A favourite Belfast haunt of poet John Betjeman and composer Benjamin Britten has finally been restored to its original Victorian glory. No, not the Ulster Hall or the Crown bar, but St Malachy’s Church on Alfred St, close to the city centre.
After 15 months and £3.5 million, tourists and parishioners can once again enjoy this venerable Belfast landmark at its sparkling best after it is formally reopened on Sunday March 29 by the Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr Noel Treanor.
Many of its ‘old’ features have been sympathetically restored including the altarpieces, the stencilling and mosaic work in the Sanctuary, the ceiling and the stained glass. There is also a new altar carved from a single block of Portuguese limestone. A new Celebrant’s Chair and baptismal font, also of Portuguese limestone, have been installed in the church as well.
Speaking at a sneak preview, parish priest Father Anthony Curran explained the importance of St Malachy’s restoration to the city. ‘The Diocese’s aim was to restore the church to its original grandeur and landmark status for both the immediate parish area and the community beyond – and I am very proud to say that we have achieved this.’
Lord Mayor Tom Hartley paid tribute to the craftsmen whose labours will soon be on view to parishioners and visitors alike.
‘This magnificent restoration scheme truly has breathed new life into a wonderful church. Not only has the building been restored to its original glory, but several new features have more than enhanced it.’
‘It truly is a hidden gem, which I am very glad we have now rediscovered,’ said the Lord Mayor.
The foundation stone for what was originally intended to be Belfast’s new cathedral was laid on November 3, 1841, the feast of Saint Malachy, and the new church was dedicated on December 15, 1844 by Dr William Crolly, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland and a former Bishop of the Diocese of Down and Connor.
‘Originally, Saint Malachy's was intended to be the cathedral church of the Diocese of Down and Connor
and was to seat 7,000 worshippers, but, in the time when the Great Famine was ravaging Ireland, it was decided that the funds would be better spent elsewhere to alleviate the suffering of many,” explained Father Curran.
‘So, what was intended to be the vast sanctuary of the new Cathedral was remodelled to serve as the local church.’
The church is regarded as one of the finest examples of late Georgian–Tudor revival churches in Ireland. Sir Charles Brett, in his book ‘Buildings of Belfast’ describes it as ‘a superb example of Sir-Walter-Scottery at its most romantic’.
The church was designed by Thomas Jackson of Waterford, who had been a partner of Thomas Duff in Newry before establishing his own practice in 1835 in Belfast. With the resurgence in the gothic revival championed by Augustus Pugin in England in the late 1830s, Jackson’s career took a change of direction with the new found fashion of the day.
Saint Malachy's is perhaps best known for its fan vaulted ceiling which is inspired by the Henry VII
Chapel (the Lady Chapel) in Westminster Abbey. Sir Charles Brett said: ‘It is as though a wedding cake has been turned inside out, so creamy, lacy and frothy is the plasterwork’.
The entire ceiling has been restored, while other work has finally repaired damage caused to the church during the Second World War, as Father Curran explained:
‘On one occasion, during the infamous Belfast Blitz of Easter Tuesday, April 15, 1941, a bomb landed in front of the church and, while it did not cause any structural damage, many of the windows were blown in. A second bomb landed at the nearby Gasworks. The explosion caused a huge vacuum in the local area which literally sucked out the remainder of the windows and the original Irish oak frames were destroyed.
‘Being a time of war, it was impossible to replace the oak window frames and so they were replaced in concrete, something that was to prove more damaging than the German bomb, as the concrete was heavier than the surrounding brick. It was supposed to be a temporary measure, but it has taken us 60 years to put it right,’ he said.