Kerry Leftovers

We spent a couple of days in Kerry a week before midsummer, and gave you some account of our discoveries on Church Island, Lough Currane, and up in the hills at Caherlehillan – both memorable Early Christian sites. Our adventures did not end there: we managed to take in, also, some other ancient treasures, a couple of Kerry characters, and some stunning scenery – hard to match – as we travelled back to West Cork along the Ring of Kerry road (above).

Firstly, here are Charlie Chaplin and Michael Collins (above), both familiar figures in Waterville. The Hollywood star spent his summer holidays in the coastal town for many years with his family and is commemorated by a bronze statue, while Michael can be found on most days in this much photographed location, always ready to entertain with Kerry polkas and slides on his accordion.

Here’s a much earlier Kerry musician: he’s known as ‘The Fiddler’, and is an unusual medieval representation of an instrumentalist found in the romanesque ruin on Church Island, Lough Currane. I was pleased to find this photograph in the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Notes from 1908 by P J Lynch as it shows the carving as it was found by the OPW when they took over the site. Now the original, which had suffered accelerated weathering, is kept protected in a museum while a well-worn replica is in place on the site. I believe the carving is a good representation of a medieval bowed lyre, an instrument with six strings which survives today in some cultures, although Lynch gave the following commentary:

. . . The interest in this stone centres in the musical instrument. The examples of ancient carving in Ireland representing stringed instruments are few, and confined to harpers. The photograph illustrates this instrument very clearly. It is the ancient cruit or fidil, said to be the parent of the violin. There are six strings indicated by sunken lines in the stone. The figure appears to wear a kind of tight-fitting tunic. Dr O’Sullivan states that the word fidil being a teutonic version of the original name vièle, it may be concluded that the original instrument was introduced through the Anglo-Saxons, and not through the Normans. He adds that up to the eleventh century it consisted of a conical body, and after that it became oval. If this be a portion of the twelfth-century instrument, the older pattern must have survived. The Kerry people were probably as unwilling to change in those days as they are at present . . .

P J Lynch – Some notes on church island – RSAI 1908

Our trip out to Church Island (above) was accompanied by moody weather, but we were fortunate with other expeditions which included the discovery of ancient sites in the townland of Srugreana (Srúbh Gréine in Irish, which is translated variously as sunny stream, gravelly stream or – my favourite – snout of the sun: Kerry certainly offers some tricky pronunciations for those unfamiliar with the area, or the language!).

This extract from the 6″ OS map, dating from the mid-1800s, shows one area we explored on our Kerry day. It throws up some enigmas: Killinane Church (the church of Saint Lonan or Lonáin) is often referred to as Srugreana Abbey, but this is a separate site indicated further to the north-west on the early plan.

The church site at Srugreana is remarkable in many ways. A 2012 survey commissioned by Kerry County Council Heritage Office found there are at least 1,290 unhewn, uninscribed gravemarkers around the medieval church, and a significant number of ‘house type’ tombs, some of which are ‘two-storey’, like the one above. The concentration of graves – many of which cannot be dated – suggests how populous this now remote area was at one time.

The main purpose of our visit to Srugreana was to search out a holy well dedicated to Saint Gobnait (above). The expedition was led by Amanda, who runs the Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry website. You need to read her comprehensive article on this particular saint here. Interestingly, while we were visiting the well we met the new owner of the land on which it sits. She had no idea that there was a holy well here, and also was unaware of its apparently recent renovation! Note the crosses carved on the stones by visiting pilgrims, above.

From the above accounts, and our two previous posts, you can tell that we had a most productive time exploring just one small area in the ‘Kingdom’ of Kerry. I am rounding off this entry with some more photographs of our journey back along the coast. The weather gave of its best for this county which is our neighbour, and we will continue to explore it and look for more archaeological gems. Keep reading!

Half a Kerry Day

Kerry is an Irish county rich in history and archaeology. Our day was spent in the company of the ‘Saints’ – a term given to devout men and women who set themselves apart, leading small communities in the remotest of places, dedicated to order, prayer, knowledge, and the contemplation of humanity. Traces of these medieval ecclesiastical sites abound in Ireland, (sometimes described as The Land of Saints and Scholars), and we are always eager to search them out.

