That He Might Better Rest

In my time browsing and photographing stained glass windows I have come across many WWI memorial windows in Protestant churches, but only three in Catholic churches – an extraordinary ratio, given that over two hundred thousand Irish men fought in that war, with Catholics far outnumbering Protestant Irish soldiers (simply because they represented a far greater portion of the population). It is estimated that thirty five thousand Irish soldiers died in that conflict. 

The O’Keefe War Memorial window in the Church of the Assumption, Wexford town, by Harry Clarke (above, and detail top image) 

There are many reasons for the lack of memorials in Catholic churches – for example, the vast majority of Irish soldiers in the British Army came from poor families who could not have afforded such a memorial. But also it has to do with the collective amnesia we developed about our participation in British wars. As I wrote in Outposts of Empire, returning soldiers came back to a new Ireland, one in which nationalist aspirations dominated, and many young Catholic men preferred not to speak about their British Army service.

A figure, possibly St Anthony, in the top tracery light of the O’Keefe window

But the three windows I have seen are beautiful and interesting, using some different icons from so many Church of Ireland windows, which tend to feature Michael the Archangel defeating the dragon or a knight in armour fighting “The Good Fight” with regimental standards and lists of engagements in the bottom panel.

St Aidan of Ferns

I have started with everyone’s favourite, Harry Clarke, who designed and executed this window in the Church of the Assumption in Wexford town. The fallen soldier was 21 year old Lieut Henry O’Keefe and Harry travelled to Wexford in Sept of 1918 to meet his mother and discuss the window, which was installed the following year.

St Adrian, Patron Saint of Soldiers

The design is classic Harry Clarke. Serenely floating high on the left panel is the Madonna and child, clothed in an elaborate and bejewelled blue gown which extend across to the second panel where two saints have come to pay homage. The image of the Madonna evokes the bond between mother and child, while the two saints are carefully chosen: St Adrian is the patron saint of soldiers and St Aidan of Ferns represents Wexford. Above, in a tracery light, a monk, possibly St Anthony, gazes out in an attitude of prayer.

The O’Keefes were a prominent Wexford merchant family and their coat of arms is shown in one panel. Numerous tiny details – a ship, leaping fish, crucifixion images, a tiny image of the Church of the Assumption itself, as well as Harry’s ubiquitous floral ornamentation, fill every section. The overall result is highly emotive. I can imagine the O’Keefe family visiting often and finding comfort in the beauty and compassion of the imagery.

Harry Clarke designed two WWI memorial windows simultaneously and they are completely different. Above is the cartoon for the O’Keefe window and, on the left, for a window, Angel of Hope and Peace, for the Holy Trinity Church of Ireland in Killiney, Co Dublin

Our second example is from the West Cork Church of the Immaculate Conception in Enniskeane. Probably by Watsons of Youghal, this window is a memorial to Dr Thomas J Fehily, a native of the parish who qualified and practised medicine for many years before enlisting.

Local historian, Anne Lynch has given a good account of his life in a Southern Star article. She writes, Ballineen was a long way from the action when World War I started in the summer of 1914. However, two local brothers, both medical doctors, saw the war as an opportunity to utilise their medical skills. In doing so, it cost one brother his life, while for the other, it was the start of an illustrious career in the British Empire. The doctors were the Fehily brothers.

This is an Ascension window and at first I was puzzled by this choice for a war memorial window but as I thought about it, it became clear – Jesus ascends to heaven having sacrificed his life for his fellow man, while his sorrowing mother weeps below.

The final window is in the neo-Romanesque church of Spiddal in Co Galway and is dedicated to the memory of George Henry Morris, a hero of the war, and second son of Lord Morris.  A painting of George Henry by William Orpen ends this post.

There is an affecting account of a visit to his grave by his grandson Redmond Morris with his own children, where they even manage to take a photograph in the very spot that George himself was last photographed. By all accounts a brilliant man and a highly respected officer, George died within two weeks of arriving in France. Read more about him on his Wikipedia page and note that he was the father of Lord Kilanin, for many years the esteemed President of the International Olympics Committee.

