All in the Detail!

I wasn’t quite sure what to write about today as we, most of Europe, and much of the world is in the grip of a pandemic. At such a time perhaps there’s something to be said for retreating into the past. In this case, the past is our photographic archive, so I went back to 2014 (when we really started to explore the heart of Ireland) and looked specifically for images of an architectural nature: built structures and the fascination of their detailing. Things which have caught our eyes, such as the remains of Mount Leader House, Millstreet, County Cork (above). This classical structure was built in the 18th century as the seat of the Leader family; it then passed to the Pomeroys and – surprisingly – was lived in by that family up to the 1970s. Here’s a picture of it in happier times, probably the 1920s:

I don’t necessarily need to provide a commentary, or a location, for all these pictures. Coppinger’s Court, West Cork (above) is an easy one that many of you will be familiar with from our our past posts (which go back to 2013!); others might be a guessing exercise. Anyway, they all serve to show the diversity and span of history that exists in our small part of the world. Here’s to escapism!

A bit unfair to ask you to identify the location of this one (above)! I like it because of the visual rhythms that are provided by down-to-earth materials while – below – we don’t need to remind you how ancient some of Ireland’s surviving humanly-made features are. This tomb is in County Clare.

Younger monumental stonework is represented in the two images above, while (below) a magnificent lion is on guard in a West Cork garden.

It was in 2014 that we first came across the work of George Walsh, our all-time favourite stained glass artist: this was in the Church of St Kentigern, Eyries, on the Beara Peninsula. The detail above is from that church. Finola has extensively researched George’s work and written on it.

Contrasting ironwork details (above): natural weathering adds so much to the rich patina on materials like this. Contrasts below as well: I wonder if you know where these architectural facades are (or were in 2014).

And what about these two? West Cork followers will know at least one . . .

Here’s a Sheela; we’ve seen plenty of those in our travels. This one is in County Clare:

Let’s not forget contemporary interventions into our built environment. I find this one particularly exciting:

I also like images which have very little to say, but which are exercises in colour and composition: I’ll leave you with this. And – below it – the elevation of one of many very fine West Cork bars.

Seán Keating – Escaping the Storm

Storm Ciara was upon us as we headed over to the east coast – a mere few hops from Nead an Iolair. But it wasn’t all black clouds and thunder and lightning: winter storms here in Ireland feature high winds and spectacles such as this rainbow (above) which seemed to hang in the sky over County Wicklow for hours. When the rain comes, we often find refuge in a church – especially if it helps Finola’s quest for new stained glass windows. Sometimes they seem to reflect the weather patterns:

This panel, which could be seen as an indoor rainbow, is in an impressively large church in Ballyroan, Rathfarnham Parish, County Dublin: it was built in 1967 to seat a thousand. What caught my eyes was not the array of windows by Murphy Devitt (Finola has written extensively about this creative partnership), but two murals high on the walls of the crossing. I was delighted to find that these were painted by one of Ireland’s great artists working through the turbulent twentieth century – Seán Keating.

Seán Keating’s ‘Baptism of Christ’ mural in the Church of the Holy Spirit, Ballyroan

I am always surprised to find that Keating is under-appreciated: yes, he gets mentioned in books of art history, and is reasonably well represented in the state’s galleries. Yet you will also find terms such as ‘not great art’ applied to his work by critics and commentators. This is possibly because he is best known for his documentary work and, particularly, for his raw representations of the tempestuous years of Ireland’s struggle to gain independence. Here is ‘Men of the South’, dating from 1921 when there was a ceasefire in the Irish War of Independence while the Anglo-Irish Treaty was being negotiated and out of which the Irish Free State was born.

Top: Men of the South – Seán Keating’s documentary portrayal of the North Cork Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. Below the painting is one of the photographs taken in Keating’s Dublin studio in preparation for the work. Two versions of this painting were made by the artist: the one above is in the Crawford Gallery, Cork City, while the other (which depicts eight men) is now in Áras an Uachtaráin, the official residence of the President of Ireland.

