Photo Book: Holy Pictures

Posted 8 months ago in Arts and Culture

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The immediacy of the photograph offers a powerful window into the recent past. Tony Murray’s vivid collection of images of popular devotion in the 1970s and early 1980s has captured in a compelling way an aspect of Ireland that has largely disappeared.

Some of the more familiar photographs depict one of the great public events in the history of Irish Catholicism when an estimated 2.7 million people greeted Pope John Paul II over three days in Dublin, Drogheda, Knock, Galway and Limerick in late September and early October 1979. Almost one-third of the population gathered to hear the pontiff celebrate mass in the Phoenix Park on 29 September, in an event that dwarfed the Eucharistic Congress of 1932. It seemed that ‘Catholic Ireland’ was alive and well.

Below the surface, however, between the late 1950s and the early 1970s Catholicism in Ireland was undergoing a significant transition. On one hand, identification with Catholicism and religious practice in Ireland remained atypically high and set the country apart from other countries in Western Europe. But on the other, survey evidence from the 1960s onward revealed significant changes in the nature and practice of being Catholic. Much of this change was hidden by extraordinarily high Mass attendance rates. The papal visit was a pastoral one. It was less a celebration of Catholic Ireland than an unsuccessful attempt to slow down the inroads made by materialism and secularism.

In the Phoenix Park the pontiff warned of ‘a new kind of confrontation with values and trends that up until now have been alien to Irish society’ and the dangers of ‘pervading materialism’, self-indulgence and consumerism. Likewise, he challenged his audience in Limerick to choose between ‘giving excessive importance to economic growth and material possessions’ or fidelity to ‘the things of the spirit’. The size of the crowds and the general excitement generated by the visit could not disguise the fact that secularization may have been belated in Ireland but it was gathering pace. 

Holy Pictures captures the last vestiges of popular devotional practices that were widespread in Ireland between the foundation of the state in the 1920s and the beginnings of modernization in the 1960s. During these decades the institutional church was at its most dominant and devotional practices by a devout and deferential laity, in addition to weekly attendance at Mass, were at their most visible and numerous. These activities included benediction, membership of confraternities and sodalities, pilgrimages, parish missions, processions, the rosary, stations, novenas, mass consumption of devotional literature, devotion to the Sacred Heart, the cult of local saints and their relics, and Marian devotion. Visitors to Ireland, both lay and clerical, marvelled at the extent to which Irish life was imbued with the language, symbols and rituals of Catholicism.

Despite legislative and moral protectionism, this was a period of fortress Catholicism. Sermons and pastorals fulminated about threats to Catholic Ireland’s moral purity of which there were many: proselytism, evil literature, indecent Hollywood movies, immodest dress, courting in public, excessive drinking, secularism, materialism, ‘leakage of the faith’ among Irish emigrants and the menace of international communism. A focus on sin and a pessimistic view of salvation were integral to the religious culture of the time. 

Holy Pictures captures the last vestiges of popular devotional practices that were widespread in Ireland between the foundation of the state in the 1920s and the beginnings of modernization in the 1960s.”

Two significant and enduring elements of that Catholic culture were the cult of St. Patrick and Marian devotion. Few places in Ireland have a stronger association with the national saint than Croagh Patrick which overlooks Clew Bay in south-west Mayo. It has been a place of Christian religious significance since at least the sixth century AD. Patrick’s earliest biographer, Tíreachán, claimed the saint fasted for forty days and nights on the summit of the mountain, where he was tormented by birds. For over a millennium there have been pilgrimages to Croagh Patrick.

In 1903 the archbishop of Tuam re-established the custom of saying Mass on the 756-metre summit and a modern church was constructed. It replaced Teampall Phádraig, reputed to be the original structure built by St. Patrick. Each year there are three pilgrimages to the mountain. The largest is held on the last Sunday in July (‘Reek Sunday’) when tens of thousands ascend the mountain, some penitents, as Tony Murray’s photographs show, in their bare feet. There are numerous sites across Ireland reputed to have a connection with the national saint. One of the most picturesque is the ancient shrine of St. Patrick at Máméan in the Maamturk Mountains in north Connemara where an annual pilgrimage takes place on 4 August.

