The Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass

It’s finally here, and it’s stunning!

The Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass was first published in 1988 and has been out of print almost since then. It was the work of Nicola Gordon Bowe, David Caron and Michael Wynne. It documented all the known windows of Harry Clarke and the artists of An Túr Gloine and was snapped up by anyone interested in looking at stained glass.

Click through to see sample pages!

Of the three editors, David Caron, who was a newly-minted PhD at the time, lecturing at the National College of Art, is the only surviving member. He has forged a long-time collaboration with the photographer Jozef Vrtiel, a specialist in the difficult art of capturing stained glass, and together they determined that it was time for an updated edition. Not only updated, but expanded – their vision was for a book that would include all the best stained glass designed and/or made by Irish artists, or by artists working in Ireland. Harry Clarke is here, of course – that’s his St Louis and St Martin window, below, in Castletownshend. But there is so much more to Irish stained glass than Harry Clarke, even though he’s the one that most people know (or think they know).

Note I said ‘artists’ – this is not a book that records all Irish stained glass, such as the mass-produced windows that came from the large studios. The criteria for inclusion were “Artistic merit, individual voice and excellence in the craft.” There were nine artists included in the first book – there are over 90 artists represented in this one!

Some artists love to tell stories in their windows – this window is about the trials and tribulations of Oliver Plunkett and is by Kevin Kelly of the Abbey Stained Glass Studio

To do this, besides drawing on his own considerable store of knowledge (and indeed doing the vast majority of the work in this book), David assembled a team of fellow enthusiasts and experts each of whom concentrated on the work of a single artist or studio. For example, Réiltín Murphy has long been compiling the work of her parents, Johhny Murphy and Roisín Dowd Murphy, who together with Dessie Devitt, founded and ran the Murphy-Devitt Studios. You can take a look at my posts, Murphy Devitt in Cork, to see how brilliantly they pioneered a whole new approach to stained glass in mid-century Ireland. The image below is one of their windows from Newbridge College Chapel.

Another contributor is Ruth Sheehy, whose wonderful new book on Richard King occupies pride of place on my desk. I’ve learned so much from it, and bring this new appreciation now to my sightings of a Richard King – always a big thrill. The panel below is a detail from one of his enormous windows (The Sacred Heart) in St Peter and Paul’s Church in Athlone.

My own part revolved around my project to record all of George Walsh’s windows in Ireland. This has been a joyful journey for me, and I have written about George and his windows for the Irish Arts Review and for my own blog. There are over 100 of George’s windows in the Gazetteer, including the scheme he executed for the Holy Family Church in Belfast.

This is a book you will want to have with you in your car. And you know what? There is a lot more wonderful stained glass out there to discover – I’ve been amazed at what I have found in little country towns and in 1960s modernist churches. I have no doubt a third edition will have to be produced eventually as more of us tune in to the treasures under our noses. Look at the picture below, for example – you would swear it was a Harry Clarke! It was certainly made in his studio by a highly talented artist and bears a lot of his characteristic flourishes, just not his signature.

The best part of working on this book? The collegiality of everyone involved – we all helped each other out with queries and photographs. I feel like I have made new friends, even though I have yet to meet many of them. You can buy the book now in all good bookshops (buy local!) or order from the publisher.

Favourite Posts of 2020

This has been a banner year for Roaringwater Journal – we passed the milestone of a million views and had our most viewed post ever (see below). Most of all, though, it’s been a year in which we feel privileged to have been able to keep bringing you our weekly blog in the teeth of this global pandemic. We won’t lie, there have been moments when it all seemed too hard, weeks when we couldn’t do the sort of travelling around and photographing that are so essential to our research, and days when the sense of underlying dread and distraction made it hard to concentrate on writing. Through it all, you kept us going, cheering and encouraging us with your likes, your views and your comments. So a huge THANK YOU to you, our dear readers!  We hope that our little efforts have provided to you, in turn, some notes of sunshine in the dark – like our view, above, from Nead an Iolair, taken just before we hit Publish. Herewith, keeping with the tradition of our usual year-end round up, your (and our!) favourite posts of 2020. 

