Queen Victoria had a complex and unstable relationship with Ireland throughout her 64-year reign. She was intrigued and delighted by the country and its natural landscape as a young woman, after receiving tuition in Irish history and geography as a child. Her well documented visits to Ireland in 1849, 1853 and 1861 are credited with increasing the country’s international profile and boosting a burgeoning tourist trade. She, in turn, received a generally warm reception in Ireland in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, although that popularity waned as the republican and nationalist movements gained strength.
Queen Victoria’s relationship with the Irish Catholic establishment was similarly ambiguous. There were divisions amongst Ireland’s archbishops regarding the Church’s position towards the monarch, and only 13 of the country’s 27 bishops signed the official Catholic address to Victoria during her 1849 visit. While within the Irish-Protestant community, which included much of the country’s upper classes, Victoria held both secular and divine importance, for Catholics, Victoria held no divine symbolism or authority. Conflict between the Catholic head of church in Rome and the British government led to anti-Irish and anti-Catholic feelings in England.
So, despite the fact that the Sisters of Mercy established the first Catholic convent in England since the Reformation during Victoria’s reign, the Queen herself was not closely associated with their mission or work. Catherine McAuley received some early support from the then Princess Victoria in 1834, when she boldly wrote to Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, requesting that the Princess contribute items to her Easter bazaar at the House of Mercy on Baggot Street. The request was successful, and Catherine advertised the Princess’s ‘exalted patronage’ in adverts for the bazaar in local papers. Catherine’s biographer, Mary C Sullivan, notes that Victoria’s patronage came to an end after her coronation, which took place 179 years ago today.
Queen Victoria’s association with the Brisbane Sisters of Mercy also revolves around a bazaar. In 1873, Mother Vincent Whitty returned to Brisbane from a recruiting visit to Ireland with several valuable gifts from supporters of the Mercy cause, including a marble bust of Queen Victoria. The bust had been presented to Mother Vincent by George Forbes, the 7th Earl of Granard, an Irish peer who converted to Catholicism. Granard’s conversion, which was notable among the Irish aristocracy, was likely motivated by his marriage in the early 1870s to Frances Mary Petre, the daughter of a well-known Anglo-Catholic baron.
The bust shows the Queen at the time of her first visit to Ireland in 1849 and wearing limerick lace. Its sympathetic portrayal of Victoria’s relationship with Ireland belies the fact that its sculptor, John Hogan, was an ardent supporter of Irish independence who ‘typified resurgent Catholic Ireland.’ An esteemed neo-classicist, Hogan studied Renaissance art at the Vatican galleries and received numerous commissions from Irish bishops, including his masterwork The Dead Christ. It was perhaps this strong association with the Irish Catholic church that attracted Granard to Hogan’s work, and made it suitable as a gift to the Sisters of Mercy.
As the Brisbane Congregation’s Reverend Mother at the time, Bridget Conlan, explained, Vincent Whitty brought these gifts back from Ireland for the practical purpose of displaying them at All Hallows’ fundraising bazaars. The Queen Victoria bust, along with other special items, featured prominently in the advertising for these events throughout the 1870s, and were a drawcard for visitors. The Sisters of Mercy were ‘acknowledged to be adept’ in organising week-long bazaars, which featured diverse musical and entertainment programs, competitions and displays. Hogan’s Queen Victoria was moved from the All Hallows’ Convent parlour to a prominent position within the bazaar venue for these events, and was a key attraction. Queen Victoria may have had complex and ambiguous relationship with Irish Catholics, but her likeness in marble was a major contributor to the Convent’s building fund and expansion.