The window is by Catherine O’Brien, one of the artists of An Tur Gloine.  See this post about Loughrea Cathedral for more about this design co-op: Edward Martyn was also involved with the design and furbishment of this Spiddal church. O’Brien has depicted a golden-haired figure reaching upwards to a divine light, with the words lux perpetua luceat ei – Let Perpetual Light Shine Upon Them. The figure is a rider (denoted by his spurs only) and a riderless horse is seen at the bottom right. The location in Connemara is captured with thatched cottages and sea cliffs.

One of our most famous War Dead was the poet, Francis Ledwidge. His poem, A Soldier’s Grave, has given me my title, and I will leave it here now in honour of the many brave Irish men who gave their lives in WWI.

Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms
Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death
Lest he should hear again the mad alarms
Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath.

And where the earth was soft for flowers we made
A grave for him that he might better rest.
So, Spring shall come and leave its sweet arrayed,
And there the lark shall turn her dewy nest.

George Henry Morris, painted by William Orpen

Watsons of Youghal – Revivalist Masters Part 1

The stained glass firm of J Watson & Co of Youghal not only represented a new type of Irish-based business when it started to operate in the 1880s but developed a uniquely Irish style of stained glass (see above). I introduced this topic in my post Symbols and Stories: Looking at Stained Glass, but I want to develop it properly in this post and provide further illustrations in the next. Watsons was first opened by Michael Buckley, who had Irish connections, as a branch of Cox, Sons, Buckley and Co of London but was eventually bought out by James Watson, a Yorkshire stained glass artisan who had come to work there a decade earlier. Members of the Watson family continued to make windows right up to 2012.*

This St Eltin window in Gougane Barra has been attributed to Michael Buckley. Note the Revivalist elements

Based in Youghal, the firm supplied stained glass all over Ireland, but especially in Munster. They competed with other new firms which had set up church supply and decorating businesses, mostly in Dublin. These included Joshua Clarke (father of Harry), James Pearse (father of Patrick and Willy) and the Earley Brothers, Thomas and John. All of them had learned the trade in Britain and some started as agents for such companies as Mayer of Munich and London or Hardman of Birmingham, but eventually employed their own artists and glaziers.

This is one of many Light of the World windows that Watsons produced, in St Brendan’s of Bantry Church of Ireland. Note the conventional Gothic canopies . This was a universal favourite, especially in Protestant churches and all the stained glass manufacturers had a version

This was a boom period for Irish church building and stained glass windows were, of course, one of the expressions of faith that could enliven and decorate the interiors. They also offered an opportunity for both clerical and lay people to contribute to the church and to commemorate deceased family members (and occasionally to commission an ego-stroking window for themselves).

Catherine O’Brien of An Túr Gloine painted this window for Kilcoe Church of the Most Holy Rosary in West Cork. Note the introduction of some interlacing as a minor element in the design. Patrick and Brigid, as the male and female patron saints of Ireland were always in demand for church windows

The choice of iconography for the window was dictated either by didactic imperatives (e.g. the Holy Family as a model to be emulated by the faithful) or by devotion to a particular saint, international, Biblical or local, or by church politics (e.g. Papal authority).  This was also the period when the Celtic Revival was in full swing and artists of all kinds were busy crowding graveyards with Celtic crosses, stitching Book of Kells symbols onto vestments, and painting illuminated addresses with complicated knotwork. Buying from Irish firms, once they were able to supply the orders, quickly became preferred.

Harry Clarke did not incorporate much interlacing into his windows, but this one, of St Fachtna, in Castletownshend Church of Ireland, shows that he knew well how to do it

Nowadays the term Celtic is suspect: we no longer believe that the evidence exists for an Iron-Age invasion of a tall blonde race from the continent. Archaeologists and Art Historians often now use the term Medieval Insular Art, however Celtic Revival, as shorthand for the domination of a certain decorative style (as well as the re-discovery of a great literary tradition and the craze for antiquarianism) at the end of the nineteenth century and into the Irish Arts and Crafts period, is so well understood that I use the term, and ‘Revivalist’,  here in that spirit.

