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

Good Well Hunting: Duhallow

St John's Well 1

Amanda started her blog, Holy Wells of Cork, in February and oh my goodness she already has over 100 wells documented. Not just documented – recorded, photographed, mapped, described, researched and written up in a charming cheerful style that’s a hoot and a pleasure to read.

AB 1 Laitiaran

Standard Amanda shot as she checks out St Laitiaran’s Well  

Robert and I go along on her well-finding trips every now and then. Between accompanying Amanda, and wells we’ve gone to ourselves, we’ve visited about half the wells in her gazetteer. The sheer variety is astonishing, as also is the varying state of preservation. From muddy holes in the ground to gleaming and designed surrounds – holy wells come in all shapes, all sizes, and all conditions.

duhalloworiginal

Duhallow – isn’t that a lovely word? It’s a lovely place too – a barony (part of Ireland’s old land division system) that occupies the northwest corner of the county of Cork. It’s mostly rolling hills and farmland, drained by the headwaters of the Blackwater River, with the Derrynasaggart and Boggeragh mountains to the south and the rich agricultural lands of Limerick to the north, while the Kingdom of Kerry lies just over the county border to the west.

Duhallow Sign

Duhallow has its act together when it comes to holy wells – the local development committee has developed a Holy Well Trail. A brochure leads you around the trail and at each well is a detailed history of the well, the saints associated with it, the cures attributed to it, and the rounds and prayers to be undertaken.

Tubrid Well Millstreet

Robert makes his markTubrid Well, Millstreet. Robert adds his mark to the cross inscribed by hundreds of pilgrims

At  many of these sites mass is still said once a year and cups and bottles are provided so that you can drink, or take away, some of the water. The Tubrid Well outside Millstreeet is the largest and most active. While we were there people came and went and fresh flowers and candles were in evidence. This is a well that even has its own Facebook page!

Inghne Buidhe rag tree

A rag tree at the well of Inghne Bhuidhe

The well devoted to Inghne Bhuidhe (Inyeh Bwee, daughter of Buidhe, the Yellow-Haired) provided a complete contrast – out in the middle of corn fields, surrounded by a low wall and with a rag-festooned thorn tree looming over it. This one had a remote and tranquil vibe, suitable for contemplation.

Tasting the water, Inghne Bhuidhe

My  personal favourite was the Trinity Well near Newmarket, mainly because it was built inside a fulacht fiadh (pronounced full okt feeah) – that’s an ancient (possibly as far back as the Late Bronze Age) cooking place where stones were heated and then rolled into a trough of water. Over time, the used stones built up into a horseshoe-shaped mound that surround the trough – now re-purposed as a holy well. It was a marvellous testament to the timeless character of special places in the deep countryside. 

Trinity Well in Fulacht Fiadh

Trinity Well, formed from an ancient fulacht fiadh

One of Duhallow’s wells is high in the Mushera Hills and dedicated to St John. The first photo in this post shows the location and extent of it. Back when the veneration of holy wells was at its peak, this one was the site of an enormous pilgrimage on St John’s Eve, June 23rd, every year. As with many such events the prayers and devotions of the daytime gave way to the partying of the night time and eventually the church acted to curb what they saw as the excessive debauchery of the occasion. Read Amanda’s account of the goings-on at Gougane Barra for an insight into the aprés-penance hooleys.

St John's Well 2

Tullylease had three wells, one devoted to Mary and another to St Beirechert (a saint whose name is spelled in a bewildering number of ways). The third well turned out to be something different – see below. The Marian well is thoughtfully stocked with holy water. Some of it is now in our bathroom to see if a few drops added to the bathwater will fend off the rheumatiz. So far, so good.

Holy Water

St  Beirechert’s church has several interesting carvings: St Beirechert himself in an unlikely swallow-tailed coat and tricorn hat, several fragments and a wonderfully worked cross slab with interlace design.

Bericheart in swallowtail coat

We  were intrigued to learn recently that this very cross was used as a model for the design of leather and fabric pieces for UCC’s Honan Chapel, an Arts and Crafts masterpiece, when it was being built a hundred years ago. I can’t show you a picture of that, as it’s undergoing painstaking conservation, but click here to see a modern use of the design!

Tullylease cross slab

The final well we saw at Tullylease  wasn’t really a well at all but a bullaun stone – a big one. It’s supposed to cure headaches if you rub your forehead all around the rim, so here is Amanda, about to give it a try.

Amanda headache well

Our last stop was at a well for St Brigid. This one had a kind of cupboard containing a book in which visitors can write their prayers and ‘intentions’. It was fairly up to date, indicating recent visits.

Brigid's Well, prayer

St Brigid Pray for usIn  this post I have concentrated on the Duhallow wells, as examples of how one community has embraced this aspect of its heritage and created a wonderful experience for its residence and for visitors. For a detailed description of each of the ones I’ve mentioned here, browse through the North Cork section of Amanda’s Gazetteer.

Brigids well cups

But following a brochure and a map to wells that are tidy and well signed is not a fair representation of how you find holy wells in the field! In my next Good Well Hunting post I will invite you to come with us as we fight brambles, mud and neglect, as well as discover little gems still intact and visited in the deep countryside.