The symbolism, though hardly intended, is inescapable.
Many of the larger churches opened in Dublin during the long episcopacy of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, from 1940 to 1971, seem headed for demolition.
The 3,500-capacity Church of Annunciation in Finglas West, which he opened in October 1967, was demolished last September. It is to be replaced by a smaller church building, capacity 300, with freed-up space to be used for social housing and accommodation for older people.
This was approved by Dublin City Council in February 2020.
Dublin’s Catholic Archdiocese has now made a submission to the council urging that many of its parish sites be zoned similarly for housing, despite planned restrictions on these in all but “highly exceptional” circumstances.
Consultants for the archdiocese, Brock McClure, argued restricted zoning “unfairly inhibits any development options our clients wish to pursue, should the timing be right to rationalise some of the uses at certain locations”.
The consultants said many of the church sites under consideration were “located in disadvantaged areas where the delivery of housing is taking priority over additional institutional land uses” and that “a barrier to achieving this is potentially formulated in the context of the city development plan”.
The submission listed 33 churches in areas such as Artane, Ballymun, Beaumont, Cabra, Griffith Avenue, Drimnagh, Navan Road, Raheny, Walkinstown, Terenure, Harrington Street, Church Street and St James's Street.
Many of these – generally large – churches were opened by Archbishop McQuaid: at Artane (1968), three churches in Ballymun (in the 1960s), Drimnagh (1943), Navan Road (1953), Raheny (1962) and Walkinstown (1956).
Cabra, Griffith Avenue, Terenure and the three city parishes at Harrington Street, Church Street and St James’s Street are older and their churches would most likely be protected structures.
The archdiocese has said there are no current proposals to change the use of any churches other than the published plans for lands at Finglas West.
There is also the possibility that not all such land appropriately zoned would be used for social housing. In April 2019, the archdiocese sold lands at Clonliffe to the GAA for €92.2 million.
According to its financial report for 2020, the archdiocese received a further €3 million from the GAA following a deal the association concluded with US commercial property group Hines in 2019.
The €2,918,000 the archdiocese received was due to a clause in its contract with the GAA that it would be entitled to “a share in the profits made by the GAA if they sold on any of the lands or buildings to a third party”.
At Clonliffe also, the archdiocese retained ownership of Archbishop's House and the former Mater Dei College building. This is leased to Dublin City Council at a nominal rent as a hub for 50 homeless families and is managed by Crosscare, an agency of the archdiocese.
In January 2021, Archbishop of Dublin Dr Dermot Farrell said every parish in the archdiocese would have to change and some would amalgamate, but this would be done in consultation with priests and parishioners.
“[It is about] talking to the people, it’s talking to the priests, listening. These are their churches, their faith communities. It’s not going to be the archbishop, or Archbishop’s House going round saying ‘Close this church’,” he said.
At his installation Mass in the Pro Cathedral the following month, he said the future of the church must be different. “If I may turn LP Hartley’s famous phrase on its head: ‘The future is a different country, we must do things differently there.’”