Sanctifying the Landscape: Holy Year Crosses in Ireland

In 1950 Pope Pius XII declared a Holy Year – and galvanised Ireland. It was the height of a certain time of Catholicism in Ireland – fervent, highly-organised, state-sanctioned – and the Pope’s decree was embraced with enthusiasm.*

First of all, what is a Holy Year? It’s a year of special devotion and penance, and a year in which, through following certain prescriptions, you can gain a Plenary Indulgence. Sounds a bit medieval, doesn’t it? But the concept of a Plenary Indulgence isn’t quite the same as the Cash-For-Forgiveness schemes that brought about the Reformation – you earn it, rather than buy it, and it gives you a Time Off For Good Behaviour Card to shorten your sojourn in Purgatory. As you can imagine, this is an attractive proposition for an ardent believer, steeped in all the ritual and dogma of Catholicism – and that described almost all of us in 1950s Ireland.

A wonderful short film about the 1950 Holy Year in Rome

The Holy Year itself involved many rituals. The Pope declared it open by knocking on the first of four Holy Doors in Rome and finished it by sealing up the door again at the end. Pius XII encouraged those who could to make a pilgrimage to Rome.

In response, Ireland mounted a National Pilgrimage, led by the President, Seán T O’Ceallaigh. Take a look at how British Pathé covered this event. Aer Lingus laid on specific flights: A special return fare of £54 from Dublin or Shannon to Rome, valid for 30 days will apply during the Holy Year. Passengers may travel via London, Paris or Amsterdam and may break their journey at any scheduled stopping place en route provided that the stopover is specified at the time of booking.

The Post Office issued a special Holy Year set of Stamps (above). The national radio station started its tradition of playing the Angelus every day – still going strong despite frequent calls for a more inclusive time marker. Everything about the official Government position telegraphed the statement – We are a Catholic Country.

Edwardian Bray, Co Wicklow – the famous Promenade is there but no cross yet

But how did this ultra-Catholicism manifest itself in individual communities? Besides specially organised missions, sodalities, novenas and parades, many towns and villages decided to mark the year by erecting monuments. Somehow the notion of hilltop crosses became The Idea of the day – perhaps it was suggested by John Charles McQuaid as a suitable mark of respect. And all over Ireland plans got underway to erect tall crosses on top of the local prominent landmark.

The Bray of my childhood, with the cross now in place, as it is today (Thanks to Bray – Did You Know…? Facebook Page)

Many (most?) of these 1950 crosses have survived and have become imbedded in our consciousness as a ‘natural’ (in the sense of ‘expected’) feature of our Irish landscape. Few today remember the impetus which led to their erection. At the time, there were fund-raising drives and committees and huge ceremonials attached to the actual situating of the crosses.

The Bray Head Cross: one of several routes up to it; the 1950 plinth; a popular spot

We have visited several of these crosses lately. I grew up in Bray and as anyone who has ever been there knows, the town is dominated by Bray Head, and Bray Head is dominated by its Holy Year Cross. It’s become the thing to do, to walk up to the cross – there are at least four ways up to it and they’re all spectacular. Sitting at the base of the cross enjoying a well-earned rest, we reminded ourselves that when it was erected over 5,000 people attended the blessing ceremony.

More recently, here in West Cork, we walked up to two crosses, the first at Knockaphuca on the Mizen (above and below). The Knockaphuca walk (it’s fantastic!) was the subject of Robert’s post a few weeks ago. The cross here is a replacement for the original wooden one that had rotted away, finally falling way back in 1968. The memory of the cross was still strong in the community, though, and the local GAA club conceived of a project to re-erect it in 2011 as a symbol of hope and re-assurance in these challenging times and a call to prayer in our hour of need. The challenging times was a reference to the global recession, which hit Ireland badly and ended the reign of the Celtic Tiger.

The volunteers took things a little further than they would have in 1950 and carried up with them an array of solar panels. Thus, this is a very modern re-incarnation of the traditional Holy Year Cross – a glow-in-the-dark model. They called it The Cross of Hope and as such it recalls the beacons that lighted many a weary sailor’s way into safe harbour.

