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. 

Building a Stone Wall

Our craft is one of the oldest in the world. Our handiwork is seen everywhere in town, country and village. The men who have gone before us have left us a heritage to be proud of; and we feel our own contributions have been for the good. With hammer, mallet and chisel we have shaped and fashioned tough boulders. We often curse our material and often we speak to it kindly – we have to come to terms with it in order to master it, and it has a way of dictating to us sometimes – and then the struggle begins. We try to impose ourselves in it, but if we know our material and respect it we will often take a suggestion from it, and our work will be the better for it.

That’s a quote from the preface of Stone Mad by the distinguished Irish Sculptor, Seamus Murphy, as are all the following quotes.  Watching Diarmuid O’Callaghan rebuild our tumble-down stone wall I could see that same pride and respect for materials that Seamus talked about. 

I suppose I imagined that stone wall building had somehow modernised in the same way that many ‘hand-forged’ gates are now mass-produced in China. But what I discovered is that Diarmuid built this wall using the exact same techniques and tools that the stone workers did who built Rossbrin Castle in the 15th century. You can see the remains of that Castle in the photograph below.

It’s called rubble construction, which simply means that the core of the wall is filled with rubble and mortar, while the outside or visible parts are shaped by the skilled sorting, selecting, shaping and placing of larger stones. In the photo below you can see the wall starting to take shape. Diarmuid is building on a concrete foundation – Rossbrin Castle is built on solid rock.

We wanted the wall to match, as closely as practical, the stretch that was still standing. Given that  a stone wall is, in itself, a whole habitat for wild plants, my brief to Diarmuid was not to make it too tidy so that over time it would settle in and become covered in interesting growth in the same way as the existing wall. My request found a sympathetic ear and it became apparent quickly that here was a man who appreciated the craft of stone wall building and was fully alive to its long history, while having his own approach and practice.

Every graveyard, every old church, every old building keeps reminding us we are not as good as we think. They are our models, and very exacting they can be, very often they bring us down a peg or two and make us realise how much of our knowledge is handed down from old times, and what small advances we have made.

Some heavy equipment was needed in the beginning, all managed by our friendly neighbour Stephen O’Brien and his family who cleared into a neat pile all the fallen stones, dug a trench and laid a foundation for Diarmuid to work with. Diarmuid re-used almost every piece of original stone – it was remarkably efficient, with only a few bits left over. 

As I watched him work he explained his practice to me. “I turn every piece three times,” he said, “and then I can see exactly where it will go.” He lays the outer lines first, turning what was the backside of the old stones towards the front to present a new clean face. He lays down some mortar (nowadays that’s a loose mixture of concrete and sand) to bed the stones in, keeping his lines horizontal with judicious insertions of smaller pieces of stone. Once the outer lines are set he fills the interior with ‘rubble’ – a mixture of mortar and discarded pieces of stone. 

It all goes remarkably quickly and in no time at all the wall is taking shape. I was curious how he was going to manage attaching the new wall to the old so I asked him how he was going to marry to the two sections. “With love,” he grinned. I was struck by how he echoed Seamus’s description of medieval stone masons.

That was the spirit and attitude that prevailed in mediaeval times, when you had whole colonies of craftsmen gathered in the towns, building the big cathedrals.

They worked and they talked of work, and the ways and means by which other jobs were done, all the time comparing and striving to produce as good, if not better than the man at the next banker. Occasionally indulging in caprice and caricaturing vice and virtue, enjoying the exaggerated and the fanciful, or using as models the odd personalities that were on the job. Or they could be as reverent as the portal statues at Chartres. They loved their work, and one can sense the enjoyment they got out of that, each vying with the other to attract the attention of the rest. This sort of vanity pushes men on, it gives the imagination a chance to play about and thereby enriches our lives so that work is no longer a task, but a use of our leisure – in a word — pleasure.

The finished wall is a thing of beauty. There’s still a good demand for stone walls in this part of the country – we have seen great new examples and others that are not quite so successful. Stone walls are such an integral part of the character of the west of Ireland and it will be a long time, we think and hope, before the demand for them dies out, but I will leave the last word for Seamus.

Times have changed and the work is no longer plentiful… But some of the old stonies will hold their heads high, and carry with them to the grave the feeling that they have left their mark on many a church, and on many a building, and that in the years to come, there will be people to admire the work they have left behind them, as we of this generation respect and understand the work of the men of long ago.

I often wish I had money and could take a few of the old stonies on a pilgrimage from graveyard to graveyard, from quarry to quarry, calling on the small stonecutters’ sheds here and there around the country, exchanging gossip about the members of the craft, and of the stone, and realising – marvelling – at the at the amount of knowledge and skill, and the years of thought that go to the perfecting of a craft.

