Saturday, February 20, 2010

Our Lady of Dublin

Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Galway

Whenever I go abroad I like to visit churches in order to feed my fascination for religious iconography. In particular, I am always very taken with statues of the Virgin Mary. Something about her melancholic eyes and slender form as she cradles her baby reaches inside me and makes me want to linger and stare.

In Brussels a few years ago I hauled myself off the main drag in search of the church of Saint Catherine. I knew it was home to a statue of the Holy Mother and Child called the Black Madonna. The church stood on a quiet market square and inside we found the carved stone statuette. She was partitioned behind glass in the central nave presumably to save her from her previous fate. In 14th century Belgium this sensuous Black Madonna was tossed into the River Senne by Protestants but somehow landed on a clod of peat and was rescued and given a secure home in Saint Catherine’s church.

We have our own Black Madonna in Ireland, a fact that was brought to my attention by my father. Her domain is the Carmelite Church on Dublin’s Whitefriar Street and she is known as Our Lady of Dublin. This magnificent statue of the Virgin and Child, reputedly carved from German oak, dates from the time of the Reformation. The statue’s wooden body is stained a deep, dark brown as rich colours weren’t allowed in churches during Reformation times. She is placed high in a shrine and her dark body is highlighted by the jewelled crown on her head and the white marble and golden mosaic that surrounds her. Our Lady herself appears subdued but the child Jesus, who is tucked into the folds of her robe, seems to be leaping in her arms. Similar to Belgium’s Black Madonna, Our Lady of Dublin has an interesting past.

Her original home was St. Mary’s Abbey on the north side of the Liffey. During the 16th century when monasteries were destroyed and their treasures stolen or ruined, Mary’s Abbey was used as a stable. The statue of Our Lady of Dublin was taken from the abbey and the length of her wooden back was hollowed out. She was placed face down in an inn-yard and put to use as a trough for feeding pigs. In this way she was almost certainly saved from being destroyed.

In the mid 1800’s the wooden statue with its hollowed back was discovered in a pawnshop on Capel Street by Father John Spratt, the prior of Whitefriar Street. The same man, incidentally, who brought the remains of Saint Valentine to Dublin. Father Spratt transported the unusual statue across the Liffey to his church and gave her a safe home there.
A couple of years ago, when I knew my partner was going to pop the question, I warned him to ‘pick somewhere good’. In the event, we went to Dublin. On a dark December night, just before Christmas, he brought me in a taxi from our posh hotel to Whitefriar Street and, there, under the watchful eyes of Our Lady of Dublin and Saint Valentine, we got engaged. I couldn’t have asked for a more thoughtful spot to seal our love.

When I re-visited the shrine recently and gazed at the virgin statue, basking in the lively atmosphere of the church, I couldn’t help thinking that we have a habit in Ireland of under-selling the riches we possess. After all, treasures are treasures no matter how large or how small they are. We may not have a Notre Dame or a Canterbury, but we are lucky enough to have Whitefriar Street Church and Our Lady of Dublin.

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