St John’s was designed by the Pain brothers, James (1779-1877) and George Richard (1793-1838). These English brothers were Gothic Revival architects, who had been apprenticed to the famous British Regency architect, John Nash (1752-1835). They lived and worked in Ireland – James in Limerick and George Richard in Cork.
The Pain Brothers worked individually or as a team on many of our most significant nineteenth-century buildings. They specialised in large houses, Dromoland Castle, Mitchelstown Castle, Adare Manor, Glenstal, Blackrock Castle, but also designed courthouses: Cork City and County Courthouse; prisons: Limerick; the Ladies Jail at Goal Cross, Cork and civil engineering projects.
They are also famous for their ecclesiastical Gothic. They made an enormous contribution to Irish architecture and the style they used – Gothic Revival – was favoured by the Anglo-Irish elite.
The Gothic style had revived and become popular at this time and was seen as a response to political and social changes in late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century England. On the one hand, architects like the Pain brothers were conscious that the eye-of-the-beholder had to be interested and pleased at all times and the landscape around the building was an important part of the project as “Nature and Artifice had to work together in harmony to create a pleasing effect.”
On the other hand, the Gothic Revival “came to represent the stability of a monarchical and aristocratic social order standing firm against the threat of social revolution and violent disinheritance posed by the Jacobin mob and French expansionism”.
Churches built with the First Fruits assistance were usually plain, rectangular “Gothic box” architecture, with a square tower at the western side, where the main doorway was also located” (Ó Riain-Raedel 126). However, with St John’s, the Pain brothers incorporated a new and more exciting design: the church follows the lay-out of an equal-armed Greek cross, accommodating the altar in the East end, the entrance in the West, and pews in both South and North arms.
Very few of this cruciform design remain, therefore St John’s provides an important insight into a remarkable design.
In keeping with the political symbolism of Gothic Revival architecture, St John’s has been described as: “aloof and independent, it is secure in its own style, solidly founded, compact and stock, it looks an immovable and timeless structure planted in tradition”.
Therefore, the more that those who worshipped in the Established Church felt threatened or uneasy by events such as Catholic Emancipation and the Tithe wars, the more comforting and legitimising Gothic became.