The Christmas Story, One Window at a Time

Bandon Catholic Church

The Christmas story, as told in stained glass in Irish churches, is the biblical story. There are no Christmas trees or Santa Clauses, no references to anything other than the story of the birth of the Christ child. Not surprising, since stained glass is to be found mainly in churches after all. The one above is from the Catholic Church in Bandon. Pop in next time you’re passing – it will surprise you with its size and striking colour.

Church of the Annunciation, Cork. AnnunciationFive windows in a Cork church tell the story, beginning with the Annunciation

Two years ago I wrote a post about depictions of the Nativity by Harry Clarke. This year I’m branching out, to show you some of the stained glass Nativity images I have found in churches all over Ireland. Some are by artists I can identify, some are by the Harry Clarke Studios (after Harry’s death in 1931), and some are by anonymous artists. Some are traditional and some are avant garde. 

The next two windows show Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist), followed by the betrothal of Mary and Joseph

In Cork, in the Church of the Annunciation – a church designed by the stone carver Seamus Murphy – a series of windows illustrate the complete Nativity story, from the Annunciation to the Visit by the Magi. These windows are by the Harry Clarke Studios and were installed in the 40s.

The birth in the manger with shepherds visiting, and the arrival of the Magi round out the story

When we visited Kilkenny we saw two examples in St Canice’s Cathedral. The first, a traditional crib scene, looks like it belongs on a Christmas card.

St Canices

On  another wall in the same church is a two-light window by A E Child, depicting the visit of the Magi. A E Child was a highly influential teacher, and member of Sarah Purser’s Tower of Glass (An Túr Gloine) – a contemporary of Harry Clarke and a highly skilled stained glass artist, but with a more orthodox style than Clarke’s.

Canice's AE Childe

Still in Kilkenny, the Black Abbey has reputedly the largest stained glass window in Ireland. It’s divided into numerous smaller scenes and this one depicts the Nativity. It bears a striking resemblance to the Christmas card window from St Canice’s – perhaps it was from the same studio.

Black Abbey Kilkenny

In  Tullamore, the enormous Church of the Assumption has wonderful stained glass by different artists. Several large windows are by the Dublin firm of Earley. This one of the madonna and child shows a small shepherd on her right and three crowns on her left – a clear indication, I think, that this is intended as a Nativity image. The swirling colours and modern lines create a dramatic effect.

Church of the Assumption, Tullamore

The St Joseph window in the Richard King collection in Athlone contains a detail in one of the side panels that depicts the Flight into Egypt, and another of the marriage of Joseph and Mary.

Back to Cork and to the Holy Trinity Church on Father Matthew Quay, just behind the South Mall. Three windows on the west wall are by the Harry Clarke Studios. Research in the Studio archives (held in Trinity College) has revealed the the middle window was designed by Harry Clarke, but executed in fact by his father. It has many of the hallmarks of Harry but lacks the rich detail for which he became justly famous.

Holy Trinity Church, Cork, Designed by HC and executed by his father

Behind the altar, on the north wall of the same church is an enormous window dedicated to Daniel O’Connell and containing scenes from the life of Christ. It is conventional, but finely painted and the colours are rich.

Holy Trinity Cork, East Window

I will leave you with two of our favourites. Close to home I love the the Sarah Purser/Tower of Glass round window in the Holy Rosary Church in Kilcoe. Here’s a detail.

Tower of Glass Magi closeup. Kilcoe

And finally, from the village church of Eyeries on the Beara Peninsula, Robert wrote about  a stunning set of windows by George Walsh. His nativity scene is touching and beautiful.

george walsh nativity

Christmas Cribs

Bantry Town Square

Bantry Town Square

In this part of Ireland putting up a nativity scene at Christmas time is as natural as breathing. Known as cribs, they appear everywhere at the beginning of December. Every Irish home has one, perhaps passed down through the generations, and they come out from the attic storage boxes along with the decorations to be displayed in a window or on a mantlepiece or hall table. Even for families that consider themselves non-religious, the crib is an essential part of getting a house ready for Christmas.

