There are very few records from 1630 until the eighteenth century in relation to the development of a Catholic parish at Donnybrook. In 1615 The Catholic Church in Kilkenny held a Provincial Synod where it was decided, among other things, to re-constitute the parishes in Dublin. From 1617 to 1787 Booterstown, Blackrock, Stillorgan, Kilmacud and Dundrum, were all pre-Reformation sub parishes of Donnybrook. In the eighteenth century the Archbishop of Dublin, John Troy, created a parish consisting of Booterstown, Blackrock, Stillorgan and Dundrum. Donnybrook retained Ballsbridge, Ringsend and Irishtown, and a Fr Nicholson was appointed parish priest. Shortly afterwards Archbishop Troy decided a new chapel was needed in Donnybrook and he appointed Fr Peter Clinch to the parish. A new chapel for Catholics was built in 1787 beside the Protestant Church of St Mary In Donnybrook Graveyard, and it too was called St Mary’s. The wall of this church is the wall dividing the graveyard from the Garda Station in the village. This church remained in use until the Church of the Sacred Heart, the present Catholic Church, opened in 1866 facing the site of the Donnybrook Fair, now the home of Bective and Old Wesley Rugby Football Clubs. During the years when there was no Catholic Church in Donnybrook,the Old Catholic families like the Fitzwilliams, the Archbolds, and the Wolverstons, provided sanctuary for priests who celebrated Mass in the chapels attached to their homes.
The boundaries of Donnybrook parish have changed dramatically over the centuries. It once included not only Sandymount and Ringsend, but also Haddington Road, Dundrum, Booterstown and Blackrock. According to the Census of 1831, the Catholic population of Donnybrook was about 8,000 people, most of them living in great poverty. In the 1840s it was decided that the Catholic Church in the graveyard was not sufficiently large for the growing Catholic population of Donnybrook. Monsignor Andrew O’Connell was appointed by the Archbishop of Dublin, to the combined parishes of Donnybrook, Irishtown, Ringsend and Sandymount. in 1849, he began a building campaign to replace the old churches with new ones. Dr O’Connell acquired a new site on the right bank of the River Dodder, facing the old Fair Green, as a location for the new Catholic Church for Donnybrook. Work on the new church, which was to be dedicated to the Sacred Heart, began in 1860. The foundation stone was blessed and laid on the 12 June 1863 by Archbishop Paul Cullen. It has been said that it was built in reparation for the sins of intemperance, and the violent and righteous behaviour which was common at the Donnybrook Fair over the centuries. The new Catholic Church cost approximately £ 7,000 to build. The original architect was Patrick Byrne (1783‑1864), but he had to resign due to ill health in 1863. Pugin and Ashlin, a well-known firm of Dublin architects who were in partnership from 1860 to 1868, then took over. Edward Welby Pugin (1834‑1875) was the son of Augustus Welby Pugin (1812‑1852), the well-known church architect. George Coppinger Ashlin (1837‑1921) had married Edward Pugin’s sister, Mary Pugin (1844‑1933), so there was a family connection between the two. The builder of Donnybrook church was Michael Meade, a well-known Dublin builder, who constructed a number of important buildings around Dublin, together with many houses at the Merrion Road end of Ailesbury Road.
The Church of the Sacred Heart was built of granite with Bath stone dressings. It was highly ornamental in character and the internal dimensions are 148ft in length by 58ft in width. The aisles of the church are separated from the nave by an arcade of six arches that rest on polished Cork marble shafts, with carved Caen stone capitals. The opening ceremony took place on 26 August 1866, which was the same date that the Donnybrook Fair normally started. The church contains a beautiful rose window in the west gable and there are some lovely stained-glass windows (St Malachi and St Bernard) by Harry Clarke and Michael Healy (St Patrick, St Eithne, and St Feidhlim). A Mrs Jury of Greenfield presented the Stations of the Cross to the Church in 1887 and Mrs Catherine Dignam presented the High Altar, in memory of her husband. The Altar of Our Lady was a gift from William McDermott Fitzgibbon while John R. Corballis of Roebuck presented the windows over the Sacred Heart Statue. Other benefactors were the Egan and Martin families who presented the windows of St Rita and St Bernard.
At a meeting held in 1912 to raise funds for the completion of the Church of the Sacred Heart, it was decided to erect a tower instead of the spire that was in the original design of the church. Many might
Have preferred a steeple for the top of the church, but a tower was considered a much safer proposition. The tower was completed at the cost of £1,200. In 1915, Monsignor Dunne took over the parish building debt of £3,000. Through the generosity of parishioners, and with the proceeds of a bazaar, the debt was cleared. There was also money left over to be used for improvements to the church and, as a memorial to his predecessor, Cannon Gossan, Monsignor Dunne used portion of this money to install electric light in the church. It is interesting that the Church of the Sacred Heart was not consecrated until 1923, when the parish debt was cleared!
On 19 July 1923, Revd Dr Edward J. Byrne, Archbishop of Dublin, consecrated a stone cross which had been found in the old Donnybrook Graveyard when the road was widened. This probably belonged to the earlier church,which was located in the old graveyard in the centre of the village. In 1936 the old stone cross was incorporated on the top of a wall of the new extension to the church. The architect for the extension was W.H. Byrne and Sons and t it was built by W & J. Bolger the well-known Dublin builders whose family continue to live on Eglinton Road to this very day. The extension consists of two transepts, which have a capacity of 700, together with a baptistery and a mortuary chapel.
The present-day parish of the Sacred Heart extends from the south side of Ranelagh Road to the RDS Ballsbridge and from Belfield to Leeson Street Bridge.