When Harry Met Edith: Part 3: “A Charming Little Nativity”

The Nativity that Harry designed for St Barrahane’s is, according to Nicola Gordon Bowe*, technically remarkable, but let’s look at the design, starting from the top. Here I am relying on Gordon Bowe’s extraordinary design vocabulary – all the quotes in italics are hers. (If you haven’t yet read them, Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.)

Harry’s re-designed and very Gothic tracery is filled with clear quarries – pieces of glass, leaded together in a diamond pattern, joined here and there with tiny coloured ovals. The use of clear glass was necessitated by the lack of light filtering from behind the east window, as there is a bank with tall trees immediately outside. However, this is not clear, or plain, transparent glass as we know it. Each quarry has been worked in some way. Those that started out life as clear glass have been chosen for their irregularities and have been treated with matt washes, stipples and semi-abstract lacework sequences so that each differs from its neighbour. Some of the quarries were not clear to begin with, but were flashed in pinks, blues or green, and these have been acided to the barest shimmer of colour. The result is that each individual quarry is intrinsically interesting without detracting from the overall effect of a subtly embroidered patchwork quilt in which the light lingers. These quarries occupy most areas of the window except for the main nativity scene and provide the backdrop for the top two sections – the saints and the angels. The signature panel at the bottom of the window is a good place to observe the quarries up close.

Edith was very much in tune with the Arts and Crafts Movement in Ireland but also with the Celtic Revival (see my posts on the work of Watson of Youghal for a thorough discussion on this style and the term). Within the literary tradition of the Revival there was a focus on the study of our ancient saints and a scholarly emphasis on translating various Lives and Martyrologies, many of whom were alive in the folklore and memory of the countryside. Of the three saints depicted here, Brigid is considered one of our three National or Founding Saints (see this post for more on Brigid), while Fachtna and Barrahane (or Béarchán) are local to West Cork. 

Harry used Revivalist interlacing as a supporting device for Brigid and Béarchán. Interlacing – so popular in Ireland at the time – was in fact quite rare in his work, although it had appeared in a couple of the Honan windows, such as the Joseph window, above, in a similar position. Harry was much more influenced by Continental art movements than by the conventions of Revivalist decoration, but Edith was still keen on it, as witness her later design for a mosaic floor in the chancel of the church, so this element may have been at her suggestion, or at least responding to what he saw as her preferences.

For her turn, Edith had done her homework and knew what saints she wanted, discarding Finbarr (Patron Saint of Cork) after an initial dalliance with him. Barrahane had given his name to the area around Castletownshend, Glenn Barrahane, as well as a medieval church (now ruined) and a popular Holy Well pilgrimage (in which I participated in December). Edith’s informant was James Bourke – I have laid out all that information in my post Honouring St Barrahane, so I won’t repeat it here, but do take a look at the detailed photos of the St Barrahane window in that post, including the little surprise that Harry inserted in this window. Interestingly, while Brigid and Fachtna are underpinned by revivalist interlacing, Barrahane is floating on a cloud.

Fachtna was the saint who had founded Rosscarbery and was patron of the diocese of Ross; Harry depicts him holding a church and with his bishop’s crozier. He is gazing contemplatively downwards as if on the Nativity. Notice how the interlacing below him ends in a bird’s head finial.

Brigid is clad in blue (perhaps that same blue that Edith had said ‘hits your eye like a living flame or a blast of wind’. She looks directly out, calm and wise. In her right hand she holds a golden lamp (looking suspiciously like an illustration from the Arabian Nights) and between the fingers of her left hand is entwined the stem of a twig of oak leaves, another of her attributes, tying her to Kildare (or Cill Dara, the Church of the Oaks).

Beneath the three saints are three angels, floating above the Nativity. Although they form a wonderful trio, each is remarkably individual. The middle angel (with a fashionable bob) incorporates the star which is a traditional element in Nativity scenes. 