The header and the picture above are from Church Island, formerly known as Inis Uasal (meaning Island of the nobles), on Lough Currane near Waterville. The Lough – also known as Loch Luioch or Leeagh – is a substantial body of water, about 1,000 hectares in area. It is fed by the Cumneragh River in the north, Isknagahiny in the east, and drains to Ballinskelligs Bay at its south-western end. This Aerial view (below) shows the Lough in context, while the 6″ OS map extract dates from the 1840s.

We were fortunate to be taken to the island by Tom O’Shea. He is the owner of the island today, and a mine of information on its history and traditions associated with it. He is also a Ghillie – anciently the attendant of a Gaelic chief, whose job it was to carry the chief across a river or lake – but in the present day an organiser of fishing or hunting expeditions: Lough Currane is one of Ireland’s premier sea trout fisheries. We hired Tom to carry us across the water to this ancient sanctuary which had been occupied by saints and monks for over a thousand years!

That’s Tom ferrying us across the lake in the upper picture – only two at a time due to Covid restrictions. Above is my picture of the rest of our group on the island, with Tom in the centre explaining the geography and history of this remarkable place. The day was organised by our good friends Amanda and Peter Clarke, and we had along with us friends from Kerry – David and Janet, all of us discovering this gem for the first time.

The monastic foundation on Church Island was set up by Saint Fionán Cam in the sixth century. Cam means ‘bent’ or ‘squint-eyed’, and it is significant that the name already gives us a picture of the man – a picture which has survived in local tradition for more than fifteen hundred years. One of the most impressive aspects of this island is that some of the historic structures date from the time of the saint – the one above is known as his oratory, or ‘cell’. This is a ‘gallurus’ type of oratory, and would have been roofed completely in corbelled stone: the upper part of the roof has fallen. Archaeologists do not agree over the dating of the structure, but local tradition is clear that it was built by the saint himself, and his community. At its eastern end is a low doorway with two roof boxes above, while opposite is a small, rectangular ‘squint’. It has been noted that the opes of this oratory align with the sunrise at midsummer. As that is almost upon us as I write, it is appropriate that we should have visited at this time of the year. The old photograph is courtesy of the National Library of Ireland Lawrence Collection, dating from the late 1800s. Below is the same view today: the ivy and creeper growth has been removed, revealing the roof box ‘slots’.

Fionán Cam was an important figure in Kerry: he is regarded as one of the three coinnle – or ‘candles’ of the Múscraighe, and descended from Conaire Cóem, High King of Munster. His birth was miraculous, his mother Beagnad – a virgin – having conceived while swimming in Killarney Lake, with a salmon. There are numerous dedications to this Fionán in the west of Ireland, but most traditions link him to Lough Currane and he is reputed to be buried beneath one of the three Leachta – or shrines – on the island, within the enclosure of the Romanesque church at its eastern end.

The OPW took over the archaeology of the island in 1880 and this illustration (above) from the Duchas information board shows pilgrims paying their devotions at the Leachta in 1000 AD. Nearly a century and a half on, the OPW has not yet completed their work on the island! There were plans to restore the west doorway of the twelfth century church (below), but this has not happened.

One of the Leachta (shrines) in the church enclosure. This probably marks the burial place of a later saint (or holy man) – Anmchad Ua Dúnchada – described as ‘anchorite of God’ in the Annals of Inisfallen, which states that he was buried here in 1058. Close by this shrine, and shown in the photograph above, is an inscribed slab on which can still be read the inscription to him:

The eleven stone slabs – mentioned on the Duchas information board – are beautiful examples of this medieval craft: some are displayed now within the church building, although still open to the elements. Nevertheless they are surviving reasonably well.

One carved stone from Church Island is very unusual, being a rare representation of a musician. Known as ‘the fiddler’ the figure is clearly playing a stringed instrument with a bow. It is thought to be a lyre, an instrument which came to Europe in the eleventh century. This is the only known early representation of a lyre found in Ireland. In fact, the stone that we saw is a replica (on the left, below), which has become very weathered: the original (right) is being conserved in museum conditions.

There are other early buildings on the island, including the base of a ‘beehive hut’, said to have been the home of the early saint.

