The Honan Chapel & Collection - Essays and Discussion

This collection of essays about the honan serve to provide a forum for discussion, and facilitate in the gathering of knowledge about the chapel and collection.

Short Essays

The Honan Chapel Design Background

Olivia Fitzpatrick, Boole Library, UCC

The architecture and design of the Honan Chapel building, completed in 1916, was the concept of the legal trustee of the bequest which made it possible– the Dublin solicitor Sir John Robert O’Connell under whose direction the Cork architect, James McMullen executed it. O’Connell was a well informed and well connected enthusiast of the nationalist revival in arts and crafts at the time and established from early in the project a unified approach to the design of the building and its interior.

Ironically, at a time of great political upheaval at home and abroad, the arts and crafts were undergoing a very vibrant revival in Ireland, after the economic disasters of the 19th century. The Irish Arts and Crafts Movement was very active and O’Connell himself became President of the Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland in 1917. In his selection of design themes and craftsmen to execute them he was well aware of the underlying arts and crafts philosophy of William Morris, who, along with other artists of his day were in revolt against the dominance of Victorian mass production. He believed in skilled and honest craftsmanship, local materials and the romantic idea of a heroic past. He was especially attached to the idea of a building as a total work of art with the interior and furnishings all designed by the architect. In O’Connell’s case this was combined with the nationalist taste of the time for Hiberno-Romanesque architecture, Celtic knotwork and the zoomorphic decoration of the Insular Manuscripts. It is unfortunate that, in the years after Independence, these themes became debased in design as tourist souvenir clichés and still appear on key rings and t-shirts at airports and museum shops.

At the time of the Honan bequest Cork had had a Queens College for 70 years. The President of the College, Sir Bertram Windle, wished to establish a Catholic church for the use of the College and the students. As an interdenominational foundation there was no religious establishment in the grounds, and the Honan Chapel was built outside the boundary of the College, on its own land and with sturdy limestone piers and iron railings marking its separate status.

With the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 which repealed the last of the Penal Laws, a century of church building began in Ireland. Not the best time for church building, and most of them were undistinguished. Episcopal taste tended towards Victorian eclecticism and Italian sentimentality. In many cases the emphasis was on establishing as large and emphatic a presence as possible. According to the critic Brian Fallon, ‘When they are not bare, forbidding and functional, Irish churches of this period tend to be triumphalist, ponderous and ornate - characteristic vices of the arriviste’.(1). At this time there was little sophisticated patronage among Irish Catholics, very little money from impoverished local congregations,(although many sources were tapped abroad) and little concern from the bishops for the appearance of their buildings, so long as they reflected the new importance of Catholic institutions and worship .

In the increasing poverty of 19th century Cork, formerly a prosperous port and centre for the butter trade with an established middle class, trade and commerce no longer supported a market in luxury goods. By mid 19th century of the 50 silversmiths and 20 goldsmiths active in Cork at the turn of the century none remained. A core of craftsmen did persist throughout the century. John Ruskin was so impressed by the architects of Trinity College Museum, (and of the Cork Queen’s College and Deane and Woodward), and by the skills of their stonemasons that he was instrumental in their commission for the natural History Museum in Oxford, which was completed in 1860.

O’Connell, whose vision, supported by Sir Bertram Windle, was central to the architecture and design of the Chapel, was dedicated to the task of finding Irish, and where possible, Cork craftsmen for all the interior furnishing of the Honan Chapel, and in large part he succeeded - to such an extent that he was reluctant to admit that one of the great glories of the interior of the Chapel, the mosaic floor, was laid by Ludwig Oppenheimer of Manchester and the designer is unknown. This magnificent work depicts "the Creation and the works of the Lord" with the river of life flowing towards the altar, where animals and trees show the work of God’s hands. (2)

The Chapel has an extensive collection of altar plate, among them items made by the firm of William Egan & Sons who also made the vestments. Although there were silversmiths in Cork in 16th century, the 18th century was the high point in terms of the output and quality – much of it following English Georgian taste but with a recognisable Irish idiom and a sophisticated level of craftsmanship. Egans was the last firm of silversmiths in Cork There are conflicting dates for the firm. According to some sources, it, or a precursor of the same family, was in existence on the Grand Parade, Cork in 1820, but most sources date the firm from 1876 on Patrick Street. It finally closed in 1986 after 110 years. There were several businesses in Cork which dealt with silver but, with the exception of Egans, these were retailers whose stock was imported rather than made on the premises. The only substantial item of silver made in Cork in the latter part of the nineteenth century came from Egans – a model of the Church of St Ann, Shandon for the Cork Industrial Exhibition of 1883, a clean-lined competent exhibition piece, what might be called in painting a good likeness. (For more details of William Egan and Son at this time and the firm’s contribution to the Honan church plate, see J. Bowen in this website and in The Honan Chapel: a golden vision)

