water had got in at one end. It was rotten and would have come down within a year – according to the architect – and some of us could have been killed.”

The second phase – decoration, lighting and heating – has just finished. Downes, who was made a dame commander of the Order of St Gregory last year, explains that “putting a new roof on doesn’t mean anything to parishioners, so the second leg was important”.

She brought a delegation to London to view Farm Street Church in Mayfair, which has, she says, particularly successful lighting. Aspects have been copied in Haddington Road.

Specialists involved included Richard Ireland, a leading plaster and paint-conservation expert. He chose a colour which surprised us all,” says Msgr Finn, describing the stone shade. “It means if you’re in the church, you’re looking at the windows and art works and you’re not disturbed by the colour.”

The church is now open for business, and the monsignor hopes to attract back parishioners and new recruits. Although the adjoining school, St Mary’s Holy Faith, closed in the past few years, Msgr Finn says that the parish’s 12.40pm daily mass “gets a lot of young people, and people working in offices nearby”. The parish also has 8am and 10am masses, a Saturday vigil at 6pm and three Sunday masses.

The team at St Mary’s run a lecture series as part of their education programme chaired by Mr Justice Kevin Cross. They have three speakers in the spring and three in the autumn. As recently as last week literary theorist Terry Eagleton gave a lecture entitled Jesus and Tragedy.

Fr Claffey coordinates a faith formation group and is preparing for the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, which takes place next June at the RDS and culminates with the liturgy on the final day being celebrated in Croke Park.

Fr Collins – a brother of London-based Irish architect David Collins, who has worked on projects for both Madonna and Tom Ford – has brought on board some younger parish members. Francesco Gagliardi from Italy works at Google and has put the parish on Facebook. Nicola Marchetti, also from Italy, lectures in telecommunications in Trinity College and is helping with the parish’s web page.

St Mary’s has a special place in the hearts of many, Dublin 4 residents and non-residents alike. Apart from the parish choir and the Classicus Chamber Choir, which performs works by Haydn, Fauré and Schubert, the parish is also served by the Guild of Choristers of St Cecilia, which was established in 1904 and has an unbroken tradition in the Latin sung Mass.

Joyce’s Mary Jane would be proud.