After the War of Independence and the abhorrent Civil War which followed it, Keating’s work concentrated on documenting the founding and burgeoning of the new State. Scenes of conflict were replaced by works showing industrial development, such as Ireland’s largest ever civil engineering contract: harnessing the power potential of the State’s major waterway, the River Shannon. The construction of a dam and hydro-electric generating station at Ardnacrusha, County Clare, together with a country-wide electric distribution infrastructure, was a symbol of major importance to the nation’s fledgling government. Keating began recording the work in 1926, soon after inception. No-one had commissioned him – he saw the significance of making dramatic documentary work of this nature, but his vision was eventually recognised by the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) – which now owns the largest collection of Keating’s paintings in Ireland. Above is one of the artist’s working sketches of the dam under construction.

Seán Keating painting en plein air at Ardnacrusha, 1920s

Keating studied under William Orpen in Dublin. He was to become one of Orpen’s important pupils (and, latterly, his assistant) and his documentary painting style owes a debt to his teacher. One of his famous early paintings is Thinking Out Gobnet (below), a portrait of his good friend Harry Clarke, dating from 1917. Keating and Clarke frequently visited the Aran Islands together. The painting shows Clarke sitting on a grave slab within the ruins of Teampall Chaomháin (St Kevin’s church) on Inis Oírr, along with a holy water font at his feet, and a holy well to the bottom right of the image. The suggestion is that Clarke is finding inspiration for his series of eleven windows for the Honan Chapel, Cork, which include a fine representation of St Gobnet. The ‘healing’ symbolism of the holy water and well are deliberate references to Clarke’s TB, the illness which ended his life at the age of 41.

Seán Keating was always a committed Catholic, and we have seen many examples of his artwork in churches, including the murals at Ballyroan. Most striking, perhaps, are the Stations of the Cross which he painted for St John’s Church, Tralee – the church which features in Finola’s wonderful Irish Arts Review article (and RWJ blog post) about Ireland’s Newest Stained Glass Window.

Stations of the Cross by Seán Keating in St John’s Church, Tralee, County Kerry

Back to Ballyroan: while we were sheltering from the tempest and admiring the church architecture, and the murals, I was delighted to find out that Seán Keating had lived for much of his life just down the road, in Ballyboden, in a house which he had designed himself. He attended mass regularly at Ballyroan until his death in December 1977, aged 88.

Keating’s mural The Descent of the Holy Spirit in his own church of Ballyroan, Parish of Rathfarnham, installed in 1967

We discovered that Keating is buried in the nearby Cruagh Cemetery, so we had to head out into the storm again to find his grave. It is as unassuming as he apparently was in life: a visitor would not be aware that herein lies one of modern Ireland’s greats.

Cruagh Cemetery, Co Dublin (top) is the resting place of Seán Keating. His grave is shared with his wife, May, and son Michael

Our little artist’s memoir is almost over. The gale continued with ferocious lashing rain: cold and hungry we made a beeline for the local pub – the Merry Ploughboy, evidently a famous music venue. It was warm and welcoming, and full of a crowd watching Six Nations Rugby on the big screen (Ireland won the match).

In the lounge we were intrigued to find an oblique reference to Seán Keating – a painting which has a nod to his style but is by a different artist!

We agreed that our day trip to the east, in the teeth of the gale, was a memorable way to discover the life, work and death of one of Ireland’s significant artists.

Murphy Devitt in Cork, Part 3

Our final two Cork churches are a small private chapel and a large public church. Then I will provide some suggestions for where else to go to see Murphy Devitt windows. If you haven’t read them already, Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

The private chapel first. It’s in Rochestown, attached to a Cappuchin Franciscan school and Friary* and it dates from 1961. It’s all about St Francis – his life and his famous Canticle. Scenes from St Francis’s life make up the large windows on the right side of the aisle. We see him receiving his stigmata, preaching to the birds, setting up the first Christmas crib scene in Greccia.

