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

A Misplaced Saint

detail 11

Partly in West Cork, and partly in Kerry, the Beara Peninsula is a majestic place to explore. Some of Ireland’s highest mountains are here, and in places they sweep sheer down to the Atlantic to create dramatic landscapes, hard to match – in my own limited traveller’s view – with anything else in the world, But it’s not just landscape: the Beara offers surprises in the way of rainbow-hued village houses, off-the-beaten-tracks pubs with lively music and conversation, and the occasional gem of an altogether different kind. My post today is simply about one place – one church, in fact – which we found by chance in the village of Eyeries situated on the recently implemented long distance drive around the whole magnificent west coast of this country: the Wild Atlantic Way.

Wild Atlantic Way...

Wild Atlantic Way…

‘…Come to Eyeries Village. Embrace the tranquility…’ That’s the advice of this little community’s website. We did just that and, as we were enjoying our coffee outside Miss Murphy’s cafe in the centre of town we were only disturbed by one or two cars and diverted by the sound of the street sweeper’s brush. But the focus of our attention for this visit became the church: St Kentigern’s.

notice

As you will know, I am always on the lookout for Irish Saints, and I had never heard of St Kentigern, so I went inside expecting to find a new story. My eyes were assailed by a riot of colour! This unassuming little building hides a magnificent set of coloured glass windows telling the story of the world from prehistoric times and Ireland’s central part in that history… I have put a precis of the artist’s explanation of the designs below, but the windows must speak for themselves.

There are eleven windows in all: eight in the main body of church, two in the Sanctuary, and the last in the west wall, over the entrance doors.

So – why are they here? A very good question. I have gleaned no information from the usual sources. The best I could find (based on a chat with a passer by) was that the windows were commissioned in the 1980s, and each one is dedicated to the memory of a local person, and they were all paid for by friends and relatives of the dedicatees. It seems that there was a wish at the time to ‘brighten up’ the interior of the formerly nondescript building. I think this aspiration has been completely successful, but it’s a shame that there’s hardly a mention of the church or its windows in any of the information I could find about Eyeries.

Regarding the stained glass artist himself – George Walsh: I have found mentions of him as an artist working in Dublin. His father, George S Walsh, worked in the studios of Harry Clarke. He has carried out commissions in Kerry, Kildare, Kilkenny, Dublin, Galway and as far afield as Newfoundland and Florida. My source thought that he is now retired and living in Dublin. It seems odd that he hasn’t gained more public recognition (unless I am missing something – comments please).

Here are the notes of George Walsh giving an ‘explanation’ of the Eyeries windows: it would be easy to miss, as it is a single fading typewritten sheet on a window cill on the south side of the aisle:

 ‘…The windows… begin with the elements sun, rain wind etc. The next depict fishing and the tradition of work on seas and rivers… Next, farming and husbandry, sowing seed etc. the final windows on this side show Saint Finbar – emigration, both going and returning old and new. The windows on the right side begin with the Dark Ages and pre-history to the next which remembers our Megalithic and Celtic past. Following on to the Christian period – Eucharist, Gospel Missionaries etc and finally to Resurrection… Sun and birds symbolise renewal and hope… The Sanctuary windows show Baptism, Water, Fish, Shell etc. Next is Mary in the form of Annunciation… the balcony windows are seen as we go out from the Church into the world in renewed spirit…’

What of Saint Kentigern? You may well ask that – he gets no mention in the church, nor in the Irish Saint Hagiographies. He is mentioned as a Scottish Saint (more commonly known as Saint Mungo) who founded the city of Glasgow in the 6th century. Look for him on that city’s coat-of-arms. I could only glean (from another local source after a bit of a grumble) that when the church was restored and the new windows were commissioned a priest of the time decided to give the church that dedication. He evidently had unearthed some obscure link, but this has apparently never been put on record. There is another possibility: he might have been the local saint whose name is now more commonly given as Chaitighern or Catherine. There is a ruined church of this dedication on the Beara, not far from Eyeries.

Church of Catherine, Close to Eyeries

Kilcatherine Church, close to Eyeries

Our elusive Saint on Glasgow's coat-of-arms

Our elusive Saint on Glasgow’s coat-of-arms