Mariners' Church, Kingstown in the Nineteenth Century
The Mariners’ Church, Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) which is today the home of Ireland’s National Maritime Museum was once the principal Church of Ireland in the town. It was a thriving church throughout the nineteenth century with its local congregation regularly joined by seafarers.
The beginning of the century saw considerable development in Kingstown and it became the largest manmade harbour in the world at the time. With the opening of the first railway line between Dublin and Kingstown, the town had another vital link and was considered a suitable venue for the opening of a new Mariners’ Church ‘for the resort of seamen’. In 1836, Rev. Richard Sinclair Brookes became chaplain of the yet unbuilt church. Apart from the piers and the harbour there was not much else in the area. The site had been chosen and he described it as a ‘wild common, a series of goat-parks…cold, treeless and uninteresting’.
Built by subscription, including £100 from King George IV, the church required a special Act of Parliament. Joseph Welland, an experienced ecclesiastical architect, designed the church which originally consisted solely of the nave and transepts. In effect, Welland was responsible only for the first stage of the church. His design received a mixed reception. In 1849, during a royal visit, Prince Albert described the new church as a ‘hideous building…like a gigantic barn.’
The church had space for 1,400 worshippers and ‘an abundance of seats for seamen and the poor’. It grew to be a large project with an Orphanage and a Sunday School with 500 scholars as well as three day schools - all financially supported by the congregation. There was a special seamen’s Sunday School for adults who came from elsewhere. Rev. Brookes recorded how Cornish fishermen would sing for an hour after evening service with the congregation standing on the pews. This charming scene was in contrast to an 1862 newspaper report which described disturbances caused by ‘some foolish young men given to practical joking’ during morning service. This was serious enough to require an intervention from the pulpit from Rev. Brookes to the effect that if such behaviour were repeated it could result in fines or imprisonment.
In 1862, Rev. Samuel Allen Windle from Derbyshire was appointed chaplain. Within a short time, the newspapers were full of controversy about the new hymnbook he had introduced. By 1864, the Irish Times, in an editorial, declined to publish further correspondence on the subject suggesting that Rev. Windle was not in a position to change the hymnal to reflect the English hymns of his boyhood rather than the familiar hymns to which his Irish congregation were accustomed. In happier vein, he oversaw the completion of the tower and unusual spire designed by William Raffles Brown in 1865. Brown was an erratic genius with a chequered career but the new spire, which was very different in style from the main building, was generally regarded to have improved the church.
In 1876, Rev. William Edward Burroughs succeeded Rev. Windle. The following year, in 1877, a visitor described the church as one of the ‘most handsome and commodious’ churches in the country although he commented that the entry from the western side resembled ‘an hotel more than a sacred edifice’ and was in stark contrast to the imposing eastern side. In 1880, Rev. Burroughs was the subject of a minor hoax when the Irish Times published a letter supposedly from him outlining his plan to set up a home for young, unprotected girls.
Further improvements to the building were carried out in 1884 when a new chancel with an arch of forty feet in height was built. During this work, two men called Hemp and Cunningham fell from a height of sixty feet when the scaffolding broke. Hemp died on admission to hospital and Cunningham was badly injured. Overall, the Irish Builder at the time considered the work, with Gothic influence, had produced a building of some architectural dignity.
In 1895, by the time Rev. Burroughs left to be Secretary of the Church Missionary Society in London, he was also Rural Dean of Monkstown, Chaplain to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and University Select Preacher 1893-4. His new post was a prestigious one and the Belfast Newsletter commented ‘The appointment was, of course, completely unsought by Mr Burroughs.’ On leaving Kingstown, Rev. Burroughs received a great deal of praise for his work in improving the church materially and the congregation spiritually.
By the end of the century, the Mariners’ Church was well placed to look forward optimistically to the twentieth century. At that time, it could not have envisaged its closure in 1972 or its later use as Ireland’s National Maritime Museum.