Pat Sweeney, former President of the Maritime Institute of Ireland

Looking from the lighthouse at the end of the East Pier in Dún Laoghaire landward, the town skyline is dominated by two church spires. On the right is St Michaels and on the left is that of the former Church of Ireland place of worship erected in 1837 to serve the needs of the maritime community, especially the crews of ships in the harbour, known locally as ‘the Mariners.

Mariner's Church, Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin. Photo Eogan Ganley

The Mariners’ Church, Dún Laoghaire                                                                                                                      Photo Eoghan Ganley

An 1835 document speaks of ‘the want of an Episcopal Church contiguous to the Harbour in Kingstown, for the benefit of the sailors in men-of-war, merchant ships, fishing boats and yachts frequenting it.’ The church opened in 1837 and the Deed of Trust laid down that one-third of the seating be reserved for seafarers; the rector was provided with a boat and crew by the harbour master so that he could visit vessels at anchor.

 At that time, a Royal Navy vessel was permanently anchored in the ‘bight’ (or bend) of the East Pier as a guard ship as Kingstown was a State harbour and the Irish end of the Royal Mail route from London via Holyhead. The names of such vessels as HMS AJAX, ROYAL GEORGE and MELAMPHUS were well known.

Indeed, two prisoners’ docks were provided at the back of the gallery to cater for the spiritual needs of ‘men under punishment’ from HM ships who were taken under escort to attend Sunday Service. The docks still exist in the church today.

Royal visit

It is said that during the Royal visit in 1849 by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, the royal personage reputedly asked: “What is that barn of a building?,” referring to the Mariners. If not from shame perhaps, then ‘taste’ provoked the trustees and clergy in 1862 to offer a premium for the best design for improving the west front of the Mariners. This resulted in the building of the present spire, which is free standing, constructed separately from the main building.

Today, it is the maritime museum and headquarters of the Maritime Institute of Ireland, who have occupied the premises since 1975 and recently purchased the building from the Representative Church Body of the Church of Ireland.

Maritime Institute of Ireland

The MII came into existence at the height of the Second World War or the ‘Emergency’ in neutral Ireland. It was established on October 31, 1941, by Col. Tony Lawlor who was one of the founding soldiers of the modern Irish State. Then the commanding officer of the Coast & Marine Watching Service, he involved leading figures in the business, commercial and maritime life of the capital to become founding members.

The aim of the new organization was to foster and create interest among the people of Ireland in the sea, shipping, naval defence, fishing and ports through publications, lectures, talks and exhibitions. The Institute first came to Dún Laoghaire in 1959 when it obtained a lease of the former British Sailors reading room on St Michael’s Warf from the Office of Public Works. This small building became Ireland’s first maritime museum and Institute headquarters.

In 1965 the building had to be handed back because of development of the new ferry terminal. During the six years, a library was established, models were put on exhibition together with talks and lectures. All these artifacts were dispersed to member’s houses when the building closed.

In 1971 the congregation of the Mariners had dwindled to a handful and the church was closed. The Rector, Rev. F.W. Armstrong approached the Institute with the suggestion that his church would be ideal for a maritime museum. Col. Tony Lawlor, then retired, formed the ‘Friends of the Maritime Institute’ and approached the business community to assist the project.

In 1974 an agreement was drawn up with the Representative Church Body of the Church of Ireland to lease the building for 99 years for a payment of £15,000, with the remaining £5,000 to be used for expenses incurred with the take-over.

Following the removal of pews and church furniture, the building was partly opened as a museum. Further work was carried out with the installation of the old six million-candle power optic from the Bailey Lighthouse erected by Irish Lights staff in their spare time. Also, the 39ft Bantry longboat captured from the 1796 invasion fleet of General Hoche was acquired on loan from the National Museum of Ireland. In 1978, Dr Patrick Hillery, President of Ireland, officially opened the building.

Over the following years, efforts to raise funds continued and donations of £5,000 were received from British Rail and the Insurance Corporation of Ireland, together with smaller sums from such sources as the Dublin Port & Docks Board and Dun Laoghaire Corporation. In 2001, a grant of £1m was made by the State towards the refurbishment of the building, and in 2006 a further grant of €1.5m was received from the State for further remedial.

Late in 2006, the Maritime Institute purchased the building from the Representative Church Body.