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.
This is the story of what it takes sometimes to ferret out information about stained glass windows – often unsigned and undated and installed too far back for community memory to help. In this case, the window turned out to be a significant addition to the list of important Irish windows. Although it was I who first saw and photographed the windows in 2017, the detective work was largely done by my friend and colleague David Caron. David is the editor of the soon-to-be-published second edition of The Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass and the most knowledgeable stained glass scholar on this island. My own contribution to the Gazetteer focusses on the work of George Walsh, but I am in the habit of photographing stained glass wherever I go, and I often send interesting windows to David or to other colleagues. In 2019, going though my photos, I came across two images that piqued my curiosity and decided to send them to David.
St Colman’s Catholic Church in Macroom (above, photo courtesy of the Buildings of Ireland) is a fine example of Gothic Revival architecture. The original church was built in 1826 – a significant achievement in the period before Catholic Emancipation and especially considering the poverty of the majority of the Catholic population at the time – and remodelled and extended in the 1890s. It has several stained glass windows inside – an Earley, some Harry Clarke Studios from the period after Harry died (such as the one below), and others that are unsigned and possibly imported. A fairly standard assemblage for a church of this period.
What caught my attention, however, were two panels in the entry porch. Rather than being fitted into true windows, the two pieces are installed in back-lit cabinets. The backlighting wasn’t quite bright enough so the windows did not show to full advantage and it was hard to make out any detail. Nevertheless, they were arresting in their modernity and in how different they were to the other windows inside the church. The first, to the left of the door, is an image of St Colman of Cloyne, patron saint of the diocese and of the church itself. He is depicted with a harp, dressed in long robes and with large bare feet. The harp is a reference to his status as a noted bard or poet – medieval bards recited their compositions to the accompaniment of the harp. The figure is surrounded by glass panes of varying shapes mostly in shades of green, and an aura radiates around his head.
The glass to the right of the door is a depiction of the madonna and child. Mary wears a wimple with a fez-like top and a long robe in olive green. She is seated and in her lap is the Christ child with one hand raised in blessing. He wears a crown and a white robe. Their faces are similar with a small mouth, long noise and heavy eyebrows (see lead image). Mary’s large foot rests on a crescent moon and her head and Jesus’ are surrounded by an aura. Like Colman, the figures are set within irregularly shaped pieces of coloured glass in shades of green.
David decided to track down the mystery of who had made these windows and finally managed to get in touch with Fr O’Donnell, a retired Parish Priest who was very helpful indeed. He remembered that the windows had been made by a “Swedish woman from Skibbereen”. I got on the case and through a series of inquiries found Carin MacCana, who no longer does stained glass but still lives in West Cork. Below is an example of her previous stained glass work from the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, based around the sea creatures of Lough Hyne.
Carin confirmed that she had indeed done one of the windows. Wait, what? One of the windows? Yes, in fact she had been asked to match her window, St Colman, as closely as possible to the existing Madonna and Child window but she did not know who had done that one. Meanwhile, the enterprising Fr O’Donnell (now 90) was making good on his resolve to improve the backlighting. In the course of this, the signature ‘K’ was noticed on the back of the Marian panel. Fr O’Donnell recalled that the Madonna and Child had been presented by the artist Thomas Ryan, PRHA, in memory of a friend of his, a local doctor. Armed with this information, David went back to Carin who then remembered that she had been told the name of the artist was Richard King.
Although I have written about Richard King before (see Richard King in Mayo and Discovering Richard King), I am no expert – but we know who is! David immediately consulted Ruth Sheehy. Ruth has recently published her magisterial study The Life and Work of Richard King: Religion, Nationalism and Modernism – an engaging, erudite and exhaustive study of King’s artistic output, including his stained glass. This is my well-thumbed copy.
