The English Arts and Crafts Movement dates from the late 19th century. The artists involved believed that everything creative had its own value and importance. Emphasis was placed on the quality of the design and on the reformation of design. The Industrial Revolution had divided the value of design from the value of labour and the aim of the movement was to tie these two back together, to re-establish some sort of harmony between the architect, designer and the craftsman. Unification of design and art were the central motivations of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Attaining a harmonious balance between the two was fundamental. The four principles of the movement were: design unity, joy in labour, individualism and regionalism.
The Irish Arts and Crafts movement dates from 1894. It was born out of a similar movement in England. Its primary aim was to increase awareness of Irish craftsmanship, which until then had always been regarded as inferior to fine art and sculpture. Its founders hoped to improve the skills of the craftsman and to raise the artistic level of his work. The Industrial Revolution had enabled the mass production of standardised, machine-made products; the movement’s championing of individuality and craftsmanship can be seen as a response to the prevailing utilitarian ethos of the time. Between 1895 and 1925, seven exhibitions were staged, each in turn increasing understanding of the movement’s meaning.
I hear a friend object: ‘I never knew there were any arts and Crafts in Ireland; I know they make butter and frieze and linen but what are Irish Arts and Crafts?’ … A tea cosy may be artistic but a design by Burne-Jones is Art. A horse-shoe may be an example of the blacksmiths craft, but a fine piece of hammered ironwork will show us the skill of the craftsman working in artistic design. I trust these two simple instances may convey some idea to my friend what Arts and Crafts mean. If he does not understand me, I must refer him to Mr. William Morris, that high priest of Art Craftsmanship in England.
By the time of the fourth Arts and Crafts exhibition in 1910, a number of crafts people who would subsequently work on the Honan Chapel had become involved in the movement. Oswald Reeves, and Evelyn Gleeson of the Dun Emer Guild had begun to achieve recognition for their work. Sir John O’Connell, another prominent member of the movement, selected a number of artists to make the chapel a monument to the Irish Arts and Crafts movement. Although the architecture of the chapel is a reproduction of the old Hiberno-Romanesque style of architecture, the fixtures and fittings of the church contain some of the finest examples of the contemporary Arts and Crafts movement.
The wonderful oak pews are credited to the builders, Sisk & Son. The stone capitals depicting the Munster saints were carved by Henry Emery of Dublin. He was assisted by the Cork Technical School. Evelyn Gleeson and the Dun Emer Guild embroidered the tapestries behind the altar. The renowned enamel artist, Oswald Reeves, made the tabernacle door. Eleanor Kelly of Dublin made the tooled bindings of the missals and Joseph Tierney designed and illuminated a set of altar cards. The silversmith, Edmond Johnson, made a chalice, ciboria, sanctuary lamp, thurible and other items of plate. Cork silversmiths William Egan & Sons were responsible for many items of the altar plate, furnishings and vestments. The vestments designed by John Lees of Cork were made by local seamstresses. Robert Scott of UCD designed the iron grille which once hung in front of the main door.
In 1924, Irish Builder magazine described Reeves’ tabernacle door as the finest article of its kind in Ireland. It depicts the Adoration of the Lamb, along with the tree of life and groups of angels bearing the implements of the crucifixion. The triangular panel immediately above the door represents the blessed Trinity, with attendant angels carrying the sun and moon in their arms. The sun and moon symbolise the days of creation. Reeves carried out this work in brilliant luminous enamels on repoussé silver, set in a bronze surround.