Michael Powell


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Scripture & Practice - Paper 7








My earlier paper Built Environment in Luke’s Gospel (Scripture & Practice 3) drew out direct connections between Luke’s text and everyday experience of built environments. The paper showed that the trail of Luke’s story could be followed through his references to buildings and places. These connections were shown to be of two types: geographical and descriptive, and illustrative and metaphorical.

In this new paper I am following a trail through key buildings of Ireland and drawing out more subtle examples of resonance with the ideas and motifs of John’s Gospel. In his study of the four Gospels, Peter Malone says, ‘The Gospel of John has always been considered as mystical, symbolic, always complex. An Intuitive Gospel.’[1] Listening for resonance, I have found, is an intuitive process.



I spent Easter week 2013 on a family visit to Ireland, staying mainly near Belfast but including a three-day excursion to Dublin. Having been there only once before many years ago on a two day business trip, I was experiencing everything almost for the first time. During that week and subsequently I have found myself thinking about how one could sensibly discern connectedness between what I was seeing and learning about there in historic buildings and streets, and the world of the Bible, in some ways so similar but in others so distant, both in time and space and in ways of thinking.

Discovering Word and Sacrament

My first visit in Dublin was to the library of Trinity College, where in a darkened room I, as one of some 500,000 visitors annually, was able to see the treasured Book of Kells, a hand-written and beautifully illustrated text of the four gospels.  The manuscript is in Latin based on the Vulgate text. The Library explains that the place of origin of the Book of Kells is generally thought to be the scriptorium of the monastery founded around 561 by St Colum Cille [Columba] on the Scottish island of Iona. Following Viking raids, in 806 the Columban monks took refuge in a new monastery at Kells, County Meath, in Ireland. While the book must have been written close to the year 800, there is no way of knowing whether it was at Iona or Kells, or partly at each.[2]

My second visit in Dublin was to the National Gallery of Ireland where one painting in particular caught my eye. By Aloysius O’Kelly, it was entitled Mass in a Connemarra Cabin. It depicts some twenty people and their priest at worship in the most basic of cottage rooms with the candles and chalice on the supper table and the everyday cups and plates on the dresser shelves.[3]

The Book of Kells and the painting of the Mass in the cabin had fortuitously given me a vivid sense of the Word and the Sacrament, each rooted and embodied right where I was in Ireland, one dating from the ninth century and the other from the nineteenth.

Discovering key Irish buildings

In both Belfast and Dublin the visitor is offered a wide choice of literature on both history and architecture. I was drawn to a recently published volume Ireland in Brick & Stone: The Island’s History in its Buildings.[4] This appealed because it combined the two subjects of history and architecture, and related to both Northern Ireland and the Republic. The author, Richard Killeen, uses a selection of fifty buildings and structures (including one unbuilt landscape) as a way of focusing on and bringing to life some aspects of the story of the whole of Ireland, with their social, economic, religious and political as well as architectural and building aspects. He says, ‘This book is predicated on the simple and obvious proposition that history is about the transformation of land and landscape by human volition’. Building is an essential and revelatory part of that transforming process. He emphasises the quotidian, every-day, aspects of history, enabling his readers to gain insights which are on the middle ground between the big narratives of architecture and history, and equally important small and local details.

As I started to study Killen in detail two things came to mind. First, both his book and my two links to word and sacrament traverse the same long period of time in the same place. Although Kells is of the ninth century and O’Kelly’s picture of the nineteenth, there is a long expanse of shared time between them and Killen’s journey begins somewhat earlier and ends somewhat later,

Linking to John’s Gospel

While reading Killeen, I found my mind turning to John’s Gospel and specifically to its three-fold structure as outlined by commentators such as CH Dodd[5]. In this, the Prologue sets out the idea of incarnation, the Word becoming flesh. This ensures that our theological perceptions are dependent, not only on the spiritual, but equally on the physical and the material. Dodd’s second element is the Book of Signs in which motifs such as light, water, bread, truth, sheep, doors, and so on appear in the context of everyday encounters and discussions in Jerusalem, in the Temple and in other locations. Thirdly Dodd comes to the Book of the Passion, beginning with the discourses of Jesus in which familiar motifs such as peace and home figure memorably, going on to the power scenarios of the trial of Jesus, and finally coming to resurrection, confidence and hope.

