Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Arbour Hill Church, Stoneybatter

Arbour Hill's church and cemetery will feature prominently in Dublin's Easter 1916 centenary commemorations. And in Book #4 of the Moss Reid series too, as it happens. You heard it here first.

The church and graveyard are currently being spruced up for the forthcoming ceremonies. So it's one big building site, the church itself is closed to the public and there are vans, diggers, painters, scaffolding and fencing everywhere around the cemetery.

I'll do some separate longer blog posts about the graveyard and will focus here on the church itself. All the photos were taken before the renovation work began.

I'm no architectural expert (or great photographer either), but there is something "gothic" and imposing about what is now called the Church of the Sacred Heart.

It's a very Victorian structure of limestone and granite, possibly not to everyone's taste, though I've grown to love its shapes and geometries, from its arches to its latticed window panes. Some of the angles are so sharp that I only begin to notice them as "jaggies" when I reduce the picture sizes.

Above: record drawings from the Military Archives
It was built in 1848 as a garrison chapel, then served as a prison chapel for Arbour Hill Prison next door. Apparently its north gallery is still connected to the prison by an elevated corridor. Has it ever been in a prison escape plot?

The church was taken over by the State in 1923 and turned from a Church of Ireland (i.e. Protestant) church into a Catholic one. It officially became "The Church of the Defence Forces" in 1997 when Collins Barracks across the road was closed, at least as a military barracks - it has since become a rather splendid museum.

Either side of the church's entrance porch are stone steps up to twin galleries for visitors at the nave and transept. These external staircases mean a far less cluttered interior. The main belfry's design has strong hints of a Celtic round tower.

Inside, a large stained-glass window behind the altar is by the Harry Clarke Studios, though not my favourite Harry Clarke by any means. There are also brass plaques for Defence Forces members who were killed in the Congo in 1960, the 5th Infantry Battalion.

Today the military connections are everywhere. The Cedar Room was added to the church in 2003 to commemorate the 47 Irish Army soldiers killed on peacekeeping duties in Lebanon from 1978 to 2001. Some 26,000 personnel from the Irish Defence Forces served there during those years.

The room's centrepiece is "Early-bird", a large watercolour (I think) by Sergeant Michael Clarke of a foot patrol leaving a UN post to check the road for mines and explosives. There is also a metal cross made from the shrapnel collected after the Israeli “Grapes of Wrath” invasion in 1996.

But I guess most tourists and Stoneybatter locals come to the church not for the building itself or for the religious/military ceremonies or connections inside, but for the graveyard outside, more of which anon...