Each Dot a Stone
The first time I visit the Sacred Heart Oratory in Dun Laoghaire, Dublin, I bring along my teenage son. He’s off school for the day and supposed to be studying. But he likes art, so I ask him if he wants to join me.
“What’s an oratory?” he wonders, and I have to confess I’m not sure.
“A small church, I think. This one has interesting murals.” I throw in an offer of lunch and he shrugs and grabs his jacket. Anything’s better than study.
I know Dun Laoghaire well, but I’ve never been sure where the Oratory is located. The GPS brings us to a strange building I’ve driven past before, a bright circular structure with miniscule windows. It’s only when we step inside I realise it’s a shell, constructed around the Oratory to protect it from the weather. The Oratory is completely enclosed, like the smallest of Russian dolls, its tiny scale and simple exterior no longer visible from the road.
There’s a handful of other visitors in the waiting area and we watch a short documentary together. The TV is an old, bulky affair and the documentary dull. An art historian speaks in an art history way and my son shifts in his seat. I’ve heard the Oratory described as a hidden gem, but I wonder if it was wise to come. Perhaps it won’t live up to its billing.
The guide, however, is eager. She turns off the TV and walks towards the Oratory.
“Ready?" she asks, and with a flourish, opens the wooden doors.
The surprise is instant. Beyond the doors, a small room the size of a bedroom, covered in exuberant murals. Fantastic birds and beasts whirl around walls interspersed with Celtic knots and Christian symbols. Dots and dashes add emphasis. The room shimmers with a golden energy: The Book of Kells on steroids.
“Wow,” my son says, under his breath.
I feel giddy with delight – me, a woman who hates flamboyance, who values restraint above everything else. Suddenly, I’m Emily Dickinson in the presence of poetry, amazed by the intensity of my response.
I try to follow the guide’s speech; listen to her explanations. One artist, I hear her say. A nun. Ordinary household paint. The stained-glass windows are from the Harry Clarke Studio. Something about stencils.
But what I really want to know is: Who did this?
Who did this?
* * *
Lily Lynch was born in Dublin in 1874. Her father, Thomas, was an artist, famous for his illuminated addresses in the style of early Celtic manuscripts. Lily spent much of her childhood in her father’s studio, becoming such an accomplished illuminator herself, she sometimes carried out work in her father’s name while he was away on business.
It must have been a contented childhood; the cherished, only child, learning at the hands of the father, but Lily’s mother died in 1884 and her father three years later. Lily was faced with the challenge of supporting herself. Despite her youth, and despite the limited expectations of women at the time, Lily took over her father’s studio and ran it successfully for a number of years before entering the Dominican Convent in 1896, where she became Sr Concepta.
There’s a framed photo of Sr Concepta on the altar of the Oratory. She’s wearing a long white habit and a black veil, and she looks at the camera with equanimity. It’s difficult to tell how old she is. Late forties, mid-fifties, perhaps?
I stare at the photo, trying to reconcile Sr Concepta’s unassuming appearance with the riot of colour and imagination that is her Oratory. I’ve a hundred questions, but the photograph remains silent.
* * *
The guide fills us in on the history of the Oratory. It was built in 1919 with a dual purpose: to celebrate the coming of peace and to commemorate the dead of World War 1. The tiny building was plain, inside and out, but Mary Lyons, the Mother Superior, asked Sr Concepta to decorate the niche behind the altar containing a statue of the Sacred Heart.
The statue was controversial. It had been donated to the neighbouring Christian Brothers’ school by parishioners of a French village near Ypres, in memory of the Dun Laoghaire troops who had been stationed there and killed during the War. But the political tide had turned in Ireland following the 1916 Rising and it was no longer politic to memorialise Irishmen who’d served in the British army. The brothers declined the statue. It was left to the sisters to find a home for it.
Sr Concepta decorated the niche and when she was finished, invited her cousins to see her work. They took one look at the remaining walls, plain as a ‘Connemara cowshed’ they said, and urged her to decorate the rest of the Oratory.
