Small rural Catholic churches in Fingal and neighbourhood

by Brendan Grimes

I think, had my life taken a very different turn, that I would have liked to study architectural history. Or at least be a student in one of Brendan Grimes’s lectures on architectural history. He has a way of making buildings come to life. There’s no disguising his passion for the quirks that make each building so individual – or his disapproval of those modern changes that have detracted from the architect’s original design.

In the Skerries Historical Society’s March presentation Brendan discussed ‘small rural Catholic churches in Fingal and neighbourhood.’ It turns out that there are plenty of quirks to catch the eye of an architectural historian in the little churches that began to appear mainly in the 19th century all over Ireland. Some may have been architect designed but others seem to have been conceived by enthusiastic amateurs.

What caused this proliferation of small churches? During the period of the penal laws the building of Catholic churches and chapels was largely discouraged. Catholics in Ireland did not have an easy time following their religion during the 17th and early 18th centuries. From the middle of the 18th century restrictions began to be lifted, with the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1793 removing most of the remaining restrictions. Wealthier Catholics gave generously to enable new chapels to be built. These chapels were usually simple barn-like buildings about 5 to 6 metres wide which was adequate for the small rural populations involved and meant that local builders were able to construct them without having to hire in special equipment. As the population expanded, the barn churches were sometimes extended into a T shape with balconies added to give extra space for seating to either side of the altar and above the main congregation.

There must have been hundreds of these churches dotted all over the country in the 19th century and I recognised that the church where my mother attended Mass as a child in West Cork conforms to the general design outlined by Brendan. Closer to home, Brendan showed us St Canice’s in Damastown. This T plan church is particularly interesting as it was built very early – it is present on Rocque’s map of 1762 and so must have been built well before the restrictions on church building was relaxed. Perhaps because of its great age and the fact that it had to support a heavy thatched roof (now replaced), the southern wall began to bulge and it had to be buttressed to stabilise the structure.

St Nicolas of Myra in Kinsealy, built in the 1830s, has a mixture of Gothic and classical decoration that few architects would have condoned. It may have been designed by the priest rather than an architect. Indeed several of the churches explored by Brendan have plaques proclaiming the Parish Priest as the builder rather than naming an architect or professional builder.

Unfortunately, later Parish Priests often saw it as their duty to replace the small simple places of worship with more imposing buildings and a great many of these simple, but charming,  barn and T plan churches have disappeared. We should make sure that those which remain are preserved.