The Canticle references occupy smaller clerestory windows. They are a sensitive response to the well-known lines:

Praised be You my Lord through Brother Fire,

Through whom You light the night

and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,

In the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.

Praised be You my Lord through our Sister, Mother Earth

Who sustains and governs us, producing varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.

The Church at Mallow is a large and impressive modern edifice opened in 1967. The windows occupy both side walls, with many abstract panes filling in other spaces.

By 1967 Johnny was teaching full time at the National College of Art and  routinely invited his best students to work for the Studios in the summer. In this case, the student was Terry Corcoran, who, while he did some more stained glass windows on his own subsequently, went on to a career mainly as a painter. His website is here

The design was all Johnny’s, and both Johnny and Róisín provided direction to Terry. As a result, it is hard to distinguish a different hand in these windows – as with all MD windows they are a collaboration, but with the powerful and distinctive look and feel we’ve come to expect from their style.

Compare with this window in Mayfield – the figures have become slightly more stylised

The Last supper – a masterpiece of window design

The Crucifixion window with its sombre blues and greens

The Resurrection window (above in glorious hues of red and orange) was originally immediately to the right of the altar, but in the late 1980s the Parish Priest had it moved to behind the altar, where it had to be back-lit. This left an opening with no stained glass and the priest turned to Murphy Devitt once more. By then, the Studios had been dissolved, but Johnny and Róisín continued to work with Des under a loose arrangement covered by ‘Des Devitt and Associates.’

Róisín Dowd-Murphy’s Assumptions window in full

This window is pure Róisín and is quite at odds with all the other windows in the church. To me, it is a delight, as it showcases Róisín’s style in all its Boticelli-inspired emphasis on costume, hair, flowers and musical instruments. Contrast it with the Assumption window in Mayfield (click here for the image). Although she drew the cartoon for both windows, the Mayfield Assumption had to fit with the overall design for that church, whereas in Mallow she simply followed her own inclinations and what we get is unfiltered Róisín.

Assumption, a closer look

Not everyone is lucky enough to live in Cork, so I want to include a few non-Cork Murphy Devitt windows before I end this series – windows that are open to visit and which are every bit as spectacular as the best of the Cork examples.

Cahir Catholic Church has MD abstract/symbolic windows, including this little window where Johhny’s love of the wobbly and wavy line is clear – also note the unusual glass

The Church of Our Lady and St Brendan in Tralee has two huge representations of its patrons, as well as extensive and beautiful abstract windows.

All the glass in St Michael’s, Dunlaoghaire, is Murphy Devitt, done in the early 70s. Soaring panels of abstract colour punctuate the severe interior and bathe the interior in a warm glow. No photograph – you’ll have to see this one for yourselves. In Limerick, the Dominican Church has a floor to ceiling wall of glass (below) that, among other things, depicts the history of Limerick.

The chapel attached to Newbridge College contains a set of windows based on the Book Of Revelations, an unusual theme for a Catholic Church. My friend and colleague, David Caron, has written a piece on these windows for the Summer 2019 edition of The Irish Arts Review, with brilliant photographs  by Jozef Vrtiel. I recommend that article to you, not least for the erudite and highly readable commentary on the iconography, including the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, one of whom is below.

That concludes our exploration of this extraordinary Studio, its artists and craftspeople. It’s been a rare pleasure for me to discover them all, and their brilliant windows. Please take a look at the Murphy Devitt website – it’s a work in progress, but it will give you a list of churches and you may find one near you. Let me know!

Brendan, in the Church of Our Lady and St Brendan, Tralee

*Thank you to Fr Sylvester of the Rochestown Cappuchin Franciscan Friary for facilitating my photographing the windows. The chapel is private so these windows are not normally available to view.

Murphy Devitt in Cork, Part 2

In Murphy Devitt in Cork Part 1 I introduced you to the main players in the Studio – Johnny Murphy, Róisín Dowd-Murphy and Des Devitt. Together they set about doing something entirely new and different in stained glass in Ireland, bringing with them their art training, their modern aesthetic sensibilities, and their deep knowledge of and commitment to their craft.