Contrast the canopies in this window, with its intricate interlacing, with the conventional Gothic canopies of the Light of the World window above. Watson’s executed this one for Charleville Catholic Church

In her in-depth analysis of the Watson Archives, art historian Vera Ryan has demonstrated that orders for stained glass often stipulated that instead of the gothic canopies favoured by the English and German manufactures, windows should contain Celtic (or even ‘Keltic’) artwork. While other firms included some minor elements of interlacing in a design (see the Brigid and Fachtna windows above), no Irish stained glass firm delivered on this request better than Watsons of Youghal – it became one of their hallmarks and a real selling point for Irish clergy of both Catholic and Church of Ireland persuasions.

Models artists could learn from: Upper – a detail from St Manchan’s shrine, a replica of which was housed in the National Museum. Lower – The Christ Enthroned Page from the Book of Kells

This was the most popular style of art at the time for all kinds of objects and it’s not hard to understand why. First of all, the interlacing itself is delightful, quirky and complex and full of tiny surprises. Secondly, the Revivalist motifs were taken from a rich treasury of sacred and secular Medieval objects that formed the nucleus of the displays in the National Museum, which opened its doors in 1877. The Tara Brooch (below), for example, created a sensation when it was found it 1850 and became instantly iconic, with thousands of copies being made.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, here was now a truly indigenous art of which we could be justly proud. In an era of evolving nationalism, images conjuring up a glorious Christian past, replete with our own saints, literature and high art, was a reminder of what we had once been and what we had lost as a nation.

The Shrine of St Patrick’s Bell – not only a beautiful object but a potent symbol of what was seen as a Golden Age in Ireland of learning and piety

While their figurative designs remained conventional – think bearded men in long robes or saintly women in nuns’ habits, all in the style of renaissance paintings – the artists at Watsons had fun developing increasingly elaborate frames and canopies to surround their figures. Added to this was a mastery of Irish lettering styles, deployed to great effect whether the text was in Irish, English or Latin.

The use of interlacing and an Irish lettering style. Two continuous ribbons link the upper and lower surrounds, with the corner interlacing twisting around them. The Irish script was still being taught to us in school in the 1950s and 60s 

The net result was the development, in the hands of the expert and talented designers and painters at the Watson studio, of a hybrid style of stained glass window unique to Ireland – the overlayering of conventional objects of worship with the originally pre-Christian and later Early Christian/Early Medieval decorative style that came to be labelled ‘Celtic Revival’ at the end of the nineteenth century.

St Carthage, from his eponymous Catholic church in Lismore, Co Waterford. Details include the Book of Lismore, the Lismore Crozier (on display at the National Museum) and a whole galaxy of interlace motifs for the clothing and decorative surround

Next week – examples of Watsons’ use of Revivalist motifs and where to go to see them, as well as some original cartoons, now housed in the Crawford Gallery in Cork. I leave you with a detail from one of the windows employing interlace and lettering – but can you spot the signature?

*Much gratitude to Vera Ryan who has generously shared her Watson expertise with me, and to the Crawford Art Gallery for allowing access to the Watson Archive. I recommend Vera Ryan’s article Divine Light: A Century of Stained Glass in the Summer 2015 edition of the Irish Arts Review for those who would like to learn more about Watsons of Youghal.

Part 2 is here.

Symbols and Stories: Looking at Stained Glass

Not all stained glass windows are great works of art but all have a story to tell. Sometimes the story is about the subject of the window (the iconography) and sometimes it’s about the person who is remembered or even the one who is doing the remembering. Sometimes it’s about the craft, or the times, or the influences on the artist. Let’s take a look at a few West Cork windows.

This one (above) is in Ardfield, south of Clonakilty and close to Red Strand. There is no identifying writing on the image but we know that this is St James. How do we know? Well, the church is St James’s and there’s a holy well dedicated to St James nearby. But mostly we know because, even though he looks like a stereotypical saint with the beard, the halo and the long robes, there are symbols to identify him. St James, or San Diego de Compostela, has given his name to the great Camino pilgrimage and he is mostly depicted, as in this portrait, as a simple pilgrim, carrying a staff with a gourd for water suspended from it, and wearing the scallop shell, symbol of the pilgrim.

