- Clerical Errors: Reading Desire in a Nineteenth-Century Irish Painting*
An arm raised in blessing, heads bowed in supplication: from the peat-stained walls of a traditional Irish cottage, the Sacred Heart of Jesus gazes down with loving care. Mass in a Connemara Cabin (ca. 1883), by Aloysius O’Kelly (1853–1941), offers a comforting image of the pious Irish home through the happy convergence of priest and people (figure I). And yet . . . a misplaced missal, an upturned hat, a priest somewhat too young, a young girl too demure, a cottage surprisingly clean—and need that image on the wall be torn just as it is? With unexpected solecisms such as these, the artist entices viewers to give his painting another look. Comforting myths about Irish piety, O’Kelly suggests, might deserve a reassessment.
Despite the painting’s title, here is no rude cabin, but a solidly respectable dwelling, its thick stonewalls visible at the window, a second room evident at back, and above, a loft with a mattress. These householders are people of some substance, for the good-sized dash churn implies ownership of at least one cow. And this rural home boasts an indoor lamp, as well as the oleograph of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The dresser, carved and beveled, exhibits the family “delph” (as the Irish generically termed their dishware): plates, bowls, a decorated jug, five cups in a line, each with its matching saucer. Displayed on the top of this piece of furniture, ubiquitous in the more comfortable rural home, rests a willow-patterned serving dish that suggests Sunday roasts served in this kitchen. Behind the painter we must imagine the hearth, around which family members would gather on simple stools that have been removed for this event. Only the plain but finished kitchen chair remains, a fit resting place for the priest’s top hat. O’Kelly depicts a rural Irish family [End Page 27] graced with the singular honor of hosting the “stations”—a Mass in its own home.
Thanks in large part to Niamh O’Sullivan’s work discovering and interpreting the painting, Aloysius O’Kelly is now acknowledged as among the first rank of Irish artists.1 In his employment as Special Artist for the Illustrated London News in the early 1880s, during the rural agitation known as the Land War, O’Kelly documented the struggles of the Irish poor against their landlords, graphically describing the ugliness of boycotts and the cruelty of evictions. The artist’s depiction of the relationship between a priest and his flock in Mass in a Connemara Cabin should be viewed within the context of his nationalist politics and sympathy with Irish tenants. O’Kelly knew the people of Connemara well and lived among them—perhaps in this very dwelling—when he painted the image.2 This richly detailed work offers several visual elements that open up the social and political world of rural Ireland in the 1880s.
But by 1883, the holding of stations was a custom already under threat. O’Kelly’s painting focuses on a moment of transformation of the Irish Catholic church, one that can justly be termed “revolutionary.”3 By the dawn of the new century, twenty years after the scene here depicted, Irish Catholics had submitted to a harsh and proscriptive clerical authoritarianism that permeated every aspect of their daily lives. Mass in a Connemara Cabin serves as a visual document, an early window onto a newly developing relationship between the Irish priest and his parishioners that began to collapse only late in the twentieth century.
Resplendent in white, the young priest dominates the painting—the kitchen in which he stands and the figures worshipping below. Its floors swept, the room has been made spotless in anticipation of his coming, the kitchen table transformed into an altar to receive the precious instruments of the Eucharist. Mass is now in progress, and O’Kelly captures a moment after the Consecration when the clergy-man [End Page 28] has turned to face his peasant congregation. Tall, fresh-faced, smooth-featured, good-looking, he stands, now in full view, erect but somewhat ungainly—self-conscious, uneasy, curiously flushed. He looks...