St Malachy’s Church – “Strangers will look with admiration”

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Background to Saint Malachy’s Church in Belfast

The Altar and Felix Piccione paintings
The Altar and Felix Piccione paintings

By the end of the eighteenth century the majority of the Penal laws had been repealed. With restrictions on Catholics living in towns eased, many people moved to Belfast because of the employment opportunities on offer. The two existing Catholic Churches could no longer support their expanding congregations. In the 1830’s the Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr Cornelius Denvir, began the process of looking for a suitable site for a third Catholic Church in the town.

Land Acquired

In 1839 a Presbyterian linen merchant, Mr Adam McClean, agreed to lease a parcel of land for the construction of a Catholic Church. McClean had secured these lands with a covenant for perpetual renewal from Lord Donegall in 1826.

The agreement was signed on 1st May 1839 in the name of Mr Hugh Magill as a trustee for the Church. Mr Magill, a linen trader, had been a close friend of the pioneering priest Fr Hugh O’Donnell.

Fr O’Donnell had previously secured the land and oversaw the building of Belfast’s first Catholic Church, St Mary’s Church on Chapel Lane (1784) and St Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street (1815).

The Location of the Planned Church

The land rented was to the rear of Donegall Square South near the White Linen Hall (now replaced the City Hall). The area was close to the floodplain of the Blackstaff River.

Over the centuries the district had been denuded of its natural woodland. In the sixteenth century the Earl of Essex had destroyed much of the forest there in an attempt to force the native Irish population to leave the district – “cutteth down wood guyetly, to the discouragement of the Irish”.


With growing industrialisation in the town and the use of the Blackstaff for powering factories, further deforestation occurred. With no trees to absorb the rain the water ran downhill into the river and its tributaries which subsequently overflowed.

“Serious flooding also occurred in 1868 and 1869. These events were the direct result of two centuries of exploitation of the natural forest of the lower Lagan valley and surrounding hillslopes. Early maps reveal the existence of extensive oak forests. Over time these were gradually cut down for all sorts of uses by local landlords, merchants and tenant farmers”

Des O’Reilly Rivers of Belfast 2010

The land acquired for the proposed Church came in three plots- two on lease and one section was donated by Mr McClean. The area was known as McClean’s Fields.

“It is well worth mentioning a topographical fact, though similar ones could be mentioned of all the swelling suburbs of the town, that not many years ago there was a large field immediately behind the Linen Hall, spreading in an unbroken expanse to the edge of the Blackstaff. This was called McClean’s field or fields….”

George Benn, A History of the Town of Belfast, 1880
St Malachy's - Belfast Street Directory 1861
St Malachy’s – Belfast Street Directory 1861

Adam McClean

Business Interests

Adam McClean was a prominent merchant in Belfast with his main premises in High Street. With his brothers Samuel and Andrew, he had a wine and spirit business in Sugarhouse Entry around 1800.

He also had a successful linen drapery business and in 1831 was appointed a committee member of the White Linen Hall.

In 1808 Mr McClean built a terrace of nine houses on Donegall Square South. He also designed a block of houses at 19-23 Franklin Street (1835) and three four-storey houses 7-11 Wellington Place (c1830).

Family Background

Adam McClean was born c1765, one of four sons. His father Robert was an inn-keeper near Shane’s Castle in County Antrim.

Adam was educated at a local establishment run by Mr Henry Mulholland. The Mulholland’s were descendants of local chieftains. The Mulholland family had been entrusted with the preservation of an ancient relic – the Bell of St Patrick, Clogan an Edachta. It is said that pupil and teacher had such a bond, that on his passing Henry Mulholland bequeathed the bell to Adam McClean.

“The ancestors of Henry Mulholland were the hereditary keepers of these relics, and are frequently mentioned in our annals”

Rev James O’Laverty An Historical Account of the Diocese of Down and Connor 1880

At his own death McClean passed the bell on to his son Adam, who sold it for £150 to Dr Todd the author of ‘Life of St Patrick’.

The plain metal bell was enclosed in a highly decorated shrine made in 1100. The bronze shrine was originally covered with thirty gold filigree panels engraved with animal shapes and Christian motifs. The precious artefact now resides in The National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

Adam McClean died on 14th August 1849 aged 83 years. He is interred in the New Burying Ground at Clifton Street, Belfast.

Saint Malachy's Frontage
Saint Malachy’s Frontage

Construction of St Malacy’s Church

The competition to design the church was won by Thomas Jackson of Waterford. The builders were Messrs Ross and Campbell. The interior was completed by Mr Peter Lundy. Originally St Malachy’s was planned as the Catholic Cathedral of Belfast, but finances curtailed these aspirations. With the onset of the Famine money was needed to feed the starving.

Tender notice for St Malachy's
Tender notice for St Malachy’s

The proposed design was lauded.

Plans for St Malachy's Church
Plans for St Malachy’s Church

On 3rd November 1841, the feast of St Malachy, the foundation stone for the new Church was laid. (St Malachy was the first Irish-born saint to be officially canonised).

