Opinion: the Roman Catholic Church embarked on a huge programme of church building in the 19th century funded by donations from parishioners and the Irish diaspora

When approaching an Irish town, one of the first things you will notice is a steeple. Although these buildings might feel so familiar that we hardly even notice them anymore, the patchwork of religious properties in most of our urban centres reflects a tense history.

Take the village of Raheny in north Dublin, for example. There are no less than four different church buildings within one small area: the 17th-century church of St. Assam which is now in ruins; the Roman Catholic Church of St. Assam, built during the 19th century but now closed up; the ornate Church of All Saints (Church of Ireland) constructed between 1885 and 1890 and the large, modernist Church of Our Lady Mother of Divine Grace, built in 1962 to cater for the growing population of the area. These buildings represent a major investment on the part of their congregations, who had to pay for the site, the architectural fees, the building costs as well as purchasing stained glass, church furnishings and statues.

While church buildings are probably the most visible part of the devotional infrastructure in the Irish landscape, much of our health and educational infrastructure is also part of this network, including hospitals, schools and playing pitches. The tension surrounding ownership of these sites by the Roman Catholic Church in particular has featured in the media in recent years, as they occupy a strange position between public and private property. In order to better understand how the Roman Catholic Church came to own this property, it’s helpful to consider what these buildings meant throughout the 19th century.

Throughout the course of that century, the position of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland had been transformed. This was overwhelming evident in the buildings that the Church produced – just think of the soaring magnificence of the Church of St. Augustine and St. John on Thomas Street in Dublin’s city centre (built 1860-1875), or the towering position of the Cathedral of St. Macartan in Monaghan town (begun in 1861). In her scholarship on the subject, Jeanne Sheehy estimated that 1,805 new Roman Catholic churches were constructed between 1800 and 1863, an extraordinary investment when one considers the poverty and hardship suffered by much of the population during this period.

The interior of the Church of St Augustine & St John, Dublin. Photo: William Murphy https://www.flickr.com/photos/infomatique/

This required extensive fundraising by the church, involving a huge amount of activity. As Colin Barr, Sarah Roddy and Patrick Doyle have shown in their research, priests went on global lecture tours in order to connect with the Irish diaspora and to encourage donations, while parishioners were encouraged (often with a high level of social pressure) to support the building funds.

Sarah Roddy and Patrick Doyle’s Visible Divinity research project at the University of Manchester reflects the extent to which parish priests were effectively tasked with being project and financial managers for these construction projects. It’s clear from the records of this period, and from the buildings in our cities, towns and villages, that these building funds supported the development of schools, churches, convents, monasteries, and social institutions. Many of these are still in use today, while others are in a slow process of ruination.

But why did people contribute so much? Why did they dedicate their hard-earned and limited funds to these vast, ornate building projects when times were often very hard? There are many different answers to these questions, but it is possible to get some insight into the motivations of those who gave their funds from 19th century newspapers. Both national titles like The Irish Times or The Freeman’s Journal and local papers such as The Limerick Chronicle and The Nenagh Guardian reported on the various ceremonies and rituals surrounding these construction projects.

These sermons and speeches were highly charged, endeavouring to connect with the gathered crowds on an emotional level.

The reports of these ceremonial events included the text of the sermons and speeches given, and often included details on the reactions of the crowds. These sermons and speeches, usually given by a visiting bishop or archbishop, were highly charged, endeavouring to connect with the gathered crowds on an emotional level. First of all, the speaker would invite the crowds to see the new building as part of a new, triumphant identity for Roman Catholics in Ireland – it was seen as the sign that they were building on Catholic Emancipation and the repeal of the Penal Laws, and represented their growing social, economic and political power.

Consider the speech given by the Dr Thomas Croke, Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, at the foundation stone ceremony for the new Church of St Ailbe in Emly in 1880. He told the crowd that the people of the parish were "ashamed to worship the Great God of their fathers in the poor and primitive chapel over the way", suited only to the "circumstances of a people in chains".

It’s clear that this strategy – encouraging people to donate through a sense of duty to this new identity - was a successful one. According to newspaper reports (Freeman’s Journal, 31 May 1880), the response was an "almost wildly generous one", with more than £1,500 raised through large and public donations by local dignitaries, while "poor women rushed forward with their pence, and hats that were sent through the crowd came back overladen". 

Stamp issued by An Post in 2002 to make the 100th anniversary of the death of Bishop Thomas Croke

The increasing number of Roman Catholic properties was seen as a sign of shared social, political and economic success, and of the turning of the tides of fortune for Roman Catholics more generally.  At the foundation stone ceremony for a new church in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, Francis Joseph MacCormack, Bishop of Galway, exhorted the congregation to "look at the magnificent cathedrals, churches and colleges through the land", according to the Nenagh Guardian (5 November 1892). 

During the speech at Emly, Croke asked the assembled people to "look around you everywhere throughout the country, and what do you behold? You see Catholic schools frequented, churches, colleges, cathedrals, hospitals, houses of refuge, rising as if by magic, in every town and city of our island". 

People were encouraged to view these new building projects as monuments to the hardship and suffering of Roman Catholics in Ireland during the past. Very often, the sermons and speeches included explicitly political material, with grisly descriptions of the torture and death of individuals who had died fighting for religious liberty. Issues of political and religious identity were closely intertwined: in many of the ceremonies, the speakers referred to the fact that the medieval religious buildings of Ireland had been transferred to the ownership of the Church of Ireland following the Reformation. This was also used as a spur to donations.

It’s clear that these buildings were supported by parishioners in the hope of a better life

For example, McCormack noted in Nenagh that "in Ireland almost necessarily a day of this kind recalled memories of the past, unpleasant memories of the persecution and desecration of their church and their altars". Croke described in detail the beheading by Cromwellian forces of Terence Albert O’Brien, the last bishop of Emly. 

It’s clear that these buildings meant more than bricks and mortar, and that they were part of a complex, and highly emotional, sense of identity-building for Roman Catholics. Although the newspapers report the enthusiasm of the crowds to give their money, it is difficult to know just how willingly people parted from their pounds and pennies, or whether they were given under duress.

It’s also important to note that many donations came from other religious denominations, given in the spirit of community- and peace-building. However, It’s clear that these buildings were supported by parishioners in the hope of a better life. The complex position that they occupy in our society now needs to be understood within this historical context.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