Take me to the chapel – Frank McNally explains why traditional Catholics never went to church – The Irish Times


Although she was a devout Catholic all her long life, my late Aunt Mary rarely darkened a church door. No. The thing she regularly attended was the chapel, a crucial distinction in Ireland at the time, or at least in Ulster.

This may be partly because the building in question was a modest, rural building, nestled in the hills of East Cavan, to which marriage had exiled her from the relative civilization of Monaghan, where she was born.

But it is a tradition in these regions, or it used to be, that Catholics worshiped in chapels, while churches were reserved for Protestants.

So Patrick Kavanagh on his north-facing farm in Shancoduff, who had “never seen the sun rise” and stoically accepted his fate to face Armagh forever:

“Lot’s wife wouldn’t be salty if she had been/Incurious like my black hills that are happy/When dawn whitens the chapel of Glassdrummond.”

Noting the church/chapel distinction in his Dictionary of Hiberno-English, Terry Dolan mentions an ancient Ulster poet, Art McCooey (1738-1773), who once wrote “a macaronic […] dialogue between the two buildings, the “church” speaking in English and the “chapel” in Irish.”

The debate took place in Forkhill, South Armagh. And in fact, McCooey only wrote half of it. According to one source, “John Short composed the English verses condemning Catholicism while McCooey blasted Protestantism”.

When he wasn’t blowing up Protestantism, moreover, McCooey flirted with him. After his pamphlet of a blind Mary Quinn earned him the excommunication of the local curate (his brother), he resolved in another poem to become a Protestant, although he seems to have changed his mind by the last verse.

The word chapel finds its origin in the Italian capella, which means “little coat or little cape”. According to Brewer’s Dictionary, the mantle he immortalizes was that of St Martin (French AD 316-397), kept as a sacred relic by the Frankish kings.

They kept it in a chest called the chapel, whose guardian was the chaplain: “Thus the name came to be attached to a sanctuary, or to a place of private worship other than a parish church or cathedral.

As for the chapels in which even the godless journalists still meet, the mention of which here yesterday made me reflect on the subject, Brewer surmises that they date back to the beginnings of the printing press, “when the presses were installed in chapels attached to the abbeys”.

The printers periodically held meetings there to discuss their jobs. And although journalists today no longer meet in actual chapels, the term lives on.

The Catholic use of the chapel has its roots in the era of criminal law when places of worship were often rudimentary, sometimes even portable.

Dolan’s dictionary refers it to the word “scallan”, from scáthlán, meaning “a makeshift hut or shed in which mass was said”. He also cites an example from PW Joyce’s English as We Speak It in Ireland (1910), which now looks like a precursor to the Popemobile:

“In Donegal and elsewhere they had a small movable wooden shed which housed just the priest and the sacred apparatus while he celebrated mass, and which was moved from place to place in the parish where that was necessary.”

As Joyce also points out, the use of the church/chapel was formalized in Ordnance Survey maps, where Anglican places of worship were delineated by a simple “church” while the “RC chapel” marked the Catholics.

This all changed with emancipation and the subsequent church building boom. Among the ballads of the 1830s is one called “A Discussion Between Church and Chapel”, which sounds like McCooey’s poem but is set in Cork, with Shandon Steeple playing church and short story (or recently rebuilt) Catholic cathedral, although far from modest, playing the chapel.

On closer inspection, the poem is more of a monologue than a dialogue. After a verse expressing outrage at the neighbor’s claims, Shandon isn’t allowed to get another word around the edges.

The rest is dominated by the triumphalism of the chapel, for example: “When you are a shelter for owls and crows / To puncture and reduce your walls / Then I will bloom each morning cheerfully / With the echo of the bells of joy, to call my flocks.”

It must be said that, even when describing a principal place of worship, Irish Catholics do not have a monopoly on the “chapel”. As Brewer notes, the term was also used by “Free Churches”, including Baptists and Methodists.

This likely explains why Elvis Presley was caught “crying in the chapel,” not church, or why the Dixie Cups were “going to the chapel of love” to get married. Of course, simple meter may have been the key influence on some songs.

Hozier, for example, probably had syllables in mind rather than conversion when he wrote “Take Me to Church.” But this phrase had a deeper resonance in Ireland. According to PW Joyce, there was a time when “he goes to church now” meant that the subject had “turned Protestant”.

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