The rosary’s history in Ireland is long and sometimes problematic. Misinformation about rosaries such as the ‘Penal Rosary’ and the ‘Irish Horn Rosary’ is common, especially online. In addition, the dark history of laws against Catholics, and abusive labor practices within the church, shadows the history of the rosary in Ireland. Yet devotion to the rosary as a symbol of Catholic identity is stronger in Ireland than perhaps anywhere else in the world, as shown by the many beautiful, distinctively Irish styles and materials.
Irish Horn Rosaries
Rosaries with beads made from horn were made in Ireland from the mid 1800s into the 1960s. Their history is closely linked with that of the Mitchell Rosary Factory of Dublin. They were an authentic traditional craft, and even in the 20th century they were mostly handcrafted. While horn is a resilient material in many ways, standing up well to daily use and nearly unbreakable, it can be destroyed by exposure to the elements. Mice love to eat these beads. As a result only a small fraction of the many horn rosaries that were produced still exist today, and they are highly sought after by collectors.
Most horn rosaries have heart shaped centers, but occasionally you'll see a harp or Miraculous Medal. Rosaries from the ‘50s usually have hollow Lucite centers in the shape of a heart, containing holy water, and amber colored Lucite crosses with a white Lucite Chistos. Earlier versions have celluloid crosses - these are often warped as celluloid isn't very stable. The oldest have flat centers made from horn, and horn crosses with a metal Chistos. More expensive versions have silver centers and crucifixes, and/or silver bead caps on the paters. You'll see different combinations of these materials and styles, so this is a generalization, but the horn beads themselves are the identifying mark of an Irish Horn rosary. The beads are often dyed red, yellow, or green, sometimes bleached white, and sometimes are a combination of colors. If left natural, the horn is a warm dark beige color.
Another way of dating horn rosaries from Ireland is to look at the Country of Origin stamp on the back of the crucifix. Ireland's official name changed often in the early part of the 20th century, and the name stamped into the cross will give you a good idea of when it was made.
Penal Rosaries; An Paidrin Beag - The Little Rosary
The rosary we most often think of as an ‘Irish Penal Rosary’ is a type of ‘Tenner’, that is, a one decade rosary with a ring on one end and a cross, medal, or tassel on the other end. The cross is usually a modern version of a Penal cross, but sometimes a Celtic cross is used. Penal crosses are broad, flat crosses with short arms, and are a very old traditional form in Ireland. The modern version includes stylized symbols of the passion and is very distinctive:
A hammer for the nails of the cross
A halo for the Crown of Thorns
A jug symbolizing the Last Supper
Cords for binding to recall the scourging at the Pillar
The spear used at Calvary
A cock and pot illustrating the legend of a roasting cock which came to life and crowed, prophesying the Resurrection
Three nails used for the crucifix
Small marks along the side symbolizing a ladder
This has been a popular style of rosary since the middle ages, beautiful examples of elaborate one decade rosaries still survive in museums. They are compact and easy to carry, but their popularity in 18th and 19th century Ireland is said to have been based on another advantage – they’re easy to hide.
Anti-catholic legislation, or ‘Penal Laws’ prohibiting the celebration of mass and banishing or even executing priests, began in the early 1600s and continued through the 1800s. During this period publically displaying a rosary, while legal, was unwise. Tradition has it that the Irish Penal Rosary developed as a means of carrying and saying the rosary in public without being obvious about it.
Unfortunately, I can’t find any historical support for this idea. Although priests and Catholic landowners were harshly targeted, rosaries and other devotional objects were never outlawed in Ireland. One decade rosaries from the penal times in Ireland do exist, alongside the more common five decade rosaries. And penal-type crosses appear to have been an established tradition by the 1770s, treasured as mementos of the difficult pilgrimage to Logh Derg. But the two are not commonly found together until well into the 20th century.
I don’t think this takes away from the Irish Penal Rosary in any way other than age. The history of oppression of Irish Catholics is real, and the distinctive short armed cross and its symbols are all based on real traditions in Celtic, Catholic Ireland. The appearance of the chaplet we know as the Irish Penal Rosary coincides with a turbulent and troubled time in the religious history of Ireland ~ beginning with the Easter Uprising of 1916 and continuing through the 1970s, and I believe it is this struggle that it represents. Look on it as a living symbol of a vibrant, stubborn history.
Small bone beads with larger beads dividing the decades. Wooden cross.
Hunt Museum, Limerick, Ireland. Date Unknown.
A single decade rosary of ten amber beads and a silver tubular crucifix. This type of crucifix is typical of the late 1700s.
Hunt Museum, Limerick, Ireland. Date Unknown.
Wooden penal cross, carved with the date 1799 on the reverse. This type of cross is believed to be a souvenir from the pilgrimage site at Lough Derg, Co. Donegal.
Hunt Museum, Limerick, Ireland.
1) Handbook to the city of Dublin and the surrounding district - British Association for the Advancement of Science; 1908 E. A. ilONTMOKENCY MoilRIS, M.A.
2) It’s a Long Way from Penny Apples’, Bill Cullen
3) New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11611c.htm
Old Irish Rosaries ~ Edward A. McGuire
Published by: The Furrow, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Feb., 1954), pp. 97-104, 1-4, 105 (article consists of 13 pages)
The Goldenbridge Secret Rosary Bead Factory ~ Marie-Therese O'Loughlin Dec 27th, 2006
Haunted by Irish rosary beads ~ James Carroll