Harry Clarke, Egerton Coghill and the St Luke Window in Castletownshend

Remarkably, there are three Harry Clarke stained glass windows in one small West Cork village – in St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland church, in Castletownshend. The smallest of the three windows is the St Luke, inset into the south wall of the chancel. It is a miniature masterpiece, designed with extraordinary attention to detail by Harry, and executed in his studio.

Egerton Coghill, left, with his painting companion Herbert Baxter*

The iconography that was chosen was specific to the subject – St Luke as Patron Saint of Painters. That’s because this was a memorial window to Egerton Coghill – more correctly Sir Egerton Bushe Coghill, 5th Baronet Coghill. Egerton had grown up in Castletownshend, one of a large family of Coghills who lived in a rambling house called Glen Barrahane, and who seemed to be related in multiple ways to all the other families who lived in and around Castletownshend. His father (Sir John Jocelyn, one of Ireland’s earliest photographers) was the brother of Adelaide, who had married Thomas Henry Somerville, mother of the Somerville family that included (among others) Edith (see Stories and Stained Glass), Boyle (see Boyle Somerville: Ireland’s First Archaeoastronomer and Boyle’s Bealtaine), and Hildegard. Hildegard eventually married Egerton, her first cousin. To Edith and Boyle, therefore, Egerton was both first cousin and brother-in-law.

To Edith he was also a childhood playmate, a best friend and a great supporter and artistic mentor. In periods of distress for her he encouraged her to concentrate on her work – first art and then writing, and he loaned her money when the going got tough. Everyone loved him, it seems. He gave up a career in engineering to devote himself to painting and his limited private means allowed him to study abroad. When he and Hildegard fell in love their families were delighted, but they had to wait seven years to be able to afford to marry.

Egerton and Hildegard on their wedding day

As a painter, Egerton was strongly influenced by the Impressionists. He painted en plein air, drawn to landscape and to muted colours. He loved to capture the scenery around Castletownshend, or the village itself, as in this charming depiction of the main street.

The Mall from Malmaison (Courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum)

He was accomplished and well-known in his day, exhibiting widely and selling well. A scholarship at Oxford, for landscape painting, is named in his honour. Now, he seems to have faded from memory, and images of his paintings are hard to find online.

Field of Rye, Barbizon (Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum)

Egerton’s older brother, Neville, was killed at the Battle of Isandlwana during the Zulu Wars – Robert has developed a talk on West Cork Links to the Zulu Wars and will no doubt write a post about Neville eventually. One of the windows in St Barrahane’s (not a Harry Clarke) is dedicated to his memory. When Neville died, Egerton inherited the title and moved back permanently to Castletownshend with Hildegard and his children. Egerton himself died unexpectedly in England in 1921 during the upheavals caused by the War of Independence at home in Ireland, so it was some time before his body could be brought back to St Barrahane’s for burial. According to Edith, The whole country came to the funeral, and all the men competed for the privilege of putting a shoulder to the coffin, for even a few steps.

When Edith and Hildegard were able to consider a permanent memorial for their beloved Egerton it was naturally to Harry Clarke that they turned. Edith had been entranced immediately by Harry’s work when she travelled up to Cork, on the advice of her brother Cameron, in 1916 to view the windows in the Honan Chapel. She wrote to Cameron afterwards to thank him. She was nothing short of stunned by Harry’s windows and “the quality of burning and furious brilliance that I have never seen anywhere else. . . his windows have a kind of hellish splendour”.

Edith in her Master of the Foxhounds habit, about the age she was when Egerton died

Since then, Edith had worked with Harry to install the Nativity window in 1918 (it was his first public commission) as a memorial to her grandparents, and again in 1921 on the Kendall Coghill window (Egerton’s bachelor-soldier uncle and a universal family favourite) about which I wrote in my post The Gift of Harry Clarke. She now asked him to take on this new commission, and Harry, who had known and liked Egerton, promised to pay special attention to this project.

St Luke, Patron Saint of Painters, is depicted with a palette and brushes, with the Madonna’s face appearing on the palette

The design he came up with is exquisite, and every detail is important. St Luke, perhaps better known to most of us as one of the four gospel writers, is also the Patron Saint of Painters. This is based on the tradition that he painted the first image of Mary, and that image became an early Christian icon. In Harry’s design, Luke holds a painter’s palette and brushes, and the image of Mary appears like a ghostly presence on the palette.