She was delighted to confirm that this was indeed the work of Richard King, and that it was a panel she knew existed, but had never managed to find. She pointed us to a similar panel – a ‘twin’ – that King made for the Church of the Holy Cross in Aberaeron in Wales. That panel has been well documented by Martin Crampin, artist and academic, who is the acknowledged expert on Welsh stained glass. He has kindly given me permission to reproduce his photo of that window, “Our Lady of Ireland”, below. For more on that window, see his listing here: http://stainedglass.llgc.org.uk/object/970 and also his blog post about this and another Richard King window in Wales: https://stainedglasswales.wordpress.com/2020/12/17/richard-king/
Of the Welsh window, dating to 1958, in her book, Ruth says:
The Virgin Mary seated with the Christ-child shown in red, is depicted as an Irish woman with a blue shawl around her head and shoulders. The two figures are seen in the centre against a background of large areas of vibrant colour and cubist-abstract shapes. As King knew and admired Mainie Jellett’s art, he would have been aware of her meditative and indirect approach to religious themes as shown by The Ninth Hour. . . Although King’s interpretation of figuration and non-figuration was somewhat different from that of Jellett, the stained glass window of Our Lady of Ireland shows him experimenting with a cubist-abstract approach to form, light and colour which suggests an adaptation of her style.
Mainie Jellett’s The Ninth Hour, 1941, oil on canvas, Collection Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane
Regarding the Macroom window, which dates to 1963, Ruth wrote to us in an email:
The Virgin and Child are depicted here as King and Queen of Heaven and this image has similarities with another work by King entitled ‘Our Lady of Ireland’ c. 1958 which is reproduced in the book. The half moon at the Virgin’s feet refers to her immaculate conception. The red and white halo behind the Christ child wearing a crown indicates that his kingship is based on his ultimate Cross and resurrection and is not of this world.. . . . The large hands and feet of the figures and their expressive quality would suggest the influences of Evie Hone and modern German stained glass on King’s stylistic development at this period.
Fr O’Donnell has now had the windows cleaned and installed much improved back-lighting. The results are wonderful and allow us to see the windows properly, as both Carin MacCana and Richard King intended. Carin has done an outstanding job of matching King’s style, which is why we all assumed in the beginning of the hunt for answers, that this was a pair of windows done by the same artist. The colours of the St Colman window, instead of being muddy and autumnal now glow in golds, blues and greens.
As for King’s Madonna and Child window, the colours are quite different from how they appeared before. The background is dominated by light yellows and pale blues and greens, while Mary’s robe is not olive green but a brilliant azure – and it is now obvious that the ‘fez’ is a crown. The red and white halo (a favourite symbol of King’s) is also clearer now. Both of these windows beautifully illustrate the importance of proper back-lighting.
It isn’t every day that you can be part of rediscovering a ‘lost’ work of art – what a privilege it has been to be part of this journey.
William Henry Bartlett was one of the foremost illustrators of his day, specialising in exotic scenes from all over the world – including Ireland, a favourite destination for Victorian travellers. I gave you an introduction to Bartlett in Scenery and Antiquities – W H Bartlett in Nineteenth Century Ireland. He loved ruins and wild and romantic scenery and wasn’t above enhancing its grandeur and magnificence. What better place for him to come than Gougane Barra? He was there sometime between 1830 and 1840 and he left us two engravings of what he saw – incredibly valuable as evidence of what has changed and what has not.
The writer of this volume of Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland was an Irishman – Joseph Stirling Coyne, born in Birr in 1803. Although he studied for the law, he had such success with his first couple of plays that writing become his full time profession and he eventually moved to London and wrote a string of hit comedies for the stage. He was one of the founders of Punch and contributed many pieces to newspapers and magazines, but Scenery and Antiquities seems to have been his only book. His ear for dialogue, it was said, was particularly good – but you can decide that for yourself as you read the story he tells about St Finbarr and the Serpent (see another version here).
The wild and romantic country around Gougane Barra
Coyne certainly knew how to match Bartlett’s penchant for overblown romanticism with his own hyperbolic language. Why don’t we leave the two of them at it now? Bartlett’s engravings and Coyne’s descriptions (edited for brevity) will carry us through Gougane Barra as it was in the 1830s. I will intersperse a few of my own images to provide some modern contrast and a certain reality check on the ‘precipitous crags’ and the ‘wild and beautiful solitudes.’
