With a year to go before we mark the quincentennial, on October 31st, 2017, of Martin Luther nailing his demands for reform to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, the time has surely come to settle a historical anomaly unresolved for the past 200 years – the inherently “temporary” status of St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin.
Built on the corner of Marlborough Street and Elephant Lane (now Cathedral Street) – because Catholics were not permitted under the Penal Laws to erect churches on any main street in Ireland– it was designed by George Papworth in the Greek Revival style and officially opened with a celebratory Mass in November 1825, just four years before Catholic Emancipation.
It was designated as a “pro-cathedral” for the simple reason the Roman Catholic Church believed it had a prior claim to Christ Church Cathedral, going back long before the Reformation, and lived in the expectation that it would “get it back” at some stage, or else build a great new cathedral that would put Christ Church in the ha’penny place.
After all, there was (and is) something quite bizarre about the fact that Dublin’s two cathedrals were (and still are) both in Protestant hands – Christ Church functioning as the metropolitan cathedral and St Patrick’s as the national cathedral of the Church of Ireland – while Catholics, then the vast majority of the city’s population, only had a pro-cathedral.
As Wikipedia succinctly explains, “even though Christ Church has been in possession of the Anglican church for nearly 500 years, it is still viewed by the Roman Catholic Church as the primary official Dublin cathedral, since it was so designated by the pope at the request of the then Archbishop of Dublin, Saint Laurence O’Toole, in the [late] 12th century.”
His successor centuries later, Archbishop Edward Byrne, seemed to give up hope of “getting it back” when he paid the Pembroke Estate £100,000 for Merrion Square Park in 1930 on the eve of the Eucharistic Congress – and announced plans to build a gargantuan Catholic cathedral there; it would have consumed the entire square, dwarfing its Georgian terraces.
The Machiavellian John Charles McQuaid, who succeeded Byrne as archbishop of Dublin, persisted with this controversial scheme although – mercifully – nothing ever came of it. His successor, Dermot Ryan, effectively put an end to the grand projet not long after taking office in 1974 when he handed over the park to Dublin Corporation, which named it after him.
The Merrion Square plan was not the first for a new Catholic cathedral in Dublin.
Earlier proposals had been put forward by Liverpool-based architect and town planner Patrick Abercrombie that it might be located to the west of O’Connell Street at the head of a new boulevard replacing that stretch of Parnell Street.
But nothing came of this idea.
The Pro-Cathedral retains its “temporary” status, even though for all practical purposes it has been functioning as Dublin’s Catholic cathedral since 1825. It also has all of the trappings of a great cathedral, including the tombs of six archbishops.
I well remember going to Mass there on Christmas Day in 1996 with my parents, siblings and our extended family.
It was the Mozart Mass in C and, even if you didn’t believe in what was going on around the altar, the music was so wonderful and the Palestrina Choir’s heavenly voices so uplifting that we all left feeling spiritually renewed for our Christmas dinner.
Architectural purists may complain that the Pro-Cathedral’s Roman temple interior belies its Greek Revival exterior, but there can be no doubt that it has a commanding physical presence both inside and out.
It has also witnessed great occasions, such as Daniel O’Connell’s remains lying-in-state after his death in 1847 and Michael Collins’ funeral in 1922.
Inevitably, this being Ireland rather than Italy, the original interior was “reordered” in the 1970s to comply with the Second Vatican Council’s new liturgical requirements.
The elaborate high altar and reredos made by Belfast-based sculptor Peter Turnerelli was scrapped, although the altar’s frontispiece was incorporated into its plainer replacement.
One would wish that Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin could simply designate St Mary’s as Dublin’s Catholic cathedral.
But if so, he would have to petition Pope Francis to revoke the 12th-century papal designation of Christ Church as the metropolitan cathedral.
Both of them are reasonable men and must see the sense of making this long overdue move.