Luke, with St Cecelia to the left and St John, holding a chalice, to the right

Luke himself is a typical Harry creation, with his huge eyes, forked beard, and expression full of compassion. His right hand, with long tapered fingers and a sleeve point (Harry loved those), holds a brush. His hat and garments are elaborately rendered in blue, scarlet and purple. His sandals, thong style, are complex twists of leather straps.

Besides the Luke and the Madonna images, there are four other sacred figures in the window. One of the unique joys of this window is that you can get close enough to it to see these tiny figures clearly, since it is at eye level (it helps to be tall). The first, on the left side of the window is St Fidelio, dressed as a bishop (below). I have been unable to find any information at all about St Fidelio, but obviously this saint had some meaning to Egerton, or to the Somerville sisters, or perhaps it was a reference to Egerton’s faithfulness. However, it could, like St Cecilia, be another musical reference, to Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio. In fact, most of the figures appear to relate to secular aspects of Egerton’s life, while thinly disguised as the kind of saintly images suitable for a church window. I can almost hear Harry, Edith and Hildegard chuckling over the choices, knowing that Egerton, who had his full share of boisterous Coghill humour, would thoroughly approve of the coded messages.

To the left of Luke’s shoulder is St Cecilia. Egerton loved music, had a fine voice, and performed happily in the musical theatre that was a staple of family life within the Castletownshend circle. Gilbert and Sullivan was a favourite. But this is also a nod to Edith – Cecilia is shown playing an organ while the organ that Edith played for over 50 years occupies the loft at the other end of the church.

Finally, at the top of the window, across from each other, are St John and St Barrahane. Barrahane, after whom the church is named (and who is pictured also in the nativity window) is the local saint, and the Coghill house was called Glen Barrahane in deference to that tradition. The tonsured monk is holding up a church (below). John was both his father’s and his grandfather’s (Baron Plunkett) name.

Egerton’s coat of arms, the dedication plaque, and Harry’s signature round out the window.

At this time, the Harry Clarke Studio was experiencing enormous demand for his work. To satisfy this demand he employed a group of highly talented artists and craftsmen, all of whom were trained to faithfully execute his designs, with Harry supervising closely. Thus it was with this window – most of it in fact was made while Harry was out of the country. The fact that he did not personally do most of the etching, staining and painting on this window does not in any way detract from its identification as a true Harry Clarke window – in every meaningful sense this was his creation and his signature indicates that he took full credit for the final product.

If you go to St Barrahane’s, make sure that you open the gate in the altar rails and go right up to the little window in the chancel. People have been known to miss it. It’s a unique opportunity to get nose-to-nose with a Harry Clarke. And when you do, spare a kind thought also for Egerton, a fellow artist, beloved by all who knew him, and honoured in this exquisite work of art.

*The four black and White photographs are from Edith Somerville: A Biography, by Gifford Lewis. I could find no copyright information on them so am assuming they are available for use, with gratitude to the author and publisher, Four Courts Press

Eleventh Hour

I write this at 11am on the 11th November 2018 – exactly 100 years since the ending of The Great War. I have been aware of the significance of this moment of remembrance since my childhood: wherever we were at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we had to stop what we were doing and be silent for two minutes. This – and the horrors of war – have been in my psyche forever.

Growing up in Britain there was always that awareness of the two world wars, and the losses and sacrifices that they caused: every town and village has its war memorial, giving the names of those who died. That first – Great – war also affected Ireland but, until quite recently, it seems those Irish people who died because of it have received scant commemoration. But – as always in Ireland – once you begin to turn over the stones you do find the history; today’s post looks at just a few examples of memories and commemorations of the 1914 – 1918 conflict.

Firstly, the poetry. Yeats wrote of war poets – “We have no gift to set a statesman right.” I think he was wrong – poets and artists are probably most able to express emotions about war and its outrages in ways that others can approach and embrace. Francis Ledwidge, although an ardent Irish nationalist, states that he . . . joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions . . . Only a poet, surely, could describe an army as feminine. Ledwidge gave his life in pursuit of the cause: he was blown to pieces at Ypres on 31 July 1917. A year previously his friend, Irish patriot (and poet) Thomas MacDonagh, was executed (for his part in the 1916 rising) by soldiers in the same uniform that Ledwidge was wearing. The irony is only compounded by the fact that the poet’s Lament for Thomas MacDonagh can be seen now as Ledwidge writing on his own fate:

He shall not hear the bittern cry
in the wild sky, where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds
Above the wailing of the rain
  
Nor shall he know when the loud March blows
Thro’ slanting snows her fanfare shrill,
Blowing to flame the golden cup
Of many an upset daffodil.
  
