St. Palladius, a forerunner of St. Patrick, introduced Christianity to the Dunlavin region in the fifth century. Dunlavin village is located between the sites of two Palladian churches, Cillín Cormac and Church Mountain, but the village only dates from the seventeenth century. Apart from some Medieval sources, the first definite reference to the presence of a priest in the region is dated 1692, when the fugitive Fr. Laurence O’Toole of the Glen of Imaal hid his vestments and altar vessels because of the new Penal Laws. Of twenty-two Catholic priests recorded in County Wicklow in 1697, two of them, Fr. Patrick Haggan and Fr Brian, were based in Dunlavin, suggesting that the Catholic population was quite large. At that time, Fr. Haggan was reported to be ‘living commonly at [the house of] one Eustace of Calverstown’.
As the Penal Laws began to bite, the number of priests in County Wicklow declined. In 1704, following the passage of the Registration of the Clergy Act, only thirteen priests registered in Wicklow, but Dunlavin retained two-priests, Frs. Patrick Haggan and Patrick Kernan, in the parish. Active, if sporadic, persecution of Catholic clergy continued until about 1730, and in 1731 the Report on the State of Popery recorded that there was no functional chapel in Dunlavin, suggesting that the Catholic place of worship had fallen into disuse. Catholic worship was revived in Dunlavin later in the eighteenth century however. A chalice dated 1771 and inscribed ‘Revd. Patk. O’Quin, Parochi Dunlavin’ may indicate that he was the first parish priest to serve in Dunlavin’s reopened chapel. Fr. Patrick Doyle was parish priest in 1782, and Fr. Richard Murphy served from 1789 until his death in 1801. He was the parish priest during the 1798 rebellion, when thirty-five men were executed outside the church. A commemorative plaque to this ‘Dunlavin massacre’ was erected in the church in 1998.
Memorial of the 1798 executions
The early nineteenth century saw a relaxation of the Penal Laws, followed by Catholic emancipation in 1829. In Dunlavin these improving relations prompted the local Tynte landlord family to donate the site of the pre-existing Catholic place of worship to the Catholic parish in 1815. The inception of a new parish register in October 1815 suggests a new beginning, and by 1837 the chapel on the site was described as a ‘neat cruciform edifice’.
In 1827 Fr. John Hyland was appointed parish priest. The nineteenth century witnessed the Devotional Revolution, in which Catholic worship was centralised within the church building, which was imbued with a sense of majesty by adding new statues and furniture. Nurturing piety was also important. In 1832, there was a 99% compliance rate of communicants doing their Easter duty among Dunlavin’s congregation.
Fr. Hyland died in 1862 and his successor was local man, Fr. James Whittle, who continued to implement the Devotional Revolution. He purchased the Stations of the Cross and oversaw the building of the coach house behind St. Nicholas of Myra church before his death in 1884. His successor, Fr. Frederick Donovan, served from 1884-1896 and his tenure as parish priest is very well recorded as he kept a diary during his time in the parish. He purchased the statue of St. Joseph and oversaw the construction of the Marian side-altar in memory of Canon Whittle.
However, the church needed more repairs and a major refurbishment and extension went ahead in 1898 under Fr. John Maxwell. The old balcony was dismantled, the nave was extended and the belfry added. As the parish entered the twentieth century, political changes were afoot. The Catholic congregation was divided over the Civil War of 1922-23, but religion was a unifying factor as both the old pro-and anti-treaty factions returned to masses and the celebration of the other sacraments in St. Nicholas of Myra church. A new marble baptistry font was erected near the top of the nave shortly after 1916 by Michael Field of Lemonstown in memory of his brother Patrick, who died in December of that year. Church refurbishment became a constant necessity as the century progressed.
In 1927 parish priest, Fr. Patrick Ryan was raising funds for repairs, noting that ‘the parishioners have done splendidly, but the majority of them are poor, so I am compelled to seek help from outside the parish’. Poverty remained a problem until the later decades of the century, but a series of stopgap repairs were carried out from the 1920s to the 1960s.
The year 1954 was dedicated to Our Lady and, outside the church, Fr. Michael Kinnane had a grotto constructed on the site of the old schoolhouse, which had been demolished when the new school opened in 1952.
The Tuesday night St. Jude Novena mass was instituted by Fr. Brian Byrne in the 1970s, and in the wake of Vatican II, a new altar facing the congregation was erected in place of the more ornate older one.
A new presbytery replaced the parochial house in the 1980s. Despite ongoing stopgap repairs, major refurbishment was needed in the 1990s, and it was decided to rearrange the church grounds and to convert the derelict coach house behind the church into a parish centre. Church repairs were completed in 1999 and by 2003 the parish centre had taken shape.
Shortly after the appointment of Fr. Douglas Malone to the parish in 2009, dry rot was discovered in the church. The building had to be vacated for major repairs. Thanks to the local Church of Ireland community, all Catholic masses were held in their Church of St. Nicholas until the Catholic church was handed back on 30 April 2014. Today, Dunlavin’s priest and parishioners, now including the finance committee and pastoral council, can be proud of the church as they face the challenges of the future with confidence and trust in God.
Credit: Thanks to Chris Lawlor for providing text and photos for this page.