Murphy Devitt in Cork, Part 2

In Murphy Devitt in Cork Part 1 I introduced you to the main players in the Studio – Johnny Murphy, Róisín Dowd-Murphy and Des Devitt. Together they set about doing something entirely new and different in stained glass in Ireland, bringing with them their art training, their modern aesthetic sensibilities, and their deep knowledge of and commitment to their craft.

Both photographs above are from the Church of St Michael, Blackrock, Cork. The windows comprise large areas of breakouts with small images placed in the top half. A close up of the pictures chosen for this window reveal Noah’s Ark and Christ Calming the Waters (Contrast this with our final photograph in this post, which is in Caheragh)

Although the Studio was dissolved as a business in 1985, the three continued to work together in a loose arrangement, often under the heading of Des Devitt and Associates. This creative partnership went on for over 50 years: it was so finely attuned that Johnny could describe his vision over the phone and Des knew how to actualise it.

Johnny, Réiltín and Róisín – Réiltín was already a fixture in the Studio at this age

Everyone was pulled into the slipstream – Réiltín Murphy had to stand on a box to reach the drawing table when she started out first. Anthony Devitt* was just a kid when Des warned him not to fall off the scaffolding or his mother would kill him. They all loved it, as did the endless stream of students from the National College of Art, where Johnny was now teaching, who came to help in the summer or to learn how to paint on glass or assemble windows. Other artists came to help when the pressure of work got too much – Terry Corcoran, Rosaline Murphy (not related) Celia Harriss, Paul Britton, Ann Fitzgibbon, Michael Biggs, Michael Timlin to name some.

The only different window at Blackrock is this one, and it’s pure Roisín. There was a fire in the church and this window was rescued and re-installed in a side room once all the new windows were installed by Murphy Devitt Studios. We don’t know what the original ones were like, apart from this one

Johnny was the main designer, hugely respected by Róisín, Des and everyone in his orbit. His was the overall vision for a whole scheme for a church or for a one-off window. Róisín was happiest left to paint, either from Johnny’s designs or from her own – she was a painter at heart and exhibited into her 70s.

This window is a whole family project. It dates from 1974: Róisín painted the figure, Johnny did the little scene of Gougane Barra and Réiltín did the lettering. It’s in a convent chapel in Crosshaven, now closed and inaccessible 

Des had a couple of years of art college under his belt too but his genius lay in management and in translating Johnny’s designs (or sometimes just thoughts) into finished windows. He pitched for business, kept the budget under control, delivered work on time and ran the Studio in a completely non-hierarchical way that would be the envy of many a modern management guru. All of them read voraciously, educated themselves in progressive art theories and in how the spiritual could be expressed in glass. Perhaps this isn’t so difficult when the subject is the Passion, or the Life of Christ, or a particular saint like Francis. But many churches requested non-figurative windows, whether for budgetary reason or out of preference. Here the challenge became creating a space that suggested the transcendent, without the aid of obvious imagery.

In the same chapel are many windows that are either entirely non-figurative or with small hints of symbolism. This one looks like the lilies often carried by St Joseph

These mostly or entirely non-figurative windows became one of the hallmarks of Murphy Devitt Studios, instantly recognisable, and capable all by themselves of creating an atmosphere of drama or tranquility. An oval becomes the window to the soul, a series of them leads the eye upwards, thus capturing the notion of the elevation of thoughts and prayers. A sunburst denotes the glory of creation, light falling from heaven.

Ballyhooly Church has all non-figurative windows. This photograph is courtesy C Cashman and R Gem

Some have small elements within them that are complete pictures, mostly Christian symbols, sometimes mere hints. There were favourites – I’ve seen similar ones crop up here and there, although their context leads to fresh treatments. Some churches are a mixture of figurative and non-figurative. Although it’s not in my remit for these posts, if you are near Dun Laoghaire visit St Michael’s church and marvel that expanses of ‘coloured glass’ can create such a calm and devotional atmosphere.

Caheragh Church has a mixture of figurative, non-figurative and non-figurative-with-symbols. This window is one of the latter

Anyone who visits Irish churches knows that what we want in them are our own saints – Patrick and Brigid certainly, but after that they must be local. So along with every other stained glass artist who ever worked in Ireland, Johnny had to study the hagiographies of our obscure legendary saints and satisfy a demanding congregation familiar with the stories.

St Kieran of Cape Clear is one of our treasured West Cork saints

At Caheragh (north of Skibbereen) and Rath (just outside Baltimore) in West Cork two small rural churches demonstrate how well he succeeded. The windows in each are quite different, although both were completed in 1963. In Caheragh the figures are situated in the lovely wavy-lined breakouts that we saw Murphy Devitt use to such effect in Mayfield, in tones of red and yellow.

And here is St Facthna of Rosscarbery

In Rath we see the introduction of a new breakout design, the square or rectangle with grey shadow around the edge, seeming like a solid glass brick. It’s another Murphy Devitt innovation, used to great effect in many of their windows. They used it again the following year in Blackrock (see above).

The Sacrament of Confession gets the Murphy Devitt treatment in Rath

A stained glass technique that was introduced to Ireland in the 60s was that of Dal de Verre. Blocks of coloured glass were faceted to increase their reflectivity (this was done by knocking spalls of glass from the edges and surface of the blocks) and then cemented together with resin, and sometimes concrete. Dal de Verre enabled actual walls of glass to take the place of masonry and to create dramatic expanses of colour as an integral part of construction, rather than as windows.

