Unitarianism in Ireland

THE DUBLIN UNITARIAN CHURCH COLLECTION IN THE ROYAL IRISH ACADEMY

Introduction

The Royal Irish Academy holds an important collection of documentation relating to the emergence of Unitarianism in Ireland. The Dublin Unitarian Church Collection was donated to the Academy in two stages, between 2006 and 2007. The cataloguing project was part-funded by The Heritage Council. 

The birth of Unitarianism in Ireland can be traced back to the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, with the arrival of English Puritans on Irish soil and Scottish Presbyterian Planters in Ulster. Despite its Christian origins, Unitarianism has no set doctrines or dogmas. Embracing a more liberal religious view, it looks to other religions and philosophies for inspiration in its quest for truth. A fundamental difference between the theology of Unitarianism and that of other Christian denominations is the belief in the single personality of God rather than the doctrine of the Trinity. With the exception of the Prince’s Street congregation in the city of Cork, the majority of Unitarian congregations in Ireland were Dublin based by the 1700s. Two congregations flourished at this time. The first was based in Strand Street. Following the erection of the new Strand Street meeting house in the 1760s, the community at Wood Street decided to merge with their neighbours. The Cook Street congregation followed shortly afterwards, moving to Strand Street in 1787. The second major congregation in Dublin was located in Eustace Street. The community was originally based in New Row, taking a lease for a new site on Eustace Street in the late 1720s upon which to build a new meeting house. In July 1866, ‘A Resolution of the Committee of Eustace Street Congregation was  laid before the meeting as to the proposed amalgamation of that congr[egation] with the Stephens Green congr[egation].’ The new Unitarian church, located at 112 St. Stephen’s Green and designed by architects Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon of Belfast, was to become home to the congregations of Strand Street and Eustace Street. The premises continue to be used by the Unitarian community today.

The Dublin Unitarian Church Collection

Consisting of over 1700 documents, the Dublin Unitarian Church Collection contains correspondence, minute books, subscription lists, cash books, school registers, reports, sermons and lectures. The documents date from between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, and relate to the Unitarian community of Dublin and some of its predecessor congregations, located over time at premises in Wood Street, Cook Street, Eustace Street, Strand Street, and St. Stephen’s Green. The documents provide an overview of the daily activities of the different congregations, addressing a variety of different subjects including the management and administration of the charity schools, apprenticeships of pupils, appointments of staff and committee members, property dealings, meetings of the Synod of Munster, congregational accounts and funds, maintenance of church and school premises, erection of memorial tablets, admissions to the widows’ alms house, subscriptions and donations, and the union of congregations.

Role in Irish Education

The role of the Unitarian community in Irish education is well documented in the Dublin Unitarian Church Collection. Minute books, account books and school registers provide valuable information on the establishment of charity schools by the Unitarian community in Dublin during this period. The minute books in particular address a range of different subjects, including school accommodation, apprenticeships for pupils, staff appointments, discipline, diet and nutrition, building repairs, and pupil numbers. The provision of an education and the opportunity to enter into service or undertake an apprenticeship for children was encouraged by the formation of these educational institutions. A handwritten document in the collection referring to the establishment of one of these bodies, the Singleton Female School (attached to St. Stephen’s Green Unitarian Church and located in Summer Hill), reflects this aim. It notes that the object of the school is to ‘establish & maintain a boarding school for girls in which instruction shall be given to render them good & efficient domestic servants’ (RIA/DUC/2/122). Other school records of significance include account books with information on the domestic expenditure of the school facilities, providing an insight also into the weekly diet of the pupils and staff. Admission registers also provide important information about each pupil, recording their name, age when admitted, parent’s name, length of time in school and destination after their education is complete. 

Securing Accommodation

Securing suitable accommodation for the congregations and their schools is a regular theme throughout the collection. A report ‘that filthy water and other refuse are constantly flung from neighbouring windows upon the schoolhouse roof’ is recorded in the minutes of Strand Street’s Managing Committee, dated 5 August 1852, (RIA/DUC/STR/10A). The Singleton Female School also faced problems with their neighbours, noting in their 1899 minutes ‘the disadvantage of being situated in a very undesirable locality with tenement houses on either side which are at times occupied by a very low class of people’ (RIA/DUC/STE/8). The ongoing maintenance and repair of school and church buildings is also addressed in the minutes. The proceedings of a meeting held by the Eustace Street congregation, dated 6 February 1899, notes a list of requirements for its new school premises, which includes accommodation for at least 8 girls to be provided; an extra room for isolating a case of illness; a laundry & conveniences for drying clothes; a large bedroom for the matron’ (RIA/DUC/EUS/3).