Egans, under the management of Barry Egan, grandson of the founder, was an important name in the business life of the city, as was Barry Egan himself. An energetic man, with literary, philanthropic and political interests and with a record of concern for his employees, Barry Egan worked on some of the Honan commissions which he also oversaw, and subsequently shepherded his business through the dangerous times in the early 1920s. He has left a vibrant account of trying unsuccessfully to save his shop and workshops from the Black and Tans who burned down his side of Patrick Street in early December 1920.Using his considerable connections and organisational skills it took him less than a week to be back in business and his greatest concerns were to ensure the return to employment of his staff. and to save ‘the spirit of the business’ among the company’s books and ledgers once the safe had cooled in the ashes of his workshops. The shop was rebuilt by 1925 with a Celtic Revival front and landmark clock and negotiations with the shop next door ensured that their facades were compatible (3).

In 1922, during the Civil War, Cork was occupied for some months by the anti-treaty forces. Roads and rail links to Dublin were cut and silver could not be sent there for assay. Pieces made by Egans for a few months during this period have special hallmarks for Cork. This silver is known as Cork Republican Silver and is very rare. It is believed that only about 60 items were stamped with the Republican Silver hallmarks - W.E. and, based on Cork’s original Town Marks, a two-masted ship with a single-towered castle on either side of it. Until the company closed in1976 items in hand wrought silver from the workshops of William Egan were commissioned or bought as gifts or presentation pieces, and the most sought after are those with specific national hallmarks, for example. those for the 50th anniversary of 1916 and Ireland’s accession to the EU (then the EEC in 1973).

Egans made most of the splendid and now well catalogued vestments in the Honan Chapel, which, importantly, have at last been extensively recorded and described along with items commissioned for the Honan in The Honan Chapel: A Golden Vision edited by Virginia Teehan and Elizabeth Wincott Heckett. Cork University Press, 2004.(4)

The Dublin firm of Edmond Johnson Ltd also made several items of metalwork and church plate for the Honan, in this case the designer is specified - the talented William A.Scott, first Professor of Architecture at UCD. Again the designs are Celtic, a vigorous interpretation, and the influences occasionally wider as is the case of the striking thurible and sanctuary lamp- "Celto-Byzantine" in style, recalling Scott’s travels in Turkey.(5)

It is interesting to note that many of the designers’ and makers’ names are recorded for the vestments and other textiles in the Honan, but the names of those who designed the church plate are far less readily available This appears to be a common practice in silver smithing where the names attributed to pieces are usually those of the firms where they were manufactured. Not until 1950s and 1960s do the designers’ names begin to appear, in line with the modern emphasis on the importance of design and the individual designer. However, a cursory survey of items made by Egans, shows very little influence of fashion or changes in taste – art deco, modernist, Bauhaus etc in the last 100 years. Particularly in church plate the Celtic Revival idiom has persisted.

One of the few remaining inheritors of the tradition of Cork silver is the silversmith Chris Carroll, of Sean Carroll and Sons, whose father and brother worked for Egans and who still uses their tools and equipment. His firm was responsible for the recent repair of the Honan Chapel plate.

The Honan Chapel is a rare example of a thoughtful, unified, confidently executed design in an Irish church of its time. The homogeneous design inspiration for it could had been repetitive, busy or even overwhelming, but the broad and generous barrel vaulting, the graphic quality of the transverse ribs and severe Hiberno-Romanesque decoration on the structure of the interior all contribute to a harmonious and mellow environment. Now in its 90th year, the Honan Chapel is held in great affection by generations of staff and students.


1. Fallon, Brian. "Iconoclasm comes to Ireland. Plans for Carlow Cathedral cause controversy." Adoremus Bulletin. Vol.II, No.9, February 1997 Online Edition (24.08.2006)

2. Larmour, P. "The Honan Chapel, Cork", Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies: Journal of the Irish Georgian Society Vol.V, 2002 pp23-47

3. Cork City and County Archives, William Egan and Sons, U404

4. Teehan, V. and Wincott Heckett, E.(eds.). The Honan Chapel: A Golden Vision(Cork, Cork University Press, 2004)

5. Teehan, 61

Posted 2006-9-19

Does anyone have any comments to add for discussion?

James Cronin, 2006-11-2