Marian devotion was at the heart of many May processions and local pilgrimages or pattern days photographed in the pages that follow. Marianism was well-established before Irish independence with, for example, great Irish interest in Lourdes in south-western France. That in turn stimulated a revival in the 1930s of the Marian shrine at Knock in County Mayo, where in the rain on the evening of 21 August 1879 the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and St. John the Baptist appeared to fifteen people for several hours on the gable wall of the old church. Arguably, Knock became the most important Irish pilgrimage site and attracted thousands of visitors each year and continues to do so.

To mark the centenary of the apparition at Knock, the Irish Catholic hierarchy invited Pope John Paul II to attend. He was a fervent devotee of the Virgin Mary and his coat of arms incorporated the letter M (for the Virgin Mary) in one quarter. The pope elevated the church that was constructed in honour of Our Lady, Queen of Ireland and dedicated in 1976 to the status of basilica when he visited the shrine in 1979. Marianism was particularly prevalent during the 1950s with the proclamation by Pope Pius XII of the dogma of the Assumption in 1950 and the declaration of a Marian year in 1954 to mark the centenary of the definition of the Immaculate Conception.

Numerous Marian grottos were constructed throughout Ireland and 1954 also witnessed the visit to Ireland of Father Patrick Peyton, a Holy Cross priest and radio evangelist who was originally from Mayo but emigrated to the United States in 1928. In 1947 he organized prayer rallies in support of his Rosary Crusade in the United States and Canada before taking his crusade around the world in the 1950s. It was little wonder that Peyton described himself as ‘Our Lady’s Salesman’. The upsurge in Marianism during the 1950s may have been a means of countering impending social change. 

The modernization associated with the 1960s had a profound impact on the economic, political and social landscape of Ireland. A variety of factors combined to transform Irish society and the place of religion within it. From the premiership of Seán Lemass (1959–66), political elites were no longer so deferential and the state prioritized economic growth over the simpler Catholic nationalist vision of Irish society that had prevailed since independence.

Secondly, Ireland was one of the last countries in Western Europe to gain an indigenous television service in December 1961. There was great anxiety at the challenge this posed to the Catholic Church’s authority as well as the potential moral dangers of foreign programming. The speed and force of television’s impact on Irish society far exceeded that of the cinema and the radio of earlier decades. With the relaxation of the laws on censorship, programmes such as the Late Late Show facilitated the questioning of traditional structures of authority that over time reduced the influence of and deference towards priests, bishops and even popes.

“Photographs can bear witness to history and those comprising Holy Pictures are of historical and cultural significance. Tony Murray’s lens has captured a crucial moment in the history of twentieth-century Ireland, a moment of profound and lasting change.”

Thirdly, it was belatedly recognized in the 1960s that the extension of educational opportunity was a central aspect of national economic development. This had profound consequences for a people used to unquestioning belief in their clergy.

Yet another important stimulus of modernization was the women’s movement which challenged the patriarchal nature of Irish society and traditional church teaching on birth control and on the natural role of woman as mother and home-maker. Several commentators have noted that the Irish mother played a vital role in the development and transmission of Irish Catholicism from generation to generation.

A fifth challenge for Irish episcopal leaders was the Second Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965. The Council revealed a sclerotic church institution in Ireland and a hierarchy more comfortable with preserving rather than renewing its magisterium or teaching authority. The Council generated an expectation of change in the religious sphere which was ultimately unfulfilled. The Irish hierarchy was wary of change lest it undermine their magisterium or endanger the faith and morals of the laity. 

Even as the Vatican Council was in session, the first-ever survey evidence on religious belief in Ireland revealed an incipient but unmistakable change of religious outlook. Bruce Biever, an American Jesuit, conducted an elaborate survey of Catholic attitudes towards religion and clerical authority in Dublin in 1962. His survey captured the prominent role of religion and the clergy in everyday life but it signposted a more challenging future for the Church. Although 88 percent agreed that the Church was the greatest force for good in Ireland, a striking 83 percent of those who had completed secondary education disagreed with this proposition.

Biever suggested that the Irish priest faced a dilemma. An emerging educated class, as yet in 1962 unrepresentative of the general population, demanded more sophisticated answers to modern-day problems, whereas others were suspicious of change. Neither was change confined to Dublin. The Limerick Rural Survey, a pioneering sociological investigation published by Muintir na Tíre in 1964, revealed higher personal expectations driven by the economic growth of the 1960s, the attractions of urban life and a more individualistic pursuit of fulfilment. 

