One of my favourite views in Dublin is looking over into Rathmines from the Portobello Bridge, with the dome of the Catholic church visible.
The beautiful dome of the church dates back to 1923, as the church was almost totally destroyed by a fire in 1920. Incredibly, it appears from the statements of some IRA members to the Bureau of Military History that this church premises was being used to store weapons at the time of the fire by republicans in Dublin, and that weapons were hidden from authorities following the destruction of the church by sympathetic figures in the fire brigade.
On 26 January 1920, the sacristan of the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Refuge arrived shortly after six o’clock to find the switchboard that controlled the electricity ablaze inside the vestry. Fire quickly spread throughout the church, with newspapers noting that the flames were “spreading with alarming rapidity in all parts of the building, and mounting up the walls to the base of the spacious dome.” While Rathmines had its own functioning fire service at this time, the Dublin Fire Brigade also arrived on the scene, with The Irish Times reporting that:
The Dublin Fire Brigade, which had been sent for, worked in unison with the Rathmines Brigade, and placed two engines on either side of the Grand Canal at Portobello Bridge, and soon had a copious supply of water sent in through the rear of the church by way of Mountpleasant Avenue.
The fire was an incredibly dangerous job for the firefighters on the scene, with the dome roof of the church crashing down, leading to fears some men may have been trapped underneath, although this was thankfully not the case. The Irish Times noted that for hours after the blaze continuous streams of water were poured upon it, and that the overall damage to the church was estimated at between £30,000 and £35,000, thankfully covered by insurance.
The first hand testimonials of several republicans given to the Bureau of Military History suggest that the church in Rathmines was used by republicans as a place to store weapons, and indeed as a place in which to seek refuge. Henry Murray, a veteran of the Easter Rising and active with the Dublin IRA through the War of Independence recalled that he and another members of ‘A’ Company of the Dublin Brigade “frequently slept in Rathmines Catholic Church when ordered to remain away from home to evade arrest.”
Murray gives plenty of information in his Witness Statement to suggest that there was a strong relationship between local republicans and this church, noting that:
The Clerk of this Church was at that time a member of “A” Company and he acted as assistant to the Company Quarter-master. In pursuance of his military duties he utilised some of the vaults in the Church as a “dump” for the major portion of the Company’s arms and equipment.
Murray claimed that the IRA were storing “rifles, revolvers, ammunition, hand grenades and military equipment” in the vaults of this church, and that when he arrived at the scene of the fire:
I found that several members of the Company who were aware of the position, had entered the building at great personal risk, made their way to the vaults and were engaged in removing the dumped arms and ammunition to places of safety.
Another account of the church and the movement is found in the statement of Michael Lynch, a member of ‘B’ company of the 4th Battalion of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA. Lynch gives a different account of the fire somewhat, which suggested that many weaposn were destroyed by the blaze, but noting that there existed a fear among the IRA that the presence of a weapons dump in the church may be discovered by the British during the clean-up, and that “I knew what a disaster it would be to ourcause if the British got hold of the fact that we were using the vaults of houses of worship as dumps for arms.”
Lynch describes going to meet with Captain Myers of the Dublin Fire Brigade, who he knew to be “a very fine fellow and, from the
national point of view, thoroughly sound and reliable in every way.” John Myers, the head of the Dublin Fire Brigade at the time, could even boast of appearing within the pages of Ulysses, and in the days of revolution in Dublin he appears to have been a very useful ally to the IRA, as Lynch recalled:
I told him the true story and asked him to see that the Rathmines people got no inkling whatever of the fact that some dozens of rifles and revolvers were lying in the debris under the floor of the church. He told me not to worry, that nobody would ever know. The incident passed unnoticed by anybody.
If Myers had republican sympathies, he was certainly in the right line of work. In the recent book Dublin Fire Brigade and the Irish Revolution, Las Fallon details how several members of the Dublin fire service were secretly involved with the IRA and Irish Citizen Army at the height of the troubles, even assisting in rescuing IRA men from inside the Custom House following the burning of that building in 1921. Indeed, on that occasion one fireman would recall entering the building and spreading the fire “into parts of it which had not previously been on fire.” Members of the Dublin Fire Brigade had fought in the Easter Rising, War of Independence and Civil War, and the likely assistance of Dublin firemen in keeping an arms vault at Rathmines secret may well also indicate republican feeling in the ranks of the job.
The distinctive dome of the church today is often said to have originally been intended for Russia, with an article in the Sunday Times in 2001 writing of the fire that destroyed the Rathmines church in 1920 and noting that:
Meanwhile, across the water in Glasgow, a specialist manufacturing firm had just mothballed a massive, ornate copper dome believed to have been commissioned for a church in Russia. It is likely the contract was derailed as a result of the Russian revolution and the emergence of Lenin’s anti-religious Bolsheviks.
A contemporary newspaper report from the 1920s on the construction of the new dome however stated that “the architects are Messrs. W.H Byrne and Sons, Suffolk Street, Dublin; the consulting engineer Mr. Alfred Delap….of Dublin and the steel contractors Messrs. J and C. McGloughlin Ltd., Great Brunswick Street, Dublin.” We’d love to hear from anyone who knows more of the contemporary dome and its origins.
Rathmines has featured on CHTM before, with this article from Sam looking at working class housing in the area. Dublin Fire Brigade and the Irish Revolution, referenced above, is available to purchase here.