Duke took time off from General Assembly to inspect The Ascension which is seen here being restored by Nicola Grimaldi.
By Bill Heaney
A mural that was painted over 250 years ago when it was deemed to be “idolatrous” has become the second artistic treasure to be discovered in a Catholic church in what was once the Irish quarter in one of the most impoverished parts of Edinburgh.
The 10th Duke of Buccleuch has paid his first ever visit to one of his family’s long lost artistic legacies – the recently re-discovered mural of The Ascension of the Lord by 18th century painter Alexander Runciman in St Patrick’s Church in the Cowgate.
The Cowgate was then a channel which ran through the capital’s Irish quarter, where such luminaries as James Connolly, leader of the 1916 Irish Rebellion, which led to independence, and later to Ireland becoming a republic, was brought up in an immigrant family.
It was also where Hibernian Football Club was founded after footballers of Irish extraction were banned by the city council from playing matches on the Meadows.
“It was fascinating to visit the church, to see the Runciman mural and to hear of the ambitious plans to restore it, especially given the strong associations with my family,” said the Duke, who is in the capital for the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on the Mound.
Seventeen years ago, a valuable impressionist painting that had been considered lost for more than a century turned up above the fireplace in priest’s front room at St Patrick’s presbytery.
The 19th century work by leading Irish artist Aloysius O’Kelly was believed then to be worth around £500,000, although it is estimated that its value today would be much higher.
The find was considered so significant that the work was sent for display at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin’s Merrion Square, where it is still on show alongside paintings by Jack B Yeats and Paul Henry.
The painting, entitled Mass in a Connemara Cabin, had been on the wall above the fireplace in the priests’ sitting room.
It was cleaned in 1990, but nobody recognised it as the missing work or realised its significance. The truth came to light when Richard Reid, a Redemptorist priest at St Patrick’s, started researching the artist on the internet.
He said: “I typed O’Kelly’s name into the internet not expecting anything, and I discovered this painting had been missing for 100 years. Then I got into a panic.”
He said the painting had been authenticated but he insisted it would not be sold, despite the fact that the church needed money for refurbishment.
Mass in a Connemara Cabin by Aloysius O’Kelly is worth £500,000.
Father Reid said: “This painting is more a part of Irish than Scottish history. But it belongs to the people of this parish and that is one of the reasons for not selling it.”
The painting was exhibited in the Paris Salon in 1884 as the first painting of an Irish subject to be shown there.
The artist emigrated to the United States in 1895 after which the painting disappeared from public view.
It may have come to St Patrick’s church during the 1890s through the then parish priest Canon Hannan, who supported the Irish land reform movement.
The artist’s brother, James, was a Westminster MP, who was an associate of Michael Davitt, of the Land League, who took up the fight alongside crofters for land reform in the Scottish Highlands and the West of Ireland
Since the O’Kelly family were agitators for land reform, many regard the painting as clearly political.
It depicts a priest performing a religious ceremony known as a “station Mass” during penal times in Connemara when Catholicism was ruthlessly suppressed in Ireland.
The mural viewed today by the Duke of Buccleuch today was the work of Alexander Runciman (1736 – 85), who was one of the most significant artistic figures in Enlightenment Scotland.
with one of his most notable works being his 1774 mural The Ascension of the Lord in the Cowgate Chapel, a newly erected Episcopalian church just off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.
Both the building and the painting had been made possible, in large measure, by a £500 gift from the Henry Scott, 3rd Duke of Buccleuch, and his wife Lady Elizabeth Montagu. That is more than £74,000 in today’s money, but its value could be much more than that.
As the Episcopalian congregation migrated to the New Town, though, the church was purchased by the United Presbyterians in 1818 who duly painted over Runciman’ s “idolatrous” mural.
One hundred and fifty years ago, the church became St Patrick’s Catholic Church. The mural, though, remained covered. That is, until very recently with an exploratory examination in recent months showing that restoration is possible.
A charitable trust has now been established under the chairmanship of the distinguished Court of Session Judge Lord Andrew Hardie, to enable the restoration of the mural and paintings.
The Duke of Buccleuch centre talking with Mgr Kerr, parish priest of St Patrick’s, Cowgate, with, left, art historian Teresa Keenan and the Rev Neil Gardner, of Canongate Kirk.
This week the Duke of Buccleuch has been representing Her Majesty the Queen as Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh.
He took time out from his duties to visit St Patrick’s Church where he was welcomed by parish priest, Monsignor Philip Kerr.
The Duke was then given a tour of the church followed by a short talk on the Runciman murals by Professor Duncan McMillan, who was introduced by Lord Hardie.
Art historian, Teresa Keenan, who is project manager for the Runciman Apse Trust, said: “The Runciman murals are of outstanding national and international importance for their uniqueness and, from an art historical perspective, their contribution to the development of religious art in Scotland and we hope to uncover the mural and restore it and the side paintings to their original strikingly colourful narrative.
“That is why it was so good to welcome the Duke of Buccleuch as Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly.
“We are keen to work with a broad cross-section of Scottish society on this significant project as well as champion the ecumenical importance of our endeavours expressed both in the history of the church and our Board of Trustees.”