But when the dark cow leaves the moor
And pastures poor with greedy weeds
Perhaps he’ll hear her low at morn
Lifting her horn in pleasant meads.

Last week saw the opening of a new exhibition at the Cork Public Museum – Cork 1918: Victory, Virus and Votes. There are photographs, posters and artefacts – all very well displayed – telling the story of the involvement of people from Cork in the Great War, the political fallout from the War and the aftermath of the world wide Spanish Flu epidemic which claimed millions of victims. It’s a must-see exhibition and congratulations are due to Dan Breen and his dedicated team at the museum for bringing it to fruition at this appropriate time. The images above and below are from the new exhibition.

Today Finola is thinking about her grandfather – Sgt William Owen Roberts – who served in the Welsh Fusiliers and had a distinguished military career which included the Boer War and the Chinese Boxer War. He served in the Great War and was captured and interned in Germany and Holland. He contracted and died of the Spanish Flu on 15th November, 1918 – just a few days after the end of the conflict – at the age of 39. His grave is in The Hague.

There can be only a few families not affected by the wars of the twentieth century. My own Uncle Jack died in a prison camp in the 1940s, while my mother’s mother was a victim of the flu epidemic, dying in 1918 and effectively orphaning my mother (aged four) and her three siblings, as their father was away serving in the army.

Tucked away in burial grounds around Ireland are the graves of those who died in Europe between 1914 and 1918 in that awful war – and of those who died subsequently as a result of injuries and mental stress arising from the war. We mark them out on our travels around the country. The graves – erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – are of a distinctive uniform design, originated by the architect Edwin Lutyens (who also designed the great Thiepval Memorial in France, the largest Commonwealth memorial to the missing in the world, inscribed with over 72,000 names). The sheer magnitude of that number – people of whom no trace is left other than a name carved on stone – is bewildering. The image below of Thiepval is courtesy of the CWGC.

Ireland does now have its own dedicated national war memorial to commemorate the Irish men and women who died during the First World War. The idea was first mooted in 1919 but took years to gestate. Lutyens was commissioned to design formal gardens in Islandbridge, Co Dublin, in the early 1930s, and construction work was largely completed in 1937, following by the establishment of trees and landscaping, an essential element of the design. The 1939 – 45 war in Europe delayed the opening of the memorial, which languished and suffered from decay and neglect for years after that. It wasn’t until 10th December, 1980 – following restoration by the Office of Public Works – that the Irish National War Memorial Gardens were formally dedicated, and they are now maintained to a high standard. As a point of interest, the gardens include classical pavilions – ‘Bookrooms’ – designed to house the memorial record illustrated by Harry Clarke and inscribed with the names of the 49,400 Irish soldiers lost during the Great War. The image of the memorial gardens below is by Diego Lopez Sebastian. The ‘tailpiece’ is a Harry Clarke Illustration from Ireland’s Memorial Records.

For us, perhaps it’s those tucked-away and often forgotten graves in the corners of Irish cemeteries that are the most poignant. We know that each one tells a story: we can’t know that story – but hopefully there is always somebody who does know – and who passes on the memories to future generations.

Above: two tucked-away West Cork war graves. The left-hand picture has an example, lower left, and is at Abbeymahon Graveyard, Courtmacsherry. On the right is an example at the ancient burial ground of Castlehaven.

Nicola Gordon Bowe, 1948 – 2018

Harry Clarke’s The Coronation of the Virgin, from his Terenure windows. Nicole Gordon Bowe revealed him to the world.

The Irish art world sustained a terrible loss earlier this year with the death of Nicola Gordon Bowe, or Nikki, as she was universally known to her friends. In a very small way, I feel immensely grateful to have been counted among those friends. Although we only met once, we carried on a happy correspondence and were to have seen each other again this summer. But there are probably a thousand people like me, who have lovely memories of this wonderful woman, because Nikki had that rare gift of making each individual feel seen and heard and encouraged.