I found that Killeen seemed to be leading me on an analogous path from simple, early building structures, through a period when architectural concepts such as light and house became apparent, to his later story in which power-play of many kinds is reflected in buildings and in what happened in and around them. A clear resonance was echoing in my mind.

The validity of such resonance is supported by Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh in their Social Commentary on the Gospel of John.[6] Their purpose is to explain the social and everyday background essential to understanding, but implicit rather than explained in the text. John was first written for a society in which most people were familiar with the full range of customs, practices and meanings that affected them on most days; the writers did not have to explain. By contrast the modern West is a society of specialists. ‘There are small worlds in every corner of our society that the rest know nothing about… [for example] the worlds of the engineer and the plumber are in large measure self-contained’. If others need to know, then they must be told explicitly. Malina and Rohrbaugh tell their readers what John did not need to tell his because they already knew.  Because our modern world divides up knowledge into specialisms such as theology, building and history, our listening for resonance between Scripture and our own world has to be concentrated and intense.

Malina and Rohrbaugh also point out the central importance of the theme of ‘life’ which is central in John. The word occurs almost fifty times, a marked contrast with Luke, Matthew and Mark, in each of which it occurs only a handful of times. Killeen, by telling the stories of significant Irish buildings, is telling the story of the island’s life. Every building is about life and lives. Also pertinent is the emphasis Malina and Rohrbaugh place on discipleship in this Gospel as a way of living in this world now rather than in some future, yet to be realised, Kingdom of God. These insights into John convinced me that it was most definitely no not incongruous to relate the island f Ireland’s story to John’s Gospel’s story.

Much of the action in John takes place in Jerusalem and within the precincts of the temple. Malina and Rohrbaugh explain the religious, social, political and economic significance of the temple. All roles, goals and values of the polity found expression there. Its complex structure with restricted access for differing groups it mirrored social organisation, and with its large treasuries and storehouses it was a place of security and for redistribution of wealth. While in Killeen’s representation of Ireland these functions are located separately in cathedrals, castles, parliaments and other locations, they belong to one whole.


My detailed approach now is to follow Killeen’s sequence and take in comment on John as appropriate. I will use the code B1, B2 etc to refer to Killeen’s buildings.


The links here are with John’s prologue. Killeen begins with Slane Friary (B1), the traditional if not authentic location for the beginning of Christianity in Ireland. According to legend, Patrick showed the local king a shamrock and used the trefoil as a symbol for the Trinity. This is a valuable site of memory. John begins with God and the Word, and in due course completes the Trinity by adding the Spirit. The tiny oratory of Gallarus (B2) dates from about 1000AD. What can be seen today is what the original builder saw. The shape is that of an upturned boat and the construction is of corbelled dry stone. Reginald’s Tower (B4), a military building, is of the same age but uses mortared stone. In both these cases the stone is the materiality of the building, akin to the flesh which the Word takes or becomes. Gallarus’ oratory is of diminutive size and, similarly, Clonfert Cathedral (B6) is far removed from the continental idea of large cathedrals. This is reflected in its rural monastic littleness, modesty and lack of pomp, and its location at the remotest edge of Europe.  The cathedral on the Rock of Cashel (B5) built c1100AD is associated with Brian who ‘was not a king in any common understanding of the word’. Both Clonfert and Cashel are significant because of their otherness, as God’s Word was other than just a human person.

This Gaelic period continues with two castles, Carrickfergus (B9) and Dunluce (B10) symbolising secular power, and two symbols of religious power, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (B7) and the monastery at Mellifont (B9). We can see all four as foreshadowing situations to come as John the baptizer (1:19) foreshadows Jesus. Killeen uses Rockfleet Castle (B11) to reveal the end of the Gaelic period of Irish history. A comparable point in John’s Gospel is where chapter 1 ends and chapter 2 begins with the wedding at Cana. John the baptizer and prophet has left the stage and Jesus commences his own work.