The left and right angels have elaborate, flowing or pleated robes and complicated coiffures. One holds a dove while the other has hands held in prayer. Gordon Bowe, in trying to analyse the decorative element at the centre of these angels says in her thesis Both seem to be manipulating jewelled levers, similar to the studded gun holsters favoured by cowboys.

I love this sentence but perhaps understandably it didn’t make it into her book, where she merely remarks that the saints and angels abound in intriguing decorative detail.

The central scene, of the Nativity, is beautifully constructed. Besides the angels above it, the framing devices consist of three elements. The first is an arc of silver chain upon which everything rests, most importantly the manger. You can see a close up of it in the signature panel above. The second is the rock face which stretches above and behind the Magi and the Shepherds. The third is one of Harry’s typical expanses of ‘floral ornamentation’ – one of his future hallmarks. Of this fantastical conglomeration of flowers, leaves, mosses, jewels, geometric shapes Gordon Bowe says always inventive and subtle in his pen and ink and watercolour illustrations, ingenious when painted or acided onto his glass by himself, but too often repetitive and lifeless . . . when imitated by his followers.

The robes of the lowest Magi and the lowest shepherd extend beyond the supporting chain-like arc, bringing a slight sense of perspective to the composition. Gordon Bowe likens the rich treatment of the fabric to the work of 

Gustav Klimt here and his flat treatment of interlocking decorative patterned, often symbolic planes, in which he would sometimes use coral, gold, mosaic, turquoise and semi-precious stones with casein paint to make up his richly mantled figures . . .Both men rely on the faces and hands of their figures to convey a human expressiveness and only here does any attempt at modelling occur. The eyes of their figures transport the spectator into a world of opulent trance. Both artists are equally unconcerned with perspective, reality or a third dimension. In the tradition of the best purely decorative work, background and foreground, figure and setting are equally important and integral. Any light is reflected from within the fabric of the design. Movement is created by how the light affects the surface of the picture and by the sinuous symbolic fluidity of the line. This is what W Hoffman has called Synaesthesia – a stylised ornamented style, where people are statues, backgrounds are wallpaper and interchangeable linear formulate are used as arrangements for figures and settings in different colour relationships, so that obstruction and symbol interrelate.

The Life and Work of Harry Clarke
Ph D Thesis by Nicola Gordon Bowe, 1981, P 249

As Gordon Bowe shows us, Harry was totally tuned in to the modern movements of his day – decorative and symbolist traditions that envisioned an idealised, stylised and imagined-medievalist form of representation that was the opposite of realistic depiction. She notes – there is no attempt whatsoever to suggest that the kneeling shepherd has ever set hands on the earth or worked as a shepherd.

Three gorgeously apparelled Kings are balanced by equally splendorous shepherds, each holding gifts. Almost hidden to the right of the upper shepherds is the head of a cow – it is hard to see as it is done in a dark purple glass. Local lore is adamant that this is an homage to Edith who apparently pioneered the introduction of Friesian Cattle into Ireland. 

Joseph stands guard over Mary and the Baby, holding a chain with a lantern and gazing out directly at the viewer. Mary’s expression is gentle, her hair is a golden blond, surrounded by a halo of pearls, her robe, in traditional blue, studded with star-like flowers. 

The baby, looking more like a wise elder than a newborn, lies in the manger, his hands up to embrace the world, his halo a delicate filigree. The coats of arms lie at the bottom of the panel – they were done and installed after the rest of the window was finished and Harry came down to supervise their insertion. That probably explains why this window has two signatures (did you go back and check the St Barrahane post?). Unfortunately, the wooden screen that stands behind the altar obscures the base of the window and makes it impossible to photograph the Townsend coat of arms (below) except from the side, but it’s another good opportunity to view the quarries.

Let us remember that Edith had misgivings about the choice of Harry to do this window. She was concerned about the “hellish splendour” of his Honan windows, the “burning and furious brilliance” of his glass, which she found “perfectly amazing but not quite pleasant.” In a letter referred to by Rauchbauer she “insists again that something a little less intense is required than the Bertie windows.” She may well have been concerned about the effect of full-on Harry on elderly parishioners, who had to be onside for the windows to go ahead. In any event, it looks like she managed to communicate well with Harry, and that he understood the brief – to “adapt his work to the church & to realise how to get harmony into it.” 

