A celebration of a special church

The Church of Saint John the Baptist: Blackrock

by Michael O’Connell

(€15.00; available from the parish office, Raven Books, Blackrock, or Carraig Books, Blackrock; details from saintjohnthebaptist@eircom.net)

J. Anthony Gaughan

This book on the church and parish of St John the Baptist is both a history and a guide. The seeds of the parish were sown by the Carmelite Sisters who established their convent in Blackrock in 1823. Local people were able to attend Mass in the convent chapel and the sisters opened a school for the children of the area.

The parish priest of Booterstown, Dr John Ennis, decided in 1840 to provide a church for this developing Catholic community in Blackrock. The second Lord Cloncurry, Valentine Lawless, who had a summer residence at Maretimo, donated the site for the new church.  Patrick Byrne, a stylist in Pugin Gothic, was appointed as the architect. Building was begun in 1842 and despite the most challenging of times – the spectre of the Great Famine was already beckoning – the church was completed in 1845.

The renowned Apostle of Temperance, Fr Theobald Mathew, was very much associated with the beginnings of the church. On the feast of St John the Baptist in 1842 he preached at a fundraising event for it in Booterstown church, thereafter he and numerous Temperance bands and thousands of teetotallers proceeded to Blackrock, where he blessed the foundation stone of the new church and then in the grounds of Maretimo held a Temperance rally attended by 15,000 people. Fr Mathew was back three years later for the blessing and formal opening of the completed church at which again he was the main speaker.

Few churches the size of the one at Blackrock are endowed with as much statuary and as many stained-glass windows. With some of the art work there are curious associations. One such is a copy by Amelia Curran of Murillo’s Madonna Del Boeme (1675). Amelia was the sister of Sarah, the betrothed of Robert Emmet. The patriot’s mother was of the North Kerry Mason family and according to a family tradition this picture was among his possessions when he was executed. The picture was presented to the church by Lord Cloncurry following its dedication.

A stained-glass window from the Harry Clarke studio commemorates Fr Edward Norris.  Ordained in Rome in 1845, he volunteered for the ‘Indian’ Mission in North America. He was kidnapped by a raiding party and scalped, but survived. On recovering he served as a curate in Blackrock from 1847 to October 1848 when he died, aged 34.

The author provides a discerning commentary on each item of the church’s artistic endowment. These include a Reredos, unique in Ireland, a Pieta of the Dead Christ by John Hogan, windows from the Harry Clarke studios, a splendid stained-glass window by Evie Hone and a sculpture of Venerable Matt Talbot by Timothy P. Schmalz. The coat of arms of Lord Cloncurry in stained-glass at the centre of the choir gallery, as O’Connell notes, is an acknowledgement of his life-long generous support for the church and the parish.

There is a list of the parish priests and curates who served in the parish and the author acknowledges the many and varied enhancements of the church carried out at different times. This book, which is beautifully shaped, lavishly illustrated and well rounded off with an excellent index, will be warmly welcomed by the parishioners of Blackrock and many more besides.