After 40 Years, St Luke's in the Coombe Set to Be Restored

St Luke’s Church in the Coombe hasn’t really been used since it closed to the public in 1975.

The old place of worship – which was built between 1715 and 1716 – suffered a fire in 1986, and that’s the most activity its seen in the last few decades.

But at last week’s South Central Area Committee Meeting, Dublin City Council Heritage Officer Charles Duggan set out a new vision for the Dublin 8 ruin.

The council has plans to fully restore it, and to use the land around the site as a public space.

The Graveyard Aesthetic

The first and foremost thing to deal with will be the graveyard. “Anything we do must mitigate against any damage or interference with burials,” said Duggan.

Dublin City Council is heading up the “graveyard recovery” scheme with a view to creating a new pocket park and landscaping on the site.

In 1994, Dublin City Council purchased the site and the graveyard was split in two by a new road. What is now St Luke’s Avenue cut through the “Northern Graveyard” of the church. What’s left will form the site of the pocket park and features.

A decade later, a conservation plan was published for St Luke’s, which set out prerequisites for any future restoration or recovery of the site. Those include more soil to create a buffer between the graves underground, and the new plants and pathways.

A new boundary wall would run along St Luke’s Avenue with ramped access into the pocket park, a sunken garden with a seating area, and a pergola for small events.

The tender to restore the church building was already awarded back in 2006 to the St Luke’s Partnership, a team made up of Derek Tynan Architects and Carrig Conservation.

The proposal is essentially to insert a new building into the restored ruins of the church, to mix old and new.

Artist’s rendering of the restored church, and park. Courtesy of Dublin City Council

“Structurally, it was a single storey with a roof on top and then underneath the ground floor there is a series of crypts,” says architect Derek Tynan. “Those crypts don’t have much load-bearing capacity. The walls, though, are quite strong.”

It’s taken a while to get to this point, but they plan to start work really soon – on 3 October, in fact. “We didn’t think it would take this long to come to fruition,” says Tynan. “In our books it’s number 06/03, so it’s the third job of 2006.”

Two new floors are to be suspended from a new zinc roof, and affixed to the walls, and the new space will be occupied by offices.

“It doesn’t put any weight on the floor,” says Tynan. “From an architectural point of view … there’s a very clear differentiation between what’s original and the 2016 church, the new church structure.”

Scratch the Surface

“This is one very overpopulated graveyard,” said Duggan, the heritage officer, at last week’s meeting. “It is a case of scratching the surface and you’ll find burials.”

There were 109 burials discovered on the site, dating back to before 1840, according to the 2004 conservation plan for St Luke’s Church.

All were in shallow graves: 100 millimetres below ground level. An infant in a tin box was just 60 millimetres below ground, interred as late as the 1940s.

It will be up to Dublin City Council and the landscape architects to balance the recovery of the north and south graveyards with the provision of the new public park.

In addition to the green area and public seating, new trees are to be planted. There is to be a play area added to the site too, with access from the adjacent St Brigid’s Primary School.

Scattered

When the Church of Ireland merged some of its smaller churches in 1975, St Luke’s closed to the public. 

Some of the ornamentation that used to be in St Luke’s was spread out across several churches in the area. Its bells now hang in the nearby St Patrick’s Cathedral.

The original stained glass from the chancel hangs in the YMCA on Aungier Street. (In 2004, artist John Byrne photographed the chancel for the backdrop of his Millennium Walk mural, Dublin’s Last Supper.)

It’s hoped that the stained glass from the chancel will be restored once the project is complete, Duggan said at the council meeting.

The vestry table and chairs, dating to 1716, now sit in St Catherine’s on Donore Avenue, out of which Canon Mark Gardner now works.

“I’m very glad that the plan is to be implemented after a long delay,” says Gardner. “The church was destroyed by vandals.”

Public or Private

While city councillors at last week’s meeting broadly welcomed the proposal, given the prevalence of derelict and vacant sites around the Cork Street area, some had concerns about public access to the restored church.

It was open to public for 260 years. Once it becomes office space, it would be shut off.

“A church is built as a public building,” said Independents4Change Councillor Pat Dunne. “Offices by the their nature are private, and you’ll only have the privileged few who’ll be working there to see what that interior would look like.”

Independent Councillor Vincent Jackson said that while the recovered graveyard and restored church grounds should offer the public a new pocket park and other amenities, St Luke’s should at least be open on Culture Night each year.

Duggan agreed. “Culture Night is an absolute must,” he said. “But there’s plenty of opportunity for arranging access, particularly for local heritage groups and local study groups, and even [St. Brigid’s] as well.”

The restoration of St Luke’s is due to start on Monday 3 October, and the St Luke’s Partnership estimates that works will take 52 weeks. The graveyard recovery will be done in three stages, and will begin in late January or early February 2017.

At the moment, the whole project is scheduled to be completed by October 2017.

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Cónal Thomas: is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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