It is, indeed, charming and harmonious. No macabre beings peer out from behind the figures (as they do in the Honan and in the St Louis window down the aisle in St Barrahane’s), there are no Aubrey Beardsley stern and “horrible” faces and no predella scenes of sacrifice or death (see St Dympna, for example). All is gentleness and serenity, compassion and contemplation. One wonders if Harry would have been so biddable a few years later.

A final special photograph to finish this series. Here I am in front of the window, with Harry’s two granddaughters, Etain and Veronique, during a recent visit to Castletownshend

In this post I am relying both on Gordon Bowe’s Life and Work of Harry Clarke and on her Doctoral Thesis, lodged at NIVAL. I am deeply grateful to David Caron for facilitating my viewing of this material.

When Harry Met Edith: Part 2 – “Getting Some Good Tracery”

At this stage in his career, as we saw in the last letter in Part 1, Harry was making his own windows – that is, he was designing, cartooning (making the life-size drawings and laying out the cutlines) and choosing and painting the glass. He worked in his father’s studio, Joshua Clarke and Sons, where he used the assistants and glaziers to cut and lead the glass, and to fire it in the kilns. A few years later, he was so busy that many of his designs were mostly executed by talented apprentices, under his close supervision. He was also teaching in the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art – here he is with colleagues Sean Keating, James Golden and James Sinton Sleator about this time.*

That’s one of the reasons the Castletownshend Nativity window is so special – it is Harry’s vision and Harry’s work, and only Harry’s. It’s also the reason he had to come to new terms with his father. Harry was a perfectionist who demanded only the best quality glass and worked on each tiny piece of it to make it unique and exactly how he wanted it. His father (above) was a businessman who despaired of making even a tiny profit from this laborious way of work, especially when the war had made everything scarce and expensive. Harry had quoted a price of £315 for the window as it was currently sized, or £252 if it was shortened. Gordon-Bowe** says that Joshua had worked that it would actually cost £2,300 for the time and materials involved. He was probably factoring in the cost of all the changes to the frame, discussed below, but even so, this was a huge amount for a window at that time. His father suggested that Nagle (below, with Harry and Joshua) should do some or most of the work, but as Gordon Bowe says, Harry would never have accepted [this suggestion] at this point in his career. Given the huge disparity between what it would cost and what Harry proposed charging, this window was a significant loss to the Studio, but they must have felt that it was worth it, and that it would lead to other commissions.

The arrangement Harry and Joshua came to was that Harry would pay his father for the glass, the facilities and the glazier’s time, but that he would work on his own windows, and charge his clients, independently. But it was complicated, because at the same time, Harry was, by this time, effectively running the stained glass side of his father’s business, as Joshua’s health was declining (he died in 1921). Harry’s hand and eye can be discerned occasionally in some of the other glass being produced from Joshua Clarke and Sons at this time, but mostly his role was to manage the work of others.

Here’s an example of Harry’s influence, perhaps, in a window for Charleville Catholic Church – the windows are all from Joshua Clarke and Sons, but this one in particular bears some Harry hallmarks in the sensitive drawing of the features and the elaborate decoration of every piece of glass.

15 April 1917

Dear Miss Somerville

Thank you for your letter & enclosure of cheques value 15/. – I have been knocked up with a cold since Wednesday and have not been able to work – which will I know postpone my sending you my proposals for the Castlehaven window for a few days – the Nativity would be a jolly subject for the three lights – However this is a matter you can discuss among yourselves –

 But – – you as an artist can understand that these three tall narrow windows would not suit any subject – for example an Ascension or Crucifixion would be most suitable, tho’ I think a charming little nativity might be done.