Some quite fine examples of graffiti by visitors to the island, on the Romanesque church walls: some of it dates from the nineteenth century.

Our visit to Church Island only occupied half of our Kerry day. We had more treats from medieval times – and earlier – in our explorations later on. These will have to wait for another post, but here are some tasters:

Wrought Iron Grave Markers

Every graveyard we go into has fine example of the blacksmith’s craft – wrought iron grave markers. Ranging from simple to decorative, they are a part of our heritage that is often overlooked and forgotten.

Wrought iron was once a common material in Ireland – there were huge production facilities in Clare, for example. What is it? It’s iron made by smelting iron ore and hammering out the impurities, with little or no carbon content. How it’s produced hasn’t changed much since the start of the Iron Age 2500 years ago. But it’s no longer available as a material, having been completely replaced by steel (carbon content up to 2%) and by cast iron (carbon content of up to 4.5%). This means we are in danger of losing all the knowledge about how to work with it, since it can only be worked using traditional forge techniques. 

Graves in burial grounds in the past in West Cork were mostly marked with crude stone slabs as headstones (and sometimes footstones) and the vast majority were un-inscribed. They were carefully chosen, though, and the memory of who was buried there, and the shape and placement of the markers, would pass down through families. 

However, every local blacksmith was also adept at making grave markers, most often in the shape of a simple cross, but sometime with more elaborate detailing. As with the hand-forged gates (see A Gate Post and Another Gate Post) grave markers were forge-welded or riveted, and details were added by hammering out shapes, or splitting the iron and curling it around the anvil.

Some examples follow. All are from my local area but wherever you are in Ireland you will find similar grave markers in old burial grounds (although probably not in newer cemeteries) – why not have a wander down to your own local old graveyards and see what you can spot?

Many of the wrought iron grave markers have lost any identification over the years, but there are exceptions, such as the plaque to Timothy Keating who died in 1896 and is buried in Abbeystrewry graveyard in Skibbereen, or the simple letter PH and the date of 1907, from the graveyard in Drimoleague.

This elegant grave surround is completely hand-forged and is in the Abbeystrewry graveyard. It is likely to be the work of one the McCarthys, a family of blacksmiths whose work is still remembered and celebrated in Skibbereen – see this post from the Skibbereen Heritage Centre.

In the same graveyard, Eugene, a member of that McCarthy family, made this impressive famine memorial (above, upper) in his forge on Ilen Street. His hallmark can be seen elsewhere in the graveyard – notice the similarities between the cross on top of the famine memorial and the gravemarker (above, lower). The cross keys are associated with St Peter – perhaps this marks the grave of a Peter.

Many simple crosses such as those above can be found in the graveyard surrounding the ruined church of St Mary in Schull. The second image in this post is a more elaborate example from St Mary’s.

This graceful wrought iron grave surround is in the Castlehaven graveyard. The cast iron headstone obscures the original hand-forged IHS, just visible behind it.

Almost completely obscured by vegetation is this lovely example of a wrought iron grave marker in Creagh graveyard on the banks of the Ilen. Below are more simple crosses in Abbeystrewery.

Wrought iron is amazingly durable and will last for hundreds of years with little or no maintenance. It can deteriorate under certain conditions, though, and when it does it can only be properly repaired using traditional forging methods. There are still blacksmiths around who can use these traditional methods – in West Cork we are lucky to have Pat O’Driscoll* and JJ Bowen – but the knowledge and the equipment is getting scarcer. 

This lovely memorial to the O’Brien family can be see in the Dunbeacon graveyard. The image below is of a wrought iron memorial in Schull. The circle was made from band-iron, originally used for banding wheels.

I’ve tried to limit this essay to wrought iron. I’m still learning – please point out any errors you see, in the comment section. I hope to do more about cast iron in the future. Wrought and cast iron were often used in combination and we have lots of examples of this in our West Cork graveyards.

*My thanks to Pat O’Driscoll for information and for his willingness to patiently answer my questions.

I am also grateful to Architectural Conservation Professionals – see their site for lots of information on the conservation of historic ironwork.

Stained Glass Detectives – and a Find!

