Dictionary of Irish Architects 1720 - 1940

Political activist, art collector and connoisseur, said to have been responsible for the original design for the Catholic pro-cathedral in Marlborough Street, Dublin. John Sweetman, who was born into a prosperous brewing family in Dublin in 1752,(1) became a leading advocate of religious and political freedom for Catholics. After being actively involved in the 1798 rebellion, he was imprisoned in Fort George in Scotland until 1802 and then compelled to live in exile in France for a further eighteen years. Sweetman has been widely credited with the original design for the pro-cathedral, which was selected in a competition held in 1814.(2) The winning drawings were signed with the letter 'P'. Apart from an unidentified reference, said to date from September 1814, which was quoted in the Irish Builder over a century later,(3) the earliest source for the identification of 'P' as Sweetman appears to be William Meagher's account of the pro-cathedral in his Notices of the life and character of …Daniel Murray, late archibishop of Dublin (1853).(4) Meagher, who was a curate in the pro-cathedral in 1831(5) and appears to have had an interest in architecture,(6) states categorically that the plan was by 'John Sweetman, Esq., of Raheny': 'The accomplished gentleman who conceived the design having inherited from nature…singular abilities for architectural composition, and having been forced in consequence of some participation in the troubles of 1798 to fix his residence on the Continent, the familiarity which he thus contracted with the ecclesiastical buildings scattered over the countries he visited, perfected his aptitude to bestow on his native city a plan for her projected new cathedral of faultless excellence.'(7)

Meagher criticized the changes which were made to what he claimed was Sweetman's original neo-Greek design, the 'loss of the chaste and appropriate Doric ceiling…for a vaulting composed of immense successive bands' and the introduction of the dome and the Diocletian windows below it. His knowledge of the architect's original intention 'to adopt the all but divine Parthenon to the purposes of a Christian temple' was supposedly based on the large model of the church which was made - or completed - in 1816. However the model, which still exists, has a barrel-vault rather than a flat ceiling, and it is only the dome and the Diocletian windows which are absent. In fact the design as it appears in the model shows marked French influences, notably that of J.F.T. Chalgrin's church of St Philippe du Roule in Paris, which was completed in 1806.(8)

Despite Meagher's faulty memory of the model, no firm reason for dismissing his attribution of the original design to Sweetman has yet been advanced.(9) Sweetman's residence in Paris would account for the French influences in the design (and possibly for the letter 'P'?), while his banishment from Ireland and lack of professional expertise would explain the employment of local architects - notably JOHN TAYLOR  JOHN TAYLOR and RICHARD MORRISON -  RICHARD MORRISON - to take charge of the work. The only reference to Sweetman in the pro-cathedral accounts is in conjunction with the model; on 12 July 1817 a payment of £307.0s.3d was made 'to expenses of model and account furnished by Mr J.Sweetman'.(10) Meagher suggests that Sweetman made clandestine visits to Ireland to admire his work: 'when the gifted designer secretly ventured home to enjoy the pleasure of gazing on it after its completion, he was gratified.' In fact he was given permission to return to Ireland in 1820, and for a brief period in 1822-23 his name appears on the list of members of the building committee.(11)


Information about Sweetman's life is from the entry on him in the DNB.

(1) See Burke's Irish Family Records(1976), 1080.
(2) N. Donnelly, Short Histories of Dublin Parishes (n.d.), Pt. XII, Section 1, 89-90.
(3) IB 69, 10 Dec 1927, 898: 'A correspondent informs us that a contemporary record states that under date September 27th, 1814, "Design for the Pro-cathedral, by Mr John Sweetman, Raheny, an amateur architect, was adopted for the RC Metropolitan Chapel."'
(4) Meagher's account of the church is quoted extensively in a letter from 'Old Mortality' in Architect 16, 30 Dec 1876, 390.
(5) Donnelly, op. cit., Part VI, Section II, 92.
(6) He was parish priest of Rathmines in 1850 when the new church was built (Donnelly, loc. cit.).
(7) Meagher, op. cit, 96-7.
(8) According to Casey (The Buildings of Ireland: Dublin (2005) 55, Sweetman actually  'procured' Chalgrin's design for the church.
(9) E. McParland, 'Who was P?', Architectural Review 157, Feb 1975, 71-73, finds that 'there is no conclusive evidence' of the authorship of the design, while Michael McCarthy , 'Dublin's Greek Pro-Cathedral', in J. Kelly & D. Keogh, eds., History of the Catholic Dicese of Dublin (2000), 241 ff. proposes Archbishop Troy as a possible candidate.
(10) McCarthy, op. cit., 240-241.
(11) McCarthy, op. cit., 241; however Donnelly, op. cit, XII, I, 89, implies that John Sweetman was a member of the original committee in 1810.

1 work entries listed in chronological order for SWEETMAN, JOHN

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Date: 1814-1825
Nature: Sweetman said to have produced winning design in competition of 1814 (drawings signed 'P')
Refs: William Meagher, Notices of the life and character of …Daniel Murray, late archibishop of Dublin (1853), ? (quoted extensively in letter from 'Old Mortality' in Architect 16, 30 Dec 1876, 390); IB 69, 10 Dec 1927, 898;  Christine Casey, The Buildings of Ireland: Dublin (2005), 55,126-7.