Between 1850 and 1875, the Catholic church in Ireland had put a great deal of work into bringing Irish Catholicism into line with Roman Tridentine standards, a process that has been termed the "Devotional Revolution."1 Practices seen as irregular or undesirable—such as some of those associated with traditional wakes and patterns—had been largely, although not entirely, eliminated or absorbed into more conventional religious practice, and ritual had become highly regulated and for the most part confined within the many new church buildings spread throughout the country. An important aspect of Tridentine Catholicism was obedience to papal authority, a focus on the Roman center that marked the Catholic church (unlike other Christian denominations) as a unified international or supra-national entity. During the nineteenth century, the type of Catholicism promoted by the papacy was what Patrick Corish has called "neo-Tridentine": emotional and often anti-intellectual, with a significant emphasis on paraliturgical devotional practices—at times, he argues, "to the neglect of the more solid fare of the Bible and the liturgy."2
In Ireland, this devotional Catholicism was enthusiastically promoted and adopted. Religious imagery, mainly statues and pictures, was central to its spiritual vocabulary. Irish popular piety was therefore redirected from its previous focus on variable nonfigurative forms—such as piles of stones, irregularly shaped rocks, trees, mountain summits, pools, and streams—toward the fixed, emphatically figurative, and semantically unambiguous imagery of Tridentine Catholicism. This consisted of a small range of formulaic representations, many of them imported and mass-produced, principally of Christ shown crucified or the Sacred Heart, of the Virgin with the Christ Child, and of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, and Our Lady of Good Counsel, and of Saint Joseph. Other figures, including such Irish [End Page 30] saints as Patrick or Brigid, were much less common.3 Irish church buildings housed these devotional images in special shrines or altar settings whose elaboration distinguished them as special, important, and distinct from other surrounding imagery, but also made them accessible and inviting to the faithful. Most Catholics interacted with them through prayer, touch, lighting candles, and by leaving gifts such as flowers. Their physical contexts, as well as the papally sanctioned devotional practices and prayers associated with these images, meant that they acquired a special authority and power in the eyes of the faithful, a power that was presented as derived from God and transmitted to this world through the Roman Catholic church.
The limited range, despite the large number, of Catholic devotional images in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Irish churches was due to a number of factors. The most important were modern methods of mass-production and distribution, which led to a much greater availability of cheap pictures and statues, but also facilitated tight control over their iconography and style—thereby helping to prevent the introduction of heresies. As well as regulating the types of images that were venerated, however, the church was also concerned (and not just in Ireland) with regulating how they were venerated. This issue had been a recurring problem from the earliest days of Christianity, and practices of veneration frequently left believers exposed to accusations of pagan idolatry. The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century presented a serious challenge to the church structure of beliefs and practices, including the use of religious imagery, finding its most extreme expression in a number of highly iconoclastic Protestant groupings.
Nevertheless, the Catholic Counter-Reformation reasserted its endorsement of religious imagery, devotional and narrative, and explicitly formalized the church's embrace of such practices at the twenty-fifth session of the Council of Trent (1545-63), which ordered that "the images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints, are to be had and retained particularly in temples, and that due honour and veneration are to be awarded them."4 To ward off accusations of idolatry, the decrees of Trent specifically deny any power to images themselves, and insist that there is no question that "any divinity or virtue is believed to be in them on...