Further Reading

 

 

 

Padraic Gregory really established his reputation as an architect toward the end of the 1920s, with his first two ecclesiastical works: the extension and improvements to St Columcille's Church on the Upper Newtownards Road, completed in 1929; and the two new chapels at St Mary's Dominican Convent on the Falls Road, which opened in 1930.

 


St Columcille's Church on the Upper Newtownards Road, completed in 1929.

 

St Columcille's was originally built in 1907, designed in the ‘Celtic Romanesque’ style by E & J Byrne, and Gregory used the occasion of his improvements to continue in that stylistic vein. It is interesting to note that initially, Gregory was commissioned to plan just the apse and to help select an altar design based on the competitive submissions of sculptors. Gregory, however, went ahead and submitted his own design for the altar and the project’s administrator, Rev. J.P. Napier, was immediately won over, feeling that “no other design would give me, as he did, just what I wanted.” It is possible to imagine the then forty-year-old architect seizing the chance to make a unified statement with his renovations and nail his architectural colors to the mast of the Celtic Renaissance.

Gregory’s ‘improvements’ were extensive, including the construction of a new circular apse, high and side altars, the communion rail, widespread marble and mosaic decorations, and new stained glass windows. Since 1927, the two side altars have been removed and the wall mosaics behind destroyed. Disappointingly, the floor marble and mosaic work has also been covered up by carpeting. Nevertheless, the mosaic work that remains visible - and it is extensive - is in good condition, and the main altar and the apse are today as Gregory left them.

From the outside, the apse itself is simple enough, a semicircular construction that joins seamlessly with the main body of the church. On the interior, though, the mosaic fairly jumps off the wall with its intricate Celtic interlacing. As well as the expected Christian motifs, the design displays much Romanesque-style detailing such as the 'blind arcading' around the door and windows and a repeated zigzag chevron pattern (a feature that was to become familiar in Gregory’s subsequent work) around the stained glass windows. 

Gregory’s altar is sculpted in Carrara marble. It too displays some ‘Romanesque’ features such as the round headed 'blind arcading' on either side of the tabernacle, again carrying the zigzag chevron design. In the fate of the altar, however, we already see the march of time turning its back on the architect’s interventions. The church was upgraded again in the later 1960s to take into account the new liturgical directives after the Vatican II council. Previous to Vatican II, the standard sanctuary of a church was separated from the congregation by an altar rail and this was the case with Gregory’s Columcille's. However, after the landmark 1966 council, a move was made to open up the sanctuary to the congregation, making the altar more centralized, rather than an object of detached veneration. At Columcille’s we can see how this directive was taken on board. Gregory’s altar rails were removed and a new ‘simple’ wooden altar on a slightly raised semi-circular platform now stands where the rails used to be, much closer to the congregation than Gregory’s altar (which now exists effectively as a backdrop, its chilly marble looking out of place next to the ‘natural’ wood and carpet).

When I visited St Colmcille's, there seemed to be further repair work being carried out. It has to be said that this appeared to be to the 1960s entrance to the church, and not to any of Gregory’s designs. As I was photographing the front of the building, the church’s location: set back slightly from the road, in large grounds that also include a school, felt somewhat familiar. I spent the first three years of my life growing up not far from here in Ballyhackamore and discussing this project with my father, he confirmed that Columcille’s had in fact been our local parish church before the family moved out of the area in 1970, and that I had been christened there. I immediately checked all my photographs again for any sign of a baptismal font, which I couldn’t see. Nevertheless, this strange coincidence boded well, I felt, for the rest of my researches.

 

 


Gregory's projecting semi-circular apse.

 


Mosaic work with Celtic cross.

 


Interlacing Celtic patterning around sacristy door.

 


Mosaic work with St Colmcille.

 


View of sanctuary showing post Vatican II wooden altar and Grogory's altar, now a backdrop.

 


Grogory's altar.

 


View of carpet covering floor mosaic.

 

 


The 'Nun's Choir', St Mary's Dominican College, Belfast.

The success of Gregory's renovation work at St Columcille’s was quickly followed up by the opening of his new chapels at St Mary's Dominican Convent, which were to cement his reputation as an ecclesiastical architect.

