Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Oratory Dun Laoghaire, Co DublinI must have passed it a hundred times, the strange orange building with the minuscule windows. Out of place, I thought dismissively: a too-bright punctuation mark on a grey street.

It never occurred to me the building was a shell, purpose-built to protect something I’d been meaning to visit for ages: the small and wondrous Oratory of Sister Concepta Lynch.

I finally got to see the Oratory this year, remembering to turn up on one of the few days it’s open to the public. It’s so tiny, only a handful of visitors can fit inside.

It was built in 1919 to celebrate peace. It’s also a memorial to the young men of Dun Laoghaire killed during the First World War, many of whom died in Belgium. In gratitude, the residents of one Belgian town donated a statue of the Sacred Heart to the local boys’ school, but the political situation had changed so much in Ireland during the war that the Christian Brothers refused to accept the statue.

The Dominican sisters stepped in and built an oratory to house the statue.

The Oratory is 18 feet by 20, and its (original) outside is plain and simple.  Its inside, however, is riotous.

Stepping inside is akin to stepping into a mythological pop-up. Strange beasts jump off the walls: Byzantine, Celtic and Christian motifs fill each corner.  The walls are completely covered; the ceiling stenciled but not finished. Remarkably, all of the art is the work of one woman.

Lilly Lynch was the daughter of a manuscript illuminator, Thomas Lynch. She spent a great deal of her time at her father’s studio, where she learned the trade well enough to take over after his death.  She ran the studio successfully for several years before deciding to enter the Dominican Order in 1896.  She became Sister Concepta and taught art and music in the convent’s school.

It was Sister Concepta’s idea to decorate the altar panel behind the Sacred Heart statue in the new oratory. Her superior must have been happy with the result, because Sister Concepta was allowed to paint the rest of the chapel in the same style. She spent the next sixteen years working on the oratory in the evenings, after she’d finished her day’s teaching.

The paint used in the oratory is common household paint. Sister Lynch had her students buy it for her locally, since she was forbidden to leave the convent. (The Dominicans were an enclosed order.) She died before she could complete the oratory, but the unfinished ceiling gives an insight into her method.

It’s hard not to be affected by the Oratory and its contradictions. It’s a hidden memorial to Irish men who fought for Britain, decorated in the Celtic Revival style beloved of nationalists.

Its tiny dimensions contain a world of artistic influences, crafted by a woman who never travelled.

It’s high art in household paint.

Plain outside, emblazoned inside.

Like Sister Concepta, I imagine.

The Oratory at Dun Laoghaire is open to the public at select times only. Further information at More photos at the wonderful blog of Arran Henderson, art historian, tour guide, and all-round Dublin expert.

Off in their skeins, high in the sky

No sign of the geese yet. At least, not in this part of the world. I’ve been keeping an eye out for them, scanning the sky beyond the church steeple. But it’s a little early, I know.  Still, I can’t help glancing skywards, listening for their harsh rruk calls.

Plenty of geese up in Strangford Lough. Pale-bellied brent geese have been arriving in their thousands. Left Canada in August; stopped off in Greenland and Iceland. Now they’re in Northern Ireland, catching their breath before dispersing to the rest of the island. A good portion will spend the winter in Dublin, and I’ll watch them fly back and forth across the bay, measuring time and distance in rapid wingbeats.

There’s an old radio documentary that follows the brent geese on their 4000km journey from Bathurst Island in Arctic Canada to Dublin, Ireland. You can listen to it here.


Last year, I was lucky enough to meet Dermot Healy. Healy’s work includes A Fool’s Errand, a book-length poem about the annual migration of barnacle geese from their breeding grounds in Greenland to their wintering quarters in Sligo. His book captures his joy at the birds’ return, ‘….they come – from gaggle to skein – in beautiful stitches/along a thread.’ But there’s sadness too: the death of a friend, the passage of time. Healy’s subsequent death adds to the poignancy.

Then comes the day
they pass overhead unnoticed  —

a rich warm day.
You’re thinking of other things,

to get something done
right to the end, see
something finished and, in a break

from lifting stone, sit looking inland
where life goes on.
Then, just before dark,

they break overhead in thousands
with a marvellous

pouring of song
into the beyond.

I’m thinking of buying a bird feeder, but I’m not sure about the etiquette. My neighbour leaves out nuts and seeds for the birds once the weather turns cooler, and I’ve been benefitting from her thoughtfulness. Yesterday, two coal tits entertained me by attacking her feeder in well-marshalled turns, almost emptying it within the space of twenty minutes. (Coal tits are hoarders, I read, taking food when it’s plentiful and hiding it for later.)

Lots of birds visit our garden in summertime, thanks largely to a prolific raspberry bush. But the winter is quieter. A bird table would bring some welcome guests, but might it be the equivalent of opening a fancy restaurant beside the old neighbourhood café?


I’ve been thinking about where this interest in birds comes from. The people at Entropy Literary Magazine have made space for my musings. You can read my essay On Not Looking here.


Moments of Glad Grace

Oh BabyI rarely talk about my daughter’s deafness. That story is hers to tell. But I sometimes talk about being the parent of a deaf child.

The distinction is important. One approach invites appropriation, the other introspection.

That said, I’m delighted my essay The Shell of your Ear appears in Oh Baby!, a new anthology from Creative Nonfiction.

The essay explores my reaction to my daughter’s diagnosis, and the long, sometimes rocky road to acceptance.

I’m thrilled that it’s found such a good home, nestled among so many beautifully written essays about parenthood. You can find out more about the anthology here or enter a draw for a free copy here.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking back to my daughter’s early days and the moment I found out she was deaf. My first coherent thought was that she’d never hear poetry. I was inconsolable, even though I knew, in my more rational moments, that few people consider poetry essential in life.

But that was the point. I wanted her to have more than the prescribed essential. I wanted her to have art and literature and music; to have moments that transcended the ordinary, moments of ‘glad grace’. I wanted her to experience language as something more that pragmatic. I wanted her to experience it as sublime.

In the sixteen years since her birth, I’ve been busy re-evaluating my concepts of ‘glad grace’ and sublimity. (The kids have been busy laughing at me.)

I’m embarrassed that I once paid so much attention to the written word, so little to the unspoken.

Mostly, I’m mystified that I thought any of my children would grow up to love poetry.