Detail from Bartlett’s view of Gougane Barra – he used scale to emphasise the towering nature of the cliffs above Gougane Barra Lake in the romantic style of the period
From Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland, published in 1841
Leaving Inchageela I found myself entering into the deep solitude of the mountain district, where the Lee expands itself into a beautiful sheet of water called Lough Allua (from Lough-a-Laoi, the Lake of the Lee,) about three miles in length, and in some places nearly a mile in breadth. This lake is picturesquely dotted with clusters of islands; but the natural beauty of the scene has been considerably impaired by the destruction of the woods which clothed the islets, and skirted the shores of the lough. The road which has been recently constructed lies on the northern side of the lake, following the indentations of its winding shores, through scenery of the most diversified yet solitary character, which will gratify the warmest expectations of the tourist who has leisure to investigate all its various beauties. After passing the lake, the river contracts itself into a narrow stream, and the traveller approaches, through narrow defiles and deep glens, the sequestered lake of Gougaune Barra, the first pausing place of the infant Lee, which bursts from the deep recesses of a rocky mountain a short distance from this spot.
I’ve done the same thing – foreshortened the view in order to dwarf the oratory under the ‘towering’ cliffs
Antiquarians have assigned different etymologies to the name of this lake; some translate it, the Hermitage or Trifle of St. Barr or St. Barry. Mr. Windele, who is generally accurate in his derivations, says, that Gougaune is taken from the Irish words Geig-abhan, i. e. the gorge of the river. How he could have fallen into such an error is surprising, when it is evident that the name is derived from the artificial causeway, which connects with the shore a small island in the centre of the lake, where St. Fineen Barr lived a recluse life before he founded the Cathedral of Cork. The word gougaune is applied in the south-western districts of Ireland to those rude quays of loose stones jutting into the sea or river, constructed for the purpose of fishing. The lake, which is situated in a deep mountain recess, is enclosed on every side except the east with steep and rocky hills, down whose precipitous sides several mountain-streams pour their bright tributes into the placid waters beneath.
A beautiful scene but a more realistic view of the height of the mountains at the end of the lake
The sanctified character of Gougaune Barra has, according to popular tradition, preserved it from that legendary monster, which, under the form of an enormous eel, infests many of the lakes in Ireland. One of these enchanted worms had in past ages taken up his quarters in this lough, where he remained unmolested until, by an act of daring sacrilege, he provoked the anger of St. Fineen Barr, and caused his own expulsion from the pleasant waters he had so long inhabited. The story was told to me by an old man whom I found fishing in the river, where it issues from the lake; and, as I should only detract from the simplicity of his legend by giving it in other language than his own, I shall, as nearly as possible, repeat it in the manner in which it was told to me.
Richard King’s St Finbarr and the Serpent published in ‘The Capuchin Annual’ (1946-7), used with thanks
”There was wanst upon a time, sir,” said he, “a great saint, called Saint Fineen Barry, who lived all alone on the little island in the lake. There he built an illigant chapel with his own hands, and spent all his time in it day and night, praying, and fasting, and reading his blessed books. So, sir, av coorse, his fame went about far and near, and the people came flocking to the lake from all parts ; but as there was no ways of getting into the island from the shore—barrin’ by an ould boat that hadn’t a sound plank in her carcash—there was a good chance that some of the crathers would be drownded in crassing over. So, bedad, St. Fineen seeing how eager the poor christhens wor for his holy advice, tuck pity upon them, and one fine morning early he gets up, and, afore his breakfast, he made that pathway of big stones over from the land to his own island. After that, the heaps of people that kem to hear mass in his chapel every Sunday was past counting; and small wondher it was, for he was the rale patthern of a saint, and mighty ready he was at all sorts of prayers that ever wor invinted. But I forgot to tell you, sir, that there was living at that time, snug and comfortable, down in the bottom of the lake a tundhering big eel; some said he was a fairy, more that he was a wicked ould inchanther, that the blessed St. Patrick had turned into that shape. Any way, he used to divart himself now and then with a walk upon the green shores of the lake, and those that saw him at these times said, that he had the ears and mane of a horse, and was thicker in the waist than a herring-cask. But with all that, the crather never milisted nobody, till one fine Sunday, after St. Fineen had finished saying mass in his little chapel, and was scatthering the holy water over his congregation, all of a suddent the ould eel popped up out of the lake, and, thrusting his long neck and head into the chapel window, caught hoult of the silver holy wather-cup betune his teeth, and without so much as ‘ by your lave,’ walks off with it into the wather. Of course, there was a terrible pillalieu riz in the chapel when they seen what the blaggard eel was afther doing, and in half a minute every mother’s son had run down to the wather-side pelting him all round the lake. But the plundhering ould rogue only laughed at their endeavours, till St. Fineen himself kem out of the chapel, drest in all his vistmints, ringing the mass-bell as hard as he could. Well, no sooner did the eel hear the first tinkle of the blessed bell than away he swum for the bare life out of the lake into the river, purshued by St. Fineen, till he got to the fall of Loneen, when he dropped the cup out of his mouth. The saint however hadn’t done with him yet, for he kept purshuing him to Lough Allua, where he thought to hide; but the sound of the bell soon forced him to leave that, and swim down the Lee to Rellig Barra, and there St. Fineen killed the oudacious baste with one kick of his blessed fut, and afterwards built a church on the spot; which, as your honour may perhaps have heard tell, is now the cathedral of Cork. At any rate, sir, there has never been another of them big eels seen in the lake from that time to the present.”