Nikki at the day-long symposium on the Honan Chapel, in Cork. Obviously in pain, she nevertheless gave a brilliant summary of Harry Clarke’s famous windows

Reading comments on various obit pages, from a generation of students, colleagues and friends, clear themes emerge of formidable scholarship, wide-ranging erudition, and passion for her subject. She was, as Alistair Rowan who spoke at her memorial service emphasised, the world expert on the Irish Arts and Crafts movement and on Irish stained glass.

In her book, The Life and Work of Harry Clarke, Nikki traced Clarke’s influences and training. He often used himself as a model – in this instance for the crucified Christ in the Terenure windows

But the other theme was that of friendship, of a wonderful sense of humour and a ready smile, of her encouragement to junior researchers, her collaboration, nationally and internationally with other scholars in her field, and the boundless generosity with which she shared her knowledge.

St Brendan, Nikki pointed out (as true for this window in Tullamore as for the Honan windows she was discussing) does not look like the kind of muscular saint that could navigate the Atlantic. ‘Effete’ was the word she used.

Nikki’s book on Harry Clarke has been my bible for all the posts I have written about this genius of Irish stained glass. Last year her second magnum opus was published, on the life and work of Wilhelmina Geddes. I haven’t read it yet – a future pleasure – but it was widely considered the finest Irish art book of the year, perhaps the finest book of the year.

Jesus Falls for the Third Time: one of the medallions that form the Stations of the Cross in Lough Derg. Nikki’s research indicated that these were mostly executed by his apprentices during a period of illness, although  they were designed by him.

She also wrote for the Irish Arts Review, the Dublin Review of Books and contributed essays to edited collections – the busy life of an established and disciplined scholar. At the time of her death she was working on what was to be a definitive study of the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement.

St Fechin, from the Ballinrobe windows: Harry Clarke loved to populate his scenes with a host of figures – now who is that small one with the glasses?

Nicola Gordon Bowe, more than any other person, was responsible for rescuing Irish Arts and Crafts from obscurity and establishing the reputation as artists of its major practitioners, none more so than Harry Clarke. She was impatient of those who dismissed stained glass as mere craft and who failed to see how the medium of glass both compounded the difficulty and enhanced the impact of the work of Harry Clarke and others. In the newly refurbished and finally open National Gallery of Ireland there is now a Stained Glass Room full of breathtaking pieces – it is no stretch to say that we can thank Nikki for that.

The Song of the Mad Prince, an exquisite small panel in the new National Gallery Stained Glass Room

I have chosen to illustrate this post with photographs of Harry Clarke windows and details, as a tribute to Nikki. She was his great and ardent champion and now the world knows what a true legacy of masterpieces we have been left by him. Nikki’s legacy is also secure – her works will be consulted for generations to come, and her memory kept warm by all who were privileged to know her.

From the Eve of St Agnes, in the Dublin City (Hugh Lane) Gallery

For obituaries, see here and here and here. Rest in peace, Nikki.

The Annunciation Angel from the Terenure Annunciation window

Harry Clarke at Lough Derg

The Lough Derg Harry Clarke windows are unusual and fascinating – and generally inaccessible unless you are willing to undertake the rigorous pilgrimage. I am very grateful indeed to have been given the opportunity to photograph and write about them. I refer readers to Robert’s post about Lough Derg, Journey into Purgatory, for those unfamiliar with the place and the pilgrimage. Go off and read that first, then come back to me. If you already know all about Lough Derg, but not much about Harry Clarke, then take a browse of some of my previous posts about Ireland’s most celebrated stained glass artist. If you’re not sure what stations of the cross are, here’s an explanationDone that? Back now? Great – let’s get started.

The Apostle Simon

Harry was already starting to get ill in 1927 when he undertook the commission to design a set of fourteen stations of the cross in stained glass for the Basilica in Lough Derg. He was, at the same time, very busy on numerous commissions, including graphic design and book illustration work, as well as stained glass windows for Ireland and abroad. He was so busy, in fact, that he used to absent himself from Dublin so that he could work in peace in a studio in London. Nevertheless, he was keen on the Lough Derg project, not least because the Canon, Fr Keown, was the same one with whom he had worked on the Carrickmacross windows. The design he came up with was unique: each of the windows depicts a different apostle (Judas being replaced by Matthias), rounded out to fourteen by adding St Paul and Our Lady. Each figure holds a mandorla-shaped panel upon which the stations are presented.