The first three photographs in this post are all from St James Catholic Church in Ardfield, by Watson of Youghal

The other thing that’s really interesting about this window is the use of Celtic Revival interlacing. It’s beautifully and expertly done in all the windows in this church, and it marks those windows as the work of Watson’s of Youghal, our own great Cork stained glass producers, whose work can be found all over the county and the country. Parish priests would often specify their wish for this type of ornamentation in preference to the usual gothic canopies and it became a hallmark of Watson’s work. I will write more about this in a future post, so this serves as an introduction.

Windows in Catholic churches most often take as their subject the iconography of the new Testament and this occasionally includes images from the Book of Revelations. A favourite, because it is a Marian image, is the verse 12: 1-17, which goes like this:

1 And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: 2  And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. 3  And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. 4 And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. 5  And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne

While I have seen many depictions of the woman clothed in the sun with the moon and stars, the red dragon is quite rare, and this one (above and the two below), done by Mayer of Munich for Clonakilty Church of the Immaculate Conception, is striking. The artist has given each of the dragon’s heads fearsome fangs and snakes’ tongues: each has a crown (a rather cute one) and by dint of leaving out horns on two of the heads there are indeed ten horns.

The Book of Revelations has been traditionally ascribed to John the Evangelist, whose symbol is the eagle. Many modern scholars now believe it was written by John of Patmos but this depiction (below) is the traditional one of John as the beloved, young, slightly androgynous apostle, writing down what he is seeing in the revelation.

I was also struck in the same Clonakilty church by the huge rose windows with rows of saints beneath them. While the east window features Irish saints, the northern window pictures five saints associated with the Franciscans, possibly because of the proximity of the ruined Franciscan Abbey in Timoleague. They are conventionally, but beautifully done, depicting Saints Bonaventure, Louis, Francis, Clara and Elizabeth of Hungary.

The St Louis window that I am more familiar with is by Harry Clarke, in the Castletownshend Church of St Barrahane, and I have written about that one in my post The Gift of Harry Clarke. This depiction shows a young St Louis, who was King Louis IX of France, carrying a crown of thorns.

St Louis was a complex character, renowned for his holiness and beneficence and for feeding the poor at his own table. He was also an art lover and collector of relics, building the famous Sainte-Chapelle to house them, including the crown of thorns, the prize of his collection. While he instituted important law reforms and championed fairness and justice for his citizens, he also expanded the Inquisition, persecuted Jews, and participating in two crusades against Islam. Nothing, apparently, that prevented him being canonised less than 30 years after his death.

The depiction of St Elizabeth (furthest right) also struck me as very beautiful

My final example for today is a window by the Irish Firm of Earley in St Finbarr’s church in Bantry. This caught my interest for several reasons. First, it’s a fine windows and not imported but executed by the Earleys at a time when Irish stained glass manufacturers were competing for business against cheaper, mass-produced windows from Britain and Germany. This is significant because the windows were ordered and paid for by William Martin Murphy, one of the richest captains of industry in Ireland and a promoter of home-grown manufacturing. They were installed in 1914, only a year after the 1913 Dublin Lockout had made him a notorious and hated figure in Ireland – a reputation that some historians are trying to rehabilitate now, or at least to provide a more balanced picture of the man. He was from West Cork and the window is to honour his parents.

But the subject matter is also telling. On top we have Jesus in the act of saying to Peter, “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church” (below). In case we are in any doubt, an angel overhead carries the pontifical tiara. This is a reminder to Catholics to bow to the authority of Rome in all things, and was characteristic of the kind of Ultramontane Catholicism that typified the new Irish State. See my post Saints and Soupers: the Story of Teampall na mBocht (Part 7, the New Catholicism) for an explanation of what drove the Irish church in this period.