But it is coming to an end, and more is the pity. Art grows out of the good work done by men who enjoy it. It is the wealth, surely, of any country.

Harry Clarke Quiz – The Answers

Well done to everyone who took part and I hope you enjoyed it. (And it’s not too late – you can always try the Quiz, if you haven’t already done so, before proceeding.) It wasn’t easy. In fact, if I had tried to answer it myself, as opposed to setting it, I don’t think I would have got them all right. That’s important, as it illustrates the very conundrum posed by the question of what is, in fact, a genuine Harry Clarke, designed by him and either at least partially executed by him or executed under his very close supervision, as opposed to a Harry Clarke Studios, that is one done by other artists working in his studio, especially after his death. I hope you remember your answers, as the poll only tells me the percentage of people who answered correctly. OK – here goes.

Saint with Hood 1
Yes: 70% No: 30%
Correct Answer: Yes

In fact it was designed and totally executed by him. It depicts St Fachtna, Patron Saint of Rosscarbery, and is a detail from the 1919 Nativity at St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland in Castletownshend, West Cork. The window was commissioned by Edith Somerville and her siblings in memory of their parents and was one of Harry’s first private commissions after he burst on the scene with his triumphal set of windows for the Honan Chapel at University College, Cork. Harry was still trying to find his feet as a stained glass businessman at this point with the artist in him taking precedence over the need to make money at this. He lavished such care and attention on this window that his father, Joshua Clarke, despaired of their ability to recoup what it was costing. In the end he and Harry had to come to an arrangement whereby Harry paid for workshop time and the use of his father’s glaziers. It was an important lesson in the need to balance his drive as an artist with making a living and led to his taking on assistants and artists to help him with the volume of work. To see the whole window, take a look at my post The Nativity – by Harry Clarke.

Saint with Hood 2
Yes: 33%  No: 66%
Correct Answer: No

Two thirds of you knew at once that this is not a Harry Clarke – in fact, it isn’t even a Harry Clarke Studios. This is the head of St Colman from the Honan Chapel, but it is not one of the 11 windows that Harry supplied, but rather one of the windows done by An Túr Gloine (The Tower of Glass), the cooperative studio established by Sarah Purser and Edward Martyn to promote the use of Irish windows by Irish artists. Read more about An Túr Gloine in this post: Loughrea Cathedral and the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement. The St Colman window was the work of A E Child, who mentored many of the Túr Gloine artists and who taught Harry at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art.

Nativity 1
Yes: 80% No: 20%
Correct Answer: No

Four out of every five of you thought this was a Harry Clarke, but in fact this was the work of one of the Harry Clarke Studios artists, probably in the period immediately following Harry’s death, when there was pressure on them to produce Harry look-alikes. The window, which is very difficult to photograph, is high up in the wall of a transept in St Patrick’s Church in Wicklow Town. I think this is one I would have identified as a Harry Clarke, as it is such a close reproduction of his style.

Nativity 2
Yes: 58% No: 42%
Correct Answer: Yes

Yes, this is indeed a Harry Clarke. However, it’s not as straightforward as the Nativity window described in Saint with Hood 1, above, in which every aspect of the project was the work of Harry himself. It’s one of the collection of windows in the Diseart Centre in Dingle, in what was formerly the Presentation Convent. These windows were commissioned in 1924. Nicola Gordon Bowe assigned a status of Harry Clarke (B) to this one, that is ‘initially conceived and designed by him but executed by his Studio under his close supervision’. She wrote: 

At the beginning of 1924 Harry Clarke was at the peak of his career, in both stained glass and illustration. However, his health was beginning to deteriorate, among the causes being the extreme pressure of work, the extra responsibility his father’s death had put on him, and the upheaval in his life caused by the reconstruction of the Studios and the conversion of the two extra houses acquired in North Frederick Street. . . He engaged Austin Molloy to help him with cartoons, probably those required for a series of windows illustrating The Life of Christ at the Presentation Convent, Dingle. . . Although the Studios were responsible for most of the work on the Dingle windows. . . this series of six pairs of lancets is notable for some passages either worked or directed by himself. These include the sensitively painted head of the oldest king in the Nativity light. . .

In The Nativity – by Harry Clarke, you can see the whole window and a detail of the three kings. Five years after he had expended such personal concentration on the Castletownshend Nativity, Harry was under so much pressure from incoming orders that he could no longer handle all the work himself. By this time he had employed a small but brilliant contingent of assistants and artists and rigorously trained them to reproduce his style and bring his designs to fruition.