This is the story of what it takes sometimes to ferret out information about stained glass windows – often unsigned and undated and installed too far back for community memory to help. In this case, the window turned out to be a significant addition to the list of important Irish windows. Although it was I who first saw and photographed the windows in 2017, the detective work was largely done by my friend and colleague David Caron. David is the editor of the soon-to-be-published second edition of The Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass and the most knowledgeable stained glass scholar on this island. My own contribution to the Gazetteer focusses on the work of George Walsh, but I am in the habit of photographing stained glass wherever I go, and I often send interesting windows to David or to other colleagues. In 2019, going though my photos, I came across two images that piqued my curiosity and decided to send them to David.

St Colman’s Catholic Church in Macroom (above, photo courtesy of the Buildings of Ireland) is a fine example of Gothic Revival architecture. The original church was built in 1826 – a significant achievement in the period before Catholic Emancipation and especially considering the poverty of the majority of the Catholic population at the time – and remodelled and extended in the 1890s. It has several stained glass windows inside – an Earley, some Harry Clarke Studios from the period after Harry died (such as the one below), and others that are unsigned and possibly imported. A fairly standard assemblage for a church of this period.

What caught my attention, however, were two panels in the entry porch. Rather than being fitted into true windows, the two pieces are installed in back-lit cabinets. The backlighting wasn’t quite bright enough so the windows did not show to full advantage and it was hard to make out any detail. Nevertheless, they were arresting in their modernity and in how different they were to the other windows inside the church. The first, to the left of the door, is an image of St Colman of Cloyne, patron saint of the diocese and of the church itself. He is depicted with a harp, dressed in long robes and with large bare feet. The harp is a reference to his status as a noted bard or poet – medieval bards recited their compositions to the accompaniment of the harp. The figure is surrounded by glass panes of varying shapes mostly in shades of green, and an aura radiates around his head.

The glass to the right of the door is a depiction of the madonna and child. Mary wears a wimple with a fez-like top and a long robe in olive green. She is seated and in her lap is the Christ child with one hand raised in blessing. He wears a crown and a white robe. Their faces are similar with a small mouth, long noise and heavy eyebrows (see lead image). Mary’s large foot rests on a crescent moon and her head and Jesus’ are surrounded  by an aura. Like Colman, the figures are set within irregularly shaped pieces of coloured glass in shades of green.

David decided to track down the mystery of who had made these windows and finally managed to get in touch with Fr O’Donnell, a retired Parish Priest who was very helpful indeed. He remembered that the windows had been made by a “Swedish woman from Skibbereen”. I got on the case and through a series of inquiries found Carin MacCana, who no longer does stained glass but still lives in West Cork. Below is an example of her previous stained glass work from the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, based around the sea creatures of Lough Hyne.

Carin confirmed that she had indeed done one of the windows. Wait, what? One of the windows? Yes, in fact she had been asked to match her window, St Colman, as closely as possible to the existing Madonna and Child window but she did not know who had done that one. Meanwhile, the enterprising Fr O’Donnell (now 90) was making good on his resolve to improve the backlighting. In the course of this, the signature ‘K’ was noticed on the back of the Marian panel. Fr O’Donnell recalled that the Madonna and Child had been presented by the artist Thomas Ryan, PRHA, in memory of a friend of his, a local doctor. Armed with this information, David went back to Carin who then remembered that she had been told the name of the artist was Richard King.

 Richard King in his studio, courtesy of the Capuchin Archives. The 1975 volume has extensive images and moving obituaries for King, beginning on page 169: he was the magazine’s chief artist.

Although I have written about Richard King before (see Richard King in Mayo and Discovering Richard King), I am no expert – but we know who is! David immediately consulted Ruth Sheehy. Ruth has recently published her magisterial study The Life and Work of Richard King: Religion, Nationalism and Modernism – an engaging, erudite and exhaustive study of King’s artistic output, including his stained glass. This is my well-thumbed copy.