This week we walked up (above) to the cross on Dromore Hill. This one is clearly visible to anyone travelling between Drimoleague and Bantry, on a hill behind the village of Dromore. (Special thanks to Oliver Farrell and Bridget Threthewey for directions.)

The cross is visible from many spots, including from this five-stone circle at Trawlebawn

It’s a lovely walk and the cross looks like it may be original, although it may also have been replaced. It is still a focus – most years the local parish of Caheragh organises a mass at the cross in August and it’s always well attended. It’s another one where lights have been added, this time in the form of fluorescent strips. We couldn’t figure out the power source though – electrical lines disappear into the ground. Very mysterious.

The cross with its 1950 Holy Year Plaque and a space for an altar for the annual mass

St Lachtan’s Holy Well is situated south of Ballyvourney and in 1950 a group of volunteers from the Ré na nDoiri branch of Muintur na Tíre decided to erect a cross on the well to mark the occasion. This one is not on a hill top – in fact it is quite hard to find, but the plaque, in Irish, confirms it as a Holy Year project.

St Lachtan’s Holy Well (the two bullaun stones below the cross) and its Holy Year Cross

Our final local cross is one we haven’t been up to yet – a future project. It stands on a hill between between Skibbereen and Lough Hyne – I’m not sure what the townland name is, it looks like its on the boundaries of Gortshancrone, Booleybane and Curravalley.

If anyone local knows about it, or can tell us the best way up, we would love to hear it.

It wasn’t always a cross – the people of the beautiful Glen of Aherlow in Tipperary decided on a giant Christ the King statue (above). It’s visible for miles – the current one a 1975 replacement for the original and made by the same firm. According to the signage it depicts the hand of Christ the King, raised in blessing the Glen, its people, and all those who pass by.

However, crosses (that’s the one close to Skibbereen above) seem to be the most frequent choice to commemorate and mark the 1950 Holy Year. Do you have one close to where you live?  Have you been to it? Is it still in some form of use (for annual masses, say)? Is it valued by the community?

*There have been other Holy Years (officially they occur every 25 or every 50 years) but the only other Papal-decreed year of devotion that made the same kind of impact in Ireland was the Marian Year in 1954 – see our post Mary Mary for a quick description of the Lourdes Grottos that proliferated that year.

Time Warp

Stained Glass Wall in All Saints Church, Drimoleague

Stained Glass Wall in All Saints Church, Drimoleague

It was the early 1960s and I was sitting in class in my convent school while Mother Francisca explained the purpose of our education and gave us a glimpse of our futures. “What we want for you, girls,” she said, “is to be Good Wives or Nuns.” This week, I landed back in that classroom with a bang. Did I visit my old school? No – I strayed into a time warp. In doing so I rediscovered part of my heritage I had almost forgotten and I met a brilliant young scholar who helped me access those dim memories again.

All Saints, Drimoleague - 1950s modernist architecture

All Saints, Drimoleague – 1950s modernist architecture

All Saints Catholic Church in Drimoleague is one of the most extraordinary buildings in West Cork. First of all, it’s a fine example of mid-century modern architecture (and there aren’t a lot of those in West Cork) and an engineering triumph. Built in the 1950s of concrete and limestone, its cavernous interior has no need for pillars: nothing intrudes between worshippers and altar. It’s like stepping into an enormous, curiously bright, almost empty box. Secondly, it has extraordinary artwork in the form of a giant mural behind the altar and a panel of stained glass windows above the balcony on the south wall. It was the stained glass that stopped me in my tracks.

All Saints, the interior

All Saints, the interior

The glass is laid out in a series of frames that takes the viewer from birth to death – no, beyond death, to heaven. The church was built in the 1950s and each frame represents the values of rural Catholic Ireland of that time. In a strange way it reminded me of a High Cross, in that the illustrations that we see on High Crosses were meant to tell a story – a biblical one in that case – and to instruct the viewer in the tenets of the religion. The purpose of this wall of glass was also educational – to provide a primer to mass-goers on the aspirations and actions that should guide their lives.