Underneath, St Finbarr is also receiving a bishop’s mitre from an angel – the message is a subtle one but well understood by parishioners as drawing a parallel between the lines of authority emanating from Rome as much in Biblical times as in ancient monastic Ireland. (The windows in Killarney Cathedral are all in this vein.) Perhaps for William Martin Murphy there was an ultimate point to be made about subjection to proper authority.

So take a closer look at familiar windows – you might find depths in them you haven’t noticed before, stories that are hidden behind all that colour (like one of my own personal favourites, below.)

 

The Finola Window

You will all know about Finola’s interest in stained glass, and in particular her admiration of the work of artist George Walsh: she wrote an article about him in the Irish Arts Review this year. So I hatched a plan, together with George, to give her a window of her very own! Here it is, just installed in our house, Nead an Iolair. Not so long ago, Finola wrote another Irish Arts Review piece about Ireland’s newest stained glass window, and there’s a Roaringwater Journal post about it here. I think it’s safe to say – as of today – we have in our house Ireland’s new ‘newest stained glass window’! It’s an artwork with a story – several stories, in fact. I’ll tell you some of them.

This is George Walsh. He apprenticed in the world of stained glass under his father – also George – who apprenticed under Harry Clarke, so he has an eminent lineage. He worked with his father in the United States and Ireland, and eventually set up his own Dublin studio, where he has been prolific. Finola is currently visiting and cataloguing every one of his publicly accessible projects which can be seen on the island of Ireland: it takes us to some far-off and fascinating places. To date her list includes 61 buildings which have George Walsh windows, and it’s certainly not complete.  While most of George’s work can be found in churches, he has also produced a secular opus and our window has now added to that. George says that he enjoyed this commission because it was very different from so much of his work, but I guess that he always enjoys his work – you can tell by the exuberance, dynamism and sumptuous colouring of his pieces.

The Finola Window tells the story of our Finola, but is also about a famous Finola (or Fionnghuala – fair-shouldered) in Irish mythology: she is the heroine of The Children of Lir, one of Ireland’s most well-known ancient wonder-tales. Fionnghuala (above, being transformed into a swan) is the eldest of the four children of King Lir – the others are Aodh and twins Fiachra and Conn. Their mother, Aobh, died when they were young and the King remarried. Unfortunately, this is where the story turns into a wicked stepmother tale, as the King’s new wife, Aoife, becomes jealous of the children, and casts a magic spell on them. I hope you are keeping up with these names! Our Finola – a stepmother herself – has always been sensitive about negative portrayals of that position, so I asked George to play down the role of Aoife and in fact he has left her out of the window altogether. I’ll just let you know, however, that she received full punishment for her malice by being turned into a Demon of the Air – and she still hangs around on dark, haunted nights. Watch out!

All four children were turned into swans by Aoife, and their fate was to spend three hundred years on Loch Dairbhreach (a lake in Co Westmeath), followed by three hundred years on Sruth na Maoilé (the stormy Straits of Moyle between Ireland and Scotland), and a further three hundred on Inis Gluairé (an Atlantic island in Erris, Co Mayo). The swans kept their human voices and they spent much of their exile singing beautiful songs which became all the traditional music of Ireland.

George has skilfully woven into this window many elements of our Finola’s life: in the details above you can see Newgrange – where Finola dug as a student; Irish rock art – which was Finola’s main area of study as an archaeologist; my hands playing my concertina (all the musical notes are descending from the swans); eagles flying over Nead an Iolair; the Scholar and his Cat Pangur Bán (the Irish medieval poem is one of Finola’s favourites); St Brendan’s voyage (Finola is  a great teller of the tales of Irish Saints) and – of course (at my specific request) a golden hare! George Walsh has always been a master of detail, something we have particularly admired in his work. We feel he has excelled himself here. These images are some of the resources given to George while he was making the window:

Image gallery for George – top: Finola’s 1973 drawing of a piece of Kerry rock art; centre – the flight of the eagles over Nead an Iolair; lower – my hands playing music from the swans through my concertina!