St Malachy Report Newsletter 5th Nov 1841
St Malachy Report from Belfast Newsletter 5th Nov 1841

A procession from St Mary’s starting at 2:00pm led by the Bishop and a number of gentlemen passed through the town to the site. Here Dr Denvir preached to the assembled crowd from Psalm 178 v7-10.

Description of Saint Malachy’s

St Malachy’s has been described as the finest Tudor Revival Church in Ireland. It really needs to be seen to be appreciated. The building is cruciform in shape 113ft long, 52ft wide and 40ft high. The fan vaulted ceiling is covered in a decorative white stucco pattern with circular descending features.

“The interior finish and decoration of the church also corresponds with the style of the Tudor period. The ceiling is elaborately executed in stucco and its pendants are really magnificent; it somewhat resembles the ceiling of Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster, and adds to Belfast one more curiosity which strangers will look at with admiration”

James Adair Pilson, History of the Rise and Progress of Belfast, 1846
Stucco Ceiling and Pendants
Stucco Ceiling and Pendants

The floor of the Church is composed of mosaics with blue the main colour. Before the altar is a depiction of a pelican, a Christian symbol of sacrifice (the pelican was said to pierce its breast to feed its young with its own blood).

Lectern and Floor Decoration
Lectern and Floor Decoration
St Malachy's Pulpit
St Malachy’s Pulpit

The original High Altar, ornate pulpit and altar rails were made of polished Irish oak but these were replaced with marble in 1926. The canopy over the pulpit is original. There are two side altars one dedicated to St Joseph and one to Our Lady. A double oak staircase leads to a gallery composed of six tiers of seats.

St Malachy's Ceiling & Gallery Seating
St Malachy’s Ceiling & Gallery Seating
St Joseph - side altar
St Joseph – side altar
Our Lady = side altar
Our Lady = side altar

The outside of the building resembles a medieval castle. This led to some referring to it as ‘The Citadel of the Faith’. It is composed of hand-made red brick with stone castellations, octagonal towers and pinnacles. The wooden panelled door is studded and topped with armorial shields. When originally constructed the Blackstaff River ran alongside the gable wall.

St Malachy's Front Elevation
St Malachy’s Front Elevation
Saint Malachy's Door
Saint Malachy’s Door

Saint Malachy’s Architect

The architect Thomas Jackson was born in 1807 into a Quaker family. After training he worked for the firm of Thomas Duff in Newry. Subsequently he became head of their Belfast branch.

In 1835 he started his own architectural business at 16 Donegall Place, and was later joined by his two sons Anthony and William.

Thomas Jackson also designed

  • the old Museum building for the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society
  • Arnott’s warehouse and
  • the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children in Queens Street. (This building later became a police barracks, although now derelict the fine façade can still be seen).
Saint Malachy's Exterior Street View
Saint Malachy’s Exterior Street View

Saint Malachy’s Church Opening

The Opening Ceremony

St Malachy’s Church was officially opened on 15th December 1844 by Dr William Crolly, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. The High Mass was chanted by Dr Denvir and the sermon was given by Dr Kennedy, bishop of Killaloe. Dr Laffin of Dublin acted as Deacon, with Fr McGarry as Sub-Deacon. Dr Cahill of Blackrock preached at the evening ceremony. The collection at the ceremony amassed £900.

The Church cost £6,000 to construct. A very generous bequest of £3,000 by Captain Thomas Griffith greatly helped offset the debt. A dove-marble plaque resting on two carved angels was erected to his memory.

When St Malachy’s Church first opened it was in the charge of St Mary’s, Catholic Belfast’s mother church. The parish itself was only formed in 1866 with Fr Geoffrey Brennan appointed as administrator. The presbytery was constructed in 1869 by O’Neill & Byrne. The first parish priest was Fr Daniel McCashin, he served as administrator from 1889-1909 and parish priest from 1909-1919.

Tablet Commemorating Saint Malachy's Church Opening
Tablet Commemorating Saint Malachy’s Church Opening

Early Controversy

One unfortunate incident of note was the condemnation of Mr John Clarke in some of the local newspapers. Mr Clarke, the Mayor of Belfast and therefore a Protestant, attended the opening ceremony. He also acted as one of the Collectors and gave a donation of £10.

This earned him the approbation of some of his colleagues, he was denounced “as an open promoter of Popery, that deadly enemy of all civil and religious liberty” (Banner of Ulster).

The Northern Whig, among others, disagreed and commended Clarke’s actions.

St Malachy's Northern Whig 19th Dec 1844
St Malachy’s Northern Whig 19th Dec 1844
Northern Whig Report 19th Dec 1844 - St Malachy's
Northern Whig Report 19th Dec 1844 – St Malachy’s

Thie attacks on those attending the opening of the church contrast greatly with the spirit of religious freedom and tolerance witnessed at the opening of St Mary’s Church in Belfast 60 years earlier.

