Rejecting those Earthly Dignities: Irish Women Saints by Harry Clarke

I’ve been struck by the absence of sacred women in the iconography of stained glass windows in Irish Protestant churches. Sure, there’s the odd window devoted to or including Mary (such as Nativity scenes) or Bridget, or images of women as Charity or Hope, but for windows depicting women who are venerated for their piety or leadership or courage you have to visit Catholic churches in Ireland. 

The top picture is St Dympna, depicted with a sword – it is a tradition to depict martyrs with the instrument of their death. She looks wide-eyed and innocent – she was only 15 when she died. Above is St Fanchea, bearing a rose and with a kindly expression

We’ve written already about Bridget here and here and about Gobnait: Bridget is considered the female equivalent of Patrick in being the most widely known and celebrated of the Irish women saints. Gobnait is a good example of a local saint, in this case she is associated with the Muskerry area of Cork. When you read the lives of Irish saints, women and men, you are reading accounts written many centuries after they lived, often a mixture of tradition, mythology, folklore and reconstructed hagiography. 

Harry Clarke, as I have discovered before, had a thing for red hair and gave St Dympna a particularly glowing crop. Here she shelters her patients, the mentally ill poor who came to her hospital

Robert and I have been travelling in Ireland and visiting stained glass here and there, and in the process discovering more unfamiliar Irish saints. Harry Clarke, Ireland’s incomparable stained glass artist of the early part of the 20th century, was often asked to depict local saints and always did as much research as he could into their lives, to enable him to tell their stories and use appropriate elements and symbols. [For more posts about the genius of Harry Clarke, Ireland’s most famous stained glass artist, go to our Navigation page and scroll down to C5.] In Carrickmacross (Co Monaghan) this week I found three Harry Clarke windows illustrating three Irish female saints, two of whom I had never heard of before. Let’s start with the one I thought I knew because I’ve had friends with that name – St Dympna.

Dympna flees her father’s house. Following her is the court jester, his wife, bearing medicines, and Gerebran, her confessor

Dympna was the daughter of an Irish King called Damon. When his wife died, her father became unhinged and decided he would only marry the one who was as beautiful as her – his own daughter Dympna. Horrified, she fled with her confessor, Gerebran, and travelled to Gheel in Belgium. There she established a hospital and tended to the poor and sick. But her father found her and in his rage beheaded first the faithful Gerebran and then, when she refused to yield to him, his daughter.

Harry Clarke did not shy away from depicting the grizzly end of Dympna and Gerebran

She is venerated in Ireland and in Belgium, and particularly associated with care of the sick and those who are mentally ill. She is also a patron saint for those who have suffered incest. There are shrines and hospitals named for her in Belgium, Ireland and the United Stares. She is also known as St Davnet, and there are hospitals and holy wells with this name.

St Ceara is the subject of one window with two lights

Like Dympna, Ceara was of royal blood and established her first monastery in present-day Westmeath on land granted by St Fintan – or perhaps in Kilkeary near Nenagh in Tipperary at the behest of Brendan of Clonfert. You see, there may have been two Cearas and over time their stories were conflated. To add to the confusion, St Ceara, also known as Ciara, is known to have been an abbess who founded a monastery near the spot currently better known as Kilcrea Friary in Cork.

St Ceara and her virgins

Harry Clarke in his windows chooses to depict her as beautiful and royal, in one window carrying her monastery and in the other (below) sumptuously dressed and appearing more the princess than the holy woman.

St Fanchea was the sister of St Enda of Aran, and they share the two lights of one window. St Fanchea was famed for her holiness and founded a monastery in Fermanagh. Enda was a warrior-king but was finally won over by the piety of his sister and converted when he came to see her in her convent.

Fanchea and her brother, Enda of Aran

For a full (and graphic!) account of the brother and sister relationship, see the marvellous post in Omnia Sanctorum Hiberniae, a fabulous blog for anyone interested in obscure Irish saints. Marcella starts her story of Fanchea this way:

Aengus, son of Natfraich, King of Munster, is said to have desired Fanchea’s hand in marriage. Notwithstanding all his pressing entreaties, however, and rejecting those earthly dignities to which she might be advanced by yielding to his suit, the holy virgin’s mind was intent on a life of celibacy, and on those rewards promised by Christ to his spouses.

St Fanchea stops her brother, Enda, and turns him from his warrior ways

I’d love to hear from readers who have their own favourite women saints, especially Irish ones.

11 thoughts

  1. Hi Finola. Dympna apparently stayed in a tiny place near here, Lavey I think, when she was fleeing from her father to Belgium. There is said to be a shrine dedicated to her there, which is a copy of her grave. I must go and check it out. I love her story, so sad and raw and typically Irish. I wonder about the connection with Belgium… just seems so strange it must be true! 😊

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  2. Love this post. Your research and the stories behind the art bring them to life. I guess many regular churchgoers in Carrickmacross, for example, have no idea of the background to their church windows.

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  3. Three marvellous stories and what incredible stained glass – I am especially taken with the stripey stockings of St Dympna’s executioner. I’m very fond of the three saintly sisters of North Cork: Inghuine Bhuidhe, Laitiarian and Lassair. What a very rich and fruitful trip, much looking forward to hearing all about it.

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  4. Wonderful article! Thank you especially for the introduction to St Dymphna. One you didn’t mention from Harry Clarke’s hand is St Ita, another Munster saint he depicted in Honan Chapel. As one who educated many other notables from Ireland’s golden age of saints, she is often known as the “mother of saints”, and thus she is depicted in some beautiful icons from an Orthodox monastery on the island of Mull in Scotland — https://www.shop.mullmonastery.com/product/st-ita-mother-of-saints/

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    • Hi Sue – I thought I might do a post on Ita sometime. She’s certainly a major one. I’m looking out for others too – any other suggestions? Nice to hear from you – hope you’re well.

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