I was privileged to see some of the work in progress in George’s studio earlier in the year. He showed me how he uses ‘flashed glass’ where a thin layer of coloured glass is melted on to clear glass. Acid etching is used to take off the coloured surface leaving a design. You can see where the etched piece (below) is being prepared to fit in the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ of glass shapes that will be joined by leading to form the final window.

Above – George’s ‘cartoon’ design sketch together with his explanation of the subject matter: these now hang close to the completed window in our house

The culmination of the Children of Lir story comes when St Patrick’s bell is first heard on the shores of Ireland (detail below), and Fionnghuala and her brothers are released from the spell. As they regain human form their bodies are aged and they have time only to receive baptism into Christianity before they crumble to dust.

Decorative borders, details and motifs abound in George’s windows and ours is no exception. It’s a bit like the marginalia in a medieval illuminated manuscript: your eye is constantly drawn to all the minutiae. We will never tire of looking at it. The panel is mounted in a west facing window in our study: when the sun comes around to that side in the evenings the whole room becomes alive with flowing colour.

Thank you, George, for so wonderfully fulfilling my vision of a window especially for Finola. I couldn’t imagine anything more fitting and she is – of course – over the moon! Here we are in George’s studio on the day of the ‘reveal’.

Brendan, Judas, Harry Clarke – and Matthew Arnold

St Brendan was a favourite subject for Harry Clarke. Four of his windows depict the saint: a prizewinning student piece from 1911; his Honan Chapel commission of 1916; the Ballinrobe windows from 1924-25 (pictured above); and the windows designed for the Rathfarnham Jesuit Retreat in 1928 and subsequently relocated to Tullamore (pictured below).

The Tullamore Brendan (above) is recognisably based on that from Ballinrobe, but in this window a youthful Brendan, as described by Paul Donnelly, ‘engages the viewer directly with a penetrating look’  

Harry researched his subjects extensively and ensured that anyone working on his windows did too. Paul Donnelly, in his fascinating essay Legacy and Identity: Harry Clarke, William Dowling and the Harry Clarke Studios (in Harry Clarke and Artistic Visions of the New Irish State) tells how he sent his apprentice, William Dowling, off to the National Library to read all that was available on his subject when he was working on the Rathfarnham window (above and below).

Nicola Gordon Bowe, in the Life and Work of Harry Clarke, felt that Harry was influenced by Matthew Arnold’s poem, St Brandon, when he set about designing his student piece, now in the Crawford Art Gallery. Based on the Medieval best-seller (there are over 100 versions still extant and many translations) Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, Arnold’s poem tells of an incident on the voyage in which the Saint meets with Judas, tied to an iceberg in the ocean. There are several slightly different accounts of this part of the voyage, but Arnold’s poem is compelling, and beautifully told.

From the Ballinrobe window, a detail showing what Brendan was seeking – the Land of Promise

Both in his poetry and criticism, Arnold explored issues of morality versus religion, and themes of alienation and redemption. Clarke was constrained to work on religious subjects since most of his stained glass commissions came from churches, but revelled in the chance to introduce details from mythology and ancient hagiographies (such as O’Hanlons Lives of the Irish Saints which he consulted exhaustively) and to use those details as a springboard for his own imagination.

Also from the Ballinrobe window, the bottom panel shows Brendan praying  at the bow of the boat and an angel appearing

We can see the progression of his art, and his growing interest in the macabre, in the two depictions of Judas. Both are emotive and powerful, but in the first, from 1911, Judas is shown as a fully human, tortured man. In the Honan window, from 1916, he has turned into a monster with scales, feathers, fur and claws. One constant is that Brendan’s companions look on in shock and horror in both pieces, while the saint remains unmoved, gazing thoughtfully and perhaps compassionately on the scene.