The work at St Mary’s actually encompassed a residential wing with offices and a common room and dining hall for the school’s boarders, as well as the two new chapels. The residential wing joins seamlessly with John O'Neill’s 1868 building, which is in a form of Romanesque. For the chapels, however, Gregory went Gothic, establishing an eclectic zigzagging between these two styles that was to continue throughout his career. It was a bold move, but one that pays off: his chapel interiors are impressive, virtually unchanged to this day and would cause a medieval shiver to run down the spine of even the most skeptical of critics.

The two chapels are linked, at right angles to each other, one on the north edge of the site, the other the west. The larger, the ‘nun’s choir’, was initially reserved for use by the Sisters, the ‘boarders chapel’ for the students.

Both chapels are of an intimate scale; the nun's choir is just over 105 ft long and 30 ft wide. Nevertheless, the soaring stone-vaulted ceiling, gives the sense that one is standing in a much larger, almost cathedral-like space. The internal walls of the chapels are stone; the floors, doors, gallery fronts, choir stalls, and “14th Century” carved eagle lectern are all of oak. The Sanctuary floor features a mosaic with Celtic designs. The Nun’s Choir is dominated by Harry Clarke’s traceried rose window above the gallery and, in interesting contrast to this neo-Gothic showpiece, the blue glow of Gabriel Loire’s five windows in the side of the sanctuary and the apse. Both windows manage to carry off a melding of a more modern sensibility with the Gothic austerity of the space. It is surprising, and perhaps disappointing that Gregory did not manage to build on this approach in some of his later work.

Five years after the chapels opened in 1930, a ‘baldacchino’, or marble canopy supported by columns was installed over the altar, curiously enough, blocking off three of Loire’s windows. This was both a first for Gregory and, as the Irish News pointed out: “…unique, so far as we know in the North of Ireland.” Gregory would go on to create baldacchinos for many of his subsequent churches.

Before I left St Mary’s, Sr. Maelíosa Byrne, who had kindly been showing me around, pointed out a statue of a Madonna and Child. Padraic Gregory had donated this statue, along with a companion St John The Baptist, to the Dominicans after the completion of the buildings. On the Madonna’s marble pedestal a carving reads:

“PRAY FOR THE ARCHITECT OF THESE CHAPELS”

Apparently Gregory (perhaps modestly backtracking a little) had requested that this pedestal be turned around to the wall, so that the carving was not visible for all to see. The Sisters, however, have ultimately decided to reveal this architectural invocation once again, since the architect’s death in 1962.

 

 


View toward altar, The 'Nun's Choir', St Mary's.


Harry Clarke's rose window.


View from the gallery, The 'Boarder's Chapel', St Mary's.


Two of Gabriel Loire's windows.


The '14th Century' eagle lectern.


Gregory's first baldaccino, added to the chapel in 1935.


Maddona and Child statue donated by Gregory to the Dominican's.


Deatail of the base of the statue's pedestal.

 
 
 

In the years immediately following the opening of the new wings at St Mary’s, Gregory was involved in a number of renovations and alterations to existing churches. The first was in 1931 at St Columba's Church at Carrickmore, Co. Tyrone, and included the opening of a new apse and sacristies, and the installation of a heating plant. Carabine tells us “these renovations are fairly basic and contain nothing of a notable character”. Next up was a major overhaul to the Church of the Sacred Heart at Cloughmi1ls, which reopened in 1933. Most notable here was the Gothic altar in reconstructed Italian marble, constructed to Gregory’s design by Mattazoni & Co of Royal Avenue, Belfast, marble, terrazzo and mosaic specialists who were to be frequent collaborators over the years to come.

June 1935 saw the commencement of work on an extension to another Dominican Convent, in Portstewart, where Gregory added a new convent chapel and dormitory wing. The castle-like existing convent, built by Henry O'Hara in 1834, with its towers and crenellations, was continued by Gregory on the exterior, which can look, on a sunny summer day, like a toy castle, or alternately, on a stormy night, like rather dour edifice perched on the edge of a cliff. (Perhaps I am allowing my objectivity to be swayed by the five miserable years my sister endured as a boarder here in the 1970s/80s.) The interior of Gregory’s chapel at Portstewart is a simple affair, however, as Carabine notes, it is hard to make out Gregory’s contribution as a recent renovation has installed incongruous wooden paneling and a new color scheme. Also suffering a similar fate, are the major 1935 renovations carried out at St Mary's Church, Rasharkin, which has since been overhauled once again, leaving only Gregory’s confession boxes.

