This Paradise Restored

Majestic Shrines and Graceful Sanctuaries: The Church Architecture of Patrick Byrne

by Brendan Grimes
2009 Irish Academic Press, 189 pages, 65

Architectural historians might easily overlook the Emerald Isle as a source of classical innovation, especially during a century scourged by the Great Potato Famine and mass emigration. Instead, author Brendan Grimes unearths one of Ireland’s most accomplished church architects and his built work in this new book published by the Irish Academic Press. The nineteenth-century architect Patrick Byrne lived during a golden age of growth for Catholicism in Ireland and designed eighteen large churches.

By the end of the eighteenth century, Catholic civil rights in Ireland were almost fully restored and the Roman church was permitted a more public presence by Protestant legislators. After the Potato Famine of 1846, Ireland’s economy began to surge and both public and private funds flowed toward new church building campaigns. Church attendance grew rapidly in the second half of the century, from 40 percent of Catholics attending Mass in 1840 to 90 percent by 1900. The faithful also began to expect more beautiful houses of worship, calling forth the sentiment: “Let all our churches be so constructed, that no Catholic may pass them without an act of reverence, and no Protestant without a look of admiration.”1 Architect Patrick Byrne of Dublin designed an array of new church buildings in and around Dublin during this flowering of the Faith.

Patrick Byrne studied at the Dublin Society’s School of Architectural Drawing and was educated by two prominent Neo-Classicists, James Gandon (architect of the Customs House and Four Courts) and Henry Aaron Baker. Byrne worked for Baker and Francis Johnston before beginning his own architecture firm. He was working for the Wide Street Commissioners of the City of Dublin as an architect, when in 1835 he received his first ecclesiastical commission for Saint Paul Church, in Arran Quay, Dublin. After this successful design, Byrne became the pre-eminent architect of Catholic churches in Ireland for the next twenty-six years.

Byrne’s designs were in imitation of great classical churches and monuments of Antiquity and the Renaissance. For example, the ornamented tower at Saint Paul’s in Dublin is evocative of the Athenian Monument to Lysicrates, while the thermal windows and barrel-vaulted nave at Saint Audoen’s are reminiscent of the churches of Rome. Byrne also incorporated the iconographic tradition of Ireland into his churches. For example, at Rathgar in Dublin, he provided three niches above the main altar for the patron saints of Ireland: St. Brigid, St. Patrick, and St. Columba.

Byrne succeeded in designing a few Gothic churches around Dublin after Augustus Welby Pugin’s The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture was published in 1841. Byrne agreed with Pugin on the importance of the tower as a beacon to the faithful and the use of natural materials, yet designed churches in both classical and Gothic forms.

One of the greatest stories about Patrick Byrne is his collaboration with the Reverend William Meagher of Our Lady of Refuge in Rathmines, Dublin. Meagher was a generous priest-patron with an acute enthusiasm for a more Roman architecture, in opposition to the “mania” for Gothic architecture of the time. Replacing a church only eighteen years old, the new church of Our Lady of Refuge was a Greek cross plan with Corinthian pilasters and a dome over the crossing. The patron, Rev. Meagher, believed that beautiful architecture can bring heaven to earth when he wrote to his parishioners: “Think, dearest friends, whether it will not be an additional joy to look down from amidst the beatitudes of eternity upon this paradise restored, through God’s ineffable bounty, by our hands.”2

The book by Grimes tells the story of a talented architect and the wider narrative of an optimistic age of the Irish Church. The beauty of Byrne’s architecture reflects the enthusiasm and generosity of the faithful in an extraordinary age of church-building on the Emerald Isle. Additionally, the book’s appendices include a list of the eighteen principal churches designed by Byrne, along with their location; comparative floor plans of sixteen of Byrne’s churches; and a list of titles from Byrne’s architectural library which were sold at auction after his death.