Chunks of coloured glass, faceted for additional refraction, float in a bed of resin. This is a detail from the Lowertown window below

Murphy Devitt were early adopters and we have one of their examples in Cork, at Lowertown, just outside Schull. It’s a dove of peace/Holy Spirit creating a glowing corner in the baptistry.

I still have two churches to tell you about, in Rochestown and in Mallow. They deserve their own post, and that will conclude this series. See you next week.

From Caheragh, across a two-light window, an image of Christ calming the storm. Traditionally, Christ is shown in one boat with the 12 apostles. However, Rembrandt famously included himself in his depiction of this scene, so I am tempted to think that Johnny is in there somewhere, since there are thirteen apostles in the boats

*This post benefitted greatly from information generously shared by Anthony Devitt.

Lady Carbery’s High Cross

Wherever we travel in Ireland, I search out medieval high crosses. They are the epitome of ancient Irish art: this link will take you to a number of earlier posts which explore the subject.

It’s ironic, perhaps, that I haven’t yet discussed Ireland’s tallest high cross, which is in West Cork, not far from where we live. At 9.2 metres tall, it outshines the West Cross at Monasterboice, which is just 7 metres. However, Lady Carbery’s High Cross is not medieval – it was built on a hilltop with sweeping views over Long Strand, distant Galley Head and as far west as the Fastnet in 1902, in memory of her husband.

. . . Windswept Croachna Hill, just over the rise from Castle Freke, faces out towards the Atlantic and the sunset, as well as the mystic isle of Moy Mell, and a dangerous submerged rock of the same name. Here, in 1901, in view of the countless sailors who would pass and re-pass through the years, Grandmother had caused to be erected a huge cross as a monument to her first husband Algy, the last Carbery to spend his life in these parts and to make his home in County Cork. Fourteen tons of white limestone rise thirty feet into the sky. There are seven panels, each with sculptured designs from the Bible. The inscription on the east face reads: “To the greater glory of God, and in loving memory of Algernon William George, 9th Baron Carbery, who was born 9th September 1868 and who died 12th June 1898. This Cross has been erected by Mary, his wife, 1901. The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, they are in peace” . . .

Lady Mary Carbery wrote a journal following her husband’s death. It remained private until a century later, when her grandson Jeremy Sandford published much of it, together with his own commentary – the paragraph above is his. Recently widowed and sole mistress of the vast neo-medieval Castle Freke overlooking a remote headland in West Cork, Mary raised her young family in the company of servants, dependants and occasional visitors. Reflective and sensitive, Mary Carbery was deeply attuned to the spirit of place and to the people she lived amongst in Rosscarbery, studying Irish and taking note of local speech, folklife and customs. It’s no wonder that the memorial cross she commissioned from white limestone should have been such a tribute to the flowering of Irish art in the medieval period.


Algernon was the 9th Baron of Carbery. After his death, Mary stayed at Castle Freke long enough to see through a significant restoration following a fire in 1910, then met and married Professor Arthur Wellesley Sandford of Frankfield House, County Cork. She was evidently quite a character, a prolific writer and traveller: she spent some years travelling across Europe in Creeping Jenny, a caravan drawn by white oxen, and is credited with being the first person to install a bath in a mobile home. Meanwhile, the castle was taken over by her son John – the 10th Baron, an early aviator, who sold it in 1919 and took off for Kenya, where he joined the hedonistic Happy Valley community, infamous during the 20s and 30s for its decadent lifestyles, drug use and sexual promiscuity. During the latter part of the 20th century the castle fell into disrepair.

Changing fortunes: Lord Carbery’s monoplane in 1914; Castle Freke in reasonable condition, pre 1950, and the Castle in the present day undergoing renovation by Stephen Evans-Freke, son of the 11th Baron Carbery

We are fortunate that some parts of the former estate at Castle Freke are maintained by Coillte, the State-owned forestry business, and are publicly accessible. This includes the high cross, accessed by a footpath from the Long Strand.

The Coillte path up to the cross, leading from the car park at Long Strand. In the lower picture Gill and I give an idea of the scale of the monument

Take the opportunity to have a look at the old parish church of Rathbarry, also in the Castle Freke demense. Built in 1825, it closed in 1927, and is now an atmospheric ruin. Algernon, the 9th Baron, and Lady Mary commissioned some of the striking mosaic work which can still be seen.

I found a number of entries in the Duchas Folklore Collection centred on the  Long Strand, Red Strand and Castlefreke areas. They could make a good future post, but to finish off for now, here is just one: recounted by Denis Collins, aged 60, from Castlefreke, Duchas Collection, 1937 – “The Hidden Treasure of Castlefreke”:

. . . Two children from Rosscarbery wandered away from their home one day. They did not return to dinner nor to tea so their mother got very anxious about them because it was the time that the fairies were supposed to be about. She searched everywhere but in vain and it was said that they were spirited by the fairies. Many years afterwards a young man and woman came into the town of Ross. When the people of the town saw them they were afraid of them, but found to their surprise that they were the two children. When asked where they were all that time they said that they were taken away by fairies to a certain fort in Castlefreke where there was a treasure hidden. No one ever looked for the treasure as it is said to be guarded by a fairy . . .