Church and State in the Republic of Ireland

Eamon Hedderman


  Exterior of St Finn Barr's Cathedral, Cork
  St Finn Barr's Cathedral, Cork (Photo: Ryan Mulhall,

A young mother with a bewildered six-year-old held firmly by her side told us of her astonishment at her son’s perceptiveness. Three nights before the opening of a new church in their recently established residential suburb, they had come to take a sneak preview of the building. Enthralled by the sound of water flowing from the baptismal font to a pool at its base, the boy had knelt, dipped his fingers in the moving water and blessed himself.

On 25th November at the first mass in a newly reordered church, I stood in the welcoming area as the water in the new baptistery was blessed and then taken for the blessing of the congregation. An elderly gentleman watched the ceremony from the rear seat of the nave. When the priests had moved towards the sanctuary, he slowly walked into the baptistery, gently caressed the fine stone of the font, blessed himself from the water, looked about the space with a smile of obvious pleasure and discovery before returning to his seat.

Two days later the same community gathered around the table of the Lord for the funeral mass of a deceased friend in a beautiful gathering space inspired by the challenge of facilitating the vision of Vatican II. Given its emphasis on active participation, there is no reason why, through the medium of good design and sensitivity to the character of our architectural heritage, our places of worship should not be capable of inspiring the young, reawakening the curiosity of the elderly and enriching the faith lives of a worshipping community.

There is no doubt but that these aspirations would be common to all of the churches in Ireland and while Article 44 of the Irish Constitution guarantees ‘the rights of every religious denomination to manage its own affairs’, we are now faced with a dilemma: state authorities may now hold the view that in certain circumstances the protection of architectural heritage within a place of worship would carry greater weight than the need for liturgical development.

Revisions to planning legislation introduced in 2000 as a consequence of Ireland signing up to the Convention for the Protection of the Architectural Heritage of Europe, has raised the question of who has the ultimate authority in determining matters of liturgical significance, creating tension between Church and state authorities.


‘Beehive huts’ near Fahan, Co Kerry
  Clocháns or ‘beehive huts’ near Fahan, Co Kerry: these simply corbelled stone structures are often associated with early monastic settlements. (Photo: Christy Nicholas,

From the 5th century AD Ireland became a dominant force in the early Christian Church and there were very few parts of the European continent to which its influence had not extended by the end of the first millennium. Seats of learning together with extensive communities were established in many places throughout the country, and there remains a wealth of archaeological and architectural heritage ranging from the earliest beehive huts to stone chapels and round towers, examples of which can be found at Devenish, County Fermanagh; Ardmore, County Waterford; and Clonmacnois, County Offaly to name but a few. Examples of the unique Irish style culminated, prior to the Norman invasions in the 12th century, with the fine examples of Romanesque architecture as depicted in Cormac’s Chapel, Cashel, County Tipperary.

With the Norman invasions in the 12th century the influence of the European ecclesiastical system began to impinge on the Irish Church. The Cistercian and Augustinian orders were introduced with examples of architectural heritage from the period to be found at the Cistercian Abbeys at Mellifont, County Louth and Jerpoint Abbey, County Kilkenny. Indeed there are fine examples of the Anglo Norman influence to be found in Christ Church Cathedral and St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

As with all such efforts to influence the Irish, as time went by, those who sought to overpower became more Irish than the Irish themselves.

The Reformation brought an era of attempted change in Ireland: dissolution of religious houses was accompanied by the destruction of abbeys and friaries. For the Catholic Church a period of extreme oppression ensued, yet many of its institutions continued to survive in Ireland.

Throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries church development in Ireland was generally confined to Anglican or established churches while the dissenters were tolerated and the Catholics were discouraged. Following the death of James Stuart in 1766, the last catholic pretender to the English throne, persecution began to ease, and in the latter part of the 18th century Roman Catholics began once again to build churches in towns throughout the country. Catholic Emancipation finally arrived in 1829, encouraging a tremendous growth in church building in rural Ireland.

Curiously, the culture of building maintenance, prevalent in other denominations because of the freedom they had enjoyed, did not so permeate the Roman Catholic community. By the turn of the 19th century most of the new Catholic churches in Ireland would have been built in living memory, so their historic significance tended to be overlooked. Furthermore, the priorities for the clergy were the provision of community infrastructure such as schools, assembly halls and recreational facilities. The result was that throughout the 20th century Catholic church buildings fell into disrepair. Only now are these buildings being properly assessed, and maintenance costs are proving to be excessive.

Early 19th century churches and community halls of the Catholic Church were generally simple barn-like structures but as time went on the awareness of English and European architectural styles began to be reflected in the buildings. The use of English Gothic and particularly the Gothic Revival style of AWN Pugin (1812-1852) came to the fore in the latter part of the century.