Both photographs above are from the Church of St Michael, Blackrock, Cork. The windows comprise large areas of breakouts with small images placed in the top half. A close up of the pictures chosen for this window reveal Noah’s Ark and Christ Calming the Waters (Contrast this with our final photograph in this post, which is in Caheragh)

Although the Studio was dissolved as a business in 1985, the three continued to work together in a loose arrangement, often under the heading of Des Devitt and Associates. This creative partnership went on for over 50 years: it was so finely attuned that Johnny could describe his vision over the phone and Des knew how to actualise it.

Johnny, Réiltín and Róisín – Réiltín was already a fixture in the Studio at this age

Everyone was pulled into the slipstream – Réiltín Murphy had to stand on a box to reach the drawing table when she started out first. Anthony Devitt* was just a kid when Des warned him not to fall off the scaffolding or his mother would kill him. They all loved it, as did the endless stream of students from the National College of Art, where Johnny was now teaching, who came to help in the summer or to learn how to paint on glass or assemble windows. Other artists came to help when the pressure of work got too much – Terry Corcoran, Rosaline Murphy (not related) Celia Harriss, Paul Britton, Ann Fitzgibbon, Michael Biggs, Michael Timlin to name some.

The only different window at Blackrock is this one, and it’s pure Roisín. There was a fire in the church and this window was rescued and re-installed in a side room once all the new windows were installed by Murphy Devitt Studios. We don’t know what the original ones were like, apart from this one

Johnny was the main designer, hugely respected by Róisín, Des and everyone in his orbit. His was the overall vision for a whole scheme for a church or for a one-off window. Róisín was happiest left to paint, either from Johnny’s designs or from her own – she was a painter at heart and exhibited into her 70s.

This window is a whole family project. It dates from 1974: Róisín painted the figure, Johnny did the little scene of Gougane Barra and Réiltín did the lettering. It’s in a convent chapel in Crosshaven, now closed and inaccessible. The photograph is published with the permission of the Presentation Order. 

Des had a couple of years of art college under his belt too but his genius lay in management and in translating Johnny’s designs (or sometimes just thoughts) into finished windows. He pitched for business, kept the budget under control, delivered work on time and ran the Studio in a completely non-hierarchical way that would be the envy of many a modern management guru. All of them read voraciously, educated themselves in progressive art theories and in how the spiritual could be expressed in glass. Perhaps this isn’t so difficult when the subject is the Passion, or the Life of Christ, or a particular saint like Francis. But many churches requested non-figurative windows, whether for budgetary reason or out of preference. Here the challenge became creating a space that suggested the transcendent, without the aid of obvious imagery.

In the same chapel are many windows that are either entirely non-figurative or with small hints of symbolism. This one looks like the lilies often carried by St Joseph

These mostly or entirely non-figurative windows became one of the hallmarks of Murphy Devitt Studios, instantly recognisable, and capable all by themselves of creating an atmosphere of drama or tranquility. An oval becomes the window to the soul, a series of them leads the eye upwards, thus capturing the notion of the elevation of thoughts and prayers. A sunburst denotes the glory of creation, light falling from heaven.

Ballyhooly Church has all non-figurative windows. This photograph is courtesy C Cashman and R Gem

Some have small elements within them that are complete pictures, mostly Christian symbols, sometimes mere hints. There were favourites – I’ve seen similar ones crop up here and there, although their context leads to fresh treatments. Some churches are a mixture of figurative and non-figurative. Although it’s not in my remit for these posts, if you are near Dun Laoghaire visit St Michael’s church and marvel that expanses of ‘coloured glass’ can create such a calm and devotional atmosphere.

Caheragh Church has a mixture of figurative, non-figurative and non-figurative-with-symbols. This window is one of the latter

Anyone who visits Irish churches knows that what we want in them are our own saints – Patrick and Brigid certainly, but after that they must be local. So along with every other stained glass artist who ever worked in Ireland, Johnny had to study the hagiographies of our obscure legendary saints and satisfy a demanding congregation familiar with the stories.