St Mary’s Church opening in 1784 had been greeted much more enthusiastically:

“The Roman Catholic congregation of Belfast return their grateful acknowledgments to the Belfast 1st Volunteer Company, and to the inhabitants at large, for so generously enabling them to erect a handsome edifice for their celebration of divine worship. They know not in what adequate terms to express their feelings, excited by the attendance of so respectable a Protestant audience on Sunday last, at the opening of the House; the impression of which mark of regard is never to be effaced”

Rev Hugh O’Donnell 1784

“This remarkable demonstration of the Belfast Protestants was an indication of their feeling towards the Catholic community, and was evidence of their desire to see the Irish Catholics restored to the freedom of religious observance, and restored to the freedom of political emancipation”

Samuel Simms The Rev Hugh O’Donnell and his Times 1930

Saint Malachy’s Bell

In 1845 the bell of St Malachy’s was accidentally cracked. The replacement bell and belfry were blessed by Dr Dorrian in 1868. This is the largest church bell in Belfast.

Soon, however, complaints were received from the nearby Dunville Distillery. Apparently, the reverberations from the tolling bell upset the distilling process of this famous Belfast whiskey. Hence the grand bell was wrapped in felt to muffle the sound.

The felt has long since disintegrated and the brewery too is gone so St Malachy’s bell now rings freely again.

Further Artistic Works within Saint Malachy’s

The Work of Padric Gregory

In 1926 the eastern wall of the Church was decorated with ‘perpendicular tracery’. This is reputed to be the work of Padric Gregory, a Belfast architect and Irish Revivalist poet. His firm Gregory and Hall founded in 1906 designed St Colmkille’s Church on the Upper Newtownards Road. Also, the Chapel for the Dominican Convent on the Falls Road and the ‘Little Flower’ Church on the Somerton Road. Among his literary works are The Ulster Folk (1912), Love Sonnets (1914) and the Coming of the Magi (1932).

Padric Gregory
Padric Gregory

Felix Piccione & ‘Little Italy’

Also within St Malachy’s Church are three painting by the Austro-Italian artist Felix Piccione. These are – Our Lord falling under the weight of the Cross, St Malachy and Our Lady. The Piccione family lived in this area close to the docks. By 1877 Felix was an established artist with a studio at 22 Castle Place.

In the 1860’s many Italian families fleeing the turmoil and persecution of Garibaldi’s forces, settled in Belfast. The district around Frederick Street, York Street and Great Patrick Street became known as “Little Italy”.

“But what will interest most the Catholic worshippers of St Malachy’s Church today is the fact that the magnificent altar-piece depicting the Assumption of Our Blessed Lady, which is placed above the High Altar, as well as two splendid paintings that decorate the side altars, are the work of Felix Piccione, the Italian refugee, who once lived at 71 Corporation Street”

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out 1946
St Malachy's Church Interior
St Malachy’s Church Interior
Felix Piccione Painting
Felix Piccione Painting

The Church is also home to a 150 year old organ made by the Telford family of Dublin.

The Ragged Saint

In addition there are statues of the Sacred Heart, St Francis of Assisi, St Anthony of Padua, St Therese of Lisieux, St Philomena and St Benedict Labre.

This last statue has a particular significance to the people of the parish. St Benedict, although born into a well-off French family, lived a life of poverty among the destitute. He is the patron saint of beggars, and those rejected by society due to homelessness or mental illness. Throughout Ireland St Benedict Labre is known as the ‘ragged saint’.

For many years unemployed locals would visit the Church and light a candle before his statue to ask for his intercession in finding them work before attending the nearby dole office. In a working-class district where financial hardship was commonplace, St Malachy’s and St Benedict provided hope and solace for the poor.

Word War 2 Damage

During WW2, due to its city centre location, St Malachy’s Church was damaged in bombing raids. The windows and oak frames were destroyed when bombs fell on the nearby gasworks on the Ormeau Road. The frames were replaced with concrete as wood was scarce at the time. This unfortunately caused long-term problems with the structure of the building.

Saint Malachy’s Today

In the twenty-first century the Church underwent extensive restoration, reopening in 2009.

The Grade A listed building is really stunning both inside and out. A few minutes walk from the bustling heart of Belfast city centre, it provides an oasis of calm and serenity. The design and beauty of this urban church really does lift the soul.

Saint Malachy's Frontage
Saint Malachy’s Frontage


St Malachy's Pulpit
St Malachy’s Pulpit
Saint Malachy's Doorway
Saint Malachy’s Doorway
Saint Malachy's
Saint Malachy’s
Saint Malachy's Front Windows
Saint Malachy’s Front Windows
Baptismal Font
Baptismal Font
Interior View
Interior View
Stucco Ceiling and Pendants
Stucco Ceiling and Pendants
Floor Decoration
Floor Decoration

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Joan Halpin Kaneshiro · 26 March 2022 at 12:44 am

I LOVE your website and FB page and just discovered both of them today 25 Mar 2022. I am an American with solid Irish roots in Belfast (maternal) and Blackrock (paternal). Belfast is of great interest to me as my grandfather Louis Emmanuel Carney was born there as were most of his siblings with the exception of two. His sister was Winifred Carney of the Rising of 1916. Thank you for taking the time to put such gorgeous photographs and wonderful stories together for all of us. I have subscribed to your website posts and FB page as well (I don’t know if they’re one and the same). Joan

    P&P · 27 March 2022 at 12:05 pm

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