Monday, 26 January 2015

Greek Orthodox Church, Dublin

The occasional tourist might ask you for directions "to the church on Arbour Hill". They're probably looking for the Church of the Sacred Heart, with its burial ground and monument to the 1916 rebel leaders.

But there's another church on the hill in Stoneybatter: the Greek Orthodox Church.

It can be easy to miss, because at first glance it doesn't look like a traditional church. The outside is a pretty Victorian building in glowing redbrick. Its architect, George Smith, also built St Paul's National School in North King Street. Some say he lived around the corner in Manor Street.

(Long before the building on the corner of Arbour Hill became a church it began life as a kindergarten school in 1890. For a time it was a sewing factory - there were still a good few of them around the city centre back in the 1970s - and briefly a print works, and I've a vague memory that it may even have been an artist's studio in the late 1980s though I could be wrong.)

The building was bought by the congregation in 1993 for £80,550, and was consecrated 12 months later after extensive renovations.

The interior was totally reconstructed, and is based on a 14th-century Byzantine basilica (it's very beautiful, and apologies that I've no photos of the inside). A massive fireplace had to be removed, the roof mended and iron gates put up at the main entrance. Other works included two large iron crosses and three flagpoles (which often fly the blue-and-white Greek flag).

Even then it wasn't finished. By 2003 after a series of leaks the walls had lost huge chunks of plaster, the old factory floor had become unsteady, the place needed insulation and rewiring. The entire slate roof was replaced, and a dome added - it also provides much needed ventilation for the candle smoke, which had blackened the ceilings.

In 2006 the pretty little courtyard between the church and the Hellenic School building was renovated too, in another one of those all-hands-on-deck projects involving the parishioners.

Fr Tom Carroll has been the local priest since 2003. He's an extremely affable chap who had what you might call an unusual route into his vocation.

He was serving in the Irish Army in (if my memory serves me right) Cyprus when he found himself in the peace and quiet of a Greek Orthodox Church one day. The rest, as they say, is history, and he became the first Irish person from the Republic to be ordained in the Orthodox Church.

For the past two years he and his parishioners have been giving guided tours of the building during the annual Open House Dublin festival. These visits are very informative, entertaining, free, and highly recommended.

Besides the architecture, check out the gold on the religious icons. Yes, real gold. A taster is the gold leaf in the external mosaic in a closed up window.

Religious changes since the 1990s

The little church on Arbour Hill is a reminder that Ireland has undergone huge demographic changes over the past two decades.

For a time from 1999 the Russian Orthodox Church also held its services in the building. This was around the start of the Celtic Tiger boom; growing numbers of people were coming to Ireland from eastern Europe. The Russian church moved out of Arbour Hill in 2001 after it got its own place in Harold's Cross.

By the April 2011 Census of Population there were 45,223 Orthodox Christians living in Ireland - more than four times the number recorded in 2002. Other trends are also reflected in the Census figures (PDF file). Not a perfect record, but at least a start:
  • Roman Catholicism continues to be the dominant religion in the State, at least according to the Census returns. Of the 3.8 million Catholics in Ireland in 2011, 92% were Irish; of the other 8%, Poles were the biggest group with 110,410 people, followed by the UK with 49,761
  • There were 129,039 members of the Church of Ireland in April 2011, an increase of 6.4% on 2006
  • Those declaring themselves to have no religion, atheists and agnostics increased more than four-fold between 1991 and 2011 to 277,237 people.
  • There were 49,204 Muslims in 2011 - or 1.1% of the total population, compared with just 0.1% in 1991
  • Apostolic and Pentecostal members in Ireland numbered 8,116 in 2006 and 14,043 in 2011, of whom over 60% had African ethnicity
  • There were 10,688 Hindus in Ireland in 2011, a tenfold increase since 1991
Tucked away in the same report: there were 64,798 divorced Catholics in Ireland in 2011. Strangely enough, while 37,330 were females only 27,468 were males. Go figure.

The Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation
46 Arbour Hill
Dublin 7