by ehistoryadmin on December 12, 2013

Liam Kenny’s Looking Back Series no: 358




What have James Joyce and the stations in Naas parish church got in common? On the face of it very little. However the world of art and artists is a many-threaded one and the discovery of a signature found painted on the back of a picture frame opened up an intriguing insight into church craftsmen of a bygone generation.

Naas parish church – the church of Our Lady and St David – is about to be reopened following a period of refurbishment. Among the tasks in the refurbishment schedule was the taking down of the stations of the Cross which were to be cleaned of the patina of candle smoke which had accumulated over generations.

The first to examine the dismounted stations was well-known artist and calligrapher, Josephine Hardiman, whose trained eye picked out a signature on the back of one of the frames. The signature bore the surname “Ceppi”. So who was this “Ceppi” and what was his involvement with the stations from Naas church? Josephine began to research the name and her endeavours yielded a story which typified the generation of liturgical craftsmen who travelled from the continent and settled in Ireland where there was no shortage of parish priests who wanted to order church furnishings for the many new Catholic churches which had been built in Ireland since the relaxation of the penal laws in the early 19th century.

A trawl through the 1911 census revealed that the Ceppi family lived in Drumcondra with two of the daughters boarders at a convent school in Dalkey. Further research revealed that Ceppi had been in business in Dublin since at least 1851 selling a wide variety of church art, furnishings and liturgical adornments.  A note in an architect’s biography pointed to a major refurbishment of the Ceppi shop at Wellington Quay in Dublin, beside the Clarence Hotel. This suggests that business was thriving given that the family could afford an architect designed makeover of their premises in 1909.

And this is where the Joyce connection arises. In Ulysses the central character Leopold Bloom perambulates the city streets making pithy comments about the various shop fronts as he ambles along. On reaching Wellington Quay he has this to say: “… by Ceppi’s virgins, bright of their oils. Nannetti’s father hawked those things about, wheedling at doors as I. Religion pays.”

In those few words Joyce sums up the lucrative nature of the trade in devotional furnishings as parishes throughout the country ordered statues, holy pictures and furnishings by the hundreds.

Within the quote there is another link to local history. The Nannetti referred to by Joyce was an up-and-coming politician in the city of Dublin. But the name crops up frequently in the Kildare newspapers as another Nannetti, his brother, was a printer in the county town and a participant in the inaugural meeting of the first GAA club in Naas in 1887.

Further inspection of the stations when they had been taken from their frames revealed the signature of Lucien Chovet who appears to have been a church art painter and supplier resident in Paris in the mid-19th century. In that connection Josephine Hardiman has established that Naas parish church shares a link with a cathedral in Sydney and another in Indianapolis where stations by Chovet also hang on their walls.

Closer to home the Naas stations of the cross were expertly cleaned of decades of candlegrease by specialist art restorer Mary McGrath of the Curragh. When rehung in the church their lustrous quality will adorn the devotional interior in the conspicuous manner intended by their artist and framer of more than a century ago. A note in a 1953 yearbook compiled by the Parish Priest, Fr P J Doyle,  indicates that the “original pictures were in very poor frames, with crosses defective or missing altogether. New oak frames were provided by the generosity of Mrs Anne Doyle, Tipper”.

The Joycean connection with Naas parish church is not the only tenuous link between the church and a personality of epic status in early 20th century Irish history. Some of the stone work around the stained glass windows at the Sallins Road end of the church was by Pearse monumental sculptors in Dublin which was the family firm of Padraig Pearse , signatory of the 1916 Proclamation and executed patriot.

While a lot of detail has survived on the craftsmen who adorned the church in the late 1800s very little is known regarding the building of the church and even the date on a stone over an entrance of 1827 is open to some doubt. However we are on safer ground in relation to the spectacular spire which soars to 200 feet above the rooflines of the town. The architect for the tower was Kerry born J.J. McCarthy who was one of the most prolific professionals in his discipline in the mid 19th century. He supervised the completion of the spire in 1858 about the same time as he was beginning work on St Patrick’s church in Celbridge.

About the same period he drew the designs for the parish churches in Kilcock and Kilcullen, added a tower to St Mary’s parish church in Maynooth, and had a major input into the design of the splendid college chapel in Maynooth college. McCarthy modelled his Naas spire on the 14th century spire of a church in Lincolnshire, England,

No doubt clamouring from the tower announcing the reopening of the church after its refurbishment will be the bell which has been tolling since 1860 and is just a few years older than its cousin in the Town Hall which first echoed over the county town in 1866. Series no: 358.

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