THEY ARE everywhere across Ireland: small white structures sitting discreetly along road verges, on hilltops and in gardens; so familiar the eye passes over them. Many are just a weatherbeaten alcove of painted cement at the top of two or three shallow steps, though some feature expansive rockery facades and artificial caves, or cliffhanger Biblical dioramas.
But each of Ireland’s roadside shrines is unique. Most were built in just one year: 1954. The Vatican had declared it a Marian Year, and Ireland seized on the idea with gusto. Hundreds of shrines and grottoes were thrown up by groups of neighbours who formed Marian Shrine Committees. Teams of local people pitched in after work, hauling scrap metal and buckets of cement, raising money with collections outside Mass. They picked places at road forks, on village greens, near holy wells – wherever a scrap of land was free. It was a matter of pride. “A stranger approaching our city on a winter’s night, and being greeted by this shining figure of the Queen of Heaven,” one correspondent wrote to the Limerick Leader in August 1954, “would, no doubt, be assured of the warm Christian welcome that awaited him in our midst.”
Today, most of their builders have passed away, but the shrines remain. Some still draw large crowds; and the informal network of caretakers who keep them safe and clean – often the children of the shrines’ builders – are still proud of their charges. Mary is neatly kept: grass and bushes are trimmed, litter is quietly removed, an invisible hand brushes off leaves and lays down flowers. The roadside grottoes have little to do with the troubled priestly hierarchies, and everything to do with private faith. And in times like these, some would say, everybody needs a little faith.
Ila Dore takes care of a well shrine in Tullow, Co Carlow, which she brought back from disuse.
“I live on the other side of town from the shrine. I’m down to it several times during the day. First thing in the morning, definitely, and last thing at night, definitely, and it could be two or three times during the day I’d go down. Tidying up leaves and twigs off the trees, because there are some big trees overhanging it. It is a lovely place. I go over to it now, and honestly you’d need a coach and four to pull me out of it again.
“It’s just this year been restored. I did it with my friend, Brendan Dowling, and it was a lot of work. But we never considered it as work – it was an absolute pleasure, and an honour. It’s a three sided structure with a dome roof on it, with a cross above it. Our Lady is in a case in the wall, and lettering then: Our Queen And Our Mother. And she’s standing on a snake. She’s crushing his head. We repainted Our Lady, because God love her, she needed a facelift. And a new dress. And she got them.
“The times we’re living in at the minute, people are becoming a lot less religious. But we have seen that people are inclined to visit it. Very inclined. We were astounded at the number of people who attended the Rosary. And I go over to it a few times during the day now, because I want to make sure that it doesn’t come to any harm – and very often I find people there.
“There’s a very spiritual feeling about it. On the 8th of September we had a Rosary evening over there, and it rained that evening – but strangely enough, believe it or not, nobody got wet. I don’t know, there’s something supernatural about it. We feel Our Lady is actually there, that’s how strongly we feel. You get the sense of her presence there, when you’re there.”
James O’Sullivan is the keeper of Tubrid Well shrine near Millstreet, Co Cork.
I caretake it. I inherited a responsibility, an obligation from my father, who inherited it from his father, and I will pass it along to my son Matthew as well. I come from farming stock, and we always take our responsibilities seriously. We didn’t have a whole lot, but what we did we looked after. And I see this as my duty – to look after this well the same way my father did.
Around the well there are rosary beads, and then there’s a crucifix at the end of that. So people come down and they do the rounds. The usual thing is to go around three times. There are people down there, I am not joking you, every hour of every day. The month of May being the month of Mary, that’s when people go there in their droves. And I mean at any one time on a Sunday afternoon, there could be 300 people, 400 people there. You might think maybe it was only the elderly people that go there, and sure enough they do go there. But there are younger people as well. I see a lot of people in their twenties.
And I have found out that as we go deeper and deeper into the recession, there are more and more people coming there. People come there for the solace, and the quietness. People are coming there for peace of mind. People find some strength down there – if they come with worries maybe their worries are lessened, they see things differently. If I was to say it in a nutshell, people are looking for hope. And I think they get it down there. We all go back to our roots eventually.