St Kieran of Cape Clear is one of our treasured West Cork saints

At Caheragh (north of Skibbereen) and Rath (just outside Baltimore) in West Cork two small rural churches demonstrate how well he succeeded. The windows in each are quite different, although both were completed in 1963. In Caheragh the figures are situated in the lovely wavy-lined breakouts that we saw Murphy Devitt use to such effect in Mayfield, in tones of red and yellow.

And here is St Facthna of Rosscarbery

In Rath we see the introduction of a new breakout design, the square or rectangle with grey shadow around the edge, seeming like a solid glass brick. It’s another Murphy Devitt innovation, used to great effect in many of their windows. They used it again the following year in Blackrock (see above).

The Sacrament of Confession gets the Murphy Devitt treatment in Rath

A stained glass technique that was introduced to Ireland in the 60s was that of Dal de Verre. Blocks of coloured glass were faceted to increase their reflectivity (this was done by knocking spalls of glass from the edges and surface of the blocks) and then cemented together with resin, and sometimes concrete. Dal de Verre enabled actual walls of glass to take the place of masonry and to create dramatic expanses of colour as an integral part of construction, rather than as windows.

Chunks of coloured glass, faceted for additional refraction, float in a bed of resin. This is a detail from the Lowertown window below

Murphy Devitt were early adopters and we have one of their examples in Cork, at Lowertown, just outside Schull. It’s a dove of peace/Holy Spirit creating a glowing corner in the baptistry.

I still have two churches to tell you about, in Rochestown and in Mallow. They deserve their own post, and that will conclude this series. See you next week.

From Caheragh, across a two-light window, an image of Christ calming the storm. Traditionally, Christ is shown in one boat with the 12 apostles. However, Rembrandt famously included himself in his depiction of this scene, so I am tempted to think that Johnny is in there somewhere, since there are thirteen apostles in the boats

Part 3 is here.

*This post benefitted greatly from information generously shared by Anthony Devitt.

Murphy Devitt in Cork, Part 1

A couple of years ago I visited the Catholic church in Caheragh, just north of Skibbereen, specifically to look for an image of Thaddeus McCarthy about whom I was researching at the time (see my post Thaddeus McCarthy, the Bishop Who Never Was). As I stepped into the church it was immediately obvious that the stained glass was not the usual traditional images based on renaissance paintings that I had been seeing in most of the churches I had been in. No, what greeted me (above is the Thaddeus window) was something entirely new and different – modernist, colourful, idiosyncratic, painterly, beautifully designed and expertly executed windows, each one identified as the work of Murphy Devitt of Dublin and installed in 1963. I fell in love.

The stained glass windows in the rest of this post (except for one) are all from the Church of Our Lady Crowned, in Mayfield, Cork. This one represents the Risen Christ

There are Murphy Devitt windows in ten Cork churches, and why not? Johnny Murphy, after all, was a Cork boy, brought up in the city and starting his art education at the Crawford School of Art in the 1940s when the life-drawing classes still revolved around the Canova casts. He was a standout student, winning a scholarship to the National College of Art in Dublin. There he met a fellow student, the beautiful Róisín Dowd, whose parents had fled the Belfast blitz to settle in Dublin. Together and separately, they travelled to Paris and Rome, doing what art students do – visiting galleries and studios, studying centuries of European painting, absorbing and responding to those influences (think Botticelli for Róisín, Klimt for Johnny), finding their artistic voices and refining their own styles.

The Presentation in the Temple (detail)

Returning home, they had to wait for several years to marry. Their daughter Réiltín suspects that Grandfather Dowd insisted on Johnny having gainful employment and that may have been why he joined the Harry Clarke Studios in 1952 and began to seriously study the craft of glass painting. Harry Clarke died in 1931 but his studios carried on making stained glass until the 1970s. There was plenty of work for anyone in the ecclesiastical provisioning business as new churches were going up all over the country to serve the burgeoning, and pious, population.