She was delighted to confirm that this was indeed the work of Richard King, and that it was a panel she knew existed, but had never managed to find. She pointed us to a similar panel – a ‘twin’ – that King made for the Church of the Holy Cross in Aberaeron in Wales. That panel has been well documented by Martin Crampin, artist and academic, who is the acknowledged expert on Welsh stained glass. He has kindly given me permission to reproduce his photo of that window, “Our Lady of Ireland”, below. For more on that window, see his listing here: http://stainedglass.llgc.org.uk/object/970 and also his blog post about this and another Richard King window in Wales: https://stainedglasswales.wordpress.com/2020/12/17/richard-king/

Of the Welsh window, dating to 1958, in her book, Ruth says:

The Virgin Mary seated with the Christ-child shown in red, is depicted as an Irish woman with a blue shawl around her head and shoulders. The two figures are seen in the centre against a background of large areas of vibrant colour and cubist-abstract shapes. As King knew and admired Mainie Jellett’s art, he would have been aware of her meditative and indirect approach to religious themes as shown by The Ninth Hour. . . Although King’s interpretation of figuration and non-figuration was somewhat different from that of Jellett, the stained glass window of Our Lady of Ireland shows him experimenting with a cubist-abstract approach to form, light and colour which suggests an adaptation of her style.

Mainie Jellett’s The Ninth Hour, 1941, oil on canvas, Collection Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane

Regarding the Macroom window, which dates to 1963, Ruth wrote to us in an email:

The Virgin and Child are depicted here as King and Queen of Heaven and this image has similarities with another work by King entitled ‘Our Lady of Ireland’ c. 1958 which is reproduced in the book. The half moon at the Virgin’s feet refers to her immaculate conception. The red and white halo behind the Christ child wearing a crown indicates that his kingship is based on his ultimate Cross and resurrection and is not of this world.. . . . The large hands and feet of the figures and their expressive quality would suggest the influences of Evie Hone and modern German stained glass on King’s stylistic development at this period.

Fr O’Donnell has now had the windows cleaned and installed much improved back-lighting. The results are wonderful and allow us to see the windows properly, as both Carin MacCana and Richard King intended. Carin has done an outstanding job of matching King’s style, which is why we all assumed in the beginning of the hunt for answers, that this was a pair of windows done by the same artist. The colours of the St Colman window, instead of being muddy and autumnal now glow in golds, blues and greens.

As for King’s Madonna and Child window, the colours are quite different from how they appeared before. The background is dominated by light yellows and pale blues and greens, while Mary’s robe is not olive green but a brilliant azure – and it is now obvious that the ‘fez’ is a crown. The red and white halo (a favourite symbol of King’s) is also clearer now. Both of these windows beautifully illustrate the importance of proper back-lighting.

It isn’t every day that you can be part of rediscovering a ‘lost’ work of art – what a privilege it has been to be part of this journey.

Another Gate Post (Vernacular Gates of West Cork 2)

The hand-forged wrought iron farm gate, featured in last week’s post, was once ubiquitous around West Cork, mostly made by local blacksmiths. Perhaps enterprising blacksmiths also mass-produced gates, which were then sold by local shops. In Ballydehob, for example, around 1890, Wolfe’s shop was selling this gate, captured by the photographer Robert French and now part of the Lawrence Collection at the National Library of Ireland (used with their permission).

To understand the technology and skill that went into making and repairing these gates, take a look at this video, the follow-on to last week’s, from Shem Caulfield in Kilkenny. (If you haven’t already seen Part 1, check back on it now for diagrams of what I will be talking about.)

Forge-welding, as illustrated in the video, can be seen in this gate (below), located on the Twelve Arch Bridge in Ballydehob, separating the bridge from what was once the railway station. [Or so I thought – read on to see how mistaken I was.]

The hooped strengthening bars are a very common element in West Cork vernacular gates, but in this case, you can clearly see that the loops have been added by forge-welding. The other thing about this gate is the perfection and uniformity of the twists – a very skilful job indeed. And not a rivet in sight – each joint appears to be forge-welded. [EDIT: I got this SO wrong. This is not an example of forge welding, but “a dodgy repair job with an arc welder” – thanks to Pat O’Driscoll for putting me straight. I think we can take it this is NOT a hand-forged gate but a more recent example – machine made, given the perfection of the twists. I am adding this clarification rather than deleting the photograph and text to show that we are all still learning!]

A more common, and perhaps more traditional approach was to make these looped strengthening bars by bending one continuous length of iron and attaching them to the cross bars with rivets. This beautiful gate (above), still in situ in Ballybane, near Ballydehob, illustrates this.