Finola’s Favourites

That most-viewed post of all time? Of course it was Beautiful West Cork in Picture and Song. Colum Cronin’s song – and that voice! – paired with the incredible West Cork Scenery. A perfect fit.  Here it is again, in case you missed it first time around, or just to enjoy it once more.

Amazingly, our second most popular post this year was a recipe! We all got into baking during lockdown, and Roaringwater Journal was no exception. The main attraction with this Savoury Soda Bread is how easy it is – in ten minutes you can have bread in the oven filling your house with the aroma of virtue. It’s also a great base recipe which can be varied to make it more like a tea-time treat to serve with jam.

I’ve been wanting for a long time to do a proper treatment of the prehistoric Stone Circles that dot our West Cork landscape. When you write about archaeology there is no substitute for on-the-ground observation. Only by spending time at each monument do you become more alive to their presence in the landscape, their orientations, their similarities and differences. Travel restrictions this year made field trips more challenging and there are still a few on my list to see, but most of the ones we saw are so isolated and in such spectacular settings that it was a joy to plan and write this series. That’s Glanbrack Stone circle below, with a pair of stone outliers (taken in a big hurry as a slurry tank was heading into the field). You can start with The Stone Circles of West Cork: An Introduction (written in 2019), and move one to Multiple Stone Circles, Five-Stone Circles and finally the Discussion.

Readers will know my stained glass obsessions  and this year I devoted three posts to a group of mid-century artists and craftspeople producing unique and accomplished windows under the name Murphy Devitt Studios (links to all three parts on this page). I confined myself to their Cork windows and a marvellous journey of discovery it was to see how a young and energetic group set out to test how the ancient traditions of stained glass could be influenced by modern movements in art and design.

Finally, a post about a place that totally captured me – Monaincha, The Isle of the Living, in Co Tipperary. This is a site that takes a little effort to find and get to, but once you’ve been, you might agree with my opening statement that There are places on this island that seep into your soul. You come away with a sense of having visited another world, of having passed through a portal and been lucky enough to come back to tell the tale.

It’s been hard to limit myself to five (and as you can see I did cheat a bit) and indeed I could as easily have chosen others. Over to Robert now.

Robert’s Favourites

As Finola has set out, we are each reviewing favourite posts of this year: 2020. It has been a year unlike any other for both of us – and for everyone else, of course. At times we have been very limited as to where we can travel – no more than 5km from home for weeks at a time, for example. It’s not surprising, therefore, that our immediate environs have come into close focus for us. In one of my posts – from 26 January this year (and before Covid) – our own Rossbrin Cove was my subject, and I saw it partly through the eyes of others, including some local artists. The photo above was taken by our friend and neighbour Julian van Hasselt in 2010 – that’s a year before we arrived. It’s more or less our own view of Rossbrin’s medieval castle. Our winters so far haven’t been so ‘Christmassy’, but – who knows – there may be something waiting for us around the corner. . . The following photo, also from this post, was taken in January this year and shows how contrasting our weather patterns can be.

This beautifully atmospheric view of Rossbrin castle also includes another castle across the water in the distance: that’s the one that gives Castle Island its name. One of the highlights of the year for me was a visit to that island, courtesy of another neighbour: thank you, Dietrich, for giving us a ride out there on your handsome classic fishing boat ‘Barracuda’ (and for bringing us back)! We look out to the island from Nead an Iolair, and it has always had a sense of mystery for us: it has a number of dwellings on it, all now deserted and in ruins (have a look at the picture below). My post Castle Island Explored – Part 1 tells of our exploration but also sets out a little of the history of the place. Since our visit I have discovered more about the island and its story, and I really will get on with the long overdue second instalment in 2021 – that’s a promise!

