The Writing on the Wall – An Irishman’s Diary about a mysterious message on a Dublin church
The object of her gaze, she explained, was the number “77”, formed in stone above a stain-glass window, on an arched lintel
Readers will have to forgive me returning yet again to Rathmines Catholic Church, whose Russian-accented dome and Irish republican history were the subject of recent columns. But I was belatedly browsing the Summer 2017 issue of the Dublin Historical Record this week, quite by chance, and discovered within it a small, fascinating article about yet another mysterious element of that building’s fabric.
The story goes back to a day about a decade ago, when a (since-deceased) member of the Rathmines, Ranelagh and Rathgar Historical Society, Michael Stynes, was walking across the carpark behind the church. He noticed a woman – American – staring at something on the wall, high up, just under the famous dome. So curiosity aroused, he stopped to talk to her.
The object of her gaze, she explained, was the number “77”, formed in stone above a stain-glass window, on an arched lintel. To a casual observer, it might have seemed accidental: the result of a mason using lapidary left-overs to fill a gap. But it was no accident, the woman knew, because the stonemason responsible was her father, who had brought the secret with him when emigrating to the US many years before and revealed it to her only on his death-bed.
Among other things, that woman’s father might have been able to answer another question raised in one of those aforementioned columns. As readers may remember, it was posed by a Vancouver-based descendant of the man who supplied and fitted the dome – made in Glasgow and originally intended for Petrograd until the Bolsheviks interrupted plans – after the Rathmines original burned down in a 1920 fire.
Unfortunately, the Vancouver descendant recalled from family lore, this ready-made replacement was slightly narrower than its predecessor, and he wondered how this problem had been fixed. Well, the stonemason could have told us, because it was his job to rebuild the upper part of the wall, under the new dome. But if he’s no longer around to elucidate that, he did at least leave the answer to the mystery he himself added.
So what does the “77” mean?
No, it’s not the number of generations between Adam and Jesus, although there were 77 of those, according to the Bible. Nor is it the numerological value or the word “Christ” in the Roman alphabet – also 77. Nor was it some secret Masonic code, or a shibboleth; although in wartime Sweden, I’m told, “77” was used for a time as a border password, to flush out spies, because it was so difficult for foreigners to pronounce it as Swedes do.
No, the number had a simple but grim local significance, rooted in the tragic events that befell Ireland even as the church was being rebuilt.
Maybe Erskine Childers, who 20 years earlier had written the century’s first espionage novel, The Riddle of the Sands, could have worked out the cryptic reference had he seen it. Alas, he was dead by then: shot for possession of a gun during the Free State government’s brutal crackdown against anti-treaty rebels. Furthermore, he was one of the 77 referred to: republican prisoners executed by their former comrades during the most bitter period of the Civil War.
Perhaps the stonemason had been among those IRA men who, only three years earlier, had used the old Rathmines church as an occasional night refuge and a place to store arms: a habit that caused such unease during the fire. In any case, he took the opportunity of the rebuilding to leave a permanent reminder of the Civil War’s bitterness, even as he himself prepared to quit Ireland.
A possible target for his message was Rathmines resident Richard Mulcahy, minister for defence at the time of the executions, who lived just opposite the church at Lissenfield.
But as Dr Séamus Ó Maitiú, honorary editor of the DHR points out, Mulcahy would have had to go out of his way to see it. The “77” is at the church’s rear, overlooking Bessborough Parade. Indeed, despite the trouble the stonemason went to, not many people could have noticed his handiwork in the years since, unless it was pointed out.
If anyone does have information to add to the story, Dr Ó Maitiú would love to hear it via email firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you could maybe tell him in person at the RR&R Historical Society’s September meeting, which is at 8pm tomorrow in Rathmines Town Hall. This month’s speaker, by the way, is archivist Ellen Murphy. And her subject is a rather less tragic one: “The Dublin City Sports Archive.”