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The Marlborough Street frontage of the Pro-Cathedral

Coordinates: 53°21′3″N 6°15′33″W / 53.35083°N 6.25917°W / 53.35083; -6.25917

St Mary's Church (Irish: Leas-Ardeaglais Naomh Muire), known also as St Mary's Pro-Cathedral or simply the Pro-Cathedral, is a pro-cathedral and is the episcopal seat of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland.


Status as "pro-cathedral"

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The city of Dublin possesses two cathedrals, but unusually, both belong to one church, the minority Church of Ireland, which up until 1871 had been the religion of establishment in Ireland. In contrast, the majority religion in Ireland, Roman Catholicism, has no cathedral in Ireland's capital city and has not had one since the the Reformation, when the bishops in Ireland followed Henry VIII's break from Rome. As the official church, the Church of Ireland took control of most church property, including the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (generally known as Christchurch) and St. Patrick's Cathedral. These two churches had long shared the role of cathedral of Dublin, controversially at first, then under an agreement of 1300, Pacis Compositio, which gave Christchurch formal precedence, including the right to enthrone the Archbishop and to hold his cross, mitre and ring after death, but with deceased Archbishops of Dublin to be buried alternately in each of the two cathedrals, unless they personally willed otherwise, and the two cathedrals to act as one, and "shared equally in their freedoms".

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 and the Pope as the primary official Dublin cathedral, since it was so designated by the pope at the request of the then Archbishop of Dublin, St. Laurence O'Toole in the 12th century. Until the pope either formally revokes Christchurch's designation (which, given its historic status and significance for Dubliners, is unlikely), or grants cathedral status to another church (which is much more likely), the main Roman Catholic church in Dublin will continue to be the 'pro-cathedral'[1] (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.

The dome of the Pro-Cathedral

Origins of 'the Pro'

The Pro as it is sometimes called, owes its origins to the anti-Catholic Penal Laws[2] 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 John Thomas 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. The architect chosen to execute the design was George Papworth. 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 Murray, 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 Protestant Reformation.

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, 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. After 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 Irishman 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 whom 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 relatively small 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 diocesan 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 Cathedral, Belfast in the late twentieth century.

The funeral of Michael Collins in 1922 - a contemporary newspaper drawing. This image shows the original pre-Vatican II Turnenelli high altar, the pulpit (right) and Archbishop's cathedra (left, with cover)

State ceremony in the Pro-Cathedral

The Pro-Cathedral remains a focal point of religious and state ceremonial activity. Up until 1983, incoming presidents of Ireland traditionally attended, prior to their civil inauguration, a religious ceremony in either St Patrick's Cathedral (if they were members of the 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, were multidenominational, 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 multidenominational 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 Corps. State funerals of major figures including Michael Collins and former presidents Seán T. O'Kelly, Éamon de Valera and Lord Mayor of Dublin Kathleen Clarke 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 from 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 revision of the Mass. 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. A large contingent of Italian artisans were employed by the church, to decorate the interior of the Cathedral.

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.

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

The Organ of the Pro-Cathedral

The original organ in the Pro-Cathedral was built by the Dublin organbuilder, John White, more than one hundred years ago, and the present instrument contains some of White's original pipework. The present facade of the organ dates from William Hill's rebuild of in the organ around 1900. Subsequent work was carried out by Henry Willis & Co. in the 1930s, before J.W. Walker's major rebuild of 1971 under the administrator Monsignor John Moloney and the most recent refurbishment of the instrument, by the same firm which was completed in the autumn of 1995. The newly refurbished instrument was inaugurated in a gala concert given by Olivier Latry on 20 March 1996.

Interestingly the swell of the organ is built into the back wall of the Church. The shutters of the swell are in line with the rest of the wall. The organ console itself was moved in a general redevelopment of the church in 1995. This was to facilitate the direction of the choir.

This organ has become regarded as one of the finest examples in Ireland of the late nineteenth-century grand Romantic organ, and has since its original installation featured prominently in the many great liturgical occasions which have graced the pro-cathedral church. More recently many of the great organ recitalists of our time have performed on it: Daniel Chorzempa, Xavier Darasse, Sir David Lumsden, Daniel Roth, Dame Gillian Weir, Arthur Well, Olivier Latry, and others. The current Titular Organist of Saint Mary's Pro-Cathedral is Professor Gerard Gillen who has held this position since 1971.

A choir organ is located on the epistle (right) side of the High Alter. Since the development of the grand organ it fell into disuse and after some years was closed. It lacks most of its internal pipework and its keyboard. It is characteristic of the earlier period of the Pro-Cathedral.

Music of the Pro-Cathedral

Music has always been a central ministry in Saint Mary's Pro Cathedral. The Palestrina Choir is the resident choir of Saint Mary's Pro-Cathedral. It had its origins in a boys' choir formed in the 1890s by Dr. Vincent O'Brien, then a music teacher at St. Mary's Place Christian Brothers School in Dublin. It was at a performance of Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli at St. Teresa's Carmelite Church in Clarendon Street in 1898 that this choir came to the attention of Edward Martyn their founding sponsor. Martyn wished to promote the music of Palestrina which was espoused by Pope Pius X as a standard to which liturgical music should aspire. The Palestrina Choir was constituted and installed in the Pro-Cathedral on January 1st, 1903 with Dr O'Brian as director.

In the century since its foundation, the Choir has had seven Directors. Dr Vincent O'Brien, Director until his death in 1948, was succeeded by his son, Oliver. In 1978, Fr Seán O hEarcaigh took over the baton from Oliver O'Brien. He was succeeded in 1982, by Ms. Ite O'Donovan and in 1996 by Comdt Joseph Ryan. Ms. Órla Barry was the Director from the end of 1996 to 2001. The current Director is Blánaid Murphy. Over the years the Palestrina Choir has attracted singers of high renown. John Count McCormack was a member of the Choir from 1904 to 1905. Many recent members are now distinguished soloists, most notably Emmanuel Lawler, who began his singing career as a boy soprano in the Choir. In recent years, the Choir has travelled widely, singing at many Cathedrals and venues throughout Ireland, Europe and North America.

During the school term the Palestrina Choir sing the 11 o'clock Sunday Latin Mass and sing at Vespers every Friday at 5.20pm followed by Mass at 5.45pm. Cantors and visiting choirs frequently assist with the musical liturgy in the pro-cathedral. Another permanent group is the Pro Nuova group which sing at the 6.30 Sunday evening Mass.


  1. ^ Pro is short for Pro tempore, a Latin phrase meaning "temporary or provisional".
  2. ^ Though the Penal Laws were principally targeted at Roman Catholics, they were also used against many smaller Nonconformist 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.

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