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By 1973 this had been replaced by the new church, designed by McKenna, with Sean Rothery and Naois O’Dowd.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.