LETTER FROM HARRY CLARKE TO EDITH SOMERVILLE
Somerville Archives, Drishane House***

The design that Edith and Harry eventually settled on was an unusual one for a Church of Ireland church. The main scene is that of the Nativity, also sometimes knows as the Adoration of the Magi. While this is certainly part of the iconography of Protestant churches at this time, it is a tiny proportion, representing fewer than 3% of all Church of Ireland windows and often as a small scene within larger windows, or as part of a Life of Christ assemblage. 

Interior of St Barrahane’s Church. In this photo you can see that the windows along the nave are longer – that is, the bottom of the windows are closer to the ground than in the east window

Edith was still determined to shorten the window, and some of the correspondence between her and Harry is taken up with details of measurements and proposals for how to get the work done – Harry will not embark on the window until he has a completely accurate set of measurements from the final shape of the changed windows. 

24 April 1917

Dear Miss Somerville

I send you herewith a drawing of the alterations I suggest in the tracery of the East window of Castlehaven church – I have worked with the idea of getting some good tracery with the very least amount of carpentry work. You will see marked in red on the drawing the parts which will have to be made in new wood and these should present no real difficulties to a carpenter of ordinary skill and intelligence. 

This tracery will need to be made and fixed in the position before I start the actual making of the glass as I will work from templates taken from the real openings

LETTER FROM HARRY CLARKE TO EDITH SOMERVILLE
Somerville Archives, Drishane House

So – Harry not only designed the stained glass, but also re-designed the window itself. A casual visitor to St Barrahane’s would look at the window and assume that it was carved in stone and was entirely original. However, a closer examination reveals that the east window is different from all the other windows in the church in two important ways – it is shorter (foreshortened from the bottom up) and the tracery is more elaborate. In fact, it is made of wood, as are all the windows in the church, although this is more apparent from the outside than the inside, since the wood has been painted and sanded to look like stone.

From the outside, it can be discerned that the window has been shortened from the bottom up. The wooden window frame was re-built to include Harry’s elaborate tracery design, painted white outside, and inside (below) sanded to look like stone.

I am glad the proposed window has been sanctioned and bearing in mind your views and those of your brother expressed in your last letter, I hope to send you the design in September or early October. The coats of arms will do any time between this and then.

Re – re making of window frames; I suggest that it would be better if it were made in Cork and I understand that Messrs Sisk and Son of that city – who built the Honan Chapel are excellent builders and must employ efficient carpenters.

Sisk’s man could measure the job and could make it either in Skibbereen or Cork – I propose this as you would be sure of a good job if the man who measures the window either makes it or has opportunity of personally explaining the alterations and measurements to another – this would rule out any chance of miscalculation – Also – It could I think be made cheaper in Cork – and the cost of carriage from Dublin to Skibbereen for the finished wood would be considerable – If it suits you and would save you any bother I will write Sisk and explain matters – there is no hurry I suppose if you remember that the new tracery will have to be finalised before I start my window early in 1918.

LETTER FROM HARRY CLARKE TO EDITH SOMERVILLE, June 10, 1917
Somerville Archives, Drishane House

By this time (June 1917) the elements of the window have also been agreed – that is, that the main scene will be a Nativity, and that Irish saints will have a place in the window. The price has also been negotiated and even though that sum seems paltry now, it was enough to give some members of the family heartburn. Hildegard was apparently ‘scandalised at the family’s extravagance’ and Edith says she is probably right “but such fears have never yet curbed my extravagance & as I have often said, I have only regretted my economies” (Rauchbauer, p179). A woman after my own heart.

One more drama ensued before the work could start – Cameron lost the sketch design! He may have left it on a train. Desperate searches (even at Scotland Yard) turned up nothing, so Edith was in the embarrassing position of having to ask Harry to produce a new one. Harry, ever the gentleman, responded on Dec 7th.