Money worries I think can lead on to other worries within a house. It can show cracks in a relationship. When I was growing up we had very, very little. But we were very, very happy. People now have a hundred times more than what I had, and people are deeply unhappy. Bitterly unhappy. People are finding out that happiness does not come with material things. It’s nice to have a big screen TV and things like that, but if one hasn’t, it’s not the end of the world, you know?
If you go down there, you’ll see there are walking sticks. They’re left there by people who credit Tubrid Holy Well with cures. People who had walking sticks, who needed walking sticks. I’ve taken sticks away from it and I have them here because they were getting weatherbeaten over the years. So I just left two. I’m not saying that there have been cures there, but I do know people believe there have. That’s the belief that people have.
Sean O’Neill looked after the shrine in the Prospect area of Limerick city for 40 years
Our shrine is a beautiful shrine. It’s in the centre of Quinn’s Cottages in Prospect, and there’s a statue in the centre and four square lawns in it, with beds of roses. And lovely railings around. The front gate was made by a very old smith named Dave Benson. And it wasn’t welded, it was hand riveted, the old way. And then it has ‘BVM’. You’d never come across the work again.
It was built in the Marian Year, 1954. It was built by the people in the area. It was a great community effort – everyone went in after work, all the spare time they had. And the half-day at that time was a Saturday, and they used to do it on a Saturday as well. I was only seventeen or eighteen at the time, and I would come from work and I used to go in the evening then and give them a hand doing it.
My mother and father, Henry and Rita O’Neill, would be the instigators of putting the shrine there, along with Frankie Cowhey and Mrs Cowhey. My parents looked after it for years. And when they got a bit elderly I went down and looked after it. I put a terrible lot of time into looking after it over the years, because I’d be very proud of it.
Even people who lived in the area, and their parents are dead, and they could be living abroad now – when they’re visiting, the first thing they’d do would be to go and look at the shrine. Anyone who’s coming through the area, through Quinn’s Cottages and down Prospect way, would stop and bless themselves passing it.
I have a lot of friends now, that would come from abroad. They come and visit me here, and they take photographs of our grotto. And they bring them back then, back to different parts of the world. So there’s pictures of it all over the world.
It’s very kept the whole time, it’s respected. There’s weeding, painting the gates, weeding the rose beds, and cutting the four lawns. So the grass is kept down. I’d say what draws people to it is the way that it’s kept. And the respect that people in the area have for the shrine. For years they used to say the Rosary there, in the month of May, but they don’t do it at the moment. Because a lot of the elderly people are gone now.
Jimmy Cummins’ mother Jenny looked after the grotto in Ballon, Co Carlow, for several decades
It was one man really, a man by the name of Tom McArdle. He started it in 54, and it took him five years to build it. It could be 30 foot high. I suppose he put all his time and effort into it. His family had a great devotion. Mrs McArdle was a schoolteacher here for 40 years, and she had a great devotion to Our Lady. She had a daughter and she called her Bernadette.
It’s a replica of the Lourdes grotto. There was a wall built first, and then a construction of steel. They collected scrap metal – old bed angles, and probably anything they could find. And then very fine netting wire – he put the wire in the shape of rocks and covered it over then with cement. If you tap on it, it’s sort of hollow in spots. There was a big crowd for the blessing.
To raise the money, there was a lot of waste paper collected. At the time they used to go round and collect it and they’d sell the paper. They would have had a lot of hands, helping out, from a few locals. My grandmother would have helped mixing the cement, and done a lot of riddling of the sand. And my mother was there at the building, she was 15. She remembers climbing 30ft to the top of it with buckets of cement. My mother is 76, and she was born here in Ballon. If her father was alive now he’d be well over 100, and he was born here. And her grandmother. All in the one house. So our roots are well dug in.
The grotto does play a big part in the village. It’s kept very well. There’s one man here that now looks after it, he gives his time. And people, locals would give in flowers to put on it. Last year where it was weatherbeaten there was extra plaster put on, and it was painted up. And the statues were painted. I remember when I was younger my father cleaning the steelwork and painting it, down through the years.