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Saint Mary's Pro-Cathedral

Saint Mary's Church, known also as Saint Mary's Pro-Cathedral or simply the Pro-Cathedral, is the episcopal seat of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland[?].

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Why a pro-cathedral, not a full cathedral?

The Malborough Street frontage of the Pro-Cathedral

Dublin possesses two cathedrals, but unusually, both belong to one faith, the tiny Church of Ireland, which up until 1871 had been the established religion in Ireland. In contrast the faith of over 90% of Irish people, Roman Catholicism, has no cathedral in Ireland's capital city and has not had since the reformation when the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity[?] (generally known as Christchurch) was given to the Church of Ireland.

Even though Christchurch has been the property of the Anglican church for nearly five hundred years it is still viewed by the Roman Catholic Church as the official Dublin cathedral since it was so designated by the pope at the request of the then Archbishop of Dublin, St. Laurence O'Toole[?] almost a millennium ago. Until either the pope formally revokes Christchurch's designation (which given its longterm status as the official Anglican cathedral in Dublin, and its historic symbolism for Dubliners is unlikely), or grants cathedral status to another church (which is much more likely), the main Catholic Church in Dublin will continue to be the 'pro-cathedral' (meaning in effect acting cathedral), a title officially given to St. Mary's Church in 1886, though it used that title unofficially since the 1820s.

Origins of 'the Pro'

The Pro as it is sometimes nicknamed, owes its origins to the anti-catholic Penal Laws1 which restricted Catholicism (and other non-Church of Ireland faiths) until the early nineteenth century. For centuries, Roman Catholics could not celebrate Mass or the sacraments in public and were subject to severe penalties (hence the word 'penal'). While these laws ebbed and flowed in terms of the severity with which they were applied, catholic churches if they were built at all, were built down narrow difficult to find roadways. By the early nineteenth century, many of the Penal Laws had either been repealed or were no longer enforced; an unsuccessful attempt had already been made to grant Catholic Emancipation[?]. As a result, Catholicism began to abandon its previous status as an 'underground' religion. In 1803, a committee formed by then Archbishop Troy bought Lord Annesley's townhouse on the corner of Malborough Street and Elephant Lane (now called Cathedral Street), within sight of the city's premier thoroughfare, Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street) as the location for the planned new pro-cathedral, pending the erection when funds and the law allowed of a full Roman Catholic Cathedral. In June 1814 the demolition of the house took place. It was followed by the erection of a new pro-cathedral which combined a number of styles but which externally is closest to Greek revival. Internally, it is more Roman than Grecian. The new Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Daniel Murphy celebrated the new pro-cathedral's completion on 14 November 1825. It thus became the first Catholic episcopal seat established anywhere in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland since the reformation.

The modern day interior the Pro-Cathedral

Though not a full cathedral, the new building became a symbol of the Irish nationalist spirit in the era following the ending of the Penal Laws. Daniel O'Connell, the leader of Irish nationalism and the first Roman Catholic MP elected to the British House of Commons for centuries was present at a special thanksgiving High Mass in the Pro-Cathedral in 1829 following the granting of Catholic Emancipation[?], which among other things had allowed Catholics to be elected to parliament. In 1841, as the first catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin in centuries, O'Connell formally celebrated his election by traveling in state to 'the Pro' for High Mass. When he died in 1847, his remains were laid in state on a great catafalque in the Pro-Cathedral.

Plans for a full cathedral

The Pro-Cathedral was never intended to be other than a temporary acting cathedral, pending the availability of funds to build a full cathedral. Various locations for the new cathedral were discussed. W.T. Cosgrave, President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State (prime minister) from 1922 to 1932 and a deeply religious Catholic suggested that the burnt out shell of the General Post Office, the location of the 1916 Rising, be turned into a cathedral, but the idea was not acted on, and the GPO was restored for use as a post office.


Monument to Cardinal Cullen
the first Archbishop of Dublin to be made a cardinal

John Charles McQuaid[?], who served as Archbishop from the 1940s to the early 1970s, bought the gardens in the centre of Merrion Square[?] and announced plans to erect a cathedral there, but to the relief of Dubliners for which the gardens were an oasis of nature in the centre of a busy city, his plans never came to pass and the gardens were eventually handed over by his successor to Dublin Corporation and opened to the public. While it is suggested periodically that the Church of Ireland, which has a small largely elderly membership, might hand over one of its cathedrals to the Roman Catholic Church, no serious proposals have been made for such an arrangement. (The Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral (which serves as the 'national cathedral' of the Church of Ireland - Christchurch is the diocesian cathedral of Dublin) did suggest allowing Roman Catholic Masses to be celebrated in his cathedral but the idea was dropped after opposition within the Church of Ireland.) Though theoretically the possibility of erecting a new Roman Catholic cathedral remains on the agenda, in reality most of the funds collected for the building of a new cathedral have been spent erecting new churches in the rapidly growing archdiocese. As a result, few expect a new cathedral to be erected, with instead the Pro-Cathedral at some stage likely to be raised to full cathedral status, as happened to St. Peter's Catholic Pro-Cathedral[?] in Belfast late in the twentieth century.

Primate of Ireland

While Roman Catholicism like all Irish religions remain organised on an all-island basis, not withstanding the partition of the island into two states in 1920, in practice partition has led to the semi-partition of the two major faiths, Roman Catholicism and the Church of Ireland. Thus while the Archbishop of Armagh in both faiths remains Primate of All Ireland, the Archbishop of Dublin is known as Primate of Ireland[?] and is seen as the premier churchman within the Republic of Ireland.

