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Arts and Crafts and Revivalism in Catholic Church Decoration: A Brief Duration

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 48, Issue 3&4, Fall/Winter 2013
pp. 5-48 | 10.1353/eir.2013.0024

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Mass-produced devotional imagery became a relatively inexpensive solution to the problem of furnishing empty shrines and altars in newly constructed or enlarged postfamine Irish Catholic churches. These new buildings and their imagery emerged from an intensive program of reform and standardization in postfamine Catholicism, a program providing sanctioned spaces within which priests might control devotional practice. But influenced by a recently organized Irish Arts and Crafts movement seeking to improve the quality of the country’s aesthetic production and encourage work by local artists and craft workers, commentators began to criticize Ireland’s reliance on industrially produced ecclesiastical art—often of poor quality and imported from abroad. Some called for the Catholic Church, as one of the country’s wealthiest institutions, to assume the role of patron of the arts as it had done in previous centuries throughout Europe.

This essay examines two Irish Catholic church interiors that represent comprehensive attempts to implement the principles of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement—St. Brendan’s Cathedral in Loughrea, Co. Galway, and the Honan Hostel Chapel in Cork city, with some attention to a Celtic Revivalist Catholic shrine in Belfast painted by John Lavery. Although the Loughrea and Honan schemes are celebrated as successful examples of Catholic art patronage, such comprehensive programs were not replicated, and the Irish Church remained largely resistant to requests for comparable endeavors. The essay argues that previous explanations for such failure, focusing merely on philistinism and parsimony, are insufficient; instead it proposes other and more nuanced reasons for the brief duration of an early twentieth-century renaissance of Irish church construction and decoration.

Irish Catholic Church Reform and Standardization

Although 6.5 million Irish people (about 80 percent of the population) identified themselves as Catholic in the early nineteenth century, the religious traditions of many included rituals that played no role in approved Church practice. Popular traditions included patterns (celebrations of saints’ feast days) and pilgrimages that focused on places in the landscape—church ruins, mountain summits, islands, lakes, streams, and springs known as holy wells. Mary Lee Nolan notes that in Ireland, unlike the rest of Europe, natural features like stones, trees, and wells became vehicles of holiness, in contrast to the relative unimportance of man-made miraculous images (431). She also observes that shrines might be dedicated to local Irish male saints whereas in most other European countries such holy places were typically consecrated to the Virgin (426–28). Writing about popular Irish devotional practices, Michael Carroll identifies pre-nineteenth-century Irish Catholicism with a “clear predilection for objects that were relatively shapeless and nonfigurative … piles of stones, pools of water, irregularly shaped boulders,” contrasting such choices with the Madonna and saints’ images in Italy and Spain (49). The unorthodox and uncontrolled nature of Irish religious imagery and practice made it a target of reform, as did the fact that pilgrimages and patterns, as well as the “merry wake,” included feasting, drinking, fighting, and transgressive merriment (Connolly 144–47; 162–63).

The observance of approved Catholic practices such as regularly attending Sunday mass differed considerably. Analyzing Irish church attendance figures collected in 1834, David Miller found an average overall mass-attendance rate of 43 percent, but varying from nearly 100 percent in some areas to less than 30 percent in others (“Mass Attendance” 162; “Landscape and Religious Practice” 96). Despite eighteenth-century efforts to bring Irish Catholicism more in line with the Counter Reformation and the decrees of the Council of Trent (1545–1563) by regularizing orthodox practice within ecclesiastical buildings, the powers and resources of the Church remained limited. The repeal of the Penal Laws between 1778 and 1829 offered Catholics greater freedom, but dramatic social change occurred after the mid-century Famine that wiped out many of Ireland’s poorest landless laborers. More prosperous postfamine Catholics became increasingly “respectable,” often willing and able to support their Church financially (Larkin, Historical Dimensions 54–55; Inglis 157–58). Contributing generously to clerical salaries and church building programs, many also avoided increasingly disapproved traditional practices associated with prefamine Catholicism. The Church, in turn, increased the number of clergy and the supervision of clergy performance, meanwhile pursuing an ambitious building program that facilitated control and...

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