The Apostle James – his mandorla contains the station ‘Jesus Meets His Afflicted Mother’

In order to ‘count’ as an official Harry Clarke window, as opposed to one produced by the Harry Clarke studios, Harry himself must have designed, and created or closely supervised the execution of the window. The Lough Derg windows were definitely designed by Harry – the drawings he made for them still exist. Artisans in his studios began the work in his absence following his detailed instructions.

A close look at ‘Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus’, contained in Philip’s mandorla

Nicola Gordon Bowe, the renowned Clarke scholar, described the process* thus: “His choice of glass, detail, colour, design and leading are all fully evident in the dramatically effective concept of these windows, even though any study of the original designs for the inset panels and their realization in glass will reveal his absence.” Indeed, before the windows could be finished and installed Harry had to travel to Switzerland to spend time in a sanatorium.

Philip and his mandorla

Each saint is shown, as is tradition, with his symbol, often the instrument of his martyrdom.  Philip, for example, is shown with a cross, as he was crucified upside down. His medallion shows Veronica wiping the face of Jesus. The apostles and Mary, as well as the small figures in the mandorlas, have all the Harry Clarke hallmarks – large, expressive eyes, long tapered fingers, highly-decorated medieval-style clothing, sleeves with hand points, complicated headgear, forked beards, pointed feet.

‘Jesus Falls the Second Time’ – note Mary in blue and John in green

Despite the absence of the master’s hand, it is hard to imagine how these tiny stations could be any more exquisite than they are. The same figures occur in all or most of them – Jesus, his mother, Mary Magdalen, John his beloved apostle, and the tormenting soldiers. There is also, of course, a host of minor characters, often peeking in from the sidelines or half-hidden behind others. Harry habitually drew from life and used himself and his friends as models. Some of the glimpsed faces in the scenes are no doubt based on people familiar to him. They range in expression from sorrowful and noble to cruel and savage.

‘Jesus is Condemned to Death’

One of the intriguing aspects of these stations is that many of the figures are rendered in ways that depart radically from the conventional depictions of biblical characters, images that were for the most part based on Renaissance paintings. Indeed, some of the characters as imagined by Harry would fit more comfortably into his illustrations for Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales, or stories by Edgar Alan Poe. Look, for example at the first station ‘Jesus is Condemned to Death’. Apart from the tragic figure of Jesus, the individuals would not be out of place in a picture for the sort of fanciful and macabre tale that Harry relished illustrating. In the background Pontius Pilate washes his hands attended by a page dressed in what looks remarkably like a frock coat. The fierce executioner is distinguished by his strands of hair and by a striking outfit that combines an Elizabethan skirt with medieval armour.

We meet him again, cloaked but recognisable in ‘Jesus Falls the First Time’ (above)

In the crucifixion station the soldier who stands gazing down is wearing a pair of elaborate shoes and yellow stockings that strikes an odd note in what is otherwise a sombre scene. Soldiers in each station wear helmets that come to points over the bridge of the nose or that are decorated with feathers and tufts. Mary Magdalen is dressed in colourful garments and hair adornments that could be suitable for a princess going to a ball, no doubt an allusion to her background.

‘Jesus meets his Afflicted Mother’: Mary Magdalen’s colourful dress provides a contrast to Mary’s modest blue

On the other hand, Mary and John, who appear in many of the stations, are shown as gentle and sorrowful. Mary is dressed in her traditional blue: in the final station (below) it is she, pictured as the Queen of Heaven, who hold the mandorla showing Jesus being laid in the tomb (the lead picture in this post).

It is tempting to see in John, with large sad eyes and cropped hair, an image of Harry himself, who must have known by this point that his illness was serious. Harry poignantly dresses John in green, the colour of bountiful life and the triumph of hope over death.

Mary and John witness the crucifixion

My sincerest thanks to Maureen Boyle for facilitating my visit to Lough Derg, and to Sharon for looking after us on the Island and sharing so much information.

‘Jesus is Laid in the Tomb’

* In 1990 the windows were exhibited in Dublin. They had deteriorated over time, and were completely overhauled and restored by the Abbey Stained Glass Studio. Before they were returned to Lough Derg they were put on display in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham for two months. I have the program from which I took the Gordon Bowe quote, thanks to my late and dear friend Vera who was a huge Clarke fan and attended the exhibition and whose notes I now have. However, I have just discovered that the program is also available online.