Dessie Devitt, Paddy McLoughlin, Mickey Watson and Johnny Murphy in their busy studio in the 60s

One of the glaziers Johnny worked with at the Harry Clarke Studios was John Devitt, universally known as Des or Dessie. Becoming fast and lifelong friends, they decided to strike out on their own, taking some of the men from the HC Studios with them. It was the late 50s and they couldn’t have picked a better time. Working from a mews in Monkstown and later a custom-built studio in Blackrock, they started to tender successfully for new commissions. This also allowed Johnny and Róisín, who now joined them as well when she could escape motherly duties, to develop their own unique approach to designing and painting stained glass, very different from what had become a somewhat hidebound atmosphere at the Harry Clarke Studios. For an example of what I mean by that, and to illustrate the contrast with MD, take a look at my post Time Warp, featuring a set of Harry Clarke Studio windows from the late 1950s. Below is a detail from one of them – far, indeed from the genius of Harry Clarke himself.

Detail from a Harry Clarke Studio window in Drimoleague. Although this window is interesting for lots of other reasons, the quality of the glasswork and the artistry of the painting had declined over the decades since Harry’s death. 

What Johnny always called their ‘first big break’ came with the Church of Our Lady Crowned, in Mayfield, Cork, completed in 1962. According to The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage:

Our Lady Crowned Roman Catholic Church was built to the design of J.R. Boyd Barrett’s firm and when completed in 1962 comprised the final of five new churches constructed to the north side of Cork city and named after the five Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary. The design and construction of the roof is of technical importance while the extensive stained glass windows, from the workshops of Murphy & Devitt in Dublin, are of particular artistic merit.

Too often, stained glass windows are one-off commemorative objects, mounted in an available opening. But when you see a whole scheme of windows in one church, designed to fit and complement the architecture throughout the building, the effect can be breathtaking. And so it is with Our Lady Crowned. The church is wedged-shaped, with enormous glass panels occupying at least half the space. Scenes from the Life of Christ range around the walls, from the Annunciation to the Crucifixion and Epiphany, with the huge area over the main door taken up with a choir of angels heralding the crowning of Mary on one side and Christ on the other.   

The day we visited the church was full of children preparing for their Confirmation

When I told Réiltín Murphy*, Johnny and Róisín’s daughter, that Our Lady Crowned was my favourite of the Cork MD churches, she responded that it was her parents’ favourite too. It’s not hard to see why – it’s a triumph of imagination, artistic vision, craftsmanship and above all collaboration. As I get more familiar with MD windows the distinction between a Johnny Murphy window and a Róisín Dowd Murphy window is sometimes quite clear: Johnny’s style is more angular, with loose dark brushstrokes, strongly marked facial features, heads tilted at an angle, while Róisín’s figures are more curvy and flowing, with greater attention to fabric and to musical instruments. Réiltín characterises the difference thus: Róisín’s figures, I always think, are too busy to pose for their photo while Johnny’s are usually quietly aware of just who they are and what they symbolise.

Nativity, Presentation and Jesus in the Temple windows

In Mayfield, all those elements are present: at first glance it’s impossible to tell where Johnny leaves off and Róisín begins. But we do have evidence, in the form of an original cartoon, that links Róisín directly to the Assumption window and once you see that, you see her hand in other places too – the heavenly choir, for example, has many of her hallmarks.

Róisín’s cartoon for the second angel from the bottom on the right, and the finished window

I am tempted to see Johnny in the passion images – the sombre figure of the suffering Jesus (below) exudes a quiet power alongside the mocking soldiers.

But many of the windows defy easy analysis. Look at the Nativity window (below), for example, and see if you can figure out whose hand is where. Complicating all this in Murphy Devitt windows is that when times got busy they took in extra artists to help with the workload.