Killeen moves easily into a sequence which resonates with the signs and motifs and images which emanate from the central parts of John’s Gospel and include the light of the world (8:12), the house of God in which are provided many mansions or homes (14:1), the unity of Jesus and his disciples (15:5), and the gift of peace (14:27). There are echoes of these in some of the buildings of the 16th – 18th centuries. Black Tom Butler’s house at Carrick (B12) was ‘a declaration in stone that this was a land of peace’. At Youghal (B14), the Earl of Cork built homes in the form of Widows’ Alms Houses (1602) and The College, a splendid new mansion for himself. In Dublin the Royal Hospital (B16) was built as a residence for homeless ex-soldiers and the Gardiner Estate (B17) built in the 1720’s on former Cistercian ground provided very spacious town houses for the well-to-do. At Newtown Pery in Limerick 18th century blocks of houses (B19) reveal an architectural unity and coherence of purpose, enhanced by effective gas lighting. The Printing House at Trinity College, Dublin (B18), the oldest surviving Irish printing house, represents an era of peaceful urban living, and of course the thriiving word.

Just as the shadow of the passion is present throughout John, so these centuries carry their reminders in built form of the pains and dilemmas of life. The Walls of Derry (B13) were built in five years to provide protection for a nervous city of settlers, ‘set on a hill and braced for defence’. The Millmount at Drogheda (B15) is indelibly associated with the massacres of 1641, in which the surrounding area was devastated; Killeen sees this as ‘a classic case of making a desert and calling it peace’. Castletown Folly (B20) was built to provide something useless but elegant for the rich to look at, and crucially to provide employment in building work for starving estate tenants, making possible some bread for life.

Power and tension

Killeen moves on to a set of scenarios in which the demonstration of power is a prominent feature, as it is in the approaches of the Jewish and Roman authorities to Jesus. The first scenario is the enclosure of agricultural land (B21), not a building as such but a major environmental change, which ‘established the primacy of landlords over their bigger tenants in the rural pecking order, leaving the cottiers and landless labourers at maximum risk’. The Catholic Cathedral at Waterford (B22) is the work of a comfortable and well-off community displaying its self-confidence, a benign form of power. The Great South Wall of Dublin Harbour (B23) is an example of formidable engineering skill deployed to contain the powers of nature, while the White Linen Hall in Belfast (B24), commenced 1783, symbolises the new powers of manufacturing industry. Killeen uses the Market House at Gorey in County Wexford (B25) as a marker for the political conflict and power-play that led to the ending of the Irish parliament, and the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The power of growing Catholic and Protestant forms of confessionalism are signified in the building of the specifically Catholic Glasnevin Cemetery (B26). The ordered, paternalistically planned town of Newtonbarry (B27) became the location of ‘a seething sense of dispossession and resentment’, embodying the power of a nationalism that was both Irish and Catholic. All these examples of power and power-play resonate with those of the Jewish and Roman authorities as they confront both Jesus and one another in John 18 and 19.

As Killeen moves forward into the 19th century some of the old issues re-appear and new tensions come to light. The English Market in Cork (B29) demonstrates a prosperity sharply contrasting with the poverty and starvation exemplified by the Workhouse (B30). St Enoch’s Church, Belfast (B31) is connected to the bigoted protestant anti-popery of the period, while Avondale (B32), the home of the Parnell family, symbolises fervent nationalism. Questions about what to do with older buildings. Moira railway station (B28) is conserved substantially in its 1840 form, while Robinson & Cleaver’s department store (B33) which started in Belfast in 1886, swaggered into the 1920’s, and began to slide in the 1960’s, was closed for good in 1984. There are always times of retreat. The substantial Red Brick houses of Georgian Dublin (B34) are a retreat into the privacies of suburbia, whereas the two-bedroomed cottage Peter Pearse built as a retreat for himself in beautiful rural Roscommon (B35) is identified with his advancing, progressive political work. At the heart of John is the issue of how the old orders relate to the presence of new ways of life.