Presentation
Yes: 38% No: 62%
Correct Answer: No

This is a detail from an enormous Harry Clarke Studios Window in St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford, installed in 1932, after Harry had died. The Cathedral burned down on Christmas Day 2009 but was rebuilt and the windows were wonderfully restored by Abbey Stained Glass Studios for the 2014 re-opening. If you search online for ‘St Mel’s Cathedral stained glass’ most of the results will simply refer, erroneously, to ‘the Harry Clarke windows’. The scene of the Presentation is in the predella (lowest panel) of the St Anne window. 

St Augustine
Yes: 53% No: 47%
Correct Answer: No

This depiction of St Augustine is in the Holy Cross Catholic Church in Charleville, Co Cork, which is packed with interesting stained glass, including a series of twelve from Joshua Clarke and Sons erected between 1919 and 1922. Harry was working in his father’s studio at the time, doing his own windows and also assisting with the supervision of work under his father’s imprint. In a letter to Holy Cross, Joshua says, “Harry will look to the new windows and see you get very good ones.” And they are good, but the only one that looks (to me, that is) like Harry took an active hand in it is this one of St Augustine. It has the large expressive eyes, sensitive mouth, compassionate expression and long tapering fingers that we see in the full development of his style. I suspect that’s what those of you who answered Yes were responding to. However, it cannot be called a Harry Clarke, or even a Harry Clarke Studios – instead, it bears the stamp of J Clarke and Sons and remains an interesting question.

Crucifixion
Yes: 52% No: 48%
Correct Answer: No

A round window above the altar in Ballydehob Church in West Cork, the style is typical of the period after Harry died and the artists within the Harry Clarke Studios were still basing their windows closely on his designs. While the faces and figures are not convincing, the flow of the ornate garments are an echo of the fantastical and imaginary faux-medieval costumes he loved. 

Malachy Meets Bernard
Yes: 48% No: 52%
Correct Answer: Yes

The predella from the right hand light of a three light window, this small scene show St Malachy meeting his mentor, St Bernard. Of the three lights, the St Bernard and St Rita windows are by Harry Clarke and the central light is by William McBride. They date to 1924 and are in the Sacred Heart Church in Donnybrook, Dublin.

St Sebastian
Yes: 71% No: 29%
Correct Answer: No

John the Baptist Church in Blackrock, South Co Dublin, is full of interesting stained glass, including an Evie Hone. There are several windows by the Harry Clarke Studios and the St Sebastian is one of them. This is one I would have voted yes to myself, as the faces of the onlooking soldiers are so Harry Clarke.

Scene from Wedding Feast at Cana
Yes: 80% No: 20%
Correct Answer: No 

Although officially this is not listed as a Harry Clarke window, you can certainly be forgiven for thinking it is, as everything about it shouts Clarke, including the sheer richness of detail. In fact, this window was one of the last to be worked on on his studio while he was still alive (although mostly absent at a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland) and he did indeed have some input (although we don’t know how much) into the design of parts of the window, including this scene. It is a detail from one of three lights, which together incorporate seven Scenes from the Life of Christ in the Catholic Church in Timoleague, West Cork. The whole window is very fine indeed and I will be writing a future post about it as it is the subject of some excellent research by Clarke scholars, and a good example of the complexities of ascribing the label ‘Harry Clarke’. 

Saint with Helmet
Yes: 61% No: 39%
Correct Answer: Yes

No ambiguity here – this is the head of St Adrian from the O’Keefe Memorial Window by Harry Clarke in the Church of the Assumption, Wexford. You can view the full window and read more about this window in my post That He Might Better Rest. Harry designed and executed this window in 1918/19 having first travelled to Wexford to meet with the fallen soldier’s grieving mother.

Lourdes Apparition
Yes: 56% No: 44%
Correct Answer: Yes

I might have been tempted to say no to this one as I find it ultra-conventional, but it is indeed a Harry Clarke, designed by him and executed under his supervision. It is one of two windows in a small country Church in Duhill, Co Tipperary. The other window is a startling contrast to the piousness of this one but I will leave that discussion for another day.

Patrick at Slane
Yes: 34%  No: 66%
Correct Answer: No

Good eye! This image is a detail from the huge Patrick window in the Church of Sts Peter and Paul in Athlone and it’s by Richard King, done in the Harry Clarke Studios in 1937 several years after Harry died. It’s unusual for any HC Studios window to be signed – that’s part of the difficult of  identifying which of the Studios artists worked on their windows – but in this case we do know that Richard King made several of the Athlone windows. Read more about those windows in my post Discovering Richard King, where you will also find a link to images of all the Athlone windows.

