Archive of the Month
Marking 150 Years of a Church at the Forefront of Social Justice and Reform: St Barnabas’s, Dublin
By Bryan Whelan
The 1860s represented a turbulent time for the Established Church in Ireland. Much of the decade saw parliamentary and ecclesiastical debates pertaining to the future of the Church, culminating in the Irish Church Act in July 1869. As is often the case, a time of turbulence also represents a time to embrace change, and the 1860s saw a period of substantial growth for the Church of Ireland, particularly in terms of new churches, chapels–of–ease, and parochial districts.
This opportunity to embrace change was recognised by the Church with regards to the docklands area of Dublin, known at the time as North Lotts. The growth of the area in terms of population and industry saw the need for the creation of a district curacy in the parish of St Thomas on 22 January, 1868. The curate of the parish of St Thomas, the Revd John Grainger (1830–91) was active in the area, having been appointed to minister to that portion of St Thomas that would eventually be re–designated as St Barnabas. Grainger would serve St Thomas’ (including the area that would become St Barnabas) from 1866–9. From 1866 onwards, without any church building in existence, services were held in various houses in the area (the first recorded was on 4 February, 1866 in 7 Seaview Terrace, Church Road). With increasing numbers of people attending services, there was a need for larger premises, with a congregation of houses on Albert Avenue, off Abercorn Road, being used. Walls were broken through to create a larger room, with the eventual formation of a schoolhouse to serve the new parish.
A bequest of Miss Jane Shannon (who died in 1862), originally from Belfast, but residing in a house on Belgrave Square, Rathmines, in Dublin, allowed for £19,500 for the creation of churches in the Dublin area, with the sum of £5,000 of this bequest going to the creation of a trustee church in the North Lotts area. The Irish Builder (Vol. xi, No. 224, April 15, 1869) notes that ‘the school–house has been for some months completed, and in use; the Church will not be completed until next month’. This would date the completion of the construction of the church to May 1869, just a few months before the passing of the Irish Church Act. The church was built on land donated by Mr Charles Gaussen who would become one of the first trustees of the newly–built church. The new church was consecrated on 24 January, 1870 by the Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Chenevix Trench. The remainder of Miss Shannon’s generous bequest would be used to build two other churches around this time, St Paul’s in Glenageary (built in 1867 and consecrated the following year) and St Kevin’s in Dublin (which was built much later, with the foundation stone laid by the Archbishop of Dublin, Lord Plunket, in 1888 and was consecrated the following year).
St Barnabas’s church, designed by Alfred Jones, of Molesworth Street, is described in the Irish Builder as being of ‘perpendicular gothic style’, and was very much in line with the architectural style of the time. It consisted of a nave, chancel, as well as a vestry room located underneath the church. Most striking was the square tower, rising some 40 metres above its surroundings. This tower would have been quite imposing given the industrial nature of the buildings in the area, being surrounded by low–lying, squat buildings servicing the import and export trade. The church was constructed of black cut–stone, with granite and bath stone dressings and built by Messrs Matthew Gahan and Son, of Whitechurch, Rathfarnham. The Irish Builder (Vol. xii, No. 243, 1 February, 1870) notes that ‘the church is fitted with open benches calculated to seat about 500 persons’ and that ‘the entire woodwork is stained and varnished’.
It is interesting to note that the consecration of the church did not mean that the building itself was finished. Some two years after the consecration, the Irish Builder (Vol. xiv, No. 291, 1 February, 1872) reported that the spire of the church remained unfinished: ‘The openings in the belfry stage were not provided with weather boards, and consequently in time of rain the floor and walls of [the] porch, situated in under part of tower, were damaged, and the congregation much annoyed’. This issue was rectified by churchwardens using scaffolding that been left in–situ from the construction of the church. However, another problem remained. The spire was constructed in three parts, but there was no access to the upper–third, and there was the small matter of no bell having been installed. This issue was solved by ‘the worthy incumbent, the Rev. William Daunt, A.M.’ who ‘presented the congregation with a fine–toned bell, from the foundry of Messrs. Thomas Sheridan and Son, Church–Street, in this City’.
