St Mary’s has functioned as a place of worship for Church of Ireland parishioners in the Crumlin Road area for over 150 years. St Mary’s was one of the last churches built prior to disestablishment (the separation of church and state) in Ireland in 1869. This week’s blog traces the origins of the building and that of the wider Crumlin Road community.
Suburban growth in North Belfast brought about significant church building activity in the area during the 1860s and 1870s. The Church of Ireland, then the established national church, also extended its reach into suburbia. Plans for a new church on the Crumlin Road were drawn up by London-born architect William Slater in 1865-6. Slater was the favoured architect of the Church of Ireland and completed a number of churches across the island. Digitised copies of Slater’s original architectural drawings of St Mary’s are available at: https://archdrawing.ireland.anglican.org/items/browse?tags=Belfast&page=5
St Mary’s foundation stone was laid in October 1865 and the church was consecrated by Rt. Rev. Dr Robert Bent Knox, Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore on 28 November 1868. The church was significantly over budget and cost the Church of Ireland £6,500 – some £4,100 higher than the original estimate. The church forms a cruciform shape and adheres to the Gothic style popular during the Victorian period. The church served an area ‘inhabited mainly by a working-class population’ and was praised as ‘one of the most important parishes in Belfast’ in contemporary newspaper accounts.
Several renovations and enlargements were made to the church during its first thirty years to ensure effective ‘ministering of the spiritual needs of this densely populated district’. St Mary’s 800-person seating capacity made it one of the largest congregations in Belfast. Schoolrooms were constructed in 1883 at a cost of £3,000 which attracted ‘an average daily attendance of 750’ children. A Men’s Institute was added in 1906 for the benefit of ‘young men’ to find a ‘wholesome and an attractive method of spending their spare time in the evenings’.
Within a year of St Mary’s consecration, the Church of Ireland was disestablished as the state church in Ireland. The Act of Union in 1800 united the Church of England and Ireland ‘into one Protestant Episcopal Church’ and cemented the Church of Ireland as the established national church – despite the confessional allegiance of most Irish people to Catholicism. Disestablishment legislation was passed in Westminster by William Gladstone’s Liberal Government and was ‘desired by very few within the Church’. Resentment and fear can be detected in editorial comments in the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette. ‘The Irish Church’, wrote the gazette’s editor in August 1869, ‘has been betrayed by friend and foe alike’ and has ‘lost everything, but her honour’. Disestablishment cut ties between the Church of Ireland and the British Treasury and forced the church to fall back on its own resources.
One of St Mary’s more unusual parishioners was John Graham (1915-1997). Graham, a Divinity student in the 1930s, was ‘studying to become a clergyman’ in the Church of Ireland. He ‘underwent a radical change in vocation’ and became the IRA’s Belfast Commander and Northern Director of Intelligence in the 1940s. Graham was jailed at Crumlin Road between 1942 and 1949 and again during the IRA’s Border Campaign of 1956-62. Graham was a communicant of the Church of Ireland and a member of the select vestry of St Mary’s Church. Whilst in Crumlin Road Jail, Graham was informed about a picture of the Virgin Mary which the new St Mary’s rector had mounted in the porch of the church. Graham was reportedly ‘furious’ and, from his prison cell, ‘attempted to call a meeting of the elders to have Pastor Buchanan (later Archbishop of Dublin) removed because he had erected symbols of “papish idolatry” in the church’.
St Mary’s was badly damaged by Luftwaffe bombs during the Belfast Blitz of April/May 1941. Internal repairs – including the rebuilding of the original 1868 pipe organ – were completed in 1946. The schoolrooms were sold in 1999 and are now occupied by Albertville GP Surgery. St Mary’s celebrated its 150th anniversary in November 2018 with a commemorative service which was attended by over 300 people. The church attracts a strong following of dedicated volunteers and remains active as a place of worship within the Church of Ireland’s Diocese of Connor.
 Belfast News-Letter, 19 October 1906.
 Belfast News-Letter, 12 January 1901.
 Belfast News-Letter, 19 October 1906.
 Brendan Anderson, Joe Cahill: a life in the IRA (Dublin, 2002), p. 40.
 Anderson, Joe Cahill, p. 41.
 Interview with Eddie McConville. Available at GPNB website.