Dear Miss Somerville

Thank you for your letter. I will do the new Nativity sketch the first time I can put my mind to it to the exclusion of my other work – I am behind time with everything now, but at any rate I will undertake to give it to you at latest on the 7 January next. – possibly I will finish sooner – I will ask you to understand the delay is not entirely my own fault – the publisher of Poe’s Tales is persecuting me for the drawings – I would have been glad long ago to have taken up your happier work but business men always nail me to a date.

LETTER FROM HARRY CLARKE TO EDITH SOMERVILLE
Somerville Archives, Drishane House
This image was captured from the book on loan at the marvellous Internet Archive

He offered further clarification on Dec 10th. 

It will be better in every way if I do the sketch for the 7 January – I hardly think I can do a replica of the missing drawing but if I work to this date at any rate I will and do remember the scheme, drawing, and general colour.

LETTER FROM HARRY CLARKE TO EDITH SOMERVILLE
Somerville Archives, Drishane House

This second drawing is, or was, extant, although I cannot now trace where it might be. However, Nicola Gordon-Bowe must have seen it, as she describes it as being done in charcoal only and drawn surprisingly loosely and sketchily . . . in comparison with those for the Honan Chapel. However, it is perhaps not so surprising that Harry, under pressure to produce a duplicate of work he had already done in detail, should produce only a charcoal drawing. He was relying on his memory for all the details and the colour.

In this photo you can see the size, shape and relatively simple tracery of the other windows in St Barrahane’s Church. The two windows on the left are by Powells of London and pre-date the Harry Clarke windows in the church. The window on the right is Harry’s Kendall Coghill window, about which I have written here. My supposition is that the east window, although three-lights instead of two, had very similar tracery to these windows, before the changes I describe above and was of course the same length. Such elongated dimensions are well suited, as Harry pointed out, to a crucifixion or a resurrection, where the movement of the eye is upwards to the heavens. Below is Harry’s Crucifixion in Terenure as an example of what he meant. It was dedicated in 1920 but he had already won the commission when he was working on the St Barrahane Nativity.

The shortening of the window, the inclusion of the Irish saints, the addition of three angels above the scene and of coats of arms below it – all these design devices resulted in Harry giving Edith what she really wanted – a painterly canvas for the main scene, rather than a composition constrained by tall, narrow dimensions. 

What Edith got, in fact was a cleverly constructed division of space in the window. The main Nativity scene is located within a square, while her saints and Harry’s angels occupy the elaborate new tracery that Harry designed to be constructed by Sisk’s ‘carpenter of ordinary skill and intelligence.’

In the end the carpentry work did not get underway until the following spring, and once it was done Harry was able to start on the glass painting in April. By the end of July, the window was finished and exhibited in his studio at North Frederick Street to great acclaim.

Gordon Bowe quotes the review by Bodkin in the Dublin Evening Mail.

It has not the sumptuousness of colour which we are accustomed to associate with [Clarke], for it is especially designed to hang in the comparative dimness of an eastern light. But it has an appropriate beauty of colour second to none of this earlier works and a suavity of design and strength of drawing that shows, if that be possible, an advance in the artist’s power.

The Freemans Journal also had a review of the window by Bodkin (he signed it A.C. for “A Critic”), under the title Genius in Stained Glass

In part 3 we will look in detail at the Nativity. I’m sorry – I know this is taking forever and perhaps few will find talk of tracery and window dimensions as fascinating as I do. All I can say is that it wasn’t until I read the real-time correspondence that I realised all the changes that had been made to the windows, and the corresponding effect that this had had on Harry’s final design. But we have finally arrived at the point where we can talk about the window itself. I think it will be worth the wait.

*My thanks to Patrick Hawe and David Britton for assistance with the first three photographs.
**Anything I write about Harry Clarke is informed by Nicola Gordon Bowe’s authoritative text The Life and Work of Harry Clarke. All of us who write about Harry owe debts of gratitude to her keen insights, formidable scholarship and her command of descriptive language.
***Once again, huge thanks to Tom Somerville and the Somerville Archives for permission to read and quote from the letters.

