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An In-spiring Distillery!


For years looking up at St James’ Church of Ireland left one feeling something was just not quite right.  Firstly, it was no longer used as a church or even commonly called St James’ Church but rather as ‘Lighting World’.  In fact, if you were to enquire of Saint James, you were likely to be directed to its Catholic name sake across the street.  However, ask for a 40 watt bulb or lamp shade and Lighting World was your man.

This in itself was not that unusual.  Dublin city is dotted with de-consecrated churches that serve as bars and businesses, a hallmark of the declining power of religion.  But what was really odd thing about the church was what it was missing a spire.   This has always made for a strange sight, like a body without a head or a gentleman who’d lost his hat.  In the case of Catholic churches, there’s certainly a number who don’t possess a spire – many were constructed during the Famine years and inevitably the available lack of labourers decreased significantly.

However, the story of Saint James’ Church of Ireland, how it came to lose its top and it’s place in local history takes us right back through time to the middle ages.

The first references to the church dates from the early 1200s but the Normans often built chapels on revered sights so it is possible that an earlier pagan sight of worship once stood in its place. Certainly some very unchristian practices carried on around the church, such as commemorating those buried in the church graveyard by decorating their graves with, “Garlands and ornaments made of white paper, disposed into fanciful forms” and carrying a coffin three times around the adjacent Fountain before interment – a tradition that persisted into recent times.  Some people might feel these were unorthodox customs of pious Christians.

The church was dedicated to the apostle St James the patron saint of Spain whose remains are traditionally believed to be buried in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.  The great spiritual journey to Santiago, The Camino or James’s Way was, together with Rome and Jerusalem, one of the three great medieval pilgrimages.  For many that journey started at St. James’ Church of Ireland.  Lying close to two of the original ancient highways of Ireland – An Tsliege Dala (the road to Limerick) and Sliege Mhor (Galway), the site made it an ideal place for Pilgrims to gather before setting out on their outbound Journey. To use an analogy, the church was almost the Red Cow Inn of its day, marking the point where the country ends and the city begins and excavations of pilgrim hostels show a bustling trade in passing custom. It must surely have been a sight of high emotion, many pilgrims would never have wondered more than a few miles from their birth place and for most it appears to have been a one way trip taken in the later years of life. They were leaving forever.

The other thing that put the church on the map was the, by all accounts, frequently riotous Saint James fair. Its first reference comes by way of the writer Richard Stanihurst in his ‘descriptions of Ireland’ in 1577, but various pagan customs such as the aforementioned decoration of tombstones point to a much older history.

The fair ran for six days in Mid June and was so lucrative it drew merchants from England, France and Flanders. Much to the frustration of local traders these merchants flogged their wares at ‘dogcheap’ prices and this competition ultimately led to the fair being scaled down.

The Dublin City Corporation finally put a stop to the fair in 1738 noting in their records that it had recently been “attended with tumults and riots and sometimes with murder”. Despite this it appears to have carried on as an underground event and may have lasted as long as the 1790’s.

Writing of his childhood in 1820 Walter Thomas Meyler wrote “ St James Fair,  with its range of stands covered with baskets of cherries, gooseberries, its gingerbread, toys, tin whistles, drums, tops, horses and whips….formed my gala day of the year, and securely did I hoard my halfpennies for the occasion”.


It’s clear that the fair was one of the major events on the city calendar but was its riotous nature talked up as an excuse for bigger commercial interests to close it down and kill the competition off? It certainly would not be the last time for this to happen. Today the St Stephens Green shopping centre sits on top of the old Dandelion market. The market grew up in the seventies offering street fashions, music and various odds and ends not available on the city’s high street. Its freewheeling and somewhat anarchic nature was eventually turned back on itself, presented as law and order issue and used to speed up its demise.  Ultimately, it’s unlikely the Dandelion would have survived as it sat on land earmarked for development, but the underlying story remains the same with big money power trumping street level merchants, then as now.

Over the centuries the church was has changed religion, collapsed, been rebuilt and restored. The present building dates from approximately 1860 and in early photographs it features a towering spire that was to cut into the skyline above Thomas Street for the bones of a century.

Ultimately the spire’s over confident height proved to be its downfall.  Canon John Crawford, vicar of St James’ Church from 1889 to 1923, later noted that the spire presented towering problems. “In 1941, Dublin Corporation’s surveyor of buildings drew attention to its dangerous position.  It was agreed reluctantly in 1948 that thirty feet of spire was to be removed. During the removal of the spire it became clear that it had been struck by lightning some years before. Had the finances been available, a complete rebuilding would have been necessary. As it was, the parish had to borrow £1,353 to have the work completed.”

Spire-less, and with an ever dwindling congregation the church staggered on eventually passing into commercial hands in the early 1960s.  The recent recession suffered by Ireland put paid Lighting World’s commercial dealings leaving the church facing onto daily traffic jams empty and topless.

However, despite these setbacks recent weeks have seen the church turn a corner.  The current scaffolding enveloping the building is part of a €5.7 million conversion into a whiskey distillery by Irish led animal nutrition giant Altech. This development, a few yards from St. James’ Gate, home to Guinness is set to be the most eye catching part of a wave of new whisky distilleries flowing back to the liberties and is also on the ‘Dubline’, a tourist trail stretching from Trinity College to Kilmainham.

It seems the church’s many past lives may have led to its own rebirth. Behind the church and not too evident to a passer-by is a graveyard, which was Dublin’s main cemetery during the 18th and 19th century and which may contain as many as 80,000.  As it turns out one of those reposing there, John Hubert Lyons, lived his life as a distiller and was grandfather to Altech CEO, Pearse Lyons.

Initially Altech planned a craft brewery for the area but Lyons said, “When I saw the church I thought, why not house a distillery instead of a brewery close to Guinness?”  Altech already had matured whisky stills in Carlow but when it came to relocating he thought, “where better to put that than the place my grandfather grew up in, the heart of the liberties which was originally the distillery part of Dublin.”

Pearse Lyons has big plans for St James’ Church. Along with the distillery a visitor centre is set to “tell the story of the liberties, coopers, distillers and entrepreneurship” and in the long term it’s hoped that the new distillery will act as gateway for visitors to the historic cemetery.

glass spire (2)

But looking down on all this, above the future comings and goings, the old church and the very old cemetery will sit the new spire of St. James’ Church, topping off the development and set to become a main focal point throughout the city.  This finishing touch is not just an extra or afterthought but, rather extraordinarily, will almost be entirely constructed with glass.  When it’s finally erected and towers high over the Liberties it certainly won’t be what’s missing from St James Church that draws the eye.

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