In March this year, our lives changed: the pandemic was upon us, and I realised that one of my favourite pastimes – playing in the live music sessions in the Ballydehob pubs every Friday evening throughout the year – would not be happening for a while. To compensate, I started a new blog giving our musicians the opportunity to put up recordings of tunes and sings online to try and keep up our spirits as Covid progressed. ‘A while’ became a very long time and, in fact, music sessions have been out of the question ever since. The way things are looking as I write, it’s unlikely that they will start again until well into the coming year. I introduced the Swantonstown Sessions blog with a Roaringwater Journal post. Why ‘Swantonstown’? Because Ballydehob carried that name for a time in its history: many Swantons once lived here, and some still do today. As a musical interlude for this post, here’s me playing a tune by Turlough O’Carolan which I recorded for Swantonstown Sessions on my anglo concertina – Planxty Maggie Brown:

This year I discovered – and wrote about – signal towers in Ireland built at the time of the threat of a Napoleonic invasion in the very early years of the nineteenth century. One post turned into a series of seven posts, as – in spite of travel restrictions – we were able to explore most of the sites of these structures in County Cork, including the restored example at The Old Head of Kinsale (above). All the others are impressive but gaunt ruins dotted around the coastline, each one in sight of two further ones, and signals were passed between them using flags and – sometimes – beacons. If I had opened the series to include the whole Irish coastline there could have been 81 posts! That many were built in a period of just a few years. I called the series A Signal Success in Irish Engineering: you will find them all by following that link. Here’s a picturesque rendering by our friend, Peter Clarke, of the very vestigial tower remains at Ballyroon Mountain on the Sheep’s Head:

Another project which I started towards the end of the year is the exploration of our major West Cork river – the Ilen. That’s Ballyhilty Bridge, above. My series – Sweet Ilen – will continue into next year. There have been three posts to date: here is the most recent – Sweet Ilen Part 3. At the end of that one you will find links to the other two. It’s a magnificent waterway, rising in the summit of Mullagmesha Mountain and taking a lazy, winding course down to meet the Atlantic at Baltimore. I’m really looking forward to getting to that mountain source, when circumstances permit – and to the mouth. In the meantime there is plenty to to keep you busy in these posts, and all the others I have mentioned above. Enjoy your own celebrations and I hope the new year will bring us all renewal. Here is Sweet Ilen close to its tidal limit at Skibbereen:

Painting With Light

What are we seeking right now? If social media is right, it’s distraction. But also beauty, comfort, reassurance… With that in mind, I have created a video slideshow of some of my favourite stained glass windows.

I could have used a totally different selection and perhaps I will do another one sometime. Meanwhile, this took me all day to do – learning how to do stuff like this seems to get harder as the years roll by. Funny how that works.

The music is Sí Beag Sí Mór by O’Carolan and it’s played beautifully by Susan Nares on the harp – thank you, Susie! Susie made this recording for Robert’s Swantonstown Sessions (have you checked in there yet?). The stained glass I’ve chosen is by Harry Clarke, George Walsh, Hubert McGoldrick, Murphy Devitt, Mayer of Munich, Joshua Clarke and Co., Thomas Denny, William Dowling, Richard King, Watsons of Youghal, and Earley and Co. For much more on Irish Stained Glass, including some of the artists I have chosen, have a glance over this page.

Here it is – I hope you enjoy it.

Murphy Devitt in Cork, Part 1

A couple of years ago I visited the Catholic church in Caheragh, just north of Skibbereen, specifically to look for an image of Thaddeus McCarthy about whom I was researching at the time (see my post Thaddeus McCarthy, the Bishop Who Never Was). As I stepped into the church it was immediately obvious that the stained glass was not the usual traditional images based on renaissance paintings that I had been seeing in most of the churches I had been in. No, what greeted me (above is the Thaddeus window) was something entirely new and different – modernist, colourful, idiosyncratic, painterly, beautifully designed and expertly executed windows, each one identified as the work of Murphy Devitt of Dublin and installed in 1963. I fell in love.

