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’.

The Children of Lir

Artist Warren Osborne's depiction of the enchanted Swans

Artist Warren Osborne‘s depiction of the enchanted Swans

It was the mission of the Bards and the Seanchaí to keep alive the ancient stories of Ireland: I am always eager to hear these wonder tales: if they are well told, they will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Your storyteller is being watched and listened to by a generation gone before, who in turn carried that story forward from their ancestors – a chain of continuity which for all we know could go back to the time of the Bronze Age rock carvers and Megalith builders – or even before that. History books are mere speculation and short lived; stories encompass the spirit of the people, and last forever.

The story captured in sculpture at Ballycastle, County Mayo

A story captured in sculpture at Ballycastle, County Antrim

Have you ever wondered why Swans are such special birds? Did you know that in Ireland no-one can harm the Swan? Some say that law was made by the Milesians, who are said to have arrived in Ireland from Galicia (northern Spain) around four thousand years ago, and heard about The Children of Lir.

It’s a Wicked Step-Mother Tale. Finola is a Step-Mother and is sensitive to such stories, but interestingly she herself appears in this story – in fact she is its heroine! The twins Finola (…as beautiful as sunshine in blossomed branches…) and Hugo and the twins Fiachra and Conn were the children of King Lir and Queen Aoibh.

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When the children were very young their mother died, and the King married Aoifa, a sister of Aoibh. All was well until Aoifa noticed that Lir was spoiling his children: each one of them was given a beautiful white horse and a pair of white hounds and the King spent most of his time in their company. In true step-mother fashion, Aoifa became jealous and determined to intervene. Just as in the story of Snow White, she planned a dire end for them: she took them off to the wild shores of Lake Derryvaragh and threw them into the waters. But her magical powers were not strong enough: Finola gathered her brothers around her and, as Aoifa looked on, the children were transformed into beautiful Swans. In a final curse their step-mother said that they would live out three hundred years on the lake, then three hundred years more in the Sea of Moyle (the narrowest part of the Atlantic Ocean between Ireland and Scotland), then a final three hundred years on Sruth Fada Conn or Irrus Domnann – Stream of the Long Hound – in County Mayo. The spell could only be broken when the sound of the first Christian bell was heard by the Swans.

Sruwaddacon Bay - also known as Sruth Fada Conn

Sruwaddacon Bay – also known as Sruth Fada Conn

Aoifa might have suffered some last minutes pangs of guilt, for she allowed the Swans to retain their human voices. They also had the gift of music and while they were on Lake Derryvaragh people flocked to hear them singing. In fact, it is said that all of Ireland’s great musical tradition originated from the Children of Lir.

Children of Lir by John Duncan, 1914

Children of Lir by John Duncan, 1914

When the King found out about Aoifa’s treachery he turned her into a ‘night demon’ – a Moth, and she’s still around: we see her frequently down here in Nead an Iolair.

Aoifa - the Emperor Moth

Aoifa – the Emperor Moth

One of the most poignant parts of the story (and I am telling only the briefest of versions here) pictures the Swan children revisiting their father’s tower house on their journey to the Sea of Moyle – only to find grass covered ruins and no traces of the family’s heritage:

…when they looked down they saw no light in the house, they heard no music, no sound of voices. The many-coloured house was desolate and all the beauty was gone from it; the white hounds and the brightmaned horses were gone, and all the beautiful glad-hearted folk of the Sidhe… (http://www.sacred-texts.com)

stamp children of lir

We watch the Swans in Rossbrin Cove. On occasion we are fortunate enough to see them taking off from or landing on the water – a noisy and energetic affair: it’s hard to believe that such large and heavy birds can actually take to the air, and migrate over huge distances. Swans appear in folktales all over the world: usually they are associated with light and beauty. A tradition that the Swan only sings when dying has been captured in a madrigal by Orlando Gibbons:

The Silver Swan who, living, had no note,
When death approach’d, unlock’d her silent throat.
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, And sung no more:
“Farewell all joys, O death come close mine eyes.
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise”

children of lir

To return to our tale – the Children of Lir took their final journey to the far west of Ireland: to the Beara peninsula in West Cork. There they heard St Patrick’s bell and were transformed to human shape again. A hermit – Saint Kemoc – found them, four ancient, withered people. He baptised them just before they crumbled to dust. This place is marked now by a stone where offerings are made: their story is alive today.

The Lir Stone, near Allihies on the Beara

The Lir Stone, near Allihies on the Beara

patricks bell

St Patrick’s Bell