Brendan the Navigator
Yes: 68% No: 32%
Correct Answer: Yes

This is the head of Brendan the Navigator from the Honan Chapel series which propelled Harry Clarke into the forefront of Irish design when they were installed in 1916.

So – how did you do? Want to argue about any of the answers?

Quiz! Do You Recognise a Harry Clarke?

A stained glass window can be labelled a Harry Clarke if it was designed and executed entirely by him, if it was designed and partially executed by him, or if it was designed by him and the execution done under his close supervision. The portrait above was done by his wife, Margaret Crilly Clarke, in 1914 when Harry was only 25 and not yet plagued by the consumption that was to carry him off in 1931 at only 41 years of age. For the last few years of his life, Harry was increasingly hampered by illness, and also busy with illustration work. He employed a very talented group of artists to execute windows of his design and trained them rigorously to reproduce his unique style, for which there was a huge demand. After his death, those same artists continued to work in the Harry Clarke Studios and to produce windows in that style because that’s what people wanted, and so it can be difficult to know whether a window is a true Harry Clarke or a Harry Clarke Studios. For some windows, only research in the extensive Studios archives (housed at Trinity College) can establish the answer for certain. There are excellent reasons to be proud of many Studios windows, and it shortchanges the outstanding artists who worked on them if we keep insisting that everything was done by Harry himself. I want to explore this topic further, but I’d like to start off with a quiz to see if we’re as good as we think we are at recognising a Harry Clarke from a non-Harry Clarke. So polish up your glasses and take the quiz! Answer YES if you think this is a Harry Clarke (according to my definition) and NO if you believe it is not. I might even have thrown in the odd image that is neither Harry Clarke nor Harry Clarke Studios. Answers next Sunday.

Good luck everyone!

Off the M8 – A High Cross and a Complex Saint

We haven’t had an ‘Off the M8’ for quite some time. You remember that, on our journeys from West Cork to Dublin, we would go (literally) off the beaten track to find new places of interest to visit – making a ‘grand day out’ of every trip. However, the unexpected arrival of the Covid19 pandemic severely curtailed our travelling – and everyone else’s – for many months. Covid is by no means over, even now, but we are slowly venturing further afield and, last week, made the trip up to the Dublin area, following all the guidelines. Nevertheless, we couldn’t resist trying out a fresh route which adds about 40 minutes to the overall journey but which takes in a new (for us) medieval stone cross and a historic site with thought-provoking associations. It is situated with fine views of the Slieveardagh Hills to the west.

We followed the normal route as far as Cahir, on the M8, then headed off east on the N24 and N76 towards Callan. Just after Ninemilehouse (Ireland has some wonderful place names!) you cross from County Tipperary into County Kilkenny and, within a few minutes (watch carefully), you’ll see a small signpost directing you off to the right down a tiny boreen to Killamery High Cross.

The first thing you’ll see, at the end of this lane, is the ruin of a significant church. Some distance beyond it you’ll make out the distinctive shape of the large, carved stone cross but also many other treasures including old grave slabs, bullaun stones and a very fine holy well dedicated to Saint Nicholas.

The site is associated with an Irish holy man, as you would expect: Saint Gobhan, Gobán Fionn, Gobban – or even Gobanus – who lived from c560 to c639AD. Foundations associated with this saint were many, including Portadown, Co Armagh, in the north; also as Abbot to the monastery of Old Leighlin, County Carlow, where in 633AD he presided over a great Synod held to debate the timing of Easter (we seem to remember only the later Synod of Whitby – 664AD – which also set out to regularise the date but which led to irreconcilable disagreement between the Irish and Roman factions). Latterly, Gobhan was linked to the Kingdom of Kerry – near Tralee, but we are interested today in the monastery he set up by a holy well in Killamery. He had a thousand monks with him and it is said that an army of angels helped build the walls.

The angels must also have helped to eradicate that monastery as there is now no trace of Gobhan’s foundation in County Kilkenny, just a lonely 19th century church, the well (pictured above), a burial ground and this very fine High Cross. The cross is well worth a visit: some say it’s the oldest of the Western Ossory high crosses, which are themselves considered to be a distinct group. I have looked previously at the Kilkieran examples. Here at Killamery there is just the one cross and, perhaps for that reason, it stands out in the memory. Some scholars reckon it could be 8th century, but most attribute it to the 9th. It’s ancient by any standard, certainly, and it’s probably unavoidable that the carving is so weathered.