The Stained Glass panel, image © Richard James Butler

The Stained Glass panel, image © Richard James Butler

My parents, imbued with the message that the family that prays together stays together, developed an intermittent enthusiasm for saying the rosary. We would gather in the kitchen after dinner, each with our beads, and kneeling on the hard tiles we would tell off the Sorrowful or the Glorious Mysteries. The second frame shows just such a family, and I particularly love the toys on the floor and the statue of Mary on the mantlepiece. There’s a grandmother and a baby in a cot, and a little girl being inducted into the Mysteries by her older sister.

The next frame shows First Communion, with the girls in miniature bride outfits (as they are to this day) and the boys in their Communion suits with the short trousers and knee socks that all boys wore at that time. Since my godson in Dublin is about to make his First Communion I have been hearing about the process and I understand that apart from the length of the boy’s trousers not a lot has changed in 60 years.

First Communion

First Communion

The one that brought me back to Mother Francisca shows earnest young men and women gazing at a directional sign which shows them their choices – marriage or the religious life. That was it! To hammer home the point the top of the panel shows a wedding, a priest and a nun. I’m casting my mind over the group of girls I went to school with – we didn’t produce any nuns and while most of us married I can’t think of a single one who hasn’t worked – we count among us an ambassador, teachers and principals, a town planner, an artist, a college dean, office administrators, a medical doctor, an international expert on child protection, a veterinary nurse, a parliamentary reporter, a lawyer…the list goes on. But none of this was discussed at school: we had no career guidance, no aptitude tests, no encouragement of any kind to think of ourselves as people who would work for a living. What’s curious is that we developed those careers in the complete absence of any kind of conscious preparation for them at the secondary school level.

Choices

Choices

Choices made

Choices made

The sixth frame might be my favourite. It’s the ‘work, rest and play’ lesson. At the bottom of the frame a happy family sits around the tea table. Above them men work on the fields and on top those men are playing Gaelic football while their wives sit on a bench on the sidelines and chat to each other. Men were to head the family, work and play hard, and women were to provide the supportive role. I doubt if anyone foresaw when that glass was designed in the 1950s that in the next century (only a few days ago in fact) two Irish rugby squads – the men AND the women – would bring home the Six Nations Cup for Ireland.

The last three frames deal with end of life, including Last Rights, death, and reception into heaven – the reward for living the exemplary life presented in the stained glass wall.

Last Rites

Last Rites

If you grew up like I did in 1950s Ireland, or if you are interested in the art and architecture or the social history of this period, the Church of All Saints in Drimoleague tells a fascinating story. There is little available online about this church – I couldn’t even find out who designed the windows. But my research revealed that one other person was as struck as I was by this church, although in a more scholarly way. Richard James Butler is a gifted young art historian from Bantry who is completing doctoral studies at the University of Cambridge. We were lucky to hear him speak at the Bantry Historical Society recently on the subject of the courthouses of West Cork – a topic we had no idea could be as interesting until we heard his erudite and engaging presentation. He has written a paper, All Saints, Drimoleague, and Catholic visual culture under Bishop Cornelius Lucey in Cork, 1952-9, which will be published in the next issue of the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society. I’ve had a sneak peak, thanks to Richard’s generosity in sharing his findings with a fellow enthusiast. His paper deals with the Catholic ethos within which that era of church construction operated, with the role of the local community in commissioning such an unusual edifice, with the enormous mural, and with the windows. It was only after communicating with Richard that I learned that the windows were the work of the Harry Clarke Studios* and how unusual they were for their day in not being concerned solely with images of saints, the life of Christ, or Mary. If you get a chance to read his paper when it’s published, do so – it may make you take a fresh look at the legacies of 1950s Ireland by which we are still surrounded.

Devotion in 1950s West Cork

Devotion in 1950s West Cork

* For a discussion of the difference between Harry Clarke windows and Harry Clarke Studio windows, see this post.