One for every budget

One for every budget

Large cribs are erected in town squares and in churches. Sometimes the figures in a church crib will be inserted slowly, one a day, in little ceremonies involving children. Traditionally, the baby Jesus, was not placed in the manger until Christmas Eve. Live cribs, where the nativity figures and animals are alive, are often mounted as fundraisers. I wrote about the Skibbereen one last year. There is even, in Dublin, the Moving Crib – an institution that generations of Irish children will remember and which is still going strong almost 60 years after it was first introduced as a Christmas wonder in a church basement.

Rosie's Pub in Ballydehob

Rosie’s Pub in Ballydehob

Many businesses clear their window displays to feature the crib at Christmas – along with Santa, reindeer and the usual holly and candles. Shops, hairdressers, garages, pubs: it’s universal and it’s all a reminder that Ireland, which now prides itself on its multi-cultural and pluralistic society, is still at heart a traditional Catholic country.

Outside the Catholic Church in Schull

Outside the Catholic Church in Schull

A striking aspect of Irish cribs is their conventional character: lifelike (and sometimes life-sized) representation is the norm. Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, shepherds and kings, the cow and the donkey are all instantly recognisable and similar, as if stamped out by the same crib-figure factory in Italy.

In Ballydehob

In Ballydehob

John Charles McQuaid and Eamon DeValera - together keeping Ireland devout

John Charles McQuaid and Eamon DeValera – together keeping Ireland devout*

As I considered this, a memory stirred and I went hunting on the internet for more information. In 1964 a new church was built at Dublin Airport. Named, suitably, “Our Lady Queen of Heaven” it was a beautiful piece of mid-century modern architecture designed by an Irish architect, Andrew Devane, who had studied under Frank Lloyd Wright. For Christmas 1966 a new crib was installed. Consisting of minimalist, highly stylised all white figures (I am going by memory here – I can’t find any pictures of it on the internet) it created a sensation at the time. My father, who worked at the airport and who was very proud of the church, brought us to see it. Alas, it was all too much for the Archbishop of Dublin, the famous John Charles McQuaid. Decreeing that it was “beneath the level of human dignity” and that its presence was an offence against Canon Law, he ordered it removed. This sentiment was echoed in the Irish parliament (Dáil Éireann) by the Minister for Public Works of the day, Oliver Flanagan. He said: A crib in modern design was erected at Dublin Airport last winter. The Archbishop of Dublin ordered it to be removed. The images could be described as anything but the kind of images one associates with the Christmas crib. We must have modern art. We must have proper designs for memorials and statues in keeping with the present and the past. Monuments commemorating the past must resemble the past.

I can’t imagine this happening today in Ireland and perhaps there are now many modern and unique cribs around the country. But I certainly haven’t found any so far in West Cork.

How's this for a modern crib?

How’s this for a modern crib?

*From the Irish Independent Website

The Other Crowd

This is the time of the year for drawing around a log fire, lighting up the candles and passing on well remembered tales. Here is such a one…


You must never name them… It’s alright to call them The Other Crowd, or The Old Ones, or The Good Folk – people will know well enough who you mean. I suppose it’s a way of keeping them at arm’s length: if you name them, then they might just be there.

Some say that they are the earliest dwellers of these islands – the Fir Bolg – or that they are from Tír na nÓg, the land where you’ll never grow old. They might have been from the Bronze Age – or earlier: the Neolithic people were small. They certainly predated the Iron Age. Iron is something they can’t be near.

They have many of the same needs as us, it seems. They enjoy their food and drink; they dance; they play games. They have some form of religion. We know that because of the people they take: priests often – doctors – musicians (if there’s a dance going) – hurley players (if they are short of a team). It’s when you are ‘taken’ you have to be on your guard. You musn’t eat or drink while you are there or they’ll keep you – forever. And they will try and press you to it. If you do come back you’ll have been there only a second – or a lifetime… Remember the Children of Lir – turned by enchantment into four white swans: for nine hundred years they sang the beautiful songs that are now the tradition of Ireland. Then the enchantment fell from them. For a moment there stood these ancient, aged figures and, after, they crumbled to dust.