Lastly, this period also saw the completion of Gregory’s shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes, which can still be seen just inside the entrance of St Malachy's, in Alfred Street, Belfast. If these somewhat various contracts represented a consolidation of Gregory’s name as an ecclesiastical architect, 1935-1940 was to see the construction of the architect’s first entirely new church, St Malachy's in Coleraine, and subsequently, the completion of four new churches and extensions to a further three.

 

 


St Malachy's, Nursery Avenue, Coleraine

 

St Malachy's dominates a slightly elevated site on Nursery Avenue, Coleraine. Built with Ballycullen stone and pre-cast stone facings, the church has a neo-Romanesque, almost Norman feel to it. A rose window based on a Celtic cross design surmounts the main entrance on the north side, and the doors on this side (as at the smaller west entrance) are flanked by clustered columns supporting arches bearing an elegant chevron design. The square bell tower that rises above the west entrance is probably just a little higher than the roof of the church and hence gives a rather stumpy impression as if prematurely curtailed.

If the exterior of St Malachy’s tends to feel heavy, the interior is altogether more light and spacious. Closely spaced nave and clerestory windows cut into the barrel-vaulted roof which, combined with the rose window, flood the space with natural light. A simple projecting gallery, and overall, a tendency toward symmetry and clarity, lend the interior of St Malachy’s an almost neo-classical order, recalling a reformist church. Once again, though, we do have one of Gregory’s rather blustery Romanesque baldacchinos over where, no doubt, the original altar stood. As with St Colmcille’s, the current altar has been brought forward toward the congregation in keeping with the spirit of openness promoted post Vatican II. Again, Gregory’s original terrazzo floor has been completely covered in carpeting.

 

 


Clustered Romanesque columns around west entrance.

 


Interior showing rose window and gallery

 


Altars: old and new

 


Round-arched nave windows.

 

 
 
 


The 'Little Flower' church, Somerton Road, Belfast

 

In 1937, Gregory also carried out extensions at St Patrick's, Portrush. Although acknowledging the sympathy of the work toward the existing structure, Carabine notes that, “Gregory's completed church contains nothing of outstanding architectural merit”, so I will move on to the architect’s two new churches of the late 30’s - both in Belfast: The ‘Little Flower’, or church of St Therese de L'Enfant Jesus, Somerton Road, and St Anthony's, Willowfield.

 


Interior toward apse

 

The Church of the Little Flower on the Somerton Road, which was dedicated on May 15, 1938, resembles a small country church, designed to seat 470 people. Again constructed of Ballycullen stone from Scrabo quarries, the church has a simple rectangular nave and apse. Gothic in character, the church is marked out by its chamfered wall piers that support an elegantly simple pointed vault ceiling. The church’s stained glass windows are also worth seeking out, especially the rose window modeled on the petals of a flower above the door. On it we can see the date: 1937, when the church was constructed.

 


Chamfered wall piers and lighting fixture.

 

 
 


St Anthony's, Cregagh Road, front.

 

The Church of St Anthony's on the Cregagh Road, constructed at the same time as the Little Flower, is a much larger structure than the latter. During the time of its construction, there was much negative debate over its location in a predominantly Protestant area of Belfast, so it is perhaps fitting (however disappointing) therefore, that on the day that I visited, at the height of the marching season, the church gates were locked and I was unable to gain access to the interior. It has to be said that this is in sharp contrast to most of the churches I visited, which were most often wide open to the world with not a soul around.

So, it is as much as I can offer to state that the exterior of St Anthony’s much resembles that of St Malachy’s in Coleraine. It also has a somewhat foreshortened square tower over the west entrance and similar pre-cast stone wall surfacing.

 

 


St Anthony's, Cregagh Road, side.

 


St Mary's, Chapel Lane.