In this photograph you can see that the cross bars are joined to the slapping stile with a mortice and tenon joint. In the forge the stile is heated until a hole can be punched through it. The end of the bar is inserted into this hole and then hammered flat to fix it in place.

Using the same mortice and tenon technique, a heel is affixed to the top (and sometimes the bottom bar) to further strengthen and hang the gate and prevent sagging. Across the road from this gate is an identical one (below) where only half the original gate remains – how wonderful that it is still kept in place!

Entrance gates performed a different function than a farm or field gate. The height of a field gate accommodated the head of a horse or a cow to look over it. Entrance gates, understandably, were often made to deter anyone from going over them. They were taller and certainly less inviting to a climber. I spotted this lovely red set in Rossmore – you can see all the traits of the hand-forged gate in them.

But entrance gates were also designed to make a more prestigious statement about the people going through them or the house behind them. This beautiful set of gates (below) is on the road up to Brow Head and is definitely made to impress. My favourite part is that there is a discrete pedestrian gate built in to them.

Finally, a couple of garden gates – perfect for leaning across for the chat with the neighbours. This one is next door to me, rescued and re-purposed by my friend Hildegard. I love the way the stiles have been split – such a simple way to create a decorative element.

And how about this one, spotted at Coolkelure? A few simple twists and a couple of scrolls and you’ve got a pretty little gate that will last forever.

Over the course of the twentieth century hand-forged entrance gates gave way to cast-iron gates made in foundries and eventually to mass-produced and imported varieties, bought from a catalogue. Meanwhile, farmers bought the tubular steel gates that are everywhere around us. When you see those gates, remember that they have probably replaced a hand-forged example of the blacksmith’s skill, such as the ones in Brian Lalor’s engraving below, which conjures up for me such a feeling for a lost tradition.

© Brian Lalor, used with permission

Harry Clarke’s Terenure Masterpiece

A controversial word, masterpiece, and in this case I am using it to denote that this a Harry Clarke masterpieces rather than the masterpiece. There are several contenders for that title, although the Geneva Window may take the crown. In any ranking of Harry’s windows, however, these two side-by side windows, in St Joseph’s Church in Terenure in Dublin*, must be close to the top. 

The left window, The Annunciation, was finished in 1922 and the right window, The Virgin in Glory, in 1923. What is perhaps extraordinary is that these windows were completed at a time when Ireland, and Dublin in particular, was in turmoil and the country was riven by civil war. Life in the artistic world was precarious, with the National Gallery and the School of Art closed and the destruction of many of Dublin’s finest buildings. Harry was in the midst of moving house and re-organising and staffing the studio, while also very busy with illustration commissions. But stained glass was still his main business and he was pleased to receive the order for the two-light window from Fr Healy, for whom he had previously completed the enormous three-light Crucifixion window over the main altar. Having been completed several months apart, each window in this set has a different mood and character. Let’s look at the Annunciation first. Before it was installed, Harry entered it in the art competition that was part of the Aonach Tailteann, or Tailteann Games – a Festival of all-things-Irish with a strong Celtic Revival influence. The window won the Gold Medal for stained glass. 

Gabriel hovers above Mary, held in suspense by long scarlet wings. Depicted as female, she wears a complex headdress and long multi-layered garment tied at the waist with a broad blue sash. Her feet are suspended over a scene of a hill town. The Holy Spirit in its dove form is to her right, shedding silver rays down on Mary.

Mary is depicted as young, with huge innocent eyes and a gentle expression. Her colour has traditionally been blue and Harry uses a deep royal blue for her gown. Across her shoulders is a large shawl. Nicole Gordon Bowe in Harry Clarke: The Life and Work describes the window in terms which could be applied to this shawl “. . . a subtle work with shimmering pale colours, gossamer lines and finely laid on tones. . .” Harry’s typical ‘floral ornamentation’ (known to his assistants as F Os or even as Fried Onions) occupy much of the rest of the lower half of the window, an endlessly various and imaginative garden of blooms.

The composition is balanced and harmonious. The scarlet wings are mirrored by green fronds cascading from the right border. Mary’s outstretched hand provides a counterpoint to Gabriel’s, while both have large and complex haloes. The eye is drawn to two pairs of dainty slippers. The angel’s predominant red hues are laced and leavened with blues, while Mary’s blues are warmed by the reds and pinks of the shawl. Despite the inclusion of the floral elements and highly-figured details on the garments, the impression is of a serene and uncluttered scene.