Moving on

John’s Gospel moves on quickly from the confrontations of chapters 18 and 19 taking place in the city of Jerusalem to chapter 20 and the resurrection narrative, the commissioning of the disciples, and to satisfying the doubts of Thomas. The chapter concludes with the wide-open comment that ‘there are many other signs that Jesus worked… but they are not recorded in this book’.   By contrast with the building-dominated city, the later epilogue of chapter 21 tells of a breakfast barbecue on a Galilee beach, and this writer’s final signing off in 21:25 is that there was so much else that ‘the world itself could not hold all the books that would be written’ .

It is diversity, spreading out, and worldwide exploration, that mark the last part of Killeen’s collection of buildings. The Mechanics’ Institute (B36) marks diversification from dominating religion and politics into the broader spaces of literature and culture. The Semple Stadium (B41), a home of hurling, signifies sport, while the widening of horizons to America and elsewhere is linked to the Cove of Cork (B43). The coming, albeit it late and low rise, of modernist architecture to Dublin in the mid-twentieth century is noted in the Busaras or bus station building (B44). The mixed blessing of inward tourism is focused in the Blasket Centre, Dunquin (B45) and both religiously and secularly motivated travel by Knock Airport (B46). The new European politics is made visible in European Union House, Dublin (B45) and contemporary culture by the Waterfront Hall, Belfast (B49).

But a story such as Ireland’s, despite all the genuine excitement of progress, is bedevilled by its ageless and persistent problems. Ongoing conflict is marked by the Market Square at Thurles (B37) and Drumcree Church (B48), poverty by the Dublin Tenements (B38), church-state clashes by the Marian Shrine (B39), contentious politics by Stormont (B40), and land and food issues by a Strong Farmer’s house (B42). Finally, Killeen chooses a redbrick house in Dublin 9 (B50) as the symbolic point for his critique of the financial and regulatory crises of the 2000’s.

Are we then to be left with the local troubles of Northern Ireland, the Republic’s difficulties arising from brief experience as a tiger economy, and ubiquitous natural disasters? Does John offer anything comparable?

Some editions of the Gospel print the text of 7:53-8:11 at the end, indicating that it is an insertion from another source. It is the story of the young woman caught in adultery and the dishonour caused by it to herself and all the families affected. Jesus shames her accusers into not stoning her. Neither does he himself make any accusation against her but despite all the traditions pressures, tells her to go and sin no more. How does this help us find resonance between John’s Gospel and Ireland’s story as it can be read in its buildings? I think we can say that it is possible that there is someone like this unnamed woman, powerless and entangled, hidden in the stories of at least some, if not many, of Killeen’s buildings, either as builder or occupier. If so, then we can say with confidence that despite prominent features of their stories, behind the scenes, deep within their fabric, these places are settings for grace and freedom, and so always of hope.



In this paper I have set out what I have come to hear as significant resonance between the sequences and motifs of John’s Gospel and the events of Ireland’s story as Killeen describes, and we can read them, in and through examples of building and architecture.

The unavoidable question concerns the value of such a piece of work. Stephen Verney, whom I met once, wrote a very informal and personal study of John[7]. As the Prologue to John was probably written last, he keeps his thoughts on it until last. He believes that in 1:1b, the Word was God, the Greek ‘pros’ is best rendered as ‘the Word was towards God’. We hear best, and perhaps sense resonance best, when things are ‘towards’ one another. I conclude that the value of this exercise is in facing two texts, one literary, one architectural, and both historical, towards one another.

[1] Peter Malone The Same as Christ Jesus: Gospel and Type 2000 St Paul’s Publishing

[3] Aloysius O’Kelly (1853-c1941) Mass in a Connemera Cabin 1883

[4] Richard Killen, 2012, Gill & Macmillan

[5] CH Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 1953, Cambridge University Press

[6] 1998 Fortress Press, Minneapolis

[7] Stephen Verney Water into Wine, 1985, Fount Paperbacks


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