As the 18th century drew to a close the catholic church in Ireland was optimistic about its future. It had survived a century of repression emerging relatively intact and as the century drew to a close full catholic emancipation was on the horizon. Through the following century the Catholic Church in Ireland enjoyed a meteoric rise in power. This rise in fortunes is reflected closely in one of Dublin’s most famous churches – St Peter’s, Phibsboro (left), now one of the most famous landmarks on the north side of Dublin. It dominates the skyline with a 200ft tall spire but just like Catholicism in the 19th century it began in far more humble conditions.


Phibsboro (Phibsborough) is a suburb of Dublin situated 1 mile northwest of the city centre. Beginning life as a village outside the city, as early as 1838 the historian John D’Alton said that Phibsboro “may be considered part of the city itself”*. Its growing population had reached 7382 people by the time the 1831 census was taken. This village was quickly becoming a slum, home to Dublin’s growing working class who lived in dire poverty.

In a pattern reflected nationally in the early 19th century Phibsboro became  the site of a struggle between Protestant evangelical preachers and the catholic church. As there was no catholic church in the immediate area, it seemed that  evangelists would have a free hand converting the most downtrodden in society. In the face of this increased competition the Catholic Church decided to build a school in Phibsboro in the second decade of the 19th century. This was quickly followed up with plans for a church.


In the 19th century the Catholic Church carefully chose locations for churches always seeking high ground or prominent sites.  In Phibsboro they found such a site 100 metre’s west of the cross roads that formed the town centre. Here they purchased a commanding site where the New Cabra Road formed a junction with the then newly opened North Circular Road (this was built in 1800) which was one of the main arteries into the city.

At this site they built a two storied building with a church on the upper floor and a school on the ground floor fronted by massive granite steps (right). This building while paling in significance to later structures was an enormous burden on the community – costing £4,000 pounds by 1835, half of it coming from the poor in the community.

Fr Thomas Mac Namara

Through the first half of the 19th century the Catholic Church began a structural reform which saw its influence and power grow at a slow but consistent rate. This success was seen on the ground in Phibsboro in 1838, as the church came under the remit of the newly formed Vincentians. Under the leadership of Fr Thomas McNamara (left) the small church and school house in Phibsboro were dramatically altered. The school moved to a new building and the floor that separated the school and church was removed making the church a far roomier structure. This was followed up by extending the church forty feet eastward towards Phibsboro covering the granite steps seen in the photo above.

Cardinal Cullen

Fr McNamara’s tenure in St Peter’s (he moved to Paris in 1868) was also paralleled by a rise in Irish Catholicism. As the country was wracked by “The Great Famine” (1845-51) the Catholic Church saw a major change in personnel which would transform the organisation. In 1849 the rector of the Irish college at Rome, Cardinal Paul Cullen was made the archbishop of Armagh and then in 1852, archbishop of Dublin. He transformed the church beginning drastic reform at Synod of Thurles in 1850. In this process he made the Irish Catholic Church one of the most authoritarian loyal churches in Europe.

Cullen acted like “the pope’s chief whip in Ireland” and “whipped the church into line with Roman discipline” (Jospeh Lee 2008). This saw the power of the church grow massively particularly amongst a population shell shocked in the aftermath of the famine.

Phibsboro c.1900

In this climate ambitious men like Fr. Mc Namara at Phibsboro could develop ideas that would have been unrealistic a few decades earlier. McNamara in particular could develop what seemed like audacious plans for a new church since Phibsboro itself changed drastically. By the 1860’s it was no longer a slum, but it was now home to the rising middle class who had pushed the poor out. It was in these advantageous circumstances McNamara pushed for a major rebuilding of St Peter’s. A similar process was on going in parishes and dioceses across Ireland that saw dozens of churches built around the country. These new structures were large elaborate dominating buildings reflecting the Catholic Church’s rising power.

St Mary’s Cathedral Kilkenny

The plans at Phibsboro were spectacular and in 1868 work began on a building more like a cathedral than a parish church. Built in neo-gothic style, the church was due to take a standard cross shape with a tower standing wear the arms (transepts) intersects with body of the cross (divided into chancel and  nave).  This would have made the church similar to  St Mary’s Cathedral, Kilkenny (left) but it was not to be…..

Don’t count your blessings

Within three years the transepts, the chancel (the section containing the altar) and the tower were all finished. The nave (where the congregation were top be seated) remained unfinished but the church was developing so well that The Irish Times well able to report on the church’s dedication on May 8th 1871. Cardinal Cullen himself oversaw the proceedings however these celebrations would prove to be premature. (see right)

Disaster strikes

The tower built at the intersection of the transepts and chancel, became the subject of an argument that would see work stop for almost three decades. The builder and architects argued over whether its foundations were strong enough to support  the tower and the affair ended up in court. The outcome resulted in the tower being removed because the foundations were deemed insufficient to bear the weight – the stone was used in some buildings in Phibsboro (see left).

While the Vincentians at Phibsboro lost massive amounts money in this action and work stalled, the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland continued to grow. In the last quarter of the 19th century politics in Ireland moved towards a form of nationalism that increasingly viewed being “Irish” as being synonymous with being a catholic. By 1903 the Vincentians were in a position to start construction again.

In 1908 St Peter’s Church was finally finished with a very ornate spire on the eastern end standing over the entrance but the ill-fated tower was never rebuilt. The spire was faced with four clocks facing North, South, East and West. Each corner is pointed with a Gargoyle (left).

These gargoyles reflected a general trend in the iconography of the church. The dominant carvings spelled out what would become a central tenets of Irish Catholicism – guilt and fear.

The entrance to the church was altered so mass goers now entered the church by a high cross. This cross was carved with a skull and cross bones above four symbols of the weakness and guilt of humanity(see right). These from left to right are the cock, reflecting the betrayal of Jesus Christ by St Peter, a pillar symbolising his scourging, a serpent reflecting the fall from grace of the garden of Eden and finally the crown of thorns.

The high cross also has a carving of a whip on each corner. After this the mass goers entered the church under the a statue of St Peter himself holding a large key to remind church goers of that access to heaven was mediated by the church  – in catholic mythology St Peter is the gatekeeper of heaven. These sculptures were setting the tone for religion in the 20th century that would see “catholic guilt” hammered into Irish Catholics which would massively influence politics and society in Ireland through the 20th Century.

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The history of the county of Dublin, John D’Alton, 1838 pg365 available online here


The history of the county of Dublin, John D’Alton, 1838 available here

A History of Cabra and Phibsborough, Bernard Neary, 1978.

History of Dublin Parishes –

The Modernisation of Irish Society 1848-1918 Jospeh Lee (2008)

0 comments on “Photo essay: St Peter’s Church, Phibsboro – A history of Irish Catholicism in stone.

  1. Peadar Lynch on

    I attended St Peters school from 1932/1938 and have happy memories.was given a foundation for a good life thanks to the Vincentians .