And so began 16 years of labour, six hours per day, after a full day’s teaching. Former pupils remember Sr Concepta tucking her habit into a pair of white overalls as she raced down the corridor after school, eager to get to the Oratory.
* * *
In the days following my visit, I read what I can about Sr Concepta’s work. She had “…an unerring eye for, and understanding of, colour”, according to Sighle Bhreathnach-Lynch, former Curator of Irish Art at the National Gallery of Ireland.
“Strong shades of red, greens, oranges, yellow and white balanced the more muted browns, blues, purples, pale pink and black. Gold paint was used sparingly throughout. The total ensemble . . . presents the viewer with a decoration in which all the colours are harmoniously balanced.”
Archaeologist Etienne Rynne describes Sr Concepta’s work as “… ever mouvemente, vibrant with life; her birds squawk, bite and even dance, her serpents wriggle and knot themselves, as do her quadrupeds. Her art has a striking originality throughout….”
I go back and look at the photographs on my phone: the sinuous cat-like figure above the altar; the interlocking snakes; the strutting bird trailing red and gold feathers; the two monks pulling on each other’s beards.
I wonder about the 22-year-old Lily’s decision to enter the convent. Giving up her personal freedom released her from the demands of making a living. But it also protected her from the fickle fashions of the art world. In Ireland, Celtic Revival art fell out of favour. But not in the convent.
In the convent, Sr Concepta was free to continue her work. And what she produced, day after day, was wondrous.
* * *
The next year, when the Oratory opens to the public once more, I bring my daughter. She’s in her final year of college studying Film, and for the past few years she’s been introducing me to films and directors I’d never heard of before. My world has expanded on the back of her education.
Now the tables are turned, and I have something to show her; something I know she’ll appreciate. I can barely contain my excitement on the drive. I feel like a child with a secret, about to burst with the effort of self-control.
We’re the only visitors to the Oratory that day. In the waiting area, I position myself at an angle to my daughter, so I can see her first reaction. I remember my son’s barely whispered wow the year before and wonder what my daughter will say. But she doesn’t say anything. Instead, when the doors are opened, her eyes widen. She opens her mouth as if to speak, then closes it again. Relief rushes through me and I find myself smiling, as if the beauty of the Oratory reflects well on me, as if I am somehow responsible for it.
After the tour, I ask her what she thinks. “So beautiful,” she says, then pauses for a long time. “And coherent.”
She’s put her finger on it exactly. The Oratory thrills because it’s coherent in conception and execution: a contained expression of a lifetime’s work.
I think back to my first visit. When the guide opened the doors, I seemed to see the Oratory in its entirety, as if I’d ingested it whole. I’d never experienced that feeling before, and I haven’t experienced it since.
* * *
I exhaust the small store of books and articles available on the subject. There’s consensus that Sr. Concepta’s work has been overlooked, a shared sense of injustice on her behalf. But there’s also gratitude that the Oratory exists at all; its survival touch and go in the 80s when the nuns sold the convent to a property developer and the Oratory was slated for demolition.
It was saved by a grass-roots campaign led by local artists; Sr Francis Lally, a past-pupil of Sr Concepta’s; and the then Minister for Culture (now president) Michael D Higgins. A grant from the EU Cultural Directive allowed the construction of the specially designed shell to protect the Oratory, the new building itself an architectural award winner. And so, Sr Concepta’s work remains in situ, the murals untouched, the effect undiminished.
I track down an unpublished thesis written in 1997 and spend a quiet morning reading Naoise Griffin’s socio-historical account of the Oratory. What I’m really looking for is insight into Sr Concepta herself; still consumed by the question that sprang into my mind the first time I saw the Oratory: Who did this?
Who did this?
* * *
Griffin at last provides some answers. Her interviews with Sr Concepta’s colleagues and pupils paint a picture of a multi-talented woman, sensitive, intelligent, and charming.