The stained glass windows in the rest of this post (except for one) are all from the Church of Our Lady Crowned, in Mayfield, Cork. This one represents the Risen Christ

There are Murphy Devitt windows in ten Cork churches, and why not? Johnny Murphy, after all, was a Cork boy, brought up in the city and starting his art education at the Crawford School of Art in the 1940s when the life-drawing classes still revolved around the Canova casts. He was a standout student, winning a scholarship to the National College of Art in Dublin. There he met a fellow student, the beautiful Róisín Dowd, whose parents had fled the Belfast blitz to settle in Dublin. Together and separately, they travelled to Paris and Rome, doing what art students do – visiting galleries and studios, studying centuries of European painting, absorbing and responding to those influences (think Botticelli for Róisín, Klimt for Johnny), finding their artistic voices and refining their own styles.

The Presentation in the Temple (detail)

Returning home, they had to wait for several years to marry. Their daughter Réiltín suspects that Grandfather Dowd insisted on Johnny having gainful employment and that may have been why he joined the Harry Clarke Studios in 1952 and began to seriously study the craft of glass painting. Harry Clarke died in 1931 but his studios carried on making stained glass until the 1970s. There was plenty of work for anyone in the ecclesiastical provisioning business as new churches were going up all over the country to serve the burgeoning, and pious, population.

Dessie Devitt, Paddy McLoughlin, Mickey Watson and Johnny Murphy in their busy studio in the 60s

One of the glaziers Johnny worked with at the Harry Clarke Studios was John Devitt, universally known as Des or Dessie. Becoming fast and lifelong friends, they decided to strike out on their own, taking some of the men from the HC Studios with them. It was the late 50s and they couldn’t have picked a better time. Working from a mews in Monkstown and later a custom-built studio in Blackrock, they started to tender successfully for new commissions. This also allowed Johnny and Róisín, who now joined them as well when she could escape motherly duties, to develop their own unique approach to designing and painting stained glass, very different from what had become a somewhat hidebound atmosphere at the Harry Clarke Studios. For an example of what I mean by that, and to illustrate the contrast with MD, take a look at my post Time Warp, featuring a set of Harry Clarke Studio windows from the late 1950s. Below is a detail from one of them – far, indeed from the genius of Harry Clarke himself.

Detail from a Harry Clarke Studio window in Drimoleague. Although this window is interesting for lots of other reasons, the quality of the glasswork and the artistry of the painting had declined over the decades since Harry’s death. 

What Johnny always called their ‘first big break’ came with the Church of Our Lady Crowned, in Mayfield, Cork, completed in 1962. According to The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage:

Our Lady Crowned Roman Catholic Church was built to the design of J.R. Boyd Barrett’s firm and when completed in 1962 comprised the final of five new churches constructed to the north side of Cork city and named after the five Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary. The design and construction of the roof is of technical importance while the extensive stained glass windows, from the workshops of Murphy & Devitt in Dublin, are of particular artistic merit.

Too often, stained glass windows are one-off commemorative objects, mounted in an available opening. But when you see a whole scheme of windows in one church, designed to fit and complement the architecture throughout the building, the effect can be breathtaking. And so it is with Our Lady Crowned. The church is wedged-shaped, with enormous glass panels occupying at least half the space. Scenes from the Life of Christ range around the walls, from the Annunciation to the Crucifixion and Epiphany, with the huge area over the main door taken up with a choir of angels heralding the crowning of Mary on one side and Christ on the other.   

