Glass act – Frank McNally on the folk art of ‘God in a Bottle’

Vernacular religious art

The existence of a concept known as “God in a Bottle” had somehow passed me by until this week. Then I found myself leafing through the catalogue for a forthcoming Dublin auction, wherein two examples of the phenomenon are for sale.

The auction, at Adam’s of Stephen’s Green, is of a random collection of furniture and effects gathered under the title “Irish vernacular”.

Most of what that means will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the Irish countryside during the mid-late 20th century. The sale includes vintage dressers, meal bins, settle beds, súgán chairs, turf buckets, etc.

There are even two “milking stools”, a four-legged and deluxe five-legged model, the likes of which I probably sat on as a child. But if “God in a Bottle” was part of the Irish vernacular back then too, we mustn’t have spoken that precise dialect where I grew up.

As I now know, it’s a variation on the ship-in-a-bottle theme, except with religious rather than maritime fittings suspended through the bottle-neck and assembled inside.

Typically, there was a cross and a ladder, along with other symbols of the crucifixion: a hammer, pincers, sometimes a soldier’s lance.

Adam’s suggests that although this form of folk art has roots in various cultures, “it is particularly associated with Ireland”. But the catalogue adds: “These intriguing creations occasionally found their way to England, likely brought by Irish labourers working on roads and building sites”.

Sure enough, during my researches, I have since found the website of an antiques business in York, where a sample dated 1937 turned up a few years ago.

The auctioneers there suggested that “these bottles were traditionally associated with the Irish living within mining communities”. Mind you, their cross had been inscribed by its creator “To Miss M Bryant from T Prisk”: not famously Hibernian names.

In any case, the phenomenon has travelled a lot farther than England. I have also found it mentioned on an entertaining blog called Don’t Forget Your Shovel, complied by one Susan Arthure, an Irish archaeologist living in South Australia.

One day a while ago, she went “snorkelling with the cuttlefish near Whyalla”, the way you do in Australia, and commented:

“That was glorious, but coming a close second was fossicking in a small antiques shop on the way home at Wirrabara (where) in the last room, I spied a magnificent God-in-a-bottle.”

It was a big, old flagon bottle, more than 30cm tall. And it didn’t have the usual crucifixion scene but featured instead both the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, with the maker’s name on a card: “Peter Coleman of Adelaide.”

Nor was it the first example she had seen in South Australia. There was another in the museum of a winery established by Jesuit priests in the mid-19th century. That one did have the standard cross, ladder, hammer, and even a miniature jug (“possibly for the vinegar?”), all inside an old wine bottle.

Strange to say, when I look up the phrase “God in a bottle” in Irish newspaper archives, the results are few and recent – all but one from the last three years and mainly relating to a man in Roscommon who keeps the tradition alive.

The curious exception is an Evening Press GAA column from 1978. But on closer inspection, that had nothing to do with religious art.

It was headlined “The Myths of the Open Draw” and concerned the debate, then (and still) smouldering, about whether the GAA would be better abandoning the provincial championships and having a straight knock-out competition with all counties going into the hat equally.

In disagreeing that this would improve the competition’s fairness, the writer reached for a phrase with which he was clearly familiar, even if the context suggests he didn’t understand its precise, folk-art meaning.

Dismissing the case for an open draw, he wrote: “The whole outcry is suggestive of decadence; of a search for some ‘God in a Bottle’ or ‘Deus ex machina’ whose very appearance will transform the struggling into the powerful without as much as a hand’s turn from themselves. That kind of thing went out with Cinderella.”

It’s not the main theme of this column, I know. But since the Evening Press writer brought it up, I feel bound to point that when an open draw format was tried out for the first time six years later, in the Centenary Cup of 1984, the established powers of the period – Kerry and Dublin – were both eliminated early.

My humble native county Monaghan, meanwhile – freed at last from the oppression of the Ulster Championship – blazed a trail through Limerick, Mayo, Offaly, and Derry to reach the final, in which they were narrowly defeated by Meath. No Gods in bottles were invoked anywhere along the route.

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