Sermons

The collection also contains a series of handwritten drafts of sermons and lectures, dating from between 1770 and 1927, revealing the attitudes and beliefs of the community at this time. The documents address a wide range of different subjects, including the spirit of Christianity, post offices, National Gallery, Oliver Cromwell, cult of the Virgin Mary, Oliver Twist, function of a church, Ruskin, secularisation of politics, and Unitarianism as a world movement. A significant portion of the documentation appears to be executed in the hand of Rev. E. Savell Hicks of St. Stephen’s Green Church. Financial Affairs and Property Dealings.

The financial affairs of congregations can be gleaned from a series of cash books contained in the archive. The volumes record all of the debits and credits relating to the various funds and accounts connected to the Unitarian community. These include the Charity School Fund, Contingency Account, Plunkett Widows Fund, Psalmody Account, Female School Marriage Portion Fund, Widows’ Alms House Account, and St. Stephen’s Green Church Head Rent Fund.

The property interests of the Unitarian community in Dublin are well recorded in the collection, with relevant documents including minute books, bound lists of deeds, leases, letters and cash books. Documents refer to the leasing of properties owned by the Unitarians, with frequent references to the issue of tenants in arrears. One entry in the minutes of the Managing Committee of Strand Street, dated 20 April 1859, notes ‘the occupiers of rooms in Swan Alley (a wretched class of tenants) refused to pay rent and have given considerable trouble’ (RIA/DUC/STR/10A). A letter dated 23 April 1850 from a tenant at Clonegowan in County Offaly, provides the following account: 'There is no Tenant more annoyed by under fellows than I was or have been, they robbed me of my rents. They demolished the mansion house & offices, even the garden they have defaced wantonly, without benefit to themselves' (RIA/DUC/EUS/7).

Property dealings are also reflected in a collection of lease agreements, including a copy of a lease, dated 13 January 1838, between the Right Reverend Robert Lord Bishop of Ferns, Leighlin and Ossory of first part, Ecclesiastical Commissioners for Ireland of second part, and Reverend Charles Peter Thomas of County Carlow, Clerk, of third part, relating to the lands of Gurteen in town of Old Leighlin in County Carlow, amounting to 243 acres 2 roods and 14 perches (statute measure), and to be conveyed unto Reverend Charles Peter Thomas for the yearly rent of £83:16:8 (RIA/DUC/2/1). In addition, is a memorial of an indented deed, dated 14 July 1761, between Right  Honourable Robert Earl of Belvedere of the first part and Charles Caldwell of the city of Dublin, Esquire, George Maconchy and William Hamilton, both of Dublin city, Doctors of Physics, and Robert Montgomery, Thomas Blair and Robert Holmes, all of Dublin city, merchants, of the second part, relating to a plot of ground on the north side of Strand Street in the parish of St. Mary’s in the city of Dublin, and granting land unto Maconchy, Hamilton, Mongomery, Blair and Holmes in consideration of the sum of £522:15:0 sterling (RIA/DUC/2/65).

Assisting the Poor

The documentation contained in the collection also reveals the community’s dedicated campaign to provide assistance to the poorest members of society, through their fund raising and committee work. The establishment of a widows’ alms house on Cork Street, Dublin, by the congregation at Eustace Street bears testament to this. The development of this facility to accommodate widows without adequate means was achieved through a generous donation from Mr. Ralph Cards. In his will dated 14 April 1744, Cards states ‘I Bequeath the three poor houses Erected by my said Father in Cork street...to the officers of the said Meeting house in Eustace street’ (RIA/DUC/EUS/2). An entry in the 1810 minutes lists the rules and regulations of the house noting anyone admitted should ‘keep themselves clean & decent & regularly attend Divine Service in the Lord’s Day’ (RIA/DUC/EUS/4). In addition, there are references in the records of St. Stephen’s Green Church to the development of the Huxley Housing Scheme, a dedicated accommodation plan for widows, in the early twentieth century.

New Appointments and the Role of Women`

New appointments to the church community are also recorded in the archive, with a particular reference in the minutes for Eustace Street congregation, dated 1 May 1842, to the salary and allowances of the newly appointed sexton and sextoness as ‘Ten pounds per annum, an allowance of Coals and Candles, with apartments in the rere of the building lately occupied as the Boys School’ (RIA/DUC/EUS/7). An entry in one particular volume, dated 10 October 1956, contains instructions for cleaning staff from [Rev.E. Savell Hicks of St. Stephen’s Green Unitarian Church], and states ‘Please sweep ceiling of Ladies’ Cloakroom & lavatory–cobwebs– including lamp shade in lavatory where the cobwebs look like a lace frill!!!!’ RIA/DUC/STE/28).

The role of women in the management of church affairs is reflected in an entry in the minutes of St. Stephen’s Green’s Finance Committee, dated 30 June 1940, which reads ‘for the first time in the history of our Church, a lady, Mrs Saville, attended as a member of the Finance Committee, acted as Chairman of the meeting, and signed cheques in payment of accounts’ (RIA/DUC/STE/17).