In a document written and signed by the Archbishop of Dublin dated 22 January 1868 – some two years before the consecration of the church – the parish boundaries were assigned accordingly: ‘commencing at the extreme western boundary of the District in Amien Street at a point where the centre of the line of rails of the Dublin and Drogheda Railway would run into the said street if extended in a right line for the prupose and which point is marked ‘B’ on the annexed map. Thence proceeding in a north–easterly direction along the centre of the line of rails of the said Dublin and Drogheda Railway to a point or angle where the said Railway crosses the East Wall and which point is marked ‘C’ on the said map. Thence proceeding in a south–easterly direction by the East Wall extending along the sea to the point where the said East Wall turns in a south–western direction. Thence in a south–western direction along the East Wall aforesaid to Sheriff Street and thence in a southerly direction along the East Wall aforesaid to the point where the East Wall runs into the River Anna Liffey and which point is marked ‘D’ on the annexed map. Thence proceeding in a westerly direction along the centre of the said River Anna Liffey to a point opposite the entrance of St Georges Dock and which point is marked with the letter ‘A’ on the said annexed map. Thence turning in a north–westerly direction and running in a right line through the centre of St Georges Dock aforesaid from the said point A to the said point B with which this description commenced’. While the boundaries were necessarily determined by geography, there was incredible diversity in terms of the population of the parish. Then, as now, the parish, in a heavily industrialised, urban, and working–class area, had a large population of transient workers in the shipping and food business. Grainger noted that during his time administering to this part of St Thomas, the Protestant population increased from some 800 to 2,000. The future parish of St Barnabas would have to serve this population as well as the transient workers (primarily members of the Church of England, as well as other Protestant denominations) that would be working in the area. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the nature of the North Lotts area as well as the church’s location close to the London & North Western Railway Offices, the church became known as a ‘mariner’s church’. As the boats of the London & North Western Railway would dock on Sunday mornings, the church arranged for two pews to be reserved specifically for these workers.
Given the overwhelmingly working–class nature of the area, it is unsurprising that the church’s outreach was devoted to aspects of social justice and reform. We can see elements of this in Grainger’s initial pastoral care in the community, but it became more noticeable during the incumbency of the Revd Edward Morgan Griffin (c1851–1923). The RCB Library holds a document written by Griffin headed ‘Analysis of Church Population of St Barnabas’ Parish’ dated 24 November 1900. This document shows Griffin attempting to understand the nature of his new parish, having been installed the previous year. In the document, Griffin writes that ‘the bulk of our church population is composed of quay labourers, railway porters, ticket collectors, stokers, […] carpenters, plumbers’. Given the nature of the parish of St Barnabas, as well as the working–class nature of its members, it is no surprise that prominent members of the Church of Ireland concerned with reform were drawn to the church. The most notable of these was the playwright Seán O’Casey, who was baptised John Casey in the church of St Mary in Dublin, with his family residing on Dorset Street. O’Casey would come to live beside St Barnabas’s and develop a strong relationship with the church and with the Revd Griffin.
In his book From Age to Age: History of the parish of Drumcondra, North Strand, and St Barnabas (1970), Arthur Garrett notes that St Barnabas’s ‘was the neighbourhood of Sean O’Casey and it was here he was inspired to write his best plays’. Garrett paints the picture of O’Casey as having ‘laboured on the construction of the Railways and here he worshiped his God in the Church of St. Barnabas, singing Hymns in Irish and after Service playing Hurling in the Phoenix Park’. The church of St Barnabas and the docklands features prominently in O’Casey’s play Red Roses for Me, first premiered at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin in 1943. The play is set during the Dublin Lockout of 1913, with the church being stylised as ‘Saint Burnupus.’ (According to the Sean O’Casey Papers held in the National Library of Ireland, the change in spelling is an attempted play on the name, being a reference to the ecclesiastical doctrine of ‘hellfire for sinners’, that is ‘burn us up/burn up us’). During this period, there is a Seághan Ó Cathasaigh listed as living in 18 Abercorn Road in the census of 1911. This house would have had a perfect view of the spire of St Barnabas from its back window. O’Casey had a deep well of respect and admiration for the Revd Griffin, and even dedicated the second volume of his autobiography Pictures in the Hallway (1942) with the caption: ‘To the memory of The Rev. E. M. Griffin B.D., M.A., one–time Rector of St. Barnabas, Dublin. A fine scholar; a man of a many–branched kindness, whose sensitive hand was the first to give the clasp of friendship to the author’.