Following, the second Vatican Council there was a period of uncertainty within the Catholic Church in Ireland. The establishment by the Irish Hierarchy of the National Institute for Liturgy in the 1960s provided a forum for change and emphasised the need for sensitivity when working in the areas of art and architecture. However, the impact of change on architecture was not fully thought out. As a result many fine interiors were destroyed through the well intentioned but misguided desire to respond to a poor interpretation of the aspiration of the Vatican Council.


Round stone tower and church in Glendalough
  Old round tower and church in Glendalough (Photo: Simon Jeacle,

In theory, Irish legislation as it applies to architectural heritage is excellent. In practice it is a different matter.In 1990 the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage was established to commence the work of preparing a detailed inventory and categorisation of Irish architectural heritage. For many years significant architecture had been given superficial protection or ‘listed building’ status in local authority development plans. The potential of the National Inventory as a means of separating the wheat from the chaff was to be of benefit to both the authorities and building owners alike.

As a consequence of Ireland signing up to the Convention for the Protection of the Architectural Heritage of Europe planning legislation was implemented in January 2000 which took greater account of historic value. Buildings identified as being of significance were given protected status and graded according to whether their significance was local, regional, national or international.

Unfortunately, as the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage was still in the early stages of its work and with many years work ahead of it, an interim measure was put in place whereby local authorities and the Department of the Environment, in conjunction with the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, were designated as appropriate authorities to determine which buildings were to receive protected status. The result has been that many buildings now have a protected status without having a sound basis for such protection.

Those responsible for protected structures must consult with local authorities prior to undertaking any work and where the proposed works would involve the material alteration of the structure, planning permission is required.

Each local authority is required to engage the services of a full time professional conservation officer for the purpose of reviewing and monitoring works related to protected structures. The conservation officer is also required to advise on the protected structure grant system. These grants are offered to the owner of a protected structure up to a maximum of €12,500 (£8,700) or 50 per cent of the value of any conservation work in any given year. Additional grants for protected structures may be sought from the Heritage Council of Ireland and from the Department of the Environment.

Unfortunately, very few local authorities have sufficient resources available to enable them to employ conservation officers, and pre-planning consultations on conservation projects are not always possible. Planning legislation provides for the making of guidelines related to the protection of architectural heritage, and excellent advice on producing these guidelines has been published by the Department of the Environment.

The legislation also refers to the need for specific separate guidelines for protected structures which are normally used as places of worship. It also includes the requirement that when considering projects on such buildings those deciding on planning applications must ‘respect liturgical requirements’.

Church authorities in Ireland, conscious of the need to care for the protected structures in their charge, are also conscious of the need for continual change and adaptation to facilitate liturgical development. Consulted on the drafting of the planning legislation, it was the understanding of the church authorities that the requirement to ‘respect liturgical requirements’ would give precedence to such requirements. On the other hand the state authorities saw no such obligation. This impasse led to considerable pressure for the drafting of the guidelines related specifically to places of worship, and these were finally produced in late 2003. Unfortunately, the guidelines still leave the final decision to the planning authorities.

Structures set up under the guidelines included the establishment of ‘diocesan historic churches advisory committees’ to assess the merits of each church project prior to planning submission. These committees are also to be the first point of contact between local authorities and the Church when interpreting liturgical requirements.

Once again the principle is sound but its interpretation continues to cause problems. In the case of St Coleman’s Cathedral in Cobh, for example, the planning authority granted permission for reordering works. However, following a public enquiry at which the inspector for planning appeals board (An Bord Pleanala) recommended approval of the project, the board itself decided to overturn the planning permission. This disappointing outcome to a prolonged planning process has left Bishop Magee with a serious problem and once again raised the question as to who ultimately has the authority to decide what is or is not liturgically acceptable in a place of worship: the state or the Church?

The process of resolution is, as they say, ‘to be continued’. In the interim we must ensure that our places of worship continue to provide the gift of discovery for the young, the reassurance and sense of joy for the elderly, and the enrichment of the faith lives of the worshipping community.


View of St Coleman's Cathedral, Cobh with waterfront in foreground
St Coleman's Cathedral, Cobh (Photo: Asa Jernigan)


This article is reproduced from Historic Churches, 2006


EAMON HEDDERMAN BArch MRIAI RIBA is a conservation architect (accredited Grade 1) and the principal of Holly Park Studio, Blackrock, Co. Dublin
( The practice specialises in liturgical design and conservation projects throughout Ireland. He is currently a member of the Advisory Committee on Sacred Art and Architecture to the Irish Episcopal Commission for Liturgy.

Further information


Churches (general)


Advisory bodies and associations
Site Map