St Brigid: Dove Among Birds, Vine Among Trees, Sun Among Stars

Starting next year, we’ve been given a new National Holiday! It falls on Feb 1, which is celebrated as St Brigid’s Day in Ireland. (Also Imbolc but that’s another story.) Although in my far-off youth I had a devotion to St Brigid and took her name as my Confirmation Name (is this just a Catholic thing?) I realised I knew very little about Brigid herself. So I set out to do some digging, using my own photographs of her image in stained glass to illustrate. That’s Harry Clarke’s take on Brigid above, from the Honan Chapel in Cork, and another one of his below, from Castletownshend.

Note the lamp, which is one of her attributes, since she is associated with a perpetual fire that miraculously never went out. Given this is Harry Clarke, the lamp looks suspiciously like something from the Arabian Nights.

For the life of Brigid, although there are many, many versions, I have turned to two sources. The primary source is The Life of Saint Brigit by Cogitosus*. Almost unbelievably, this Life dates from about 650 and is written in Hiberno-Latin. Cogitosus may have been a monk in Kildare, steeped in the cult of Brigid. Part of this cult was to claim the highest status for Kildare of all the Irish monastic settlements and therefore the Primacy over all Ireland – a claim that was eventually won by Armagh, which trumped Kildare by its appropriation of St Patrick. Cogitosus’s story is told in the form of 32 miracles, each of which leads us through Brigid’s life. 

Instead of an image of the saint, this window by George Walsh focusses on the Brigid’s Cross, another of her attributes, based on a story where she picked up rushes from the floor and wove them into a cross which healed a dying man. We like to make them every St Brigid’s Day and then hang them in the house to prevent damage by fire

My second source is the Life of Brigit from the Book of Lismore**, translated by Whitley Stokes. I love Stokes’s language, a form which he seems to have invented himself to convey something of the Medieval Irish he was translating (see this post on The White Hound of Brigown for more on this). The Book of Lismore dates to the fifteenth century and it is thought that the Lives of the Saints within it, or some of them, were written in the Abbey at Timoleague in West Cork. In both versions her name is given in translation as Brigit, rather than Brigid which is the more usual modern spelling used in Ireland.

In this window, Brigid brings the winding sheet for the dead St Patrick, a story that does nor feature in either of the Lives I am using here. This is the lower section of a paired window in Killarney Cathedral, part of a series that draws parallels between the Life of Christ and the Lives of Irish Saints. In this case, Brigid is being compared to Mary Magdalene anointing the body of Christ

Many of the same stories occur in both lives. Significantly, though, Patrick is not mentioned in the earlier Life by Cogitosus, although he appears frequently in the Book of Lismore as if she and he were living contemporaneously. There are other differences, showing how the stories grew through the ages, but both agree that Brigid was the daughter of Dubhtach and a bondswoman called Broicsech. Like all good Irish saints, her birth and her greatness is foretold. From the Book of Lismore: 

The wizard went to meet him, and asked whose was the woman who was biding in the chariot. Mine, saith Dubthach . . .The wizard asks if she was pregnant by anyone. She is pregnant by me saith Dubthach. Said the wizard, Marvellous will be the child that is in her womb, her like will not be on earth. My wife compels me, saith Dubthach, to sell this bondmaid. Said the wizard, through grace of prophecy, the seed of thy wife shall serve the seed of the bondmaid, for the bondmaid will bring forth a daughter conspicuous, radiant, who will shine like a sun among the stars of heaven. Dubthach was thankful for that answer, for till then no daughter had been born to him.

This image of a young Brigid is by Evie Hone and is in Blackrock, Co Dublin. Evie Hone’s windows are pared-to-the-bone, deeply spiritual depictions inspired often by ancient Irish carvings.

