Harry Clarke’s Supporting Cast

Honan St Ita

For any student of Harry Clarke stained glass there are delights to be discovered far beyond the main depiction. A host of subordinate or secondary figures reveal themselves to close examination, sometimes only after repeated viewings.

Brendan the Navigator

Brendan of Kerry – AKA Brendan the Navigator. Note the borders with their exotic birds

The tall windows I describe in this post  typically have three parts – the main section containing a large image of the saint, and an upper and lower section (sometimes called a predella) each of which may contain a separate image/story. In addition, the border around the outside of a Clarke window is always highly decorated in endless imaginative patterns.

Honan Mary Mother of Sorrow
The Mary Mother of Sorrows window was executed slightly later than the other windows and shows some stylistic changes. But it illustrates well the three parts to the window and the use of all available space for supporting and secondary characters to tell the story

Clarke was obsessed with detail: there are few white spaces or plain glass in his work. Every inch is filled with richly figured and never-repeated decoration or with additional figures that fill out the story and the symbolism of the central character. These figures tend to fall into a group we can call saintly and a group we can call macabre. Whichever they are, they reflect his vivid imagination and his gift for portraiture.

Honan Chapel

The Honan Chapel is the Catholic church at University College, Cork. It is a masterpiece of Celtic-Revival Hiberno-Romanesque design and a wonderful place to visit

Designing windows for the Honan Chapel at University College, Cork, was Harry Clarke’s first major commission and launched his career. The windows, finished and installed between 1916 and 1917 contain all the hallmarks of the intricate style he made uniquely his own. I will use four of his Honan windows to look at the cast of supporting characters he employed in his quest to incorporate as much as possible of the saint’s story.


St Gobnait is, famously, depicted in profile, allowing her red hair to take centre stage. She is the patron saint of beekeepers and her bees surround her. Above the main image she is shown spreading her arm (note the honeycomb design of her robe) and extending her staff to prevent a plague descending on her people. She is attended by two maidens and to the right you can see the faces of three men who have not been spared the plague. (There’s another little detail you might spot in this picture!)

Gobnait Plague Victims

To quote Nicola Gordon Bowe, in her magisterial The Life and Work of Harry Clarke:

Harry here shows the delight he took in depicting deformity, disease and the macabre. This fascination with the poles of the beautiful and of the ugly and grotesque is a propensity he shared with many medieval artists.

Gobnait Robbers

On either side of St Gobnait another fearful scene unfolds. According to legend, robbers attempted to break into St Gobnait’s abbey but she set her bees upon them and here they are fleeing in terror.

Gobnait and handmaiden

At the very bottom of the panel she is depicted directing the bees and attended by a novice, while on the left a fourth robber runs in panic.

Honan Brendan border detail

St Brendan the Navigator, with his red beard, gazes serenely out, holding an oar. By his shoulder, his tiny curragh sails westward into the setting sun. In this window pay special attention to the border. Because he was a voyager, discovering the Americas, Clarke decorate it with exotic birds. He intersperses these with tiny roundels of other Irish saints.

Honan Brendan and Judas

Judas suffering on his rock – a medieval vision of misery. Note also the roundels: on the left is St Brigid and on the right is “the poor monk with the iron in his head.” Amazing that Clarke managed to get all that information on to the border of the roundel

In one episode on his seven year journey, Brendan encountered Judas, suffering eternal torture because of his betrayal of Jesus. The bottom panel depicts the scene of the wasted and agonised Judas, while the monks look on in horror. Only Brendan is able to look stoically forward.

Honan St Ita Detail

Detail from the St Ita window

St Ita (the first photograph in this post) was the daughter of a chieftain but renounced all worldly things to live a life of poverty and to teach. Once again, Clarke uses tiny roundels to depict other saints associated with Ita: Brendan, Colman, Finbar and Carthage.

St Ita predella

Below her feet is another tableau, depicting a prayerful scene in which she is attended by two holy women and St Colman and St Brendan. The portraiture of the the two saints is exquisite.

Honan Albert of Cashel

St Albert of Cashel – a little known saint who journeyed to Ratisbon in Germany on a conversion mission

A last window from the Honan Chapel – this time St Albert of Cashel, depicted as a seated bishop. In the top portion he is depicted converting the people of Ratisbon in Germany. Once again the individuals are beautifully drawn and sumptuously dressed. I particularly love the red hair – always a feature of a Harry Clarke window.

Citizens of Ratisbon listening to St Albert preaching

I highly recommend a visit to the Honan Chapel if you’re in Cork. See Robert’s post, Cork Menagerie, for an in-depth look at the mosaics. And take your time – the windows (there are several more than the ones I’ve used in this post) reward patient and detailed study. For more on Harry Clarke’s stained glass, see my post The Gift of Harry Clarke, which will walk you through an analysis of his style and his influences.

Honan St Albert converting Germans

Cork Menagerie


Cork does have a wildlife park – over in Fota, to the east of the city. But I think Cork’s real menagerie is on the University campus – The Honan Chapel, built almost a hundred years ago, and opening its doors to Catholic students in November 1916.

Ireland’s universities have a fascinating history: Pope Clement V authorised the first one in 1311, and this was based in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. This institution ‘came to an abrupt end’ with the Protestant Reformation of the 1530s, and Trinity College Dublin was founded as the ‘University of the Protestant Ascendancy’. At this time, England had the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, while Scotland had Universities at St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen.

In 1908, the Irish Universities Act was passed, by which the National University, consisting of the Constituent Colleges of Dublin, Cork and Galway was founded. Part of this act decreed that of the finance provided for the new University, none should be applied ‘… for the provision or maintenance of any church, chapel or other place of religious observance …’ It was left to a Cork merchant family – the Honans (who made their wealth through butter) to provide a hostel and chapel for Catholic students. 

‘…The chapel, itself, is in perfect accord not only with its immediate surroundings, but also with the wide heritage of art handed down to us by the early native church building. It is one of the best reproductions of the ancient style of building and it exemplifies, in a striking manner, all that is best in the Hiberno Romanesque architecture of the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries…’ The Honan Chapel, M J O’Reilly, Cork Univeristy Press, 1966


Lectern decoration

The interior of the building abounds in exquisite artworks. It’s a feast for the eyes wherever you look: stained glass windows by Harry Clarke stand out (including St Gobnait) – but, for me, the real treat is the mosaic work on the floors, designed by Ludwig Oppenheimer of Manchester. A River of Life runs the length of the nave from the entrance door to the sanctuary where, amidst a riot of pattern and colour, the menagerie unfolds: there are birds and beasts, fish and fowl all contained in decorated borders with Celtic knots and patterns. The only analogy I can think of is a medieval illuminated manuscript such as the Book of Kells, where the pages and margins are extravagantly ornamented with figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts in vibrant colours imbued with Christian symbolism.

The Chapel is dedicated to St Finbarr, Patron Saint of Cork. The foundation stone, laid on the 18th May 1915, records ‘… built by the Charity of Isabella Honan for the scholars and students of Munster…’ The architect was James F McMullen.