Steven Smyrl, MAGI, Dublin.

You won’t find this Dublin building anymore; it was destroyed exactly 100 years ago. It was known as the Union Chapel and occupied the site on Lower Abbey Street approximately where Sherries café now stands.  It was one of the casualties of the bombarding of the General Post Office in the 1916 Easter Rising

Image 2016 July image

The Union Chapel, Lower Abbey St., Dublin

It was the home of Dublin’s Seceding Presbyterians. The Seceders originated in Scotland, where they had split from the Church of Scotland in 1733 over the issue of the nomination of ministers to parishes, known as patronage. Later, in 1747, the Seceders themselves split over the issue of the Burgess Oath, which required those holding civil office in Scottish towns to swear an oath upholding the established Church of Scotland. The two groups became known as the Burghers and the Anti-Burghers. Irish Presbyterianism was likewise riven with schism and the Seceders saw this as an opportunity to establish congregations there, although mainly in Ulster.

The Dublin Burgher congregation, founded about 1764, met in various locations. One was the former Baptist meetinghouse in Skinners Alley, in the Coombe. Oswald Edwards had been the last Baptist minister there, a man known for his intemperate, often foul language. By 1773 the Burghers had moved to a meetinghouse in Lucy Lane, now Chancery Place, near the Four Courts. This was a building with an interesting history. The site had originally been part of a Jesuit Friary, but had been granted to Sir Robert Meredith in 1636. A chapel was subsequently built on a portion of it and again given over to the use of the Jesuits in the time of James II. After William III came to the throne in 1688, the property was confiscated and sold with all the other confiscated lands in 1703 at a great sale which lasted several days, held at Chichester House, Dublin.  It had by then fallen into the hands of a congregation of nonconformist Huguenots and it was this group which sold the lease to the Burgher Seceders in 1773.

The Wide Street Commissioners decided upon remodelling the area around Lucy Lane and widening the street.  So in anticipation the congregation began sharing premises in Mary’s Abbey, occupied by the Anti-Burghers. However, the Commissioners delayed purchasing the Lucy Lane meetinghouse for almost a decade, but finally in 1824 completed the transaction, giving the congregation £3,000 in compensation.

An Anti-Burgher congregation had not been established in Dublin until around 1796. It is not clear where it met first, but by 1814 it had use of the Tailors’ Hall, Back Lane. In 1815 it built a new meetinghouse on the site of the old Bank of Ireland in Mary’s Abbey, the cost of which was borne entirely by a member of the congregation, James Clarke. In 1877 the property was described as “modest”, but one which could seat about 200 people in two rows of high-backed pews.

In 1818 the two branches of Irish Seceding Presbyterianism united to form the Secession Synod of Ireland (later, in 1840, they would unite with the Synod of Ulster to form the Presbyterian Church in Ireland). The united congregation continued in occupation of the Mary’s Abbey building until the funds from the Wide Street Commissioners enabled them to build a new and handsome church in Lower Abbey Street in 1825. This they named Union Chapel. About 1846 the building was described as “a chaste and handsome edifice; a well executed Ionic Portico of granite adorns the front; and a well constructed lantern on the roof lights the interior”.

After moving to the Union Chapel, the congregation sold the Mary’s Abbey premises, but the sale led to a bitter dispute after the main church body found that the new owners were a congregation of Jews. The Secession Synod then petitioned the Lord Lieutenant to evict the Jewish congregation, declaring that as “foreigners” they were disbarred from owning real property in Ireland. The Dublin Castle authorities steered well clear of this potential can of worms and simply advised the complainants to bring an action in the courts if they felt they had a case.  No action ensued and the Jews continued in enjoyment of the premises until the 1880s.

Stray shells during the bombardment of the GPO in 1916 completely destroyed the Union Chapel. The records of the both the Burghers and Anti-Burghers, some dating back to the 1760s, were held in a metal safe, and in the incredible heat caused by the ensuing fire the paper contents of the safe perished. All that was found to have survived were a number of badly misshapen coins. In 1918, now without a home, the congregation merged with that now known as Abbey Presbyterian Church, Parnell Square, often called Findlater’s Church.