From the Honan window, according to Gordon Bowe: ‘The upper panel which perhaps represents Brendan’s vision of Paradise, is spanned by a golden hemisphere and depicts the saint at sea in his coracle, preaching to his companions as they approach the skull-ridden coastline of America in their search for the Islands of the Blessed’

Harry went on to design two more Brendan windows, but chose different details for them. In fact, he wrote to Monsignor D’Alton at Ballinrobe, ‘The meeting with Judas I have done too often to do again with enthusiasm.’  Arnold’s poem was first published in 1860. He died in 1888 and Harry was born in 1889, so their lives did not overlap. But Harry was very well read and Arnold, at the turn of the century, was still considered one of the major poets of the Victorian era. I think you will find that the poem and the windows are a successful collaboration between two iconic figures of art and literature. I give the poem now in its entirety, illustrated by Harry Clarke. [The first image is from a panel in Tullamore, originally part of the St Brendan window but separated from it when the windows were relocated. The second and third image are from the 1911 student piece; the next three from the Honan Chapel 1916 window.]

Saint Brandan sails the northern main;

The brotherhood of saints are glad.

He greets them once, he sails again;

So late!—such storms!—The Saint is mad!

He heard, across the howling seas,

Chime convent-bells on wintry nights;

He saw, on spray-swept Hebrides,

Twinkle the monastery-lights;

But north, still north, Saint Brandan steer’d—

And now no bells, no convents more!

The hurtling Polar lights are near’d,

The sea without a human shore.

At last—(it was the Christmas night;

Stars shone after a day of storm)—

He sees float past an iceberg white,

And on it—Christ!—a living form.

That furtive mien, that scowling eye,

Of hair that red and tufted fell—

It is—Oh, where shall Brandan fly?—

The traitor Judas, out of hell!

Palsied with terror, Brandan sate;

The moon was bright, the iceberg near.

He hears a voice sigh humbly: ‘Wait!

By high permission I am here.

‘One moment wait, thou holy man

On earth my crime, my death, they knew;

My name is under all men’s ban—

Ah, tell them of my respite too!

‘Tell them, one blessed Christmas-night—

(It was the first after I came,

Breathing self-murder, frenzy, spite,

To rue my guilt in endless flame)—

‘I felt, as I in torment lay

‘Mid the souls plagued by heavenly power,

An angel touch my arm, and say:

Go hence, and cool thyself an hour!

”Ah, whence this mercy, Lord?’ I said.

The Leper recollect, said he,

Who ask’d the passers-by for aid,

In Joppa, and thy charity.

‘Then I remember’d how I went,

In Joppa, through the public street,

One morn when the sirocco spent

Its storms of dust with burning heat;

‘And in the street a leper sate,

Shivering with fever, naked, old;

Sand raked his sores from heel to pate,

The hot wind fever’d him five-fold.

‘He gazed upon me as I pass’d

And murmur’d: Help me, or I die!—

To the poor wretch my cloak I cast,

Saw him look eased, and hurried by.

‘Oh, Brandan, think what grace divine,

What blessing must full goodness shower,

When fragment of it small, like mine,

Hath such inestimable power!

‘Well-fed, well-clothed, well-friended, I

Did that chance act of good, that one!

Then went my way to kill and lie—

Forgot my good as soon as done.

‘That germ of kindness, in the womb

Of mercy caught, did not expire;

Outlives my guilt, outlives my doom,

And friends me in the pit of fire.

‘Once every year, when carols wake,

On earth, the Christmas-night’s repose,

Arising from the sinner’s lake,

I journey to these healing snows.

‘I stanch with ice my burning breast,

With silence balm my whirling brain.

Oh, Brandan! to this hour of rest

That Joppan leper’s ease was pain.’—

Tears started to Saint Brandan’s eyes;

He bow’d his head, he breathed a prayer—

Then look’d, and lo, the frosty skies!

The iceberg, and no Judas there! 

 

Archaeology, Art and Architecture at the Blasket Centre

Funny how you see different things every time you visit special places. The last time we were at The Blasket Centre on the Dingle Peninsula, a couple of years ago, I immersed myself in the stories of the writers and the Island way of life, which is, after all, the focus of the exhibitions. Given that a visit to the Island itself can be difficult, calling for fine weather conditions, the exhibition is very well done and illustrates well the hardships and perils faced by Island people, as well as their depths of warmth, poetic language, stories and daily tasks. This time, I was equally struck by the building itself, and by the art at its core.