More on Martinmas

Today – November 11 – is Martinmas. That’s the feast day of St Martin of Tours: the picture above is Harry Clarke’s representation of the city of Tours, which we can see in St Barrahane’s Church, Castletownshend, here in West Cork. St Martin was a saint of Hungarian origin who founded a monastery in Marmoutier, in north-eastern France in 372. As far as we know, he never visited Ireland, yet he is widely celebrated here… Why?

Marmoutier Abbey, near the city of Tours (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Well, one reason could be that St Martin was the sister of St Patrick’s mother, Conchessa. Or, perhaps he was her uncle – we don’t have definitive records from that time, but we do have plenty of stories. The one everyone seems to know about St Martin is that he came across a naked beggar while travelling in the middle of winter. He immediately split his cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. That night he had a dream in which Jesus told him that it was he who had received the gift of the cloak from Martin. From then on Martin determined to spread Christianity wherever he went.

Here is St Martin, depicted in Harry Clarke’s Castletownshend window. Finola tells the full and fascinating story of this wonderful window here. He is depicted as a soldier, and is the patron saint of soldiers. Confusingly, he is also the patron saint of conscientious objectors! In fact, he was the first recorded conscientious objector as he became converted to Christianity while he was serving in the Roman Army. Because of his beliefs he refused to fight but – to prove he was not a coward – he was prepared to go into battle unarmed and stand between the opposing parties in the name of Jesus. Miraculously, on the eve of the battle an armistice was declared. Martin was given a discharge and was able to pursue his calling. Eventually he was made Bishop of Tours and founded his Abbey across the River Loire.

This is the beggar who received the gift of St Martin’s cloak – also from the Harry Clarke window. Here in Ireland there were once many customs associated with Martinmas. I set out some of these in a previous post a few years ago. For me, the most interesting is that no wheel should be turned on St Martin’s feast day. This is because the saint met his death by falling under a mill wheel. Below are two of ten 14th century frescoes from the San Martino Chapel in Assissi, setting out the stories of the saint: these depict his death and his funeral.

In County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, St Columba founded a church in the sixth century and named it after St Martin: Díseart Mhartain or ‘Hermitage of Martin’. Fascinating that this European saint should have such a following in Ireland: I found at least four churches dedicated to him in the Republic. One thing I touched on in my earlier post was the custom of killing a goose or cockerel on the day and sprinkling its blood in the four corners of the house to ensure well-being for the next year. I have since found that it is correct to say ...In onóir do Dhia agus do Mháirtin… while doing this (In the Honour of God and St Martin). I hope I’m not too late to wish you a good Martinmas! And I’m leaving you with the full image of the Harry Clarke window…

Journey into Purgatory

I was excited to be travelling to one of Ireland’s oldest – and most important – pilgrimage sites. Finola studies stained glass windows and their artists, and she knew that some particularly impressive Harry Clarke windows can be seen in the Basilica on Station Island, Lough Derg, in County Donegal. The roof of the Basilica, completed in 1931, towers over the island in the picture above, taken from the quay at Ballymacavany. Finola obtained special permission for us to visit the island to view and photograph the windows, after the main pilgrimage season was over: her account of them will appear in Roaringwater Journal in the near future.

It’s salutary to learn how many people and families we know have taken part in the pilgrimage at Station Island. It’s a particularly austere experience, involving a three day cycle of prayer and liturgies, bare-footed and with very little food or sleep. Finola’s father undertook the pilgrimage in the 1950s: the photograph above was taken at around that time, when pilgrims were ferried over in large open boats once rowed by eight oarsmen and subsequently motorised. One of these historic boats is kept on display at Ballymacavany (below). Nowadays the journey is made in a modern covered launch, as seen in the header photo.

Records of the number of pilgrims who travelled to Station Island have only existed in comparatively recent times. The peak seems to have been just prior to the famine around 1846, when over 30,000 went there in one season. The drawing above is by William Frederick Wakeman, who was a draughtsman with the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, and was probably made at that time. Through the twentieth century numbers seldom fell below 10,000 pilgrims each season, but in many years was considerably more. This news item from the RTE Archives demonstrates the strength of the pilgrimage in the year 2000.

