During Christmas, many sit inside the communal space that is a church. For some, these buildings are the backdrop to our most special, familial events, such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals. The late sixties saw Catholic churches built in a more unconventional manner, driven by liturgical changes, the shortage in steel and the capabilities of new materials such as concrete. Concrete's plasticity gave architects and builders the chance to have fun with form, such as this rope-marked church.
Churches of Howth Peninsula
The Roman Catholic churches of Howth Parish date back to a thatched chapel built on the Main Street in 1816, built by the same hands employed for the construction of the new harbour at Howth. In 1899, the present church replaced this chapel. Sutton, which was originally part of the greater Howth Parish, eventually got a chapel-of-ease in 1912, which was extended in 1927. This was affectionately known as 'The Tin Church’, the precursor to St Fintan’s Church on the corner of Greenfield Road and Church Road with its breath-taking view of Dublin Bay.
From the fifties the north-shore of Dublin Bay saw a huge suburban expansion, and St Fintan’s Church was built in response to the growth of this parish. A member of this parish was Andy Devane (1917 – 2000) of Robinson Keefe and Devane (RKD Architects) who built his family home on Howth Head. Devane received the commission in 1972 to build the new church for his locale to hold 750 congregants. The foundation stone was laid by the Archbishop of Dublin Most Rev Dermot Ryan on 8 October 1972. Devane had a deep spirituality and designed many churches during his career such as Our Lady Queen of Heaven, Dublin Airport (1964), Manresa Retreat House Chapel, Dollymount Dublin (1967), Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Chapel DCU (1964), Chapel at Gonzaga College (1967), mortuary chapel St John’s Hospital Limerick (1960s), and St Lelia’s Church, Limerick city (1977).
St Fintan’s Church was erected in 1973 and the contractors were Seamus and Seán Murphy. The church comprises a complex of curved, concrete buildings and is fan-shaped in plan. The volume of the space focuses at its apex over the sanctuary and altar. One enters from the south via an open portal, like a welcoming pair of out-stretched arms, into an oval, colonnaded atrium. This latter contains the slim, sculptural bell tower, which is the highest landmark in this low-lying suburban area, and a cloister-like lawn. The atrium feels processional, with sculptures of the stations of the cross against the rubbly concrete lit by small, covered skylights in the generous overhang. It is an informal social space and a threshold to the interior of the Church. Moving through it marks a transcendent journey.
One of the most striking features of the buildings is the rough concrete texture on the exterior, which was cast using ropes previously used to moor boats as formwork. This settles the church into its location and the history of the parish. Walking around its exterior, the complex presents a low horizon, a low wall of concrete bends and curves around the inner and outer spaces broken only by the occasional window or curved-wall porch. The copper-clad roof rises to the Crown of the Sanctuary, which is illuminated by shafts of light from the timber battens above.
Light, shadow and texture
The ribbed concrete on the walls continues to the church interior, where the concrete panels are joined by windows and doors, with confessionals set in like cabinets. The church also contains a typical element from this era – the family room or ‘cry room’, so that crying babies would not disturb the service behind the glass. Inside the church are mute walls and a natural, timber-lined ceiling, highlighting the remarkable interplay of daylight and shadow, illumination and repose. The space is lit by a low gabled clerestory tower over the sanctuary, the ceremonial zone of the church. It is economical but intellectually stimulating, and challenges traditional religious subjects to be presented anew.
Church furniture and windows
Unusually, the windows of this church are not coloured, but have cartoons of stations of the church etched on clear plate glass. This adds to the sombre atmosphere, but the natural, uncoloured light also picks out much better the texture of the internal walls in their contrast with the smooth timber. Richard Enda King (1943 – 1995), a versatile sculptor better known for his secular public works, was commissioned in 1972 to make the granite altar, ambo, lectern, celebrant’s chair, and the glass designs. The latter were not carried out until 1978–9.
Next to the church is the Priest House, originally designed for two priests and a housekeeper and a pastoral centre. In 2015, RKD Architects partly replaced this centre with a 395m² single storey structure with a large meeting room, two smaller meeting rooms, parish office, beverage and seating area, universal access, and ladies and gents’ toilets. They also closed the previous drive through access to car park to form a new entrance lobby to the atrium.
The final visual delight for the visitor is upon exiting the church through the main entrance, where one is immediately presented with the vista of Dublin Bay, an experience carefully encouraged by Devane. St Fintan’s Church is reassuringly on Fingal County Council’s List of Protected Structures (RPS No. 925). Not only is the building marked by rope prints but by the deep spirituality of its architect and his artistic collaborators. It shows a maturity in design and offers a peaceful softness of light and materials to its congregation.
Thanks to David Caron for help in identifying the artist of the glass design.