The right hand window exudes a different energy – forceful, complex, and peopled with the kind of supporting cast that Harry delighted in. The emphasis on Marian iconography, very much part of the popular emphasis of Catholicism pre-Vatican II, supported this kind of depiction of Mary, triumphant and queenly, holding sceptre and orb, with the moon and snake under her feet (a mixed metaphor inspired by the Woman clothed in the sun with the moon under her feet from Revelations 12, and the Genesis verse in which God tells the serpent that the woman shall ‘crush thy head’). God is shown above her, hands raised in the sign of blessing, and both have fiery aureoles. Mary carries a scroll with the invocation in Latin, Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of the womb.

While these are the two main figures, much of the interest in this window comes from the host of other women characters whose stories are illustrated in the side panels and the predella. Unusually for a Catholic window of the time, these are women from the Old Testament, not the Bridgets and Itas and Dympnas which populate so many of Harry’s saintly stained glass. I will start at the top and go through the stories as our eyes descend.

The border is patterned in deep blue, punctuated by tiny scenes from the life of Mary. God is surrounded by four female saints although the effect is of ghostly, insubstantial figures. The flowing clothing of the lower two provide a triangular link to Mary’s crown, an effective technique that divides the space and provides a frame for the first two Old Testament women, Ruth and Deborah. They are both rendered in green glass above and blue below, and both images protrude beyond the border, a technique Harry used to give depth. Ruth is known for her goodness and kindness, and Deborah for her wisdom and gift of prophecy, symbolised by the owl on her hand.

To the left of Mary’s Crown is Rachel and to the right, Rebecca. Rachel, beloved of Isaac, mother of Joseph, was watching her sheep when Isaac first sees her. Hers is a complicated story, full of trickery and disappointment. ‘Rebecca at the Well’ is a familiar motif of Renaissance painting – Rebecca comes to draw water at the well and gives it to a weary traveller and his camels, little knowing that by doing this she fulfils a prophecy and becomes the wife of Isaac (different Isaac) and mother of Jacob from whom descends the nation of Israel. 

Next (above and below) are scenes from two stories. To the left is the story of Esther. King Xerxes, having banished his wife for disobedience, identifies her as his favourite (lower down the panel) from the harem and (higher image) makes her his queen. She goes on to become a saviour of her people. To the right is the story of Judith, the courageous widow who inveigles her way into Holofernes tent, lies with him, and cuts off his head when he sinks into an inebriated sleep. In the higher images she is pictured in scarlet robes, with her hand tangled in Holofernes bright red hair. In the lower, she and her maid escape carrying the head of Holofernes in a basket. The maid has a comical, grimacing expression – understandable given her burden. 

Finally, in the predella, we have Adam and Eve cowering in fear and shame in the Garden of Eden, while the golden apples hang from a purple tree. Gordon Bowe, whose knowledge of art history was prodigious, sees this as an homage to Paul Klee, whose Two Men Meeting, Each Presuming the Other to be of Higher Rank, the source she posits for this depiction, can be seen here.

By any standards these two windows belong to the highest order of artistic endeavour. They are also, especially The Blessed Virgin in Glory, an insight into Harry Clarke’s unique imagination, with its selection of tiny figures whose stories are worked out in intricate detail despite the constraints of space, and many of whom are far from the gentle virgins idealised by Catholic clergy of the day. Thomas Bodkin, the eminent art critic and later Director of the National Gallery referred to them as a multitude of little foreshadowing figures and says, They are drawn with such amazing delicacy of detail that they demand inspection at the closest quarter; and yet when seen from a distance they sink into a background swirl of lovely hues enhancing the majestic figure of their queen (Quoted in Gordon Bowe’s The Life and Work of Harry Clarke).

*If and when you can, go visit St Joseph’s in Terenure. Take with you the Marvellous book Harry Clarke and His Legacy by Patricia Curtin-Kelly. It’s a well-researched and very readable account of all the windows in this church by Harry Clarke and by those who carried on his legacy, Richard King and William Dowling and I highly recommend it.