Northern Ireland has a wide and varied legacy of church buildings left to it by past generations. Indeed, the current generation has provided some very fine additions to this group. These buildings are found right across the region, in every village and town, and also in some apparently very isolated locations.
Everywhere they are an expression of community, of a history of worship, of values beyond the material word and, in a place where divisions can sometimes run deep, they are a reminder of the common Christian values that have formed our communities. It is an important legacy to be valued and cherished.
Compared to other parts of the UK, this group is very different. It has been formed by the particular history of this place. For example, there are only two medieval churches in Northern Ireland that are roofed and still used for worship, and two heavily altered cathedrals.
Most of our medieval churches are ruins, often in the graveyard beside the current building. The reason for this is largely a result of historical events. Many buildings were destroyed or significantly damaged in the great upheaval of the Ulster Plantation in the early Seventeenth century. Often they were patched up and remained in use until the early nineteenth century.
Then, significant money was invested by the Government in the Church of Ireland following the Act of Union of 1801, and this resulted in 20 to 30 years of new church building. The ‘tower and hall’ Church of Ireland church is common throughout the island as a result – a rectangular hall of classical proportion, often with battlements and some gothic windows with a tall tower at the entrance. Catholics and Nonconformists – mainly Presbyterian in Northern Ireland- were barred by the Penal Laws enacted in the late seventeenth century by the Irish Parliament from erecting spires on their places of worship.
As a result, these denominations erected very similar buildings. Often a simple hall, these developed into T shaped buildings as congregations grew in size. The focus of the building tended to be on the long wall of the hall. For Catholics this was focused upon the altar and for Presbyterians the focus was the pulpit.
Significant numbers of new churches were built
In the second half of the Nineteenth century significant numbers of new churches were built particularly in the booming town of Belfast which was rapidly expanding. These buildings followed the architectural styles common across the UK at the time: an increasing sophistication of gothic forms; Ruskinian influenced polychromatic buildings; and Italianate andclassical revival buildings.
Emigration to America resulted in significant remittances to the Catholic authorities and the building of expensive and detailed churches and cathedrals. In some places the Presbyterians and Methodists rose to the challenge and upgraded and enhanced the facades of plainer buildings – a competition to deliver architectural quality that benefited the whole community.
In the Twentieth century, church building continued often in the new suburbs and there are good examples from the period, many listed by my Department as buildings of special architectural and historic interest. There was also change brought about as denominations responded to new conditions – Vatican 2 in the Roman Catholic Church leading to significant internal alteration in many buildings from the late 1960’s; and alterations in many Presbyterian and Methodist churches in recent years to provide community facilities and more flexible liturgical spaces.
This legacy provides a touchstone to our history. Churches are the buildings which have been the focus of communities over many years and they reflect that investment of time and hard cash. In many places they are the single conscious piece of architecture, built by commissioned architects or bearing the marks of special treatment over many generations.
An important cultural symbol
In a time when fewer people may use them than in previous generations, they remain an important cultural symbol to the wider community. It is a truism to point out that, as with many historic places, people may not even have ever visited them, they may even associate with a different denomination or none at all, but their continued presence provides an important part of their identity. They symbolise the place they are from and how they understand their community.
Moving forward, that is unlikely to change: people will always have a deep affinity with their place and its principal community spaces. If these buildings continue to be used for the purpose intended, that helps to reinforce a continuity with the past that most people will continue to value.
But numbers attending regular church services have been falling in Northern Ireland over the last twenty years. While not yet reduced to the levels seen in other parts of the UK, there is a need to be creative about use and utilisation, if the buildings are to be sustained as churches into the future. I see much evidence of such creativity, including the increasing use of the buildings for secular events such as concerts, talks and tours to bring inthe wider community.
The conversion of a Presbyterian church on the Ards peninsula to an arts centre that still holds regular worship on a Sunday is one extreme example. The work of the National Churches Trust is very important in this regard. The Places of Worship forum which we have supported the Trust to hold over recent years has allowed a sharing of information between congregations and denominations that was not there before and has also allowed experience from ‘across the water’ to be understood.
Our rich legacy of historic buildings
In Historic Environment Division we have been upon a wider journey over recent years. This has been to highlight thebenefit of the whole historic environment to Northern Ireland’s communities and its decision makers. We have partnered with stakeholders across the heritage sector to produce a document and website –Heritage Delivers - that sets out how our rich legacy of historic buildings, monuments, landscapes and marine features contributes to our society, economy, and environment.
We are working closely with partners across the sector and across government to realise the full potential of these assets. Our church buildings, such an iconic part of our historic environment, are key to this and we were delighted to beable to partner with the National Churches Trust last year to provide Covid-19 recovery funding aimed at ensuring thatthese important buildings can be maintained for the future and utilised for the benefit of all.
Moving forward, many challenges will remain; but I am sure that with effort, partnership and good will, these vital buildings will continue to enjoy a bright future.
Iain Greenway is Director of Historic Environment Division in the Department for Communities (Northern Ireland),overseeing the delivery of work to help communities to enjoy and realise the value of the historic environment.