Séamus Murphy: At Home in Cork

This is Cork city in the 1940s. The subject of today’s post is a Cork man – the sculptor Séamus Murphy. Born in 1907 near Mallow, Murphy took classes at the Crawford School of Art before apprenticing as a stone carver at O’Connell’s Stone Yard in Blackpool, a parish in the city, for seven years. Murphy and his work could occupy several posts, but today we concentrate on his only architectural building project, the Church of the Annunciation in Blackpool. Séamus Murphy can fairly claim to be the ‘sculptural designer’ of this building – as he conceived the way it would appear – while the architect Edmond Patrick O’Flynn most likely carried out the technical drawings and specifications.

According to the Murphy family, Séamus found inspiration for Blackpool from pictures of churches in South America. In particular, the roughly textured render on the external walls is said to have derived from the adobe finish common in Spanish missionary churches there. The Cork church was commenced in January 1945, and the picture above (courtesy of Cork City Library) dates from around that time. The picture below – also courtesy Cork City Library – shows the dedication ceremony in the church on 7 October 1945.

This picture of Séamus, above, is from the RTE archives. The Blackpool project is a good area of study, as the church shows the sculptor’s ability to conceive large, three-dimensional spaces as well as his skills in producing his own figurative and relief works, a number of which are used in the church furnishings: they are of polished Portland stone.

While the church is a valuable repository of Séamus Murphy’s design and carving skills, the work of many other contemporary artists can also be found in the building. The stained glass windows are from the Harry Clarke Studios, designed by William Dowling.

Particularly striking is the crucifix window at the east end. Above is the original cartoon (courtesy of Trinity College Library Dublin) by Dowling, side-by-side with an image of the window today. All the windows are of fine quality.

Examples of the ‘opus sectile’ Stations of the Cross are shown above. According to the Blackpool Parish website these were the work of Richard King. Finola has written extensively about this artist, who managed the Clarke studios after Harry’s death. She is also now researching the art-form of ‘Stations of the Cross’. In fact, researchers believe that these stations at Blackpool were carried out by William Dowling at the Harry Clarke Studios. Richard King was no longer working for the Studios in 1945, although he had produced designs of a similar style for Belvedere College SJ, Dublin, in 1939.

A full view of the east end of the church. The interior has changed very little over 77 years and is, therefore, a great tribute to Séamus Murphy and the the commissioning family of William Dwyer, then head of the nearby Sunbeam Wolsey factory. Dwyer funded the whole project as a memorial to his daughter Maeve who had sadly passed away in 1943.

This fine font cover was carved by hand by Bart, a younger brother of Séamus.

Murphy’s Church of the Annunciation is certainly a landmark building – not just for Cork, but for the whole of Ireland. And Séamus himself must rank as one of the outstanding artists of the Free State. You will come across his distinctive work in many locations; I will be directing you to some of them in future posts.

Many thanks to Orla Murphy for giving me valuable insights on her father’s works

14 thoughts

  1. Lovely piece on Seamus Murphy and Blackpool. My father, a native Blackpool boy, always delighted in using the typically witty local term for the Church; ‘Willie Dwyer’s fire escape’…..

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  2. An excellent blog post as per usual. Hope you are surviving the storms. I’m curious does anyone know if the old Sunbeam factory is accessible? Would love to see his panels there but I know the site was sold a few years back. I’ve seen the ones at Seafield in Youghal and I’m rather concerned about what will happen to them!

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    • Edel, the Sunbeam factory was damaged by a huge fire in 2003. In 2017 planning permission was applied for for a housing and mixed use development. I’m not sure what the status is at present.

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  3. The church is a marvel, full of treasures. Did you hear that some of Murphy’s work has just been returned to the City Museum having been in storage for years: The Four Seasons, which were once near the bandstand in Fitzgerald Park. Looking forward to this series 🙂

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  4. Lovely piece on the hero of Cork, Robert, Blackpool is on my wish list! And of course Robert Gibbings loved him too. ‘Stone Mad’ is a gem, one of my favourites along with ‘Sweet Cork Of Thee’

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