In a climate of rapid social and cultural change the extension of secondary education produced a population no longer willing to accept dictation on issues considered matters of individual conscience. This was evident in the Irish response to Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s contested encyclical in 1968, which reaffirmed traditional church opposition to artificial means of birth control. Internationally, many Catholic theologians dissented publicly from its teaching thereby generating a crisis of authority for the global church. Unlike episcopal conferences in other countries, the Irish hierarchy did not issue pastoral guidelines which would have given priests some flexibility in the confessional. The bishops misjudged the public reaction which questioned the authority of the bishops to pronounce on such a subject. Much institutional credibility was lost two decades before the sexual scandals of the 1990s. 

In the early 1970s a four-volume sociological study commissioned by the Catholic Communications Institute of Ireland confirmed that Ireland topped the church-going charts with 90 percent observance of weekly Mass. But numbers at Mass were not an accurate index to the spiritual health of Irish Roman Catholicism. The survey disclosed a significant disparity between high Mass attendance and a rate of weekly communion of just 28 percent. This suggested that for some Sunday observance was a matter of social conformism or convention rather than conviction. Furthermore, the young were losing interest: 30 percent in the 21 to 25 age category had abandoned the minimal obligations of weekly Mass and annual sacraments.

A survey by Mícheál Mac Gréil, SJ, of adults in Dublin in 1977 confirmed the growing gulf between the orthodox teaching of the Vatican and the beliefs of the faithful in respect of artificial contraception (63 percent disagreed that it was always wrong), celibacy (46 percent agreed that priests should be allowed to marry), the role of women in the church and homosexuality (43 percent agreed that it should be decriminalized). Yet another study found that barely more than half fully accepted belief in the devil and hell, a sign that the habitual fear of eternal damnation was waning. All of these surveys indicated that the higher the levels of urbanization and educational attainment, the lower the level of orthodox religious belief, acceptance of church teaching and attendance at confession. 

But this was not all. For the first time in the twentieth century a decline in the total number of priests, brothers and nuns was recorded in 1968. Thereafter, vocations weakened steadily. By the 1990s falling ordinations had reached crisis point with deaths, withdrawals and retirements far outstripping new entrants. After the Second Vatican Council the television had displaced the family rosary in many Irish homes. Marian sodalities such as the Sodality of Our Lady, which in the 1940s boasted 250,000 members, went into sharp decline. So too did the Legion of Mary, a lay Catholic organization founded by Frank Duff, a civil servant, in 1921. It focused on spiritual and social welfare by addressing, for example, social problems such as homelessness and prostitution. In 1922 Duff established the Sancta Maria hostel in Dublin as a refuge for prostitutes and the Legion was the driving force behind the closure of ‘Monto’, Dublin’s notorious red-light district. In an Irish context, the Legion of Mary was the most significant manifestation of Catholic lay activism.

Furthermore, the Legion became an international movement and currently has a membership of 4 million active members and about 10 million auxiliary members in 170 countries. Duff had to overcome significant opposition from the Dublin diocesan authorities and formal episcopal approval was withheld until 1935. By the time Duff died in November 1980 the Catholic hierarchy had changed its tune with Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich suggesting that Duff might be regarded by the Roman Catholic Church as the Irishman of the century. Ordinary Dubliners certainly thought so as the size of the crowd paying their respects at St. Andrew’s Church on Westland Row testified. This has been evocatively captured by Tony Murray as indeed has the sense of heartfelt grief and genuine sorrow felt at the passing of a remarkable man. The cause for Duff’s canonization was introduced in the Dublin archdiocese in 1996. 

There is a sense that the papal visit in 1979 came too late and that the pope’s pleadings for fidelity to the things of the spirit were largely ignored by the younger generations. Photographs can bear witness to history and those comprising Holy Pictures are of historical and cultural significance. Tony Murray’s lens has captured a crucial moment in the history of twentieth-century Ireland, a moment of profound and lasting change.

Words: Daithí Ó Corráin, School of History and Geography at Dublin City University

Holy Pictures is now available to purchase from HiTone Books, €30 + P&P


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