The island’s long history takes us back to the time of St Patrick. Despairing at the arduousness of persuading the Irish people to accept his Christian teachings he appealed to God to help. The story is admirably recounted by Dr Peter Harbison, Honorary Academic Editor in the Royal Irish Academy:

…St Patrick … was having difficulty convincing the pagan Irish of the 5th century of the truth of his teaching about heaven and hell; they were not prepared to believe him unless one of them had experienced it for themselves. To assist Patrick in his mission … Christ showed Patrick a dark pit in a deserted place and told him that whoever would enter the pit for a day and a night would be purged of his sins for the rest of his life. In the course of those twenty four hours, he would experience both the torments of the wicked and the delights of the blessed. St Patrick immediately had a church built, which he handed over to the Augustinian canons (who did not come to Ireland until the 12th century), locked the entrance to the pit and entrusted the key to the canons, so that no one would enter rashly without permission. Already during the lifetime of St Patrick a number of Irish entered the pit and were converted as a result of what they had seen. Thus the pit got the name of St Patrick’s Purgatory…

(from Pilgrimage in Ireland: the Monuments and the People by Peter Harbison, Barrie & Jenkins, 1991)

The entrance to this cave is on Station Island, and is the reason for the enduring popularity of the pilgrimage, which has persisted there for over 1500 years. In the medieval illustrations above, the gateway into Purgatory can be seen on the right, while on the left is a knight – Owein – whose terrifying adventures in the cave in medieval times have been written about in many languages: a summary can be found here.

St Patrick’s Purgatory: the name is over the entrance at the reception centre at Ballymacavany, the point of departure for Station Island. The cave which marks the entrance into Purgatory was permanently sealed up in October 1632 when the pilgrimage was suppressed by order of the Privy Council for Ireland; in the same year the Anglican Bishop of Clogher, James Spottiswoode, personally supervised the destruction of everything on the island. Later, in 1704, an Act of Parliament imposed a fine of 10 shillings or a public whipping …as a penalty for going to such places of pilgrimage… The site of the cave entrance lies under the bell tower, seen above. In front are the penitential beds where pilgrims perform rounds to this day. It is thought that these formations are the remains of monks’ cells or ‘beehive huts’.

On the left is a map of Station Island by Thomas Carve, dated 1666. The words Caverna Purgatory, centre left, show the site of the cave entrance. In spite of the efforts of the Penal Laws to suppress the observances, pilgrimages have continued unabated. Above right is a photograph from the Lawrence Collection, dated 1903, showing pilgrims about to embark for the island.

A young St Patrick portrayed as a pilgrim stands in front of the island: the Basilica is on the right. This view indicates the huge development  of the island since its complete destruction in the 18th century and shows the facilities provided for the many thousands who have come here over the generations.

The Basilica is the focus of the pilgrimages today: it was formally consecrated in 1931. The entrance door is a modern interpretation of Romanesque architecture, while the tabernacle is an impressive example of fine bronze work.

Ireland’s great poets and writers have visited St Patrick’s Purgatory, and have responded to the experience:

Donnchadh Mór Ó Dálaigh (1244) “Chief in Ireland for poetry”:

Truagh mo thuras ar loch dearg
a Rí na gceall is na gclog
do chaoineadh do chneadh’s do
chréacht
‘s nach faghaim déar thar mo rosg.

(Sad is my pilgrimage to Lough Derg, O King of the cells and bells; I came to mourn your sufferings and wounds, but no tear will cross my eye)

Patrick Kavanagh:

Lough Derg, St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Donegal,
Christendom’s purge. Heretical
Around the edges: the centre’s hard
As the commonplace of a flamboyant bard.
The twentieth century blows across it now
But deeply it has kept an ancient vow.

W B Yeats:

Round Lough Derg’s holy island I went upon the stones,
I prayed at all the Stations upon my marrow-bones,
And there I found an old man beside me, nothing would he say
But fol de rol de rolly O.

Most impressive of all, perhaps, is Seamus Heaney whose moving contemplations took him back through his life experiences and produced twelve memorable poems in a volume entitled Station Island:

How well I know that fountain, filling, running,
although it is the night.
That eternal fountain, hidden away,
I know its haven and its secrecy
although it is the night.
But not its source because it does not have one,
which is all sources’ source and origin
although it is the night.
I know no sounding-line can find its bottom,
nobody ford or plumb its deepest fathom
although it is the night.
And its current so in flood it overspills
to water hell and heaven all peoples
although it is the night.
And the current that is generated there,
as far as it wills to, it can flow that far
although it is the night.

Finally, here’s a contemporary journalist’s view, well worth the read!