An Muircheartach’s photograph of Peig Sayers, one of the Island writers and the bane of many a struggling Irish Language student (hand up!) forced to study her stories

We had a particular reason for going there last month. Readers will remember my post about Lee Snodgrass, a respected and loved local archaeologist. She and her partner, Paddy O’Leary, had undertaken an archaeological survey of the Blaskets in the 1980s, and their original papers, notes and photographs were still among her possessions. With the blessing of her family, I arranged to deliver them to the Blasket Centre, and that happened last month.

One of the Blasket Island, Inish Tuaisceart, know as An Fear Marbh, The Dead Man, for its distinctive shape

We were welcomed by the Director, Lorcán Ó Cinnéide (below). He was genuinely delighted to receive this package, since it contained information on all the Blasket Islands and not just the Great Blasket, which has naturally received most attentions. The materials will now be catalogued and go into the Centre’s extensive archive, which is available to study on application.

That pleasant task done, we had time for a wander around the Centre and a closer look at the architecture and the art. Robert, a modernist, was very impressed with the design of the building, opened in 1993. All the exhibits inhabit pods off a long central corridor which leads the eye down to a huge end window with a view of the Great Blasket. In this way, it reminded us of the Lexicon Library in Dun Laoghaire, although that’s a much larger building.

The reception area is circular and contains a striking, enormous and very beautiful glass installation by the artist Róisín de Buitléar, in collaboration with Salah Kawala.

This is not stained glass per se: a plaque explains the process: The panel is composed of over three hundred pieces of plate or window glass. They were each painted with enamel which was then baked into the surface. To complete the process, each piece was textured by melting it in a special kiln in a process known as ‘slumping’, Three and half tons of glass and three tons of steel have been used. It took almost a year to make.

The piece depicts Island life, based on de Buitléar’s extensive research. The steel framework is used imaginatively to form the shape of the currachs, or naomhógs (pronounced nave-ogues) as they are called in West Kerry on one end of the panel (above), and of oars leaning against a wall on the other end (below).

In between are the houses (rectangles of glass superimposed on the panel, above), the fields, and the meandering paths (the glass dots) that the Islanders took to the sea, to the fields and to each other’s houses. De Buitléar explains: Each field is given a colour and texture and some contain symbols associated with them. These include corn stooks and fossil markings, while others are inspired by the texture of bog plants, turf sods, cliffs, the beach and the sea.

As our readers know, I look at a lot of stained glass, but I have never before seen a glass and steel art installation quite like this. Using thoroughly modern technology, but age-old techniques, de Buitléar has depicted Island life in a sumptuously colourful and jaw-droppingly beautiful artwork which greets visitors and sets the tone for what is to come. Gazing at it, and listening to the soft cadences of staff members speaking in Irish behind me, I was transported.

There are several more pieces of art in the Centre, but I will make special mention of just one, located outside. Here we find Michael Quane’s Islandman. An t-Oileanách (The Islandman) by Tomás Ó Criomhthain was published in 1929 and is a classic of Irish literature. Whether or not it is a great book is a matter of some debate (see this Irish Times review, for example) but it is certainly an important one.

Quane’s piece shows Tomás braced against the wind – a wonderful, human take on a true man of the outdoors. Michael Quane, by the way, has featured in Roaringwater Journal before – take a look at this post by Robert.

Ó Croimhthain (Prononouced O Cruh-han) is buried nearby – within sight, indeed of the Blasket Centre and his statue. Here is An Muircheartach’s photograph of his final burial place with the Great Blasket as the backdrop. The text that accompanies this photograph says (my translation): Go Farraige Síos: Down to the Sea. The Blaskets lying out there quietly in the sea, The Tiaracht Lighhouse on its right side, the Old Dunquin Graveyard directly on your left if you were standing there, and the man who made Blasket life famous, Tomás Ó Criomhthain, lying in it waiting for eternity.

The Blasket Centre is a full sensory experience. I have only touched on small aspects in this post. You must see it for yourself. Of course, if you can get out to it – don’t forget a trip to the Great Blasket itself. We hope to do this ourselves this year so look out for that post.