In this window note how the ‘break-outs’ (the areas of coloured glass) are used to separate two long panels, which are then unified at the top. The composition, which manages to include all the major figures in two tall narrow panels, is impressive, as is the integration of those panels with the break-outs.

As with most of their commissions, Johnny was the one who sketched out the overall design and decided on the ratio of figurative panels to ‘break ups’, those areas of coloured glass that allow the eye to rest between scenes, to register the passage of time between events. Non-figurative schemes became important elements in the Murphy Devitt style – more about  them later, but for the moment note the highly original way in which the expanse of coloured glass are treated. Nobody else was doing anything like this at the time – it was a unique and beautiful Murphy Devitt innovation.

In this window, the Finding of Jesus in the Temple, the separating device is the break-out panel and the unifying device is the floor

Not for Murphy Devitt the regular quarry glass with its dependable lozenge shapes, or static grids of straight lines. Johnny loved the wobbly, the wavy and and the irregular. Réiltín says, He was interested in music: the fugue, he said, whereby the same melody/image is played in different keys – his abstracts are often flipped, turned, twisted to be similar but not identical. He loved glass as a painting medium. He loved its kinetic effect in its flaws, its trees moving outside, its changing light/colours from passing clouds, its seeming to be alive.

A window where the break-outs serve as background, with the two main figures occupying panels and the cross stretching across the space

It’s a lot easier to cut regular shapes and fit them together, of course, but you don’t need an expert for that. This is where Dessie Devitt came into his own as a master glazier. Choosing the glass to match the colour scheme, assembling it all harmoniously, cutting and leading the thousands of pieces that went into a scheme like this – none of it would have been possible without Dessie Devitt and the men who worked alongside him.

The heavenly choir, above  one side of the main door, with Our Lady Crowned on the right. Below is a detail from the other side

By all accounts it was a charmed workplace, a happy environment where everyone worked hard but where laughter and The Chat abounded. Des in particular was gifted with the ability to recognise the absurd and could hardly leave the studio without coming back with an entertaining story.

About the same time as Mayfield, Murphy Devitt won the commission to design a set of windows based on the Canticle of St Francis for another Cork church, this one attached to a Cappuchin Friary. We’ll take a look at that one and some others next week. For the moment, the Mayfield church will serve as an introduction to Johnny, Róisín and Des, their modern aesthetic and their collaborative approach.

*Many thank to Réiltín Murphy for much of the background information, for answering all my questions and for additional photographs, including the people pictures and Róisín’s cartoon.

Fingal Mummers

On Stephen’s Day we went up to Fingal County to see the Mummers – it’s a mere hare’s leap from Nead an Iolair. Until 1994 there was no county of Fingal: the area was part of Greater Dublin. Since that time this county has recorded the highest birth rate and population increase of any community in Ireland. Why? I would like to suggest that it’s because Fingal has , for countless generations, been the home of a Mummers tradition.

On our new green last evening here was presented the drollest piece of mummery I ever saw in or out of Ireland. There was St George and St Dennis and St Patrick in their buffle coats and the Turks likewise and Oliver Cromwell and a doctor and an old woman who made rare sport till Beelzebub  came in with a frying pan upon his shoulder and a great flail in his hand threshing about him on friends and foes, and at last running away with the bold usurper whom he tweaked by his gilded nose – – and then came a little Devil with a broom to gather up the money that was thrown to the Mummers for their sport. It is an ancient pastime they tell me of the citizens . . .

This account of Mummers in Cork is supposed to date from 1685, and is found in a manuscript collection in the Library of Trinity College Dublin, lodged by Thomas Crofton Croker in the 1840s. It is probably the earliest recorded portrayal of the custom in Ireland or Britain. Three hundred and thirty four years after this description of ‘an ancient pastime’ was written down, recognisably the same ‘mummery’ is happening every year across these islands around midwinter.