I love the fact that Dubhtach rejoices to have a daughter since most of these stories glorify the birth of male babies. Brigid accomplishes many miracles as a child, mostly having to do with her charity and her faith. Here’s one such from Cogitosus: 

So, when she was old enough, she was sent by her mother to do the work of churning so that she could make up the butter from the cow’s milk which had been dashed; she too was meant to carry out this work, in the same way as other women were accustomed to do, and to deliver for use the complete yield of the cows and the customary weight and measure of butter at the appointed time with the others. However, this maiden with her most beautiful and generous disposition, preferring to obey God rather than men, distributed the milk and butter liberally to the poor and the guests. So, when as usual the appointed time came for all to hand in what the cows had yielded, her turn came. And when her workmates presented the finished result of their work, the aforementioned blessed maiden was also requested to hand in her work in like manner. 

In dread of her mother since she had nothing to show because she had given the lot away to the poor without a thought for the morrow, strengthened and inflamed with an ardor of faith so intense and unquenchable, she turned to the Lord and prayed. Without delay the Lord heard the maiden’s voice and prayers. And, being a helper in the hour of need, he came to her assistance with the generous bestowal of a divine gift, and lavishly restored the butter for the maiden who had confidence in him. Astonishingly, the very moment after her prayer, the most holy maiden proved that she had fulfilled her task by showing that nothing was missing from the fruit of her work, but that it was even more abundant than her workmates.

A rather sumptuous Brigid from the Harry Clarke Studios, in Ballinrobe

Eventually, determining to be a virgin and devote her life to God’s work, she took the veil. Cogitosus relates that 

Brigit, inspired from above and wanting to devote herself as a chaste virgin to God, went to the most holy bishop MacCaille of blessed memory. Seeing her heavenly desire and modesty and seeing so great a love of chastity in this remarkable maiden, he placed the white veil and white garment over her venerable head. 

However, by the time the author of the Lismore life wrote his account, MacCaille had been relegated to inferior status and the Bishop who confers the veil is Mel, who is depicted in the window above, in Armagh Cathedral, performing the ceremony. By now, the story has acquired one of its most-quoted aspects – that Brigid, through divine intercession, is actually made a bishop. The next image, the lower panel of the previous window, shows Mel handing Brigid a crozier, symbol of episcopal authority. This large window is by Mayer of Munich.

Brigit and certain virgins along with her went to take the veil from Bishop Mel in Telcha Mide. Blithe was he to see them. For humility Brigit stayed so that she might be the last to whom a veil should be given. A fiery pillar rose from her head to the roof-ridge of the church. Then said Bishop Mel: Come, O Holy Brigit, that a veil may be sained on thy head before the other virgins. It came to pass then, through the grace of the Holy Ghost, that the form of ordaining a Bishop was read out over Brigit. Mac-caille said, that a bishop’s order should not be conferred on a woman. Said Bishop Mel: No power have I in this matter. That dignity hath been given by God unto Brigit, beyond every (other) woman. Wherefore the men of Ireland from that time to this give episcopal honour to Brigit’s successor.

Although she is associated with many places in Ireland (there are numerous townlands called Kilbride or Kilbreedy) it is the great city of Kildare that is most closely hers. She managed the city, the Lismore Life says, in partnership with Conleth, a hermit whom she persuades to join her. Cogitosus tell us:

And as by her wise administration she made provision in every detail for the souls of her people according to the rule, as she vigilantly watched over the Churches attached to her in many provinces and as she reflected that she could not be without a high priest to consecrate churches and confer ecclesiastical orders in them, she sent for Conleth, a famous man and a hermit endowed with every good disposition through whom God wrought many miracles, and calling him from the wilderness and his life of solitude, she set out to meet him, in order that he might govern the Church with her in the office of bishop and that her Churches might lack nothing as regards priestly orders. Thus, from then on the anointed head and primate of all the bishops and the most blessed chief abbess of the virgins governed their primatial Church by means of a mutually happy alliance and by the rudder of all the virtues. By the merits of both, their episcopal and conventual see spread on all sides like a fruitful vine with its growing branches and struck root in the whole island of Ireland. It has always been ruled over in happy succession according to a perpetual rite by the archbishop of the bishops of Ireland and the abbess whom all the abbesses of the Irish revere. 

