The County Kildare institution long known as Maynooth Seminary was established by act of the Irish Parliament in June 1795 as The Royal College of St Patrick to provide ‘for the better education of persons professing the popish or Roman Catholic religion.’ Curiously it would be eighty years before building work began on the college’s present chapel. In the early 1850s the English champion of the Gothic Revival and convert to Catholicism Augustus Welby Pugin had produced designs for the quadrangle called St Mary’s Square. His plans included a chapel but owing to Pugin’s death in 1852 and a shortage of funds, this part of the project was not initiated. Only in October 1875 was the foundation stone laid, the architect now being J.J. McCarthy, often popularly described as ‘the Irish Pugin.’ By 1880 expenditure on the work had reached £26,242 and when McCarthy died two years later just the basic structure had been completed: a report issued in the middle of the 1880s appealed for financial aid so that the ‘useless empty shell’ could be finished as ‘a splendid, fully furnished collegiate chapel’. In 1887 seven Catholic architects were invited to tender for the job of designing the interior, William Hague being selected. The building was consecrated and opened for worship by Cardinal Michael Logue in June 1891 but still the work went on. Hague designed the tower and spire in 1895 but, as with his predecessors, he did not live to see the work here reach conclusion; rising 273 feet, it is the tallest such built structure in Leinster. Inside, the Lady Chapel at the east end was decorated and furnished by architect G.C. Ashlin in 1908–11; Ashlin was also responsible for the alabaster high altar and reredos.
At 222 feet, Maynooth is the longest church choir in the world and certainly the most elaborately decorated in Ireland. Every surface carries ornament, all sharing the same theme of ‘Laus Deo’ (Praise God). The marble mosaic floor, for example, carries lines inspired by Psalms 112 and 46 opening with the line ‘Laudate pueri Dominum’ (Praise the Lord, young men). The use of the fleur-de-lis on the floor is intended to evoke not just the Trinity (in the same way that the shamrock is supposed to do) but also the links between Ireland and France during the worst times of the Penal era. Meanwhile the ceiling is covered in canvas featuring a vast heavenly procession of figures leading up to the main altar, predominantly angels and saints, many of the latter being associated with Ireland and the early Christian church here. Each figure is enclosed within a medallion again bearing lines from sacred texts. The design was by the English religious artist and decorator Nathaniel Westlake but the work executed by a little-known artist based in Dublin called Robert Mannix. The walls above the choir stalls are life-size representations of the Stations of the Cross: like the ceiling they are in oil on canvas, and were designed and supplied by Westlake.
More colour is provided in the interior by stained glass installed in the 1890s and for which three companies were responsible: that owned by the aforementioned Westlake; Cox, Buckley & Sons; and the Munich-based firm of Mayer & Co, which was then much patronized by Catholic and Anglican churches alike throughout Ireland. The glass in the chapel nave is devoted to representing scenes from the life of Christ while at the west end of the building a large rose window inspired by that in the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Reims is devoted to celebrating Christ the King surrounded by sundry saints, apostles and evangelists. In the main body of the chapel, the space between the top of the choir stalls and the bottom of the windows is filled with a string course of Caen stone carved with animals and birds to demonstrate that even members of the animal kingdom sing the praises of their creator. The corbels at this level represent angels presenting various instruments used in church services by clerics, the two closest to the high altar holding a mitre and crozier (as used by bishops). Finally there are the stalls, all 454 of them carved in oak by a Dublin firm, Connollys of Dominick Street. The finial in the back row of each section supports the figure of a saint while those on the lower levels represent a different plant or tree, again to demonstrate the variety of divine creation. Whatever one’s faith, or even if one has none, the decorative scheme of Maynooth College Chapel cannot fail to impress. It has a rigour and entirety of both vision and execution rarely found in Irish Catholic churches. Furthermore the interior has escaped despoliation by either unnecessary post-Vatican II reordering or by the imposition of some later cleric’s ill-judged aesthetic notions (cf. the so-called ‘renovations’ of the cathedrals in both Killarney and Monaghan). As a result it remains not just the largest chapel in Ireland but also one of the country’s finest Roman Catholic buildings.