The Revd David Henry Hall (21 May 1873–27 February 1940) took over from Griffin as incumbent on 23 July 1918 and like his predecessors in St Barnabas, was aware of the social issues that had such a great impact on the parish. Hall would have a seismic impact on the pastoral outreach of the church as well as on the community of North Lotts during his ministry.
As with St Barnabas’ itself in 1870, the arrival of the new pastor to the parish was during a time of great turbulence. Ireland was in the midst of a decade of revolution, having only recently witnessed the end of the War of Independence, was in the middle of the great flu epidemic, and many of its people were still fighting in the Great War. There was also the pressing issue of tenement housing that had gone unresolved since the shocking revelations in 1913. In a similar fashion to his predeccesors, Hall undertook a survey of his new parish upon the start of his incumbency. The situation was dire, and the reverend encountered examples of extreme poverty. Death rates for the area were as high as 46 per 1000, in comparison with 18 per 1000 for Dublin as a whole. Against this backdrop, as well as considerable pressure from those in authority not to act, Hall undertook a practical policy to help those in his community. In January 1920, he set up the St Barnabas Public Utility Society in January 1920 and would late become the director of the Association for Housing the Very Poor. According to Dr Ruth McManus’ illuminating article “The ‘Building Parson’: The Role of Reverend David Hall in the Solution of Ireland’s Early Twentieth–Century Housing Problems”, Hall was successful in the construction of 176 houses between 1920 and 1926. In the early years of this scheme, the houses built under the Revd Hall’s watch were outnumbering those being built by Dublin Corporation. The initial phase was the construction of a ‘garden suburb’ with suitable housing for the working poor. This phase resulted in the creation of a cul–de–sac that was named St Barnabas’ Gardens. The other phases included houses being built on Utility Road (now known as Strangford Road East), Utility Gardens (another cul–de–sac, now known as Strangford Gardens), Seaview Avenue & Crescent Gardens, and houses along Hope Avenue and Faith Avenue.
Hall’s work was not just confined to St Barnabas’s. He worked with many civil bodies throughout Dublin, particularly the Corporation itself in assisting it with its plans for the Marino public housing scheme, as well as working with the local Roman Catholic parish priest, the Very Revd Canon Brady and the Lord Mayor, Laurence O’Neill. Ecumenical work was key, and the housing projects built by Hall’s organisations were not confined to members of the Church of Ireland. As an example, McManus notes that the initial scheme saw some 21 Roman Catholic families being housed, with 15 Protestant families making up the remainder. The Lord Mayor, Laurence O’Neill, noted the ecumenical nature of the scheme when he stated that ‘ladies and gentlemen of different degrees and forms of thought and religion gathered together with the one common object of benefiting their fellow citizens’ (Church of Ireland Gazette, 8 July 1921). Throughout the 1920s, Hall was vocal in the Church of Ireland Gazette, as well as numerous other newspapers, including the Irish Times, in advocating for improved standards in housing. Hall’s success and determination on this matter would eventually inspire others with the creation of similar bodies and organisations in Dundalk, Rathmines, Carlow, and Finglas. Nearly a hundred years after the ‘building parson’ implemented a practical solution to a pressing crisis, Ireland finds itself with similar problems with regards to housing, with resounding calls to build more houses.
Hall would eventually continue his work as incumbent in Glenageary in 1929. It is an interesting coincidence that he should eventually come to work in the parish church of Glenageary, as it was sometimes considered a sister church with St Barnabas, both having come into existence as a result of Miss Jane Shannon’s generous bequest in the 1860s.
The church was also heavily involved in more traditional community outreach programmes. Along with Girls’ and Lad’s Brigades, there is evidence of a Mothers’ Meeting group, the St Barnabas Mutual Benefit Society, a football club, a cricket club, a gymnasium, as well as a branch of the Church of Ireland temperance Society.
After being invested in the RCB in 1921, the parish was joined to St Thomas’s in June 1922 and would remain so until 1965 when it was separated from St Thomas and joined to Drumcondra and North Strand. The middle part of the 20th century saw a decline in the members of the Church of Ireland in the area and by the mid–1960s the decision was made to close and demolish St Barnabas’s. A notice from Revd Dudley H. Clarke in Our Church Review (the Dublin & Glendalough Diocesan Magazine) from May, 1965 (vol. XXXVI, No. 1) states that ‘At my institution in St. Barnabas’ Church on 8 April, as rector of that parish the church was closed for public worship’. It would lie vacant until its demolition in spring 1969.