Historic Irish scenes and people in their ‘true colours’

Historic Irish scenes and people in their ‘true colours’ House decorated for the 1932 congress. Credit: Old Ireland in Colour 2

This is the second book by NUI academics Prof. Breslin and Dr Buckley in which they use advanced computer technology to “restore”, or rather add natural colour tones to photographs enlivening the original monochrome.

I have my doubts about this technique, as have many historians and photographers. But looking through these pages I found images of religion in Ireland which seemed were well worth bringing to the attention of readers of The Irish Catholic.

To see Cardinal Cullen (image 2) in his true colours is a striking thing. Here are the features of the man who is generally credited with breaking with Ireland’s pre-famine traditional habits of piety, and with forming and shaping the Catholic experiences of Ireland in a ‘Roman style’ that lasted down to Vatican II.

To save the country he thought he would have to completely change it. This he did with a disciplined clergy. He represented in his own person the power and dignity of the universal Church as he saw it. He rejected the revolutionary aspirations of many in favour of a more authoritarian society.

Moral authority

Yet despite the alleged supreme moral authority wielded by the Church during the following decades the hierarchy was unable to suppress the rising surge of violent nationalism. Perhaps that dominance was more nuanced than many now believe today. That even back in the 1890s there were those who went their own way despite the Church.

In rural Ireland much traditional piety and custom had been built about such things as ancient shrines and holy wells and customary pardon days. From the 1820s onwards these gatherings, as much a social gathering as a religious one (as was the one at Glendalough) were suppressed because of the drunkenness and their use in arranging marriages (or even trial marriages). The Church refocused the attention of the Faithful not on their own ancient practises but on Eucharistic themes and Marian devotions more suited to Church celebration (images 4 and 5).

But a love of “signs and wonders” lingers on even down to this day. Among the religious images in the book is a startling one of the bleeding statues of Templemore in 1920, by photographer WD Hogan, who was on good terms with both Sinn Féin and then with the National Army.

The caption to this suggests that this was detected as a fraud by no less a person than Michael Collins himself, who was anxious that sensation would not be laid at the door of the IRA.

Yet this seems to contradict local legend (as passed on to me by my father who lived in nearby Cloughjordan) that it was got up to cover a shipment of arms by crowding the roads with people and cars around the town, disrupting police security activities. As his elder brother was an officer in the Free State Army under Collins, I have always thought there was some substance in this.

But the subject of bleeding holy statues and is a complex one. According to that locus classicus of Catholic scepticism by Fr Herbert Thurston SJ, The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism (1952) are often very strange.

Aside from those surrounding the Curé d’Ars, we might recall that at this period Yeats and Maud Gonne investigated a bleeding image of the Sacred Heart, also in France. Some students of the occult see such thing not as fraudulent but as displays that are not miraculous but merely beyond the normal.

(The reference to Michael Collins in the captions to this book is unsupported by an exact reference – another instance of books for a popular readership are all too often unsourced these days, which is a very great pity.)

The Eucharistic Congress (image 1) held in Dublin was a great event in both the history of the Catholic Church and in the fledgling state which the ancient nation had become. It was embraced with enthusiasm by all classes at the time and enjoyed the full panoply of state support. Families in the then very ugly slums of Dublin (image 5) were particularly enthusiastic in their decorations and their participation. The city was filled with important Church dignitaries (image 1), as here in a service at the Pro-Cathedral in Marlborough Street Dublin. And yet it was a high point from which the influence of the church saw a steady decline down to today. When another Eucharistic Congress was held again more it was a colourless shadow of the one in 1932.

Since the post-famine decades, the role of the religious, such as the Christian Brothers (image 3), ensured a sound basic education for millions of children. They not only ensured the continuation of Catholics in Ireland, but they also grounded their boys (as here in a Waterford school) and girls with the essentials for them to have a working career or to pass examinations for the civil service both under the old dispensation and in the new Irish State. The labours of “the Brothers” to raise the aspirations of the nation should not be forgotten.

Ireland back in 1922 was a largely rural country. But urbanisation was underway around Dublin with the emergence of a different kind of life style. Here (image 6) we see Donnybrook – where those arbiters of culture UCD and RTE are now situated – which is part of the rapidly developing future encompassed now in large scale post-Covid planning schemes for autobahns and skyscrapers.

Literary future

Finally, two images evoke both our growth of knowledge and Ireland’s past and its literary future. The first is a charming photograph of the ancient entrance to Newgrange (image 7) as I saw it back in the 1950s on a visit with my father. This was before it was turned into a tourist asset through the cooperation of Bord Failte and UCD, and into something very strange and perhaps inappropriate.

But it was also revealed to have a philosophical and scientific basis that speaks highly for the originally non-Celtic inhabitants of Ireland (from which according to modern geneticist some 80% of the present inhabitant are descended). That religion and philosophy in the most ancient reaches of Irish history may have relevance to the abiding religious nature of the Irish nation down to this day.

The other picture (image 8) is that of  poets Patrick Kavanagh (left) and Anthony Cronin, along with novelist Brian O’Nolan (totally obscured except for the crown of his hat and the hem of his trouser),  outside Goggins pub in Monkstown on the “first Bloomsday”, that ineffectual jaunt on 16 June 1954. They are boarding a Dublin cab against a  background of fading religion, in this case the parish church of the Church of Ireland that is such a landmark in the village.

This image can be seen as a token gesture to Ireland’s emerging future  of which James Joyce and his novel Ulysses, published it will be remembered in 1922, the first year of the new state, were portents heralding the cultural change that has transformed Ireland since these pictures of national life were created.

The images in this picture essay are taken from Old Ireland in Colour 2, created by John Breslin & Sarah-Anne Buckley (Merrion Press, €24.95 / £21.99), where complete credits to the collections, particularly in the
National Library, drawn on by the authors will be found.