The Duchas signboard (above) describes the scenes depicted on the various elements of the cross,  but most of what we can decipher today is limited to geometrical patterns – very much in the ‘Celtic’ tradition. There may have once been other visible motifs: the large plinth stone is completely worn on all surfaces.

The cross certainly predates any of the other artefacts, bullauns and stone markers which surround it today, but it is likely that the adjacent holy well is even more ancient: it is dominated by an intriguing, large shaped monolith.

Among the artefacts which have arrived at this site is a fine 17th century (probably) cross slab and a memorial to the United Irishmen who lost their lives at nearby Carrigmoclear in 1798 – both shown below.

The origins of Gobhan himself merit some consideration. He has associations with metalworkers and, of course, we know that Saint Gobnait was their patron saint. Could there be some fusion of names in folk history and oral tradition? Like Gobhan, Gobnait is revered at many sites around Ireland and undertook diverse travels around the island in search of the nine white deer which set her destiny.

There’s nothing more Irish than the experience of finding references to hundreds of years of history hiding down a lonely boreen to nowhere in the rural heart of this land. More than anything, it makes us want to know more. What is real? What is myth – although made to seem logical and credible through stories which are still told? Of course, we can never know the reality, but we can share in the spirit of the stories, and wonder at a piece of stone beautifully carved, perhaps, thirteen hundred years ago . . .

Once you have visited this fascinating site, find your way across to the M9 (it’s straightforward enough) and you’ll be up to the big city in a jiffy!

Wooly Jumper

No, that’s not the answer to the old chestnut about what you get when you cross a sheep and a kangaroo – it’s what I got Robert for his birthday this year. But this was no ordinary, off-the-peg, item of clothing but a piece of ethical, made to order, cherish for life, knitwear, hand-crafted in Ireland. That’s a quote from the maker.

First of all, for our non-Irish or non-British readers, a jumper is what you see on Robert in the header photo. It might, over here, also be called a jersey, a pullover, or even (in the depths of the country) a gansey. It’s hardly ever called a sweater.

Secondly, this is a Liadain Aiken design. Liadain isn’t a common name even in Ireland. She was believed to be a 7th century poet (see this article) and the name may mean ‘Grey Lady’. For the correct pronunciation click here.

Liadain and Robert in the nerve-centre of her operations – just outside Ballydehob

I discovered Liadain Aiken through a piece about her knitwear in the Irish Times. I was entranced by the images of colourful scarves, hats and jumpers and noted that the piece said she was in the process of moving to Ballydehob. I got in touch and asked if we could come and choose something for Robert.

That’s how Robert and I found ourselves driving up into the hills behind Ballybane last month, on his birthday, not quite sure what we were going to find. We knew Liadain Aiken Knitwear by some standards fitted the definition of ‘cottage industry’ so perhaps at the back of our minds we couldn’t get rid of that famous image of Peig Sayers knitting by her fireside.

An Muircheartach’s iconic photograph of Peig Sayers, one of the many Blasket Island story-tellers

But what we found was far from Peig – this is modern cottage industry, one that harnesses the power of the internet for distributed manufacturing and online marketing and sales. Liadain is charming, and strikingly attired in her own knitwear, but she is no amateur. With a degree in interior design and further qualifications from the Grafton Academy in Dublin and Knit-1 Studio in Brighton, she is the director and designer for her own team of knitters, many of whom work from home. On her website she says, ‘I strive to create lively and joyful garments that will be cherished for years.’ This kind of statement is music to Robert’s ears.

Although the jumper was a gift from me, Robert got to choose the colours and what followed was a fitting and selection session as it turned out that what really appealed to him was to incorporate as many different colours as possible into the one jumper. (I think he might have a Pied Piper complex but don’t tell him I told you that.) He started off with the selection above and ended up with the one below.

In the process Liadain explained her working methods to us and showed us how a jumper such as this, in multiple colours, is knitted and assembled. She made it look easy but it was obvious that this is a highly-skilled and complex process.

The jumper arrived this week, in the midst of our Coronavirus lockdown, and Robert loves it! I strongly suspect he would sleep in it if he could. You will see it, I predict, in many future posts.

It’s made from pure merino wool from Donegal Yarnstake a look at their website to see the pride they take in producing these beautiful flecked yarns. Of course, a made-to-order product like this is more expensive than an off-the-rack purchase, but both of us loved the process of buying it and see it as a long-term investment piece. As they say here in Ireland, it will ‘see him out.’ 

Liadain is currently catching up on back-orders and designing new products so it’s not possible to order in her shop at the moment. But if you’d like more information, sign up for her newsletter or get in touch with her. If you’re on Instagram or Facebook, follow her there.

Thank you, Liadain – this is a great jumper and a very happy customer!