In this part of Ireland putting up a nativity scene at Christmas time is as natural as breathing. Known as cribs, they appear everywhere at the beginning of December. Every Irish home has one, perhaps passed down through the generations, and they come out from the attic storage boxes along with the decorations to be displayed in a window or on a mantlepiece or hall table. Even for families that consider themselves non-religious, the crib is an essential part of getting a house ready for Christmas.
Large cribs are erected in town squares and in churches. Sometimes the figures in a church crib will be inserted slowly, one a day, in little ceremonies involving children. Traditionally, the baby Jesus, was not placed in the manger until Christmas Eve. Live cribs, where the nativity figures and animals are alive, are often mounted as fundraisers. I wrote about the Skibbereen one last year. There is even, in Dublin, the Moving Crib – an institution that generations of Irish children will remember and which is still going strong almost 60 years after it was first introduced as a Christmas wonder in a church basement.
Many businesses clear their window displays to feature the crib at Christmas – along with Santa, reindeer and the usual holly and candles. Shops, hairdressers, garages, pubs: it’s universal and it’s all a reminder that Ireland, which now prides itself on its multi-cultural and pluralistic society, is still at heart a traditional Catholic country.
A striking aspect of Irish cribs is their conventional character: lifelike (and sometimes life-sized) representation is the norm. Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, shepherds and kings, the cow and the donkey are all instantly recognisable and similar, as if stamped out by the same crib-figure factory in Italy.
As I considered this, a memory stirred and I went hunting on the internet for more information. In 1964 a new church was built at Dublin Airport. Named, suitably, “Our Lady Queen of Heaven” it was a beautiful piece of mid-century modern architecture designed by an Irish architect, Andrew Devane, who had studied under Frank Lloyd Wright. For Christmas 1966 a new crib was installed. Consisting of minimalist, highly stylised all white figures (I am going by memory here – I can’t find any pictures of it on the internet) it created a sensation at the time. My father, who worked at the airport and who was very proud of the church, brought us to see it. Alas, it was all too much for the Archbishop of Dublin, the famous John Charles McQuaid. Decreeing that it was “beneath the level of human dignity” and that its presence was an offence against Canon Law, he ordered it removed. This sentiment was echoed in the Irish parliament (Dáil Éireann) by the Minister for Public Works of the day, Oliver Flanagan. He said: A crib in modern design was erected at Dublin Airport last winter. The Archbishop of Dublin ordered it to be removed. The images could be described as anything but the kind of images one associates with the Christmas crib. We must have modern art. We must have proper designs for memorials and statues in keeping with the present and the past. Monuments commemorating the past must resemble the past.
I can’t imagine this happening today in Ireland and perhaps there are now many modern and unique cribs around the country. But I certainly haven’t found any so far in West Cork.
*From the Irish Independent Website