St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral
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St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral information
Dublin’s most important Catholic church is not quite the showcase you’d expect. It’s in the wrong place for starters. The large neoclassical building, built between 1816 to 1825, was intended to stand where the GPO is, but Protestant objections resulted in its current location, on a cramped street that was then at the heart of Monto, the red-light district.
In fact, it’s so cramped for space around here that you’d hardly notice the church’s six Doric columns, which were modelled on the Temple of Theseus in Athens, much less be able to admire them. The interior is fairly functional, and its few highlights include a carved altar by Peter Turnerelli and the alto relief representation of the Ascension by John Smyth. The best time to visit is 11am on Sunday when the Latin Mass is sung by the Palestrina Choir, with whom Ireland’s most celebrated tenor, John McCormack, began his career in 1904.
The design of the church is shrouded in some mystery. In 1814 John Sweetman won a competition held to find the best design for the church, a competition that had actually been organised by his brother William. It’s not certain whether John actually designed the building, since he was living in Paris at the time and may have bought the plans from the French architect Auguste Gauthier, who designed the similar Notre Dame de Lorette in northern France. The only clue as to the church’s architect is in the ledger, which lists the builder as ‘Mr P’.
Finally, a word about the term ‘pro’ in the title. It implies, roughly, that it is an ‘unofficial cathedral’. More accurately it was built as a sort of interim cathedral to be replaced when sufficient funds were available. Church leaders never actually got around to it, leaving the capital of this most Catholic of countries with two incredible-but-under-used Protestant cathedrals and one fairly ordinary Catholic one. Irony one, piety nil.