Faith in the future – Historic Irishtown church plans major restoration
A historic Dublin church which has been at the heart of its community for over 300 years is setting its sights firmly on the future. Parishioners of St Matthew’s Church in Irishtown, where Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmett are said to have worshipped, have outlined ambitious plans to secure the church’s future.
The Christopher Wren–designed church is located in a dynamic part of south Dublin which is no stranger to change and evolution. When the church was built in 1704, the sea lapped up against the walls of the churchyard and the nearby docks were a hive of activity. Later, many of the key events of the 1916 Rising took place just a stone’s throw away. Today the tide has changed again and the area is the at the epicentre of technological development with global tech giants such as Google, Meta, Twitter and LinkedIn among others located in Dublin’s so–called Silicon Docks. The Aviva Stadium is in the parish as is Pfizer Europe’s headquarters.
Through this, St Matthew’s has maintained its tradition of witness and worship and intends to keep doing so for generations to come. In recent years there have been a number of developments which have helped to promote the church’s relationship with the wider community in Irishtown. The most obvious of these is the removal of the tall trees around the churchyard which mean that the church is now visible as you approach it from all directions.
The parish also built a columbarium wall in the graveyard and it is open to the entire community meaning that anyone who wishes to inter the ashes of their loved ones in Irishtown can do so. In recent years too, the main door of the church, which had been closed for half a century, were reopened improving the connection between the church and the community. In a new development, the parish holds weekly coffee mornings (“Coffee @ St. Matt’s”). The Rector of Irishtown and Donnybrook Union of Parishes, Canon Leonard Ruddock, notes that even in densely populated areas people can be lonely, particularly as many are continuing to work from home.
Now the parish plans to undertake a complete refurbishment of the interior of the beautiful church. The works, due to start this Spring, include rewiring, restoration of the plasterwork, restoration of the stained glass windows, restoration of the original floor tiles, painting and generally bringing the building up to modern standards while restoring the ancient components.
“This work is a statement of confidence in the parish and in the church,” Canon Ruddock explains. “St Matthew’s has been here for over 300 years and we want to make sure it is here for generations to come for worship and to celebrate key moments in their lives.”
He acknowledged that the work is only possible because of the sale of St Mary’s Church in Donnybrook earlier this year. After much prayerful consideration St Mary’s closed and was deconsecrated in June 2020. “There was no easy way forward,” he observes. He became the new Rector of Irishtown and Donnybrook in April 2022 and recognises that the period which led up to the closure of St Mary’s was stressful for parishioners attending both churches but they are now moving on together.
When St Matthew’s Church opened in 1704 it was a much smaller building, explains parishioner and historian Trevor James. It was designed as a ‘chapel of ease’ for the original St Mary’s Church, which was located in the centre of Donnybrook and of which no trace remains. At the time, located as it was at the edge of the sea and the Liffey delta, it was difficult to get from Irishtown to Donnybrook. St Matthew’s catered mainly for customs officials who were all Protestants, as were all government workers. There were also barracks at Beggars Bush and the Pigeon House Road and military sailors as well as the local population and civil servants. It had not been planned to build the church tower as high as it is but the corporation requested the additional height to act as a navigation aid for shipping.
St Matthew’s was a Royal Chapel as money was granted by parliament to build it. Once the Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1871, it ceased to be so. Wolfe Tone is known to have stayed in the area and is said to have worshipped in St Matthew’s. Robert Emmet would definitely have been in the church, not least because he had friends in the area. Lundy Foot tobacconist and renowned snuff manufacturer was a parishioner. Lundy Foot and their Blackguard snuff were household names throughout the British isles and beyond. Their family grave is also in St Matthew’s.
Before the church was extended in 1879 there would have been 300 to 400 people attending services on Sundays with people having to remain outside. The Revd Stoney pushed for the extension, despite reservations in St Mary’s. The church was almost gutted with only the walls being retained and the chancel was built on and this is the church that remains today. The mosaic tiled floor, which is still in place, was laid by an Italian tiler who left Dublin under something of a cloud. He did leave behind a box of spare tiles which are still in the church.
The high proportion of Protestant population continued in the area with a large number of Church of Ireland homes evident in the 1911 Census.
Parish administrator, Jonny Bell, explains that during the 1916 Rising soldiers took over the church at some time and bullet holes can be seen in the old school building. However, he adds, the parish bulletin of the day did not give the rising much credence, referring only to “the regrettable circumstances of last week”. This is despite much of the fighting taking place within a kilometre of the church at Boland’s Mill and Mount Street Bridge.
Gladys Raethorne has been a parishioner of St Matthew’s all her life. She was baptised and confirmed in the church and was married there 51 years ago. She recalls Sundays as a child and coming to the church which was full to capacity. Her father would bring the children in the morning and her mother in the evening, in addition to attending Sunday School. She remembers her wedding day. “I thought I was Elizabeth Taylor getting married. The whole community came out to look,” she says. Her husband was Catholic and in 1971 this was frowned upon to say the least so much of the community didn’t come in to the church for the wedding but gathered outside.
All sense of the monochrome society of the 1970s is gone with the huge influx of multinational companies. Residents hail from all over the world and the area has changed once again. Reflecting this, the church is shared with the Knanyan Indian Orthodox Church. One of the few constants over the past three centuries remains St Matthew’s Church.
The parish has received an architect’s report and hopes to go to tender for the works shortly. It is expected to close for a few months in Spring 2023 for the work to take place.
This article first appeared in the Church Review, the diocesan magazine of the United Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough. For details on how to subscribe click here.