Bartlett’s engraving of the cells at Gougane with the wooden cross and pilgrims paying the rounds
The little island to which St. Fineen Barr retired, alluded to in the legend, was, indeed, an admirably chosen place for the enjoyment of undisturbed solitude, and the indulgence of devout meditation. Several aged trees of the most picturesque forms grow upon its shores, and overshadow the ruins of the chapel, the court or cloister, and other buildings appertaining to them, which cover nearly half the area of the island. In the centre of the court stands the shattered remains of a wooden cross, on which are nailed innumerable shreds and patches, the grateful memorials of cures performed on the devotees who have made pilgrimages to this holy retreat, and by whom this sacred relic is held in extraordinary veneration. Around the court are eight small circular cells, in which the penitents are accustomed to spend the night in watching and prayer.
The ‘cells’ probably date from the seventeenth century, repaired and improved in the 1890s
The chapel, that adjoins it, stands east and west; the entrance is through a low doorway at the eastern end. . . . when we consider their height, extent, and the light they enjoyed, we may easily calculate that the life of the successive anchorites who inhabited them, was not one of much comfort or convenience, but much the reverse—of silence, gloom, and mortification. Man elsewhere loves to contend with and emulate nature and the greatness and majesty of her works; but here, as if awed by the sublimity of surrounding objects, and ashamed of his own real littleness, the founder of this desecrated shrine constructed it on a scale peculiarly pigmy and diminutive. Indeed, while contemplating this and many other unworldly recesses in different parts of Ireland, it is impossible to avoid a conviction, that the wild scenery of those solitary islands and untrodden glens must have had considerable effect in nurturing an ascetic tendency in the minds of religious enthusiasts.
The memorial to O’Mahony, the recluse Coyne refers to, below. It’s certainly more modern than 1728. It’s been found and re-erected since Coyne’s visit.
On the shores of the lake, near to the Causeway leading into the island, a few narrow mounds indicate the unpretending burying-place of “the rude forefathers” of this remote district ; and in this solitary spot, the broken remains of an arched recess mark the last resting-place of a religious recluse, named O’Mahony, who terminated his life here sometime about the commencement of the last century. Smith, the historian of Cork, mentions having seen a tombstone with the following inscription ‘Hoc sibi et successoribus suis, in eadem vocatione monumentum imposuit Dominus Doctor Dionisius O’Mahony presbyter licit indignus’. The flag is not to be discovered now, it either has been removed or is buried in the rubbish of the place. Dr. Smith adds, that O’Mahony was buried in the year 1728.
Coyne’s ‘stepping stones’ (below) are probably this wonderful little clapper bridge
A little to the east of the island, the waters issue from the lake, and form the head of the River Lee, which at this point is so shallow that it may be crossed by a few stepping-stones. From thence it pours its irregular course over huge ledges and masses of rock—now sweeping onward headlong, and now pausing in dark eddying pools through the rugged valley, until it reaches Lough Allua, of which I have already given a description.
The Pass of Keimaneigh (above and below) is fairly dramatic, but I am not sure it quite deserves Coyne’s hype nowadays. It would have been wilder and more picturesque before the wide tarred road
Before quitting this neighbourhood I visited the Pass of Keimaneigh, which, for picturesque though gloomy grandeur, I have never seen surpassed, even in this region of romantic glens and mountain defiles. Through this Pass runs the high road from Macroom to Bantry, having the appearance of being excavated between the precipitous crags, that, rising on either hand, assume the resemblance of fantastic piles and antique ruins, clothed with mosses and lichens, with here and there the green holly and ivy, contributing by the richness of their tints to the beauty of the scene.