This window by Watsons of Youghal is in St Carthage’s Catholic church in Lismore and is a great example of the Celtic Revival decoration they specialised in. Note the proliferation of oak leaves above her – Kildare is from Cill Dara, meaning Church of the Oakwood, and the oak leaf is one of her attributes, along with the lamp and the crozier, also shown

Cogitosus goes on to say this of Kildare and her establishment (and don’t forget he was writing in or around 650!): 

And who can express in words the exceeding beauty of this church and the countless wonders of that monastic city we are speaking of, if one may call it a city since it is not encircled by any surrounding wall. And yet, since numberless people assemble within it and since a city gets its name from the fact that many people congregate there, it is a vast and metropolitan city. In its suburbs, which saint Brigit had marked out by a definite boundary, no human foe or enemy attack is feared; on the contrary, together with all its outlying suburbs it is the safest city of refuge in the whole land of the Irish for all fugitives, and the treasures of kings are kept there; moreover it is looked upon as the most outstanding on account of its illustrious supremacy. 

Today we honour St Brigid as one of the founding great women of our culture. She is often shown with Patrick and Columcille as one of the three great Patrons of Ireland. In the window above, also from Killarney Cathedral, Brendan has been added in because, well, we’re in Kerry.

This window is in the Church of the Most Holy Rosary at Kilcoe, near us in West Cork. It’s a bit of a mixed metaphor – we see her holding her church, which is clearly based on the 12th century Cormac’s Chapel at Cashel, and surrounded by her oak leaves. However, she is also holding a set of rosary beads, something that doesn’t appear in Catholic imagery before the 13th century. It’s beautifully executed, though, by Catherine O’Brien of An Túr Gloine.

Brigid’s end was peaceful. As it is related in the Book of Lismore:

Now when it came to the ending days for Brigit, after founding and helping cells and churches and altars in abundance, after miracles and marvels whose number is as the sand of sea, or stars of heaven, after charity and mercy, then came Nindid Pure-hand from Rome of Latium. The reason why he was called Nindid Pure-hand was that he never put his hand to his side, when Brigit repeated a paternoster with him. And he gave communion and sacrifice to Brigit, who sent her spirit to heaven. Her relics are on earth with honour and dignity and primacy, with miracles and marvels.

A conventional image of Bridget in the church in Goleen, West Cork, by Watsons of Youghal. She’s looking very saintly indeed. By now, you no doubt recognise all her attributes

Summing up her life and legacy, the anonymous author of her Life in the Book of Lismore says:

For everything that Brigit would ask of the Lord was granted her at once. For this was her desire: to satisfy the poor, to expel every hardship, to spare every miserable man. Now there never hath been anyone more bashful, or more modest, or more gentle, or more humble, or sager, or more harmonious than Brigit. She never washed her hands or her feet, or her head among men. She never looked at the face of a man. She never would speak without blushing. She was abstinent, she was innocent, she was prayerful, she was patient: she was glad in God’ s commandments: she was firm, she was humble, she was forgiving, she was loving: she was a consecrated casket for keeping Christ’s Body and his Blood: she was a temple of God. Her heart and her mind were a throne of rest for the Holy Ghost. She was simple (towards God): she was compassionate towards the wretched: she was splendid in miracles and marvels: wherefore her name among created things is Dove among birds, Vine among trees, Sun among stars. . . . She is the prophetess of Christ: she is the Queen of the South: she is the Mary of the Gael.

Brigid by Michael Healy, in the stained glass room at the National Gallery, holding her church with the round tower that can still be seen in Kildare.

It is entirely appropriate that a new National Holiday is named for Brigid. About time, in fact!

*Cogitosus’s “Life of St Brigit,” Content and Value. Author(s): Sean Connolly and J.-M. Picard. The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland , 1987, Vol. 117, pp. 5-27 
**Lives of Saints from the Book of Lismore, Edited with a Translation, Notes and Indices by Whitley Stokes, Oxford, 1890.