In 1919 a town in Northern France donated a statue of the Sacred Heart to the Catholic Parish of Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) in memory of the Irishmen who fought and died in Flanders during World War 1. Because of the politics of the time, the parish priest declined the gift. The Dominican nuns took it instead. They built a small oratory to house the statue, which is remarkable not only for its provenance but for its colour: statues of the Sacred Heart are usually clothed in strong shades of red, but the fleshy tones of this statue’s garments make the figure more human, the exposed heart more significant.
The statue, however, is absolutely overpowered by its stunning setting. This tiny oratory was lovingly, painstakingly, beautifully painted over a period of 16 years (1920-1936) by a Dominican nun, Mother Concepta Lynch. She worked four hours a day – after a full working day as a teacher (music and art) in a girls’ school – in a tiny chapel lit by (donated) oil lamps using (donated) hardware paint mixed to a special formula.
Mother Concepta was born Lily Lynch in 1874, the daughter of Thomas and Mary Lynch. Lily’s father was an illuminator, with a particular interest in Celtic symbolism and early Christian art, at the time of the Revival. He had a successful studio in Dublin. Lily never had formal training in art, but must have learned the old fashioned way, living in a studio and directly immersed in the thinking and work of practitioners. When she was six, her mother died. When her father died Lily left school – she was 16 – and took over the business, which she seems to have run successfully until 1896. She was 22 when fire destroyed the Lynch premises and she entered the Dominican order, taking the name Mother Concepta.
When the oratory was built to house the Sacred Heart, Mother Concepta was asked to decorate the wall behind the memorial statue. The effect was so powerful she was asked to keep going, so she did, until every inch of wall was covered with vivid, exuberant Celtic figures and patterns, all drawn from memory. She used her father’s formula for mixing colours, sending directions to a local hardware shop via some of her pupils. She cut up old window blinds to make stencils. The windows came from Clarke’s studio in North Frederick Street, some of them made entirely by Harry Clarke himself.
We visited the Oratory as part of Heritage Month in Dun Laoghaire. Our (terrific) guide asked us to be quiet for the first few minutes and simply absorb our surroundings. Entering the Oratory, she said, is like walking into the Book of Kells. She’s right, but it also reminded me of the effect of emerging from a gloomy stairwell into the Sainte Chappelle in Paris on a bright day, where colour becomes an element to immerse yourself in.
This was an extraordinary experience. I remember the fuss about saving the Oratory when the Bloomfield Shopping Centre was being built and the diggers were halted within inches of the tiny building while conservationists fought to save it (Michael D Higgins was one of those people). To think this exquisite festival of colour and Celtic form could have been lost.
I grew up in and around Dun Laoghaire but I had never been inside the oratory before. It has to be protected from the elements and from exposure to too many visitors, too much light. The walls haven’t been touched since 1936 when Mother Concepta was taken ill, the ceiling still unfinished. She was working as Michelangelo did, lying on her back on planks supported by step ladders. Four hours a day. Sixteen years. Cramped conditions; full-time teaching work; no formal education or training.
Well, I repeat myself.
The oratory is now itself housed in a building which serves as a protective shell, beside the children’s playground on Library Road (Dun Laoghaire). Access is limited. It is open at restricted times during the summer.
More info here.
Tours will continue until 3rd September, details here
More images here
(With apologies for the quality of my own, which do nothing like justice to the original. Go and see it for yourself.)