 

St Mary's, Chapel Lane, in Belfast was originally consecrated in 1784 and remains Belfast’s oldest surviving Catholic Church. Having said that, it is somewhat hard to disentangle what (if anything) remains of the original structure and what belongs to the successive renovations: initially in 1869, and later by Gregory in 1940. St Mary's has, nevertheless a very different feel to it than other Belfast churches. Its wooden roof beams and barn-like shape speak of a time prior to 19th Century elaboration. The shape of the interior is reminiscent in some ways of Dublin’s Georgian era churches. That said, we do know that Gregory, with his 1940s interventions, created an entirely new semi-circular apse, admirably decked out in elaborate Celtic mosaic work. Also impressive here, is Gregory’s circular ‘Tuscan’ baldaccino. I would be somewhat skeptical of Gregory’s employment of baldaccinos, which can be somewhat over-designed, but here its elegant proportions and simplicity are very much in keeping with this most historical of Belfast churches.

1940 also saw the opening of Gregory’s fourth new church, Blessed Oliver Church at Creggan, Co. Tyrone. However a sweeping modernization of the church in 1986 destroyed almost every trace of Gregory's design, leaving only a rose window similar to that at Coleraine intact.

 

 


'Tuscan' baldaccino, St Mary's.

 

 
 
 

By the time we reach the 1950s, Gregory’s son Brian had joined the firm and was to gradually assume responsibility for most projects. However, we will conclude with two last projects that can be ascribed solely to Gregory senior: the Lourdes Grotto added to St Mary’s on Chapel Lane in Belfast, and the chapel at St Mac Nissi's College, Garron Tower.

 


The Lourdes Grotto, St Mary's, Chapel Lane

 

The Lourdes Grotto opened in 1954. The site, of course, is next to St Mary's in Chapel Lane were Gregory had previously carried out his extension in 1940. The new project included both the grotto and a two-story campanile, both of which, Brett concludes, “…are dreary, and waste the opportunities of an unusual site whose garden court opened up considerable opportunities”. This seems somewhat harsh, however, for the ‘natural’ rock grotto, framed by rows of cypress trees and housed in its Italianate structure (which provides space for church societies and the storage of parish records) is surely one of the most familiar and best-liked landmarks in the city center.

 

 


St Mac Nissi's chapel, Garron Tower.

 

Finally, the chapel at Garron Tower is a small church designed for the use of the pupils at this grammar school, also opened in 1956. It is notable, initially, because it boasts twin towers at the front behind the narthex, as well as a much taller bell tower toward the rear. Above the entrance, we see another ‘rose’ window that is divided into four segments by a large stone crucifix. The interior is flooded with natural light, amply provided by closely spaced paired windows at both the clerestory level and through the two side aisles that flank the nave and lead to side chapels, which are in turn top-lit through flat occuli.

The side chapels are entirely covered in mosaic, as is the sanctuary in the main church. The mosaic work here is probably among the most satisfying of Gregory’s churches, presenting a suitably serene bookend to his breakthrough work at St Colmcille’s, almost thirty years previously. Romanesque in character, the work includes round-arched blind arcading wrapped around the walls, with faux columns and interesting motifs including flower urns and a crossed hammer, rule, and saw - no doubt alluding to the carpenter’s craft of St Joseph, who is represented in the nearby statue (however tempting it is to read it as an allegory of architecture, first of the arts).

There is a cantilevered timber baldacchino over the tabernacle and equally accomplished Celtic mosaic floor inlays around the altar (the floor of the nave is wooden parquet). The stained glass windows throughout are by Daniel Braniff. Larmour has pointed out the existence of an interesting inscription depicted in the leaf of a book on one of the transept windows. I searched for this during my visit to St Mac Nissi's and after much frustration eventually found the faintly daubed text on a window depicting the child Christ preaching to the elders at the temple. The inscription reads:

“WHILE I AM WORKING ON THIS WINDOW THE PEOPLE OF HUNGARY ARE IN REVOLT AGAINST USSR”.

This reference to the 1956 Budapest uprising comes as something of a shock, not only disrupting the light-filled Romanesque ambience of the Garron Tower chapel, but acting as a striking reminder of a political context that Gregory’s architecture has heretofore fortified us against. With a slight sense of vertigo induced by this sudden temporal telescoping, I had concluded my brief exploration of the ecclesiastical works of Patrick Bernard Gregory.

 

 


St Mac Nissi's interior.

 


Side chapel with flat occuli

 


Wall mosaic, side chapel.

 


Wall mosaic, apse.

 


Cantilevered wooden baldaccino.

 


Stained glass window by Daniel Braniff.

 


Detail showing inscription.

 

 
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