State ceremony in the Pro-Cathedral

The dome of the Pro-Cathedral

The Pro-Cathedral remains a focal point of religious and state ceremonial. Traditionally up until 1983 prior to their civil inauguration incoming presidents of Ireland attended a religious ceremony in either St. Patrick's Cathedral (if they were Church of Ireland) or the Pro-Cathedral (if they were Roman Catholic). Whereas up to 1973, those ceremonies were exclusively denominational, the ceremonies for the inaugurations of President Childers in 1973, President Ó Dálaigh in 1974 and President Hillery in 1976, where multi-denominational, with representatives of the Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Methodist and the Jewish faith taking part in the ceremony. (In 1973 it took place in St. Patrick's, in 1974 and 1976 in the Pro-Cathedral. In 1983 a multi-denomination service was included as part of the civil inauguration in Dublin Castle.

The major faiths held religious ceremonies in their main cathedral or pro-cathedral to mark the beginning of the law term or a session of parliament, which would be attended by the President of Ireland, the Taoiseach, ministers, the opposition, parliamentarians and members of the Diplomatic Corp. State funerals of major figures including Michael Collins and former presidents Sean T. Ó Ceallaigh, Eamon de Valera and Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh took place there. A painting of the funeral of Michael Collins hangs in Áras an Uachtaráin, the president's residence.

The physical layout of the Pro-Cathedral

Internally the Pro-Cathedral is dramatically different to the two main cathedrals of Dublin. Its mixture of Greek and Roman styles has proved controversial, being variously described as an artistic gem and an eyesore. Its main aisle[?] leads up to an altar, behind which a stained glass window of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the Saint Mary of its name) is visible. For most of its existence it possessed a massive Victorian altar and reredos by Turnerelli, a Belfast born sculptor of Italian parentage. In the late 1970s this was removed as part of a re-ordering to bring its sanctuary in line with changes that followed the introduction of the Novus Ordo (new Mass) in 1969. The reredos was completely removed, leaving just the tabernacle, though the front panel of the original altar was reinstated in the new altar, which was moved to the centre of a new paved area in an expanded sanctuary. The altar rails were also removed. The pulpit was moved as well, and is currently sitting unused in a corner of the building.

The Pro-Cathedral caught fire in the early 1990s. Though the fire was extinguished before it caught hold of the building, considerable smoke damage was done to one corner of the building around the monument to Cardinal Cullen, perhaps the most famous of all the nineteenth century Archbishops and the first Archbishop of Dublin to be made a cardinal.

Catholicism in Dublin

The post-1982 altar
using part of Turnerelli's old high altar and High Mass candlesticks

In the post 1922 era when Ireland achieved independence, Roman Catholicism came to hold a considerable degree of influence within the new state. In 1925, divorce, which had been nominally available by private member's bill through the Irish Senate, was prohibited. Tough laws were introduced restricting the availability of alcohol, contraceptives as well as censorship. Yet the Catholic Church never had absolute control, as it found when its stances on issues from the Spanish civil war to the new constitution were ignored, or only partially listened to, by Eamon de Valera, longterm taoiseach in the 1930s to the 1950s.

The new Archbishop, Diarmuid Martin

Archbishops of Dublin came to be major players in the formation of Irish policy in the independent era, and none more so than John Charles McQuaid[?], Archbishop of Dublin from the 1940s to the early 1970s. By the 1980s, however, and in particular in the 1990s, the Catholic Church lost much of its influence in all walks of life, from politics to the sexual mores of ordinary Irish Catholics. The sexual scandals of the 1990s, when it was revealed that a small number of Roman Catholic clergy had sexually molested young people, particularly hit the Archdiocese of Dublin, which was described by one priest who had done international studies of the issue as having one of the world's worst records in the handling of clerical child abuse cases. In the aftermath of one Radio Telifís Éireann exposé of alleged mishandling of clerical sex abuse cases by him, the Archbishop of Dublin, Cardinal Desmond Connell[?] was openly heckled at Mass in the Pro-Cathedral. The decision of Pope John Paul II on 3 May 2003 to appoint as Coadjutor2 Archbishop of Dublin alongside Cardinal Connell a respected Vatican diplomat, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin[?], was seen as a mark of how gravely even the Vatican saw Connell's and the Irish Roman Catholic Church in general's handling of the child abuse cases. Instead of choosing any current Irish bishop or priest for one of the most prestigious posts in Irish Catholicism, the Vatican chose an internationally renouned diplomat untouched by scandal and with proven communication and leadership skills.


1 Though the Penal Laws principally were targeted at Roman Catholics, they were also used against many smaller non-conformist denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. In theory, only members of the state church, the Church of Ireland, had full civil rights and were free from discrimination in everything from their religious worship to their right to own property.
2 A coadjutor bishop or archbishop is someone appointed as co-bishop or archbishop who will automatically assume the full post on the death or retirement of the outgoing bishop or archbishop whose post they were appointed to share. Normally a successor is only appointed after the outgoing bishop or archbishop's death or resignation. A coadjutor is only appointed in very exceptional circumstances, usually as a means to sideline the current officeholder without immediately being seen to dismiss him from office. External Links

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