The Fingal Mummers ‘entering in’ (above). Following a revival in the 1950s, this group travels around several towns and villages on Stephen’s Day, performing their play to crowds who gather to see them. We tracked them down to their starting point, O ‘Connors Inn, Ballyboughal, which seemed a quiet little settlement until we walked through the door of the pub and realised that every resident of the village – and quite a contingent of visitors – was crammed inside waiting expectantly for the visiting players. The excitement was tangible, and everyone was in good spirit, enjoying the Christmas cakes, puddings and treats that were being freely handed around.

It seemed that the visit to O’Connors was a purely ritual appearance, as the crowds and the noise were too overbearing to permit a performance of the play. There was music and singing, but the group eventually moved on – with us following – to the next venue: Man O’War! This bar, which also gave its name to the scattering of houses around it, was evidently established in 1595 and became a toll point on the turnpike section of the main Dublin to Belfast road in the 1700s. The road has long since been superseded and is now a quiet lane. The pub, however, has grown in size and reputation and, on Stephen’s Day was packed: a large number of musicians was seated around an enormous table, and post-Christmas festivities were in full swing, with an air of expectancy leading up to the arrival of the Mummers.

It was at Man O’War that we saw the Fingal play performed. There are around a dozen characters, which include St Patrick, Prince George, The Doctor, The Butcher, Jenny Wren and Beelzebub. The main protagonists, Patrick and George, fight with swords until the former kills the latter (obviously!). A quack doctor is brought in and raises George to fight another day. There is considerable humour, innuendo and – always – music and dance. A most important aspect, however, is the appearance towards the end of the play of a character – Slick-Slack – who carries a large family on his back (usually dolls and teddy bears).

From upper picture – heroes Patrick and George, fiercesome Doctor and musicians

For me, it was just slipping back to old times: from when I could barely walk we attended the Mummers play at Crookham Village in Hampshire, England, every Boxing Day, and I absorbed the tradition into the rhythm of 1950s life. Here are the Crookham Village Mummers around that time:

A mid 20th century photograph of the Crookham Mummers, Hampshire: could the little boy on the right be me? The characters in this play, left to right – Roomer, Slasher, Trim Tram, Doctor, Turkish Knight, King George, Old Father Christmas

Into adulthood I never questioned the existence of the Mummers: they were just an essential part of Christmas – like carols, bells and reindeer. As soon as I was able, I joined the Mummers myself and now, after decades of performing it, carry the complete play in my head (the Hampshire version of it, anyway). It was only when my interest in folklore became academic that I asked myself: what is all this about? And then I became aware of the significance of mummery in the traditional cultures of northern Europe, Scandinavia – and beyond – and saw its place and relevance to the season when the sun gets to its lowest point and then has to be encouraged back again: cold and darkness have to be replaced in the natural cycle with light, warmth and regeneration. The old spirit of winter has to be supplanted by the young fertility character who carries his wife and (large) family on his back. In Fingal that is Slick-Slack; in Hampshire it is Trim-Tram who rounds off the performance:

In comes I, Trim-Tram, left hand press gang: press all you bold fellows to sea to fight the French and Spanish. Although my name be Jolly Jack, wife and family on my back – although my family be but small, I thinks myself best man of all . . .

Trim-Tram fights with Old Father Christmas and kills him, causing some consternation to younger members of the audience. Trim-Tram concludes:

Ladies and gentlemen, see what I have done: killed my poor old Father Christmas, just like the setting sun. So, while I sits and takes my ease, good people – give us what you please . . .

At which point the hat is passed around, giving the watching crowd a chance to partake of the ‘luck’ which the Mummers bring to the communities they visit.

The Butcher is on the left – replete with carving knife and turkey!

Masks and straw headpieces are common in the Irish Stephen’s Day traditions. Remember the workshop we had in Ballydehob a few weeks ago? That was in preparation for a Wranning there this Christmas just gone. Unfortunately, we couldn’t magic ourselves to be in two places at once on the day, so we will have to wait for next year’s event. Meanwhile we were very happy to have the Fingal experience. Long may that county continue to hold on to the luck, and perpetuate its fecundity!