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 DiscoverIreland.ie. More photos at the wonderful blog of Arran Henderson, art historian, tour guide, and all-round Dublin expert.

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22 thoughts on “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

  1. Just came from Fran’s reblog. I love this! It’s now on my Must See Someday list. Not just the art work, but the spirit of this woman–both are amazing.
    Elouise

  2. Delighted you got into the place at last Aiileen, It’s tricky enough isn’t it, but so very worth it. Such a gorgeous, original, and generous work of art. You’ve done it justice too, with your lovely commentary and pictures. The blog looks super in general in fact. Keep up the great work.
    Many thanks also for the kind link and the shout-out too. Very kind.
    my very best regards and respects, as always – Arran.

    • Hi Arran, thanks for the kind words. Was so glad to see this. Really, I’d been meaning to go forever, but sometimes the places on your doorstep are the ones most difficult to get to. I’ll have to make a list of the places in Dublin I haven’t been to yet. Think the Casino in Marino will be my next treat. Hope all well with you. Are you planning on any special tours for the 1916 centenary?

      • Hi Aileen, I know exactly what you mean about the places on ones doorstep sometimes being the most difficult. When we are on holidays we naturally prioritise the “local” sights.. whereas, when we are at home, there’s always a sense we can do it whenever.. Plus we have less time anyway, as normal everyday life gets in the way! Myself and my sister, a few years ago when she had her first child and took every Friday off work, we made a pact to go to one Dublin “tourist or heritage spot at least once every month. Worked a charm. Have particularly nice memories of the Casino, which is a masterpiece as you know, and also of the guided tours of Glasnevin cemetery, where the guides are absolutely brilliant. (Can not recommend highly enough, can be combined with the beautiful Botanic gardens nearby also, if one has time:)
        Funny you ask about 1916 walks. Not 15 minutes ago i opened my mail from last week (I’m always a week-10 days behind on mail:) and discovered myself and another writer-friend, Hugh Oram have received a grant we applied to some months back, to host /and lead a series of free walks, commemorating Easter 1916 in the Nothhumberland Road to Ballsbridge area. I’ll advertise them on my blog nearer the time. They will be free and Think very interesting and good fun. Hope you’ll come along and join us then. And bring some friends too!

        very best regards Aileen, great good wishes with the blog, and all your other work
        -Arran.

      • Organized a tour to Glasnevin for some students last year, but couldn’t go myself. Had to make do with watching One Million Dubliners instead! Delighted you’ll be doing some 1916 tours. I live in the area you’re covering, so looking forward to joining you and finding out some more about the places I pass every day. Any idea when you might be starting? Imagine I could get a group of students interested.

      • I imagine we’ll do it over the March-April Easter period next year, one a week for about 3-4 weeks. Maybe 2 on a mid-week afternoon and 2 on a Sat/Sunday. Something like that. All tbc ! 🙂 Anyway, yes, definitely drop us a line then, and bring the students too!

  3. Hello Eileen, My wife Tina and I are huge fans of the Irish stain glass artist, Harry Clarke. A friend recommended to us that we should check out this Dominican Oratory and view the work of Sr. M Concepta OP. We are planning to come over to Ireland in 2017 — as this small Oratory is only opened occasionally would you know to whom we could contact regarding viewing this amazing work as well as the Harry Clarke windows ? We have been over to Ireland numerous times and have seen quite a few of Harry Clarkes religious windows. Would love to add these windows to our growing collection of photos. Thanking you in advance !!! Barry Fangman Batavia, Ohio USA

    • Hi Barry, a trip to the Oratory is worth it for the windows alone, but the rest of the artwork is an absolute bonus. I’m sure Tina and you will love this amazing place. (I’ve heard conflicting interpretations of the windows. Some people think they’re by Harry Clarke himself; others say they’re from his studio, but not necessarily by him. I’d love to hear your opinion.) I’ve been trying to contact the heritage officer for Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown on your behalf to see if I can get confirmation of opening hours next year. So far, no joy. (It’s summer time, so he may be on vacation.) The Oratory is usually open on Wednesdays in May as well as midweek between July and August, but I can’t guarantee the opening hours will be the same next year. You could try emailing Tim Carey, heritage officer at tcarey@dlrcoco.ie or maybe events@dlrcoco.ie. I’ll let you know if I hear anything myself. Best of luck Barry. Hope you get the information you need and have a wonderful trip!

      • Hi Barry, talked to the heritage officer! Dates will be roughly 27th June to 4th Sept next year, with a further possibility of openings March to May. I have other good news for you. Can you send me an email via the contact tab above and I’ll get back to you.

      • Hello Eileen, how can Tina & I ever THANK YOU enough for ALL the research you have done for us !!! We so very much appreciate it !!!! Yesterday we spoke with one of our Irish friends about the HC windows in this little Oratory ( and who, also is a huge Harry Clarke fan) and he never heard about them and is going to check them out !!!!!! I’m not sure if you are on FACEBOOK but check out our ( my & Tina’s Harry Clarke site— Harry Clarke Stain Glass Society). As you requested my e-mail address is Bfang2016@gmail.com… We look forward to hearing from you. With our Best Wishes, Barry

  4. Eileen, Happy New Year !!! Tina & I have made our plane arangements for our trip over next July…we will be in Dublin from July 15 through the 22nd. Do you know who I can contact to see if we can visit theOratory during this time ? And by any chance, is this oratory close to St. kevin’s church that has the Tridentine Latin Mass ? Looking forward to your reply….HAPPY NEW YEAR !!! Barry

    • Hi Barry, apologies for delay in getting back to you. I’ve been taking a break from social media to concentrate on writing, so I’m afraid the blog has been a bit neglected. That’s fantastic news that you have your visit booked. Dublin is a small city, so everything is pretty accessible, including St Kevin’s Church: a short train ride and bus journey will take you from Dun Laoghaire to Harrington Street. Did you contact James at the number or email I sent you earlier? He said to let him know as soon as you have your dates and he’ll try to accommodate you. Let me know if you need me to resend the details. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that you get to see the Oratory in person. It’s wonderful!

      • Hi Eileen–Good to hear from you….if you wouldn’t mind could you please send me the contact person’s e-mail address for us to get into see the oratory ? Though I know I saved this information for the life of me I can’t find it….Looking so forward to viewing this sacred spot !!!

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