Éire-Ireland 40.1&2 (2005) 5-9
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Breandán Mac Suibhne
Across cultures, religion and religious rituals give meaning and structure to communal existence. Victor and Edith Turner wrote in Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture (1978) of ritual and religious rites of passage occasioning communitas, a sense of collective cohesion and belonging, wherein the individual may also discover a sense of self and place. Lawrence J. Taylor localized the Turners' work with his groundbreaking Occasions of Faith: An Anthropology of Irish Catholics (1995), a generous and sensitive account of the nature of Irish Catholic ritual. His work has provided anthropological interpretants for literary expression and representation, producing a backdrop for our readings of texts such as Heaney's Station Island (1984). Taylor's Occasions of Faith is itself an exemplary instance of interdisciplinary understanding. In this issue of Éire-Ireland we have collected essays which we hope augment and supplement such salutary work, connecting ritual and representation to the socio-historical and political circumstances that impact belief and practice in Ireland and among the Irish abroad.
Diarmuid Ó Giolláin revisits the tobar beannaithe, or holy well, described by Taylor as the central locale in a "sacred geography." Ó Giolláin sketches the difficulties which the student of the "pattern" (patron's day) and its location at the holy well encounters, and points to the forms of competency—linguistic, folkloristic, and sociological—required to give a satisfactory account not just of the wells themselves, but of their changing significance over time: through Reformation, [End Page 5] Counter-Reformation, Tridentine reform, and the "devotional revolution." The "pattern" and the holy well are not simply historical artifacts but parts of a "vibrant living tradition," which requires that ethnographic fieldwork collude with the practice of literary, social, and cultural history.
For David W. Miller, visiting the holy well, a natural-landscape-based practice, was but one of three key modes of Catholic practice in pre-famine Ireland; the others are chapel-based practice (the mode that achieved dominance in the latter half of the nineteenth century) and household-based stations (the subject of the O'Kelly painting, Mass in a Connemara Cabin, analyzed by Niamh O'Sullivan). Miller's article is a product of efforts to elaborate and explain patterns of devotional change in the mid-nineteenth century that he began over thirty years ago, and to which he has applied increasingly sophisticated social-scientific methods. The ultimate triumph of chapel-based practice, he argues here, is closely associated with the emergence of a retail-oriented central-place hierarchy from the late eighteenth century. This commercial landscape encouraged new habits of movement in space, notably shopping and attendance at chapel.
Cara Delay's contribution centers on the relationship of priests and their female parishioners in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the period in which chapel-based practice achieved dominance. Drawing on extensive research in the archives of western and southern dioceses, Delay argues that women and priests were at the same time intimates and adversaries, confidants and contenders in parish life. By richly documenting occasions on which individuals and groups of women challenged and sometimes successfully overcame patriarchal authority, particularly the authority of their priests, Delay restores agency to women as historical actors and cautions against a tendency to see the post-famine priest as all-powerful.
Aloysius O'Kelly's Mass in a Connemara Cabin (1883), the cover-illustration for this issue and the subject of Niamh O'Sullivan's article, confronts us with a striking image of a post-famine priest and his relationship to his parishioners, male and female: a whey-faced young man, his top hat placed on a simple chair, dominates a congregation of obedient smallholders, including one semi-prostrate woman. O'Sullivan, however, offers an interpretation that draws attention to what she sees as undercurrents in the work, and like Delay, she too cautions [End Page 6] against exaggerating the power of the priest. For O'Sullivan the painting cannot be separated from O'Kelly's republicanism and concern for the conventions of history painting; in that context...