The day we visited the church was full of children preparing for their Confirmation

When I told Réiltín Murphy*, Johnny and Róisín’s daughter, that Our Lady Crowned was my favourite of the Cork MD churches, she responded that it was her parents’ favourite too. It’s not hard to see why – it’s a triumph of imagination, artistic vision, craftsmanship and above all collaboration. As I get more familiar with MD windows the distinction between a Johnny Murphy window and a Róisín Dowd Murphy window is sometimes quite clear: Johnny’s style is more angular, with loose dark brushstrokes, strongly marked facial features, heads tilted at an angle, while Róisín’s figures are more curvy and flowing, with greater attention to fabric and to musical instruments. Réiltín characterises the difference thus: Róisín’s figures, I always think, are too busy to pose for their photo while Johnny’s are usually quietly aware of just who they are and what they symbolise.

Nativity, Presentation and Jesus in the Temple windows

In Mayfield, all those elements are present: at first glance it’s impossible to tell where Johnny leaves off and Róisín begins. But we do have evidence, in the form of an original cartoon, that links Róisín directly to the Assumption window and once you see that, you see her hand in other places too – the heavenly choir, for example, has many of her hallmarks.

Róisín’s cartoon for the second angel from the bottom on the right, and the finished window

I am tempted to see Johnny in the passion images – the sombre figure of the suffering Jesus (below) exudes a quiet power alongside the mocking soldiers.

But many of the windows defy easy analysis. Look at the Nativity window (below), for example, and see if you can figure out whose hand is where. Complicating all this in Murphy Devitt windows is that when times got busy they took in extra artists to help with the workload.

In this window note how the ‘break-outs’ (the areas of coloured glass) are used to separate two long panels, which are then unified at the top. The composition, which manages to include all the major figures in two tall narrow panels, is impressive, as is the integration of those panels with the break-outs.

As with most of their commissions, Johnny was the one who sketched out the overall design and decided on the ratio of figurative panels to ‘break ups’, those areas of coloured glass that allow the eye to rest between scenes, to register the passage of time between events. Non-figurative schemes became important elements in the Murphy Devitt style – more about  them later, but for the moment note the highly original way in which the expanse of coloured glass are treated. Nobody else was doing anything like this at the time – it was a unique and beautiful Murphy Devitt innovation.

In this window, the Finding of Jesus in the Temple, the separating device is the break-out panel and the unifying device is the floor

Not for Murphy Devitt the regular quarry glass with its dependable lozenge shapes, or static grids of straight lines. Johnny loved the wobbly, the wavy and and the irregular. Réiltín says, He was interested in music: the fugue, he said, whereby the same melody/image is played in different keys – his abstracts are often flipped, turned, twisted to be similar but not identical. He loved glass as a painting medium. He loved its kinetic effect in its flaws, its trees moving outside, its changing light/colours from passing clouds, its seeming to be alive.

A window where the break-outs serve as background, with the two main figures occupying panels and the cross stretching across the space

It’s a lot easier to cut regular shapes and fit them together, of course, but you don’t need an expert for that. This is where Dessie Devitt came into his own as a master glazier. Choosing the glass to match the colour scheme, assembling it all harmoniously, cutting and leading the thousands of pieces that went into a scheme like this – none of it would have been possible without Dessie Devitt and the men who worked alongside him.

The heavenly choir, above  one side of the main door, with Our Lady Crowned on the right. Below is a detail from the other side

By all accounts it was a charmed workplace, a happy environment where everyone worked hard but where laughter and The Chat abounded. Des in particular was gifted with the ability to recognise the absurd and could hardly leave the studio without coming back with an entertaining story.

About the same time as Mayfield, Murphy Devitt won the commission to design a set of windows based on the Canticle of St Francis for another Cork church, this one attached to a Cappuchin Friary. We’ll take a look at that one and some others next week. For the moment, the Mayfield church will serve as an introduction to Johnny, Róisín and Des, their modern aesthetic and their collaborative approach.

*Many thank to Réiltín Murphy for much of the background information, for answering all my questions and for additional photographs, including the people pictures and Róisín’s cartoon.