Dealings with Other Denominations

An entry in a minute book for Strand Street Unitarian Church, dated 17 November 1850, indicates the influence of other religious denominations on the community at the time, noting ‘The Catholic priest commands the parents to remove their child from a Protestant school...many of the elder girls have been taken away during the past year’ (RIA/DUC/STR/5). A letter from Most Reverend John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin, to Rev. E. Savell Hicks of St.Stephen’s Green Church, reveals the level of contact between the different religious denominations over a century later. The document, dated 16 February 1964, refers to an invitation to the ordination ceremony of Rev. Kenneth Wright. It states ‘May I ask you to thank for me your Managing Committee and to request them to understand that it is not a ceremony at which I may assist’ (RIA/DUC/STE/21A).

Union of Congregations

The unions of different Unitarian congregations in Dublin at various stages throughout the history of the church can most likely be attributed to the community’s declining numbers and inadequate accommodation. These amalgamations are well documented in the archive, with a reference in the minutes of the Managing Committee of Eustace Street Unitarian congregation, dating 31 July 1866, as follows: ‘That this Congregation is ready to carry out the proposed union with the Stephen’s Green Congregation…And to follow as nearly as possible the [model] adopted on the occasion of the union of the Cook St. and Strand St. Congregations’ (RIA/DUC/EUS/12).

Irish Unitarian Christian Society and Other Bodies

The origins of the Irish Unitarian Christian Society are recorded in three volumes contained in the collection, which include the proceedings at meetings of the Society and a cash book. An entry in a minute book, dated 17 March 1830, refers to the formation of a committee in Dublin consisting of seventeen members, noting ‘That this Meeting, conscientiously believing Unitarianism to be the doctrine of the Gospel, regards the formation of a bond of union among its professors in this country,

as important to the interests of pure Christianity’ (RIA/DUC/IUCS/1). It also refers to the establishment of four district societies in Counties Down and Cork, and its sympathies with Unitarian communities in other parts of the world. An entry in the same minute book, dated 17 April 1837, notes expressions of sympathy with Unitarian Christians of New England on the subject of slavery and commending ‘the efforts made by them to obtain the blessings of freedom for the Negro population of the United States’. Interestingly, towards the rear of one of the volumes, a cash book, there is a list of the names of Jewish children (entries dating between 1916 and 1936) with additional information such as their dates of birth, address and fathers’ occupation. 

Some material also relates to the Southern Association of Ireland, with one cash book recording resolutions relating to the division of the Association into two bodies, one consisting of ministers and lay representatives of Eustace Street and Strand Street in Dublin, Clonmel in Tipperary and Bandon and Prince’s Street in Cork, ‘from henceforth the Southern Association, United Presbytery or Synod of Munster’ and the other consisting of Rev. Samuel Hans Sloane and ministers and elders of Presbyteriancongregations of Waterford, Fethard, Limerick, Fermoy and Summerhill, constituting ‘a separate Ecclesiastical Society or body’ (1 August 1849). This split came about as a result of differing opinions of members of the body on the proceedings of a suit in the Chancery Court in Ireland by Rev. David Wilson and others against Rev. Joseph Hutton and others. A collection of documents relating to the Cork congregation located on Prince’s Street, forms part of the holdings of Cork City and County Archives. It includes vestry minutes, baptism and marriage registers, lists of subscribers and financial records.

Conclusion

The Dublin Unitarian Church Collection provides a fascinating and detailed account of the Unitarian community in Ireland and its development between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. The multifaceted role of the Church as spiritual leader, educator, landlord, philanthropist and employer is revealed in the wide range of documents that make up this important archive. Some of the documents contained in the collection contain sensitive information about persons and families, whose right to privacy must be protected. In order to ensure this, closure periods have been applied to some of the more recent material. For further details please contact the library at the Royal Irish Academy (www.ria.ie).

Further Reading

Armstrong, J., Sermon, discourse on Presbyterianordination, address of the young minister, prayer on ordaining, and charge: delivered by the ministers of Dublin at the ordination of the Rev. James Martineau to the co-pastoral office over the congregation of Eustace-Street, Dublin: with an appendix containing a summary history of the Presbyterianchurches in the city of Dublin. Dublin, 1829.

Ffeary-Smyrl, S; Dictionary of Dublin Dissent –Dublin’s Dissenting Meeting Houses 1660-1920. Dublin, 2009.

Humphreys, P., An Alphabet of Unitarian Thought: Unitarian Church, Dublin. Dublin, 1985.

Kilroy, P; Protestant Dissent and Controversy in Ireland, 1660-1714. Cork, 1994.

Latimer, W.T., History of the Irish Presbyterians. Belfast, 1902.

Wright, G.N., An Historical Guide to Ancient and Modern Dublin. London, 1821.

Wright, K., The Unitarian Congregation in Dublin: a short historical note. Dublin, 1985.

http://www/nspresbyterian.org/pages/history.htm

http://www.unitarianchurchdublin.org/history.htm

Roisin Berry

Share & Follow Us