This is a re-working of a post from way back in 2013. I had moved back to Ireland not long before and I was still noticing everything that was novel to me after spending most of my adult life in Canada. I hardly notice the cribs now: after so many years back, they have become as familiar as the rocks and gorse that surround us. So here, slightly edited and with some newer photographs, is that post I wrote when I was still in the throes of rediscovering my heritage.
In this part of Ireland putting up a nativity scene (like the one in Bantry town square, above) 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. There’s one for every nook or sideboard and one for every budget.
Large cribs are erected in town squares and in churches. Although bigger nativity scenes like these are usually locked for security and contain the complete assemblage, 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. The crib below was spied in Cork Airport.
But take a closer look – the baby Jesus isn’t there yet – obviously the airport folk are sticking to tradition.
Live cribs, where the nativity figures and animals are real, are often mounted as fundraisers. We attended one in Skibbereen where our entry ticket came with a carrot for the donkey. The animals were live, but Mary, Joseph and the baby were mannequins, explained by the attendants as due to the difficulty of keeping Mary off her mobile.
Here and there you can spot cribs in private gardens. I love this one (above) with it’s cheerful addition of Santa and his reindeer. There is even, in Dublin, the Moving Crib – an institution that generations of Irish children will remember and which is still going strong 60 years after it was first introduced as a Christmas exhibit in a church basement. Take a look at this RTÉ segment about it in 1963 – it will transport you back to the innocence of childhood wonder.
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, still cherishes the old Catholic customs.
A striking aspect of Irish cribs, such as the one in Schull above, 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, designed by Dublin artist Fergus O’Farrell. Consisting of minimalist, highly stylised all white figures it created a sensation at the time. I am going on my memory in describing them, as the only image I can find in the internet is impossible to make out. My father, who worked at the airport and who was very proud of the church, brought us to see the crib that Christmas.
Alas, it was all too much for the Archbishop of Dublin, the famous John Charles McQuaid (that’s him, above with President Éamon De Valera – together keeping Ireland devout). 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.
But we have moved on! Here’s Fr Buckley, Schull parish priest, and Rev Steve McCann, Ballydehob Church of Ireland Minister, jointly blessing the crib and turning on the Christmas lights in 2017.