One of two churches in close proximity, Saint Mary's Catholic Church was built in 1839. (Nearby, Navan has an Anglican (Protestant) Church, also called Saint Mary's.) The Catholic St. Mary's is notable for its unusual interior design, which according to local history, was fashioned after a French Opera House.
Short but sweet video of the interior of St. Mary's, showing its impressive 18th century crucifix
Catholic Oppression and Emancipation
For several hundred years, Catholics throughout Ireland had been oppressed under British rule. Laws, known as the Penal Laws, prevented Catholics from holding public office, buying land, building churches, among many other basic rights.
In Navan, the situation was no different, and local Catholics attended mass in a secret church that, during the week, was used as a barn for thrashing corn.
By the early 19th century, the process of Catholic Emancipation, led by Daniel O'Connell, saw the Penal Laws gradually rescinded, and new churches sprang up throughout the country.
Father O'Reilly's Opera House
In September 1834, a local gathering was held in Navan. Chaired by the parish priest, Eugene O'Reilly, the group decided that the congregation had grown too big for its present church, and a new building was required. According to local history, Fr. O'Reilly had ambitions of building a "theatre" style building to hold 3,000, where the priest would appear to be "on stage".
O'Reilly had previously studied in Lille, France. According to some local history reports, the original Lille Opera House, constructed in 1795 but destroyed by fire in 1905, proved the inspiration for St. Mary's Church. Others say it was the Paris Opera House that provided the inspiration.
18th Century Crucifixion Sculpture
St. Mary's houses an beautiful 18th century, life-sized wooden sculpture of the Christ on the cross, created by Edward Smyth.
The large cross hangs, pride of place in the church, over the altar. An inscription on the back of the sculpture reads:
EDW SMYTH - DUBLIN - sculpt - 1792
The crucifixion sculpture was originally located in the older, "secret" church, and was taken by Fr. O'Reilly to St. Mary's when the new building was erected, where it remains. Edward Smyth was the leading sculptor in Dublin at the end of the 18th century. He was the preferred sculptor of famous architect James Gandon, working mainly in stone (which makes this cross more unusual), and created statues, busts and keystones for many of Dublin's most famous buildings.
If visiting St. Mary's, be aware that it is still an active church. Be respectful of any services that may be taking place.
St. Mary's Catholic Church, Navan. Image by Paddywhack56