Take me to chapel - Frank McNally on why traditional Catholics never went to church

A crucial distinction

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

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

But it’s a tradition in those parts, or used to be, that Catholics worshipped in chapels, while churches were for Protestants.

Hence Patrick Kavanagh on his north-facing farm at Shancoduff, which had “never seen the sun rising” and accepted with stoicism its fate of forever facing Armagh:


“Lot’s wife would not be salt if she had been/Incurious as my black hills that are happy/When dawn whitens Glassdrummond Chapel.”

Noting the church/chapel distinction in his Dictionary of Hiberno-English, Terry Dolan mentions an earlier 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 wrote only half of it. According to one source, “John Short composed the English verses condemning Catholicity while McCooey exploded Protestantism.”

When he wasn’t exploding Protestantism, by the way, McCooey was flirting it. After his lampoon of a blind Mary Quinn earned him excommunication from the local parish priest (her brother), he resolved in another poem to become Protestant, although seems to have changed his mind by the final verse.

The word chapel has origins in the Italian capella, meaning “little cloak or cape”. According to Brewer’s Dictionary, the cloak it immortalises was that of St Martin (the French one 316-397AD), preserved as a sacred relic by Frankish kings.

They kept it in a chest called the chapelle, the keeper of which was the chapelain: “Hence the name came to be attached to a sanctuary, or a private place of worship other than a parish or cathedral church.”

As for the chapels in which even godless journalists still meet, mention of which here yesterday set me thinking about the subject, Brewer surmises that this originated in the early days of printing, “when presses were set up in chapels attached to abbeys”.

Printers held meetings there periodically to discuss their employment. And although latter-day journalists no longer meet in actual chapels, the term survives.

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

Dolan’s Dictionary cross-references it to the word “scallan”, from scáthlán, meaning “a makeshift hut or shed in which mass was said”. It also quotes an example from PW Joyce’s English as we Speak it in Ireland (1910), which now sounds like a forerunner of the Popemobile:

“In Donegal and elsewhere they had a moveable little wooden shed that just sheltered the priest and the sacred appliances while he celebrated Mass, and which was wheeled about from place to place in the parish wherever required.”

As Joyce also points out, the church/chapel usage was formalised in Ordnance Survey maps, where Anglican places of worship were delineated with a simple “Church” while “R.C. Chapel” marked the Catholic ones.

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

On closer inspection, the poem is more monologue than dialogue. After a verse expressing indignation at the neighbour’s pretensions, Shandon is not allowed get a further word in edgeways.

The rest is dominated by the chapel’s triumphalism, eg: “When you are a shelter for owls and ravens/To perforate and reduce your walls/Then I will flourish each morning gaily/With joy-bells echoing, my flocks to call.”

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

This probably explains why Elvis Presley was caught “Crying in the Chapel”, not the church, or why the Dixie Cups were “Going to the chapel of love” to get married. Of course, mere metre may have been the key influence on some songs.

Hozier, for example, was probably thinking about syllables rather than conversion when he wrote “Take me to church”. But that phrase used to have a deeper resonance in Ireland. According to PW Joyce, there was a time when “he’s going to church now” meant the subject had “turned Protestant”.