Dining with the Dead in Dublin

Remember Me Researcher Dr Yvonne Inall reports on heritage and memorialisation in a Dublin restaurant.

When you work on a project which is strongly focussed on remembrance and memorialisation you begin to see memorials everywhere you go. It’s surprising how embedded and omnipresent memorialisation is in our daily lives. On a recent holiday in Dublin I stopped for lunch in a popular restaurant and found myself surrounded by memorials.

The Church is a restaurant, bar and nightclub in central Dublin housed in a converted church.

Stmarysdublin
The Church in Dublin, formally St Mary’s, a now deconsecrated building accommodating a bar and restaurant.

The church of St Marys was constructed between 1700 and 1704 on the site of a 12th century Cistercian abbey of the same name. The building is a rare, surviving example of a galleried church, and was the first of its kind to be built in Dublin. For generations the church played a central social and spiritual role during the 18th century for the Protestant members of the local Church of Ireland community. Founder of the Guinness Brewery, Arthur Guinness was married there in 1761. The first ever performance of Handel’s Messiah was held in St Mary’s, a full year before it was performed in London. The congregation included Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels. Many prominent Dubliners were buried in the adjacent churchyard. So popular was the burial ground, that older burials were frequently exhumed to make way for new occupants!

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St Mary’s went into unfortunate decline over the course of the 19th century and the building was showing clear signs of neglect by 1820. The church continued in use, however, into the 20th century, clinging to its spiritual life despite a declining Protestant population until its eventual closure in 1986. Deconsecrated, the building was available for use as a commercial building until it was purchased in 1997 by a publican John M. Keating who undertook extensive restoration work before opening the premises as a pub. The current owners took over the property in 2007, renaming it The Church in respect of the building’s former life. The business functions as a café, bar, nightclub, and has become a tourist attraction in its own right.

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The original architecture of the building has been preserved and restored, allowing patrons to appreciate the galleries, stained glass windows and high-pitched roof. Beyond the architectural splendour The Church has taken a respectful approach to the memorial plaques, which remain in prominent view. The result is a strange memento mori, where one cannot help but contemplate the lives and passing of those whose names silently call attention to themselves from the walls.

Isabella McKenny
Memorial to Isabella McKenny. Photograph by Darkbirdpictures.com, used with permission from The Church.

It was common practice during the 18th and 19th century for prominent members of the community to erect memorial plaques to their departed loved ones in their local church. The deceased person would usually be buried in the adjacent churchyard, while the memorial within the church would serve as testament to the piety and good works of the departed, simultaneously acting as a memorial and as an inspiration to live a moral life. Very few individuals were actually buried inside churches during the 18th and 19th century, although the practice (which had been common during the medieval period) did continue. St Mary’s had six burial crypts in the basement level and the remains of 32 individuals had to be formally disinterred and reburied elsewhere when the building underwent restoration work.

Richard Nutley
Memorial to Richard Nutley. Photograph by Darkbirdpictures.com, used with permission from The Church.

The building falls in the wider tradition of repurposed religious buildings, reincarnated as residential or commercial spaces. Yet, the owners of The Church encourage patrons to engage with the building’s heritage, offering brochures for a self-guided tour (available in multiple languages). The guide offers advice on the best place to view the memorial plaques and highlights the significant architectural features of the building with historical commentary.

The presence of these memorials serve as an ongoing reminder of the continuing bonds formed between the living and the dead. The departed are always with us, and the places of the living and the dead can intersect and overlap in unexpected ways. And, sometimes, in rare spaces like The Church, they can still join us for lunch.

Dr Yvonne Inall was recently awarded a PhD in History from the University of Hull, undertaking an archaeological examination the role of spearheads in Iron Age Britain. As part of her doctoral thesis Yvonne conducted a review of British Iron Age burial practices, with a particular focus on martial burials. She is now assisting Dr Malcolm Lillie with the long durée component of the Remember Me Project: ‘Deep in Time: Meaning and Mnemonic in Archaeological and Diaspora Studies of Death’.

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