Where do they live? The country people believe it’s in the forts or raths – there are over a thousand of them in West Cork, untouched for centuries for fear of awakening those old spirits: some say that a lone whitethorn tree marks the entrance to their realms beneath the earth. There are tales, of course, of foolish men who disturbed the forts: farmers who were greedy for land and forgot – or ignored – the code passed down through the generations. Always they suffered for it. It might have been them, their wives and children, or their livestock: they came to no good end, and the neighbours shook their heads at the funeral, or the pyre, or the farm sale.

Just a few years ago there was a case which confirms the old beliefs. A new ring road was making its way around Ennis – the whole juggernaut of engineers, contractors, European funding, huge earth movers, gangs of modern navvies: and the whole shebang came to a sudden halt – because of a lone whitethorn tree standing in the way. First it was just one or two of the gang – wouldn’t touch it: it would bring disaster. Then the whole gang agreed, and no amount of cajoling or threatening would change their minds. The media descended – it was a great story: first the local papers, then the national ones and, finally, the world came to see the fairy tree that stopped a nation’s progress. There could only be one result – the road moved to one side, and the tree remains to this day.

The story that follows was told to me a long time ago by a very old man: he’d been a priest. And before that a curate – back in the days when all the travelling was on horseback, or by pony and trap. His living was in the far west – one of the townlands: a close community with traditional rural ways. At that time he was companion to an elderly priest – one who was schooled in the old beliefs. This priest did his job well, and was much liked and respected by his scattered flock.

churchShortly before Samhain an elderly parishioner fell sick and seemed close to dying. The priest was conscientious and visited often. The man lingered on, until one night – Samhain Eve it was – the priest had the call: the man was getting near his last breath. It was a long journey, and close to midnight, but the priest and his curate set out in the trap. Both men were sleepy and could hardly keep from nodding off, but the horse seemed to know the way – he had travelled it so many times – and the both of them woke with a start to find they were near their destination. But there was something strange: on the road in front of them, and walking the same way, there was a figure. It was dressed in black, and a hood covered its head. It walked slowly and – as they came nearer – they realised that it was playing a fiddle as it walked. They could hear a strange music coming from the figure: a plaintiff, unearthly air. They had the protection of the Book and Bell with them, but they both experienced an uncomfortable feeling in their stomachs, as though they were in the presence of something dark and powerful. They could only follow – the black figure set a slow pace and walked straight up the centre of the road: there was no way they could get past.

Eventually they came to the farm lane. Before they could turn up the trackway the figure stopped, and faced them. He put his fiddle down on the paving with the bow over the fingerboard. Then he addressed the priest directly in a voice that echoed from the darkness:

“I know where you’re heading, Father. There’s a man dying in there. I want you to do something for me…” The priest knew that the threshold of death, like all boundaries – places balanced in neither one world or the other – was a fertile and dangerous ground. He answered nervously:

“If it’s something that’s within my powers, then I will do it, willingly…” As they watched, the figure lifted his head and they could see within the hood a face yellow and ravaged with age.

“You must ask that man a question before he passes away…”

“A question…?”

“Ask him – what will happen to the Old Ones on the day of judgement?” There was a silence. The priest tried to sound calm.

“I will if I’m able…”

The figure paused a moment: “I will be here when you return… don’t forget…” He stepped back so that they could pass.

Neither man spoke. The trap came up to the farm, where there was a crowd inside to give support to the woman of the house – as was the custom in those times. The dying man was alone in the bedroom and the priest went straight to him with his cloth and candles. There didn’t seem much life left in the farmer, but he got his absolution. The priest looked around at the door, then bent down to whisper in the man’s ear. Suddenly, into the room came the farmer’s wife, carrying a glass which she gave to the priest. It was whisky: the woman herself was not a drinker and didn’t know about the water: she had filled the glass to the brim with the liquor. The priest also was not a drinker, but he needed something on that particular night, so he downed the glass. Then all the crowd of the neighbours came into the bedroom – and more whisky.

The priest was on his third glass when my friend the curate felt he had to intervene. The visitors were polite and saw the two clerics to their trap. It was only when they were halfway down the lane that the priest remembered the strange figure – and his promise.