Having completed my examination of Keimanheigh, I began to retrace my route to Macroom highly gratified with my visit to these romantic scenes; which, had they been thrown in almost any other part of Europe, would have been a favourite pilgrimage for those lovers of the picturesque, who haunt the Rhine and traverse the Alps, in search of nature in her wild and beautiful solitudes.
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.
In my post Discovering Richard King, I introduced you to the stained glass artist and the extraordinary windows in Athlone. If you haven’t read that post, pop back now and read it for an overview of King’s career, before continuing. Ever since then, I have been trying to track down Richard King’s art – he was active in several media and also exported windows to the US, UK and Australia. In Mayo recently, I was finally able to photograph more of his stained glass.
The Assumption window in Swinford
King was greatly influenced by Harry Clarke in his time at the studio, and when he took over as chief designer upon Harry’s death in 1931 he carried on very much in Harry’s style. After all, that was the style the clients wanted, and he excelled in producing it. I think I have tracked down several windows produced in the decade from 1930 to 1940 (when he left to open his own studio) that bear his hallmarks, but since Studio windows were never signed by individual artists after Harry died (with a few notable exceptions) it is impossible to verify whether or not I am correct. That’s why it was a thrill, on a recent visit to Mayo, to be able to view and photograph three Richard King windows, all of which date to the period after he left the Harry Clarke Studio. Richard came from Mayo (from Castlebar) so no doubt was a popular choice when stained glass was needed. Together, these three windows illustrate the evolution of his style over time.
The earliest, and largest, window dates to 1952 and is in the Church of Our Lady Help of Christians in Swinford. It consists of three lights and a rose window above them and the theme is the Assumption of Mary into heaven. The rose window above the depiction of Mary rising shows the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – with the Son holding the crown with which he will declare his mother to be Queen of Heaven. I can’t help thinking that the Father looks a little like a depiction of one of the ancient Irish chieftains from the Athlone Patrick windows.
Mary is flanked by John the Evangelist and by Patrick – unusual choices and one wonders who dreamed them up. We know it’s John since he holds a quill pen with which to write the gospel, and is accompanied by an eagle, his symbol as one of the four evangelists. Patrick is always recognisable in green, with a crozier on his arm and a snake underfoot, and is accompanied by geese. I’m not sure of the symbolism of the geese – perhaps they were to balance the eagle [EDIT: see Niall McAuley’s comment below]. He’s wearing fetching green gloves and slippers. Take a close look at the church he carries – the windows are the same configuration as these windows – a little visual pun that Richard must have enjoyed making.
The lingering influence of the Clarke style is still visible in the extraordinary detail of every part of the window, in the glowing colours, the symmetry of the matched angels and in the cherubim faces below Mary. However, in every respect this is the work of an artist who is his own man – it could never be mistaken for a Clarke, or even a Clarke Studio, window.
But the Swinford church has a surprise – a second Richard King window, dating from 1964 and radically different from the Assumption. This is a two-light window depicting the Old and the New Testaments. The style is suddenly modernist, bold, faux-naïf and reflects his own study of the modern styles of the time and his experimentation with new ways of capturing religious themes. The windows are also delightful – strong colours and carefully placed figures create an attractive whole.
Pentecost – the Holy Spirit descends on Mary and the apostles
I think my favourite image is the one in which Pope Paul VI steers a boat full of bishops – a reference, apparently, to the ‘barque of Peter’. Paul was pope from 1963 to 1978, much of my young life, and his likeness was instantly recognisable. It brought a smile to my face.
The last Richard King window is a two light window in the St Patrick’s Church in Newport. The theme is I Am The Resurrection And The Light. This one dates from 1973, the year before he died and what is striking is how far now he has moved towards a fully modern style with elements of cubism and abstraction.
The glowing colours are still there, the strong reds and blues, but there is no attempt at realism in the figures (note for example his treatment of Christ’s ribs as a series of rectangles) and a strong geometric arrangement is obvious throughout the composition.
So far I have only written about Richard King as a stained glass artist, but there was more, much more, to him than glass. In future posts I will endeavour to expand on that statement. Meanwhile, I will leave you with a photograph of the young Richard King, courtesy of the Capuchin Archives.
Patrick lights the Paschal Fire on the Hill of Slane. Richard King window, Church of St Peter