The parish of St. Stephen was carved from the large medieval parish of St. Peter’s. It derived its name from the medieval leper hospital of St. Stephen, which stood on the site of Mercer’s Hospital. With the rapid expansion of the city Suburbs in the 18th century, it became necessary to build new churches to accommodate the expanding population.
St. Stephen’s Church was the last of a distinguished series of Georgian churches built by the Church of Ireland. These new suburbs were built on the estates of families that are now commemorated in the names of the streets and squares of Dublin – names like Gardener (Mountjoy), Dawson, Molesworth, and Pembroke (Herbert). It was on the land of the Pembroke estate – the medieval manor of Merrion – that St. Stephen’s church was built (on ground donated by the family). The Pembroke pew is still identifiable.
The estate was originally owned by the Fitzwilliam family, but as a consequence of marriage Viscount Fitzwilliam bequeathed the manor of Merrion to his cousin, the earl of Pembroke (a member of the Herbert family) in 1816. All these names are reflected in the streets and squares in the vicinity of the church. Two other street names have a curious origin. The name of Mount Street is thought to have been derived from a mound which once stood at the corner of Fitzwilliam and Baggot Street, where a gallows was erected for the execution of criminals. The name Baggot comes from the medieval Manor of Baggotrath, owned by the Bagods.
The church was consecrated by Archbishop Magee on 5 December 1824 as a chapel-of-ease to St. Peter’s. It was designed by John Bowden and Completed after his death by Joseph Welland. In its original form the church was rectangular: the Victorian apse, which clearly owes its inspiration to the Oxford Movement, was added in 1852 (you can still see the tell-tale line of the extension in the external masonary).
The glory of the church’s architecture consists of its careful integrationn with the streetscape. The concentration on the western facade is quite deliberate, because it was intended to close off a perfectly planned perspective extending all by the way to the Government Buildings. By contrast, the rest of the church externally is quite plain. The tower and portico were consciously modelled on three elegant Athenian monuments, reflecting the shift from Roman to Greek influences in the later Georgian period: the portico (The Erechtheum), the campanile (“The Tower of the Winds”), and the cupola (Monument of Lysicrates).
The Erechtheum (so called after Erechtheus, a mythical king of Athens) is situated on the acropolis and is deemed to have been one of the most perfect examples of the Attic-Ionic style. It was built by Pericles, but was still not complete in 409 B.C.
Tower of the Winds was an octagonal marble tower designed in 159 B.C. by the Athenian astronomer Andronicus. It was an ingenious device which indicated wind-direction, acted as asundial, and contained a water-clock for use when the sun was not shinning.
The monument of Lysicrates, on which the cupola is modelled, has inspired the nickname “Pepper Canister” by which St. Stephen’s Church is familiarly known to generations of Dubliners. This distinctive feature has a curious history. The monument was erected in 334 B.C. inhonour of the victory won in a dramatic contest by the Athenian choragus Lysicrates (a choragus wealthy patron of the arts who directed the chorus in the Athenian theatre). In the early nineteenth century it stood in the garden of a Franciscan friary in Athens, used by the friars as a summer house. Perhaps its most famous occupant was Byron, who used it as a study. It seems he scratched his name on a marble panel, which was still legible in 1850 (F-M. Tsigakou, The rediscovery of Greece  )
A feature of Georgian churches was their brightness, which was enhanced by the use of plain glass windows. Too often this effect was destroyed in the Victorian period by an over-zealous use of stained glass, frequently of indifferent quality. St. Stephen’s is doubly fortunate in that it retains a sufficient amount of plain glass to make it bright and cheerful, while the stained glass is generally of good quality. (The church is equally fortunate in not being crowded by ugly memorials). While many of the windows are worthy of inspection, you should note the central window in the apse, which depicts the martyrdom, of St. Stephen.
Of particular note is the organ casing (facing westwards on the north aisle). It was built in 1754 by John Snetzler, born in Passau c.1710. It is said that Handel was included in his circle of friends. The casework was designed for the Rotunda chapel, but was never erected there. It is thought to have been the property of Lord Mornington, father of the duke of Wellington, who lived in the parish. Examples of Snetzler’s magnificent workmanship can be seen in Lynn Regis, Norfolk (1754) and St. Martin’s, Leicester (1774).
The Pulpit and Prayer Desk
The magnificient pulpit with canopy is made of Italian rosewood. Its panels bear the symbols of the four evangelists: a man (St. Matthew), a lion (St. Mark), an ox (St. Luke), and an eagle (St. John). The prayer desk in Italian walnut comes from Siena, and on it are inscribed the words Siena 1891 S.Cambi fecit (S.Cambi made it).
The Altar Frontals
These are reckoned to be among the most beautiful in the Church of Ireland. We do not know who made them, or even who donated them.
Historical Parish Figures
- Sir Charles Villers Standford (1852-1924): distinguished composer, conductor and teacher of music, born at 2 Herbert Street. He began his musical education in St. Stephen’s Church. In 1883 he was appointed professor of composition and orchestral playing at Royal College of Music, London and proffer of music at Cambridge in 1887. Stanford was certainly the most versatile British composer in the latter half of the nineteenth century (Dictionary of National Biography). Among his many distinguished pupils were Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Arthur Bliss and Herbert Howells.
- Oscar Wilde (1856-1900): poet, dramatist and wit. Oscar spent most of his boyhood years in 1 Merrion Square.
- Joseph Sheridan le Fanu (1814-73): Irish novelist, an Internationally acknowleged master of the ghost story genre. Lived at 70 Merrion Square and 15 Warrington Place. Interestingly, two of his poems were set to music by his neighbour and fellow parishioner, Stanford.
- Hon. Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (1769-1852): victor of the battle of Waterloo. He was probably born at the home of his father, the Earl of Mornington, at 24 Merrion Square.
- William Butler Yeats (1865-1939): poet, playwright and senator. He lived at 82 Merrion Square between 1922 and 1928. The funeral of his brother Jack Yeats the great artist took place in this church on 30 March 1957.
- Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973): novelist. Lived at 15 Herbert Place, the family’s town house. In her novel Seven Winters she described her childhood days.
- Thomas Davis (1814-45): poet. He died at his mother’s house in 67 Lower Baggot St., and no doubt worshipped in this church. He is regarded as the father of romantic nationalism and strove to provide a common sense of nationality Irishmen of all creeds.
- Catherine McAuley (d. 1841): Founderess of the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, the largest congregation ever established by an English-speaking foundress. The Sisters of Mercy served the needs of immigrants in Britain, Newfoundland, America, Australia, New Zeland and Argentina. Catherine built the original House of Mercy, which stands about 250 metres from this church on the corner of Herbert Street and Baggot Stree. This building was magnificently restored in 1994 and serves as the Mercy International Centre. Catherine’s sister and her husband are buried in St. Mark’s Church, Pearse Street. The parish of St. Mark is today part of the parochial group which includes this church (St. Ann’s with St. Mark and St. Stephen’s). Catherine, whose image is printed on the old Irish 5 pound note, is buried in the grounds of the Mercy International Centre, which is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10:30a.m. to 2:30p.m. Guided tours are also available at fixed times. A visit is certainly to be reccomended.