“Wait here…” he said, but the curate was having none of that – in the dark and with an unquiet spirit on the road. So they both turned back. The host was again in the kitchen, and the priest made his excuses that he had forgotten something, and hurriedly shut the door of the bedroom fast behind him. He went straight up to the man – who looked for all the world as if he had passed on already – and whispered urgently:

“I have to ask you this – what will happen to the Old Ones on the day of judgement?” The effect was electrifying. The ‘corpse’ sat up straight, with eyes wide open. For a moment there was a silence, then he said with a great conviction:

“If there’s one drop of human blood in their bodies on the day of judgement… Then they will be saved…” He dropped back on the bed – a dead man.

The two clerics came to the end of the farm track. The figure was there, standing on the road with the fiddle beside him, as though he had never moved.

“Well, Father,” he said, “Do you have the answer?”

“I do so.” They thought they could see a glinting in those old, old eyes. “Tell me…”

The priest drew himself up and faced the spectre:

“He said this – and then he passed on. If there’s one drop of human blood in their bodies on the day of judgement… Then the Old Ones will be saved…”

The figure stared straight at them. His eyes seemed to glow red. Then they realised that he was furious. He took his hand from his coat and there was a dagger in it. They both thought that it was all up for them. But the figure pointed the dagger at his own breast… and plunged it in hard, a dozen times. The men winced, and held their breath. But there was nothing: there was no blood – not one drop…

whitethorn2The black figure turned and brought his foot down heavily on the fiddle. He seemed to snarl:

“There’ll be no more of our music in your world…” they heard. Then, in a moment, he was gone. And the road was empty before them…

The man who told me this story is long dead – but it’s not true that their music is gone. I’ve heard it: in the old raths; coming over the lake in the mountain; coming out of a wild storm at sea. The music is far too powerful – they can’t resist it. Perhaps that, in the end, will provide them with the salvation they so desperately seek.

There’s a lone thorn tree on the old moorland above Cappaghglass. I visit it often. I play my concertina up there at times. That’s where I’ll go when I’ve had my fill of this world. Don’t disturb me: I shall be down there with the Other Crowd, enjoying the feasting and the dancing.

Getting in the Christmas Spirit

2012-12-05 15.08.44

This week revolved around two trips, to Baltimore and Cork City, and observing the Irish spirit of Christmas.

Stolen VillageBaltimore – wha..? No – we didn’t take a quick trip to the States: Baltimore, the original one, is a small town in West Cork. It’s where you catch the ferries to Sherkin and Cape Clear Islands, and right now it’s hosting whale-watching tours because the humpbacks are in town. We walked out to the Beacon, an iconic landmark that in earlier times provided guidance into the harbour, hoping to catch a glimpse of the humpbacks. Although there were no whales to be seen, it was another ‘pet day’ and we were more than adequately compensated by the views over Sherkin and the Harbour, glowing in the low afternoon sun. A friend has loaned us her copy of The Stolen Village by Des Ekin – a riveting account of the Sack of Baltimore, in 1631, when Barbary Pirates laid waste to the town and bore away almost all the villagers into a life of slavery.

I lived in Cork City for seven years in the late 60’s and early 70, finishing secondary school and completing two degrees. Then, it was an undistinguished provincial town, with its own culture, sense of place and humour, and an uninspiring Victorian architecture. Nowadays it’s a lively city with a huge variety of stores and a European vibe. Many of the narrow streets have been pedestrianised, leading to a downtown core made for strolling and gawking, and on every street corner were carol singers, brass bands, or entertainers. We stayed in a wonderful place, the River Lee Hotel, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the river, great food and friendly and accommodating staff. While the main purpose of our trip was to attend a rock art meeting at UCC, we whiled away several happy hours on Christmas shopping.

2012-12-08 12.18.072012-12-08 12.15.19Back in West Cork, we took in one of the local Christmas events in Skibbereen – a Live Crib. Our entry ticket came with a carrot for the donkey. The animals were live, but Mary, Joseph and the baby were mannequins. It was explained to us that “t’would be nice, like, to have them played by real people, but sure ‘twas freezing for them, and the last girl who played Mary was most of the time on her mobile.”

We rounded off the week by erecting our Christmas tree. It’s surprising what you can do with  a tree branch, some holly and berries, and five ornaments.

2012-12-08 14.11.54