Sunday, September 03, 2017


Oratory of the Sacred Heart, Dún Laoghaire
Click on any image for a larger version

This amazing monument to both art and sacrifice is tucked away in a corner of what used to be the grounds the Dominican convent off Library Road in Dún Laoghaire. It was originally built in 1918/19 as a peace oratory in the immediate aftermath of WWI.

You are looking at the oratory but you are not seeing it. More on this later.

My friend, Brendan Cardiff, who had been blown away on a recent visit to the oratory wanted to go back for a second visit before the end of Heritage Week after which it will not be open to the general public again until next year.

I lived in Ballybrack for twenty years and misspent a significant proportion of my youth in Dún Laoghaire, but the Bamboo crowd had never heard of the oratory and I was unaware of its existence.

So I jumped at the chance to accompany Brendan and take some photos inside this wonderful living shrine.

That's me. I'm not often seen on that side of the camera but Brendan is a fab photographer and I let him take my photo. I hope the oratory people don't notice that I moved their sign under Brendan's stern stage directions.

So let's go in.

Now you can see the oratory.

In more recent times, 1980/90s to you, the convent was being demolished and the lands sold to a developer. Some concerned people managed to save the oratory and a cage, including a reception centre, was build around it to preserve it for future generations as a piece of our national heritage.

So what's so special about this oratory then. Well, in the first place it is unusual in being a peace oratory specifically associated with WWI.

And then there's the statue.

Many Irishmen from Dún Laoghaire (then Kingstown) CBS lost their lives in the battle of Ypres. They had been billeted and worshipped in the nearby town of Poperinge and after the war the town's inhabitants presented Ireland with a statue of the Sacred Heart in their memory. The statue was refused by the public authorities and then by the Christian (?) Brothers. It was eventually accepted by the Dominican nuns and housed in the peace oratory.

Some time later, one of the nuns, Sister Concepta Lynch, undertook to decorate the altar area with celtic art and she so impressed the Reverend Mother that she was asked to continue and decorate the whole oratory.

So let's go in.

I'm sure when you have concluded your visit you will endorse the description over the door - toghadh séipéal. Ní toghadh go dtí é.

This is the statue. Nothing special about it. It could just have walked off one of those Italian holy pictures that my granny had in her prayer book. It's importance lies in its history and significance rather than any intrinsic artistic merit.

The oratory itself has both a huge significance and a surfeit of artistic merit. There is a wide variety of styles and resonances all channeled through this one nun's outpouring of celtic art.

You can clearly see the three major divisions above: the walls, the half-wall half-ceiling and then the ceiling itself.

Let's start with the wall. This cross may strike a chord with those of us old enough to have a granny who bought a papal flag in 1932.

It is based on the Cross of Cong the circular centre of which was a reliquary containing a piece of the true cross. It was adopted as the symbol/logo for the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin and you can still see an example on the railings outside Berkeley Road church.

On either side of the cross you can see two monks who, in deference to the humour of the Book of Kells are held to be playfully pulling each other's beards.

This poor individual seems to have got themselves tangled up in a web of celtic tracery.

There is a wide variety of colours and styles throughout the oratory and this is a fine piece of almost monochrome tracery on the wall.

And on the half-ceiling more birds of a different style locked in oral combat.

Again on the half-ceiling these guys are in a real tangle.

The tumble of activity and emotion abates when you look at the ceiling. This is the sad part.

Sr Concepta was at her decorating over a period of sixteen years but her health was failing possibly due to the lead in the paint and its use in a confined space over a prolonged period.

She had made a good start on the ceiling after which she could do no more. She gave up the work in 1936 and died three years later of breast cancer and heart failure and enlargement.

The work she had done up to then on the ceiling does show her intentions and also gives some indication of her working methods.

It is worth mentioning at this point that the designs on each of the two sides of the oratory precisely mirror each other. Sr Concepta achieved this through the use of stencils made from roller blind material. Stencils were also used to facilitate repeat interleaving in the work.

The oratory also has a number of stained glass windows from the Harry Clarke studio. Many people only notice six but there are seven. There is a small mother and child high over the door.

This is one of the Holy Family where the people thankfully look sort of normal.

This one, as Brendan pointed out to me, is something of a forerunner of modern product placement with St. Dominic meeting the Virgin and Child. Note the sneaky insertion of the Holy Ghost transmitting his/her wisdom to the founder of the Order of Preachers.

Photo: Brendan Cardiff

Brendan was very taken with the representation of some of the faces in the windows, and as he is a better photographer than me I'm including his shot above from the St Dominic window.

This is the small window over the door which people often miss.

This plaque and bell are on the carpet directly in front of the altar.

As I mentioned above Brendan was very taken with the oratory and when he mentioned it to some of his neighbours, including those who had lived on Library Road for years, they had never heard of it. So he determined to write it up and make sure the locals would have no excuse next year not to visit it. You can read his current draft here and I will update it as he digs deeper and wider into the fascinating background to this wonderful monument.

Link to Brendan's current draft

Sr. Concepta Lynch


Póló said...

A wonderful quirky insight into Sr. Concepta's working methods in a comment on Arran Henderson's blog post on the Oratory.

Póló said...

Mags Harnett from the National Gallery of Ireland’s guide panel has organised her very first online lecture especially for Friends of the National Gallery of Ireland.

Well worth a watch.