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Why are there so many churches in the Liberties?

Dublin 8 is an area known for many things – its lovable locals, its combination of both new and old businesses, and its history. However, an integral part of Dublin’s Liberties that is often overlooked is the churches that have been serving religious communities for years.

There are more than eight churches in the area, including Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland alike. However, many of these churches are located within as little as 250 metres apart, a mere four-minute walk. So why are there so many churches in the Liberties?

Historian in Residence for Dublin South Central Cathy Scuffil said that it goes back to our medieval roots. At that time, Dublin was a lot smaller. In fact, it did not stretch further than the Grand Canal. Scuffil mentioned how Dublin did not “explode out of its confines” until the last century. Nonetheless, the population was rather big compared to the size of the city.

As a result of this, the compact city was divided up into different parishes. There were three main ones – St. Luke’s, St. Catherine’s and St. James’. Often, they would comprise of both Catholics and Protestants. These parishes still remain today, and still have members from both branches of Christianity. “A lot of them are original parishes of Dublin, so that’s why you get the mirroring. They’re all in the same parish. They both use the parish boundaries,” Scuffil said.

These parishes began to spread further out of the city, with more churches being established. Scuffil explained how the “mother church” would have a number of offspring. For example, from St. James’, which was the biggest parish at that time, came Our Lady of Dolours in Dolphin’s Barn. From that came St. Bernadette’s in Crumlin, Our Lady of Good Counsel in Drimnagh and Our Lady of the Holy Rosary of Fatima in Rialto. Scuffil said, “As the city expanded, they set up other parishes which were all connected to another one in the city.”

Having so many churches in such close proximity has made the Liberties and its surrounding areas unique. It also allows for the tradition of the “Seven Chapels of Holy Thursday”. This is where people would go to mass in seven different churches in the area in preparation for Easter Sunday. The idea mirrors stories from the bible in the build-up to the crucifixion of Jesus. Scuffil said, “Going to sit at the altar of the seven chapels was a big Dublin tradition.” She also noted that the tradition had come back in the last few years.

Despite the fact that there are so many churches in the Liberties, they all have their own characteristics which make them unique. Regardless of one’s religious belief, it is undeniable that the history and stories behind the churches is greatly interesting.  

For example, St. James’ Church does not have the Stations of the Cross on the walls, which most other churches do. Instead, the story is depicted on stain glass windows. Just inside the church, there is a limestone arch which has a model of Daniel O’Connell’s head attached to. Scuffil explained, “James Street Church is the first church to be built facing on to a main thoroughfare after Catholic Emancipation. It’s hugely important from that point of view.”

Around the corner is St. Catherine’s Church on Meath St, which Scuffil described as a “much-loved parish church”. Inside, at the end of each column are the carved heads of the saints of Ireland. However, second from the end on the left side is the head of Kevin Barry, the first Irish republican to be executed in Mountjoy Prison since the leaders of the 1916 Rising. Scuffil said, “There was some connection between St. Catherine’s Meath Street and the Barry family and when they were putting up the carved head of all the saints, St. Kevin somehow looked like Kevin Barry.”

St. Catherine’s also has a grotto beside it, which Scuffil described as “a little hidden treasure in the Liberties”. It was set up in 1939 by parish priest Francis Gleeson, who was a chaplain in World War I. After seeing the horrors of the first war, Gleeson had the grotto built to highlight the fact that Ireland was neutral when the Second World War broke out. It has a plaque on the outside with the words “Síocáin Muire Buideacas” – Thank you our lady for the peace. Scuffil said, “Whether you’ve any religion or no religion, you’ll still find the grotto just magical”.

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