St Michael’s Dun Laoghaire

Irish artists of the mid-20th century had one patron who sustained them above all others – the Catholic Church. Actually, this was probably due to the discerning taste of modernist architects, who wanted the best for their new churches. Nevertheless, the art was commissioned and paid for by churches and their congregations, and the great advantage of this is that this artistic output is in public spaces for all of us still to enjoy. A superb example (there are many) is St Michael’s church in Dun Laoghaire. I remember when St Michael’s burned down, in 1965 – a huge shock to the people of Dun Laoghaire who lost a magnificent neo-Gothic example of the work of J J McCarthy. Take a look at what it looked like.

The architect Pierce McKenna was immediately commissioned to build a temporary church – I can find no illustration of this church, but in Irish Church Architecture, Peter Hurley describes it as very advanced for its time…a single story structure 84 feet square with a centre  raised clerestory lantern…and the sanctuary completely surrounded by the congregation. All that was possible to save from the old church was the tower and spire, which still dominates the skyline of Dun Laoghaire (above).

By 1973 this had been replaced by the new church, designed by McKenna, with Sean Rothery and Naois O’Dowd. Responding to changes in the liturgy dictated by Vatican II, the sanctuary of the new church was also in the centre of the church, surrounded by the congregation. The design was strikingly modern for its day – Hurley calls it a strong uncompromising statement. The image above is courtesy of RTE.

Constructed entirely of concrete, the interior is lit by tall slender windows and a glazed clerestory that separates the walls from the ceiling, as well as by long triangular roof lights. Earlier this year I visited Coventry Cathedral (also dedicated to St Michael), and I was immediately struck by similarities.

Like Coventry, the stained glass is in soaring, floor-to-ceiling windows between slender columns; there is a large tapestry behind the altar (above, in this case non-figurative); and a bronze casting of St Michael defeating the dragon is mounted outside, above the man entrance. Immediately below is the Coventry St Michael, and below that, the DunLaoghaire version.

The sculpture, doors and handles are the work of Imogen Stuart. They combine a completely modern aesthetic with images influenced by the Book of Kells. 

Inside, all the large glass is by the Murphy Devitt Studios. For more on this group, see my posts Murphy Devitt in Cork (links to Parts 2 and 3 are at the end of the post). As I said then about Johnny Murphy, Rosin Dowd Murphy and Des Devitt, Together they set about doing something entirely new and different in stained glass in Ireland, bringing with them their art training, their modern aesthetic sensibilities, and their deep knowledge of and commitment to their craft.

You can see all this in St Michael’s – their ability to design and execute on a grand scale, their use of symbolic colour and shape to lead the eye upwards, their contrasting of warm and cool colours to vary the light in the church. 

Michael Biggs was the leading stone sculptor of the time and the church furnishings are a testament to his skills and vision. Sinuous (Hurley uses the word sensuous) and monumental granite blocks are shaped as a baptismal font, altar, lectern and tabernacle column.

The extraordinary tabernacle is (I think) bronze and enamel and is the work of Richard Enda King, who also made the crucifix.

Patrick Pye has contributed several stained glass windows, while Yvonne Jammet carved the wooden stations.

This church is a triumph of modernist Irish architecture: austere but filled with light, reverential yet a feast for the senses, liturgically correct yet daringly innovative. It’s also an accessible gallery of important Irish art. Go visit if you can.

Cork Menagerie


Cork does have a wildlife park – over in Fota, to the east of the city. But I think Cork’s real menagerie is on the University campus – The Honan Chapel, built almost a hundred years ago, and opening its doors to Catholic students in November 1916.

Ireland’s universities have a fascinating history: Pope Clement V authorised the first one in 1311, and this was based in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. This institution ‘came to an abrupt end’ with the Protestant Reformation of the 1530s, and Trinity College Dublin was founded as the ‘University of the Protestant Ascendancy’. At this time, England had the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, while Scotland had Universities at St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen.

In 1908, the Irish Universities Act was passed, by which the National University, consisting of the Constituent Colleges of Dublin, Cork and Galway was founded. Part of this act decreed that of the finance provided for the new University, none should be applied ‘… for the provision or maintenance of any church, chapel or other place of religious observance …’ It was left to a Cork merchant family – the Honans (who made their wealth through butter) to provide a hostel and chapel for Catholic students. 

‘…The chapel, itself, is in perfect accord not only with its immediate surroundings, but also with the wide heritage of art handed down to us by the early native church building. It is one of the best reproductions of the ancient style of building and it exemplifies, in a striking manner, all that is best in the Hiberno Romanesque architecture of the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries…’ The Honan Chapel, M J O’Reilly, Cork Univeristy Press, 1966


Lectern decoration

The interior of the building abounds in exquisite artworks. It’s a feast for the eyes wherever you look: stained glass windows by Harry Clarke stand out (including St Gobnait) – but, for me, the real treat is the mosaic work on the floors, designed by Ludwig Oppenheimer of Manchester. A River of Life runs the length of the nave from the entrance door to the sanctuary where, amidst a riot of pattern and colour, the menagerie unfolds: there are birds and beasts, fish and fowl all contained in decorated borders with Celtic knots and patterns. The only analogy I can think of is a medieval illuminated manuscript such as the Book of Kells, where the pages and margins are extravagantly ornamented with figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts in vibrant colours imbued with Christian symbolism.

The Chapel is dedicated to St Finbarr, Patron Saint of Cork. The foundation stone, laid on the 18th May 1915, records ‘… built by the Charity of Isabella Honan for the scholars and students of Munster…’ The architect was James F McMullen.