She seems to have had a genuine religious calling. One sister recalled (1997, p.13) that she had “a favourite nook outside, where she liked to pray, and often while she was engaged in this pursuit, she was utterly oblivious to the world and could not be summoned away, lost in a trance.”
She was a devotee of St Colmcille and admired the discipline and dedication of the ancient monks. In many ways, she replicated their lifestyle in the convent, teaching her students the art of illumination in a seven-year apprenticeship, working in austere conditions (the Oratory was frequently cold and dark), regarding her art itself as meditation and prayer. Her description of monks at work in a scriptorium could equally apply to herself:
“Making lines these roads to God
Each dot a stone, each curve a hill,
All these were prayers
Which they had at will.”
The convent provided Sr Concepta with considerable freedom. She taught art and piano, sang operatic songs, staged plays, and subscribed to art journals. The one restraint she faced was physical. The Dominican Sisters were an enclosed order at the time, so she was unable to leave the convent grounds. Instead, she had her students walk to the local hardware shop to pick up her paint: tins of ordinary household emulsion mixed according to her detailed instructions.
She died of TB in 1939, leaving the ceiling of the Oratory outlined but unpainted. Its relative brightness helps illuminate the walls below while also providing an insight into Sr Concepta’s method.
* * *
The last time I visit the oratory, I’m by myself. I’d promised my husband we’d go together, but one afternoon, I sneak out while he’s at work, too impatient to wait until our free time coincides.
When I arrive, a small group is waiting for admission and I feel put out, as if the Oratory belongs to me and the group is trespassing on a private pleasure. A woman smiles at me and I have to force myself to smile back.
Inside the Oratory, I tune out the guide and try to ignore the other visitors. I have a system now for examining the Oratory. I start, like Concepta herself, at the niche behind the Sacred Heart statue; its Byzantine art and fleurs-de-lis yielding gradually to the Celtic-inspired art that surrounds it. I think of the boys who died in Flanders; many the same age as my son who stood here with me just a few short years ago.
I sweep my eyes upwards, take in the cat creature with its golden scales, the lofty red birds on either side of the altar, their elegant forms and outstretched wings frozen mid-dance. Then I turn to the side wall and its panels of intertwined serpents and intricate interlacing; St Kevin with his long blond hair; the wonderful wheeled cross in the centre of it all; and finally, around to the back wall and my favourite section: the two birds flanking the doors, so striking, so fierce. I glance at the unfinished ceiling; Sr Concepta’s vision delicately outlined in gold, at once poignant and satisfying.
I imagine Lily, Sr Concepta, lying on her scaffold in the cold, dim chapel. She knows she’s dying; how could she not? Her body aches and her lungs burn; the effort of holding her brush is almost too great. She would like to finish the ceiling, has already made the stencils and chosen the colours, but time is against her. She thinks of the monks of the past, the great scriptoriums of early Ireland. She thinks of her father and his studio; the vellum addresses he crafted so diligently. And she sets to work again, each dot a stone, each line a road to God.
* * *
I’m still surprised by my response to the Oratory; still unravelling its attractions. I haven’t lost my preference for restraint. Or developed an interest in religious art. But I think about the Oratory often. Its survival appeals to the historian in me; Sr Concepta appeals to the feminist.
But those factors only account for its intellectual appeal. They can’t explain the sudden jolt of joy I felt when I saw the Oratory for the first time or my need to revisit it whenever it’s open to the public.
The next open day isn’t for six months. I plan to bring my other son. He’s a musician with a stubborn streak. I’m curious to see his response.
Aileen Hunt is an Irish writer of creative nonfiction with a particular interest in lyric essays and flash forms. Her work has been published in a variety of online and print journals including Cleaver Magazine, Sweet, Hippocampus, Entropy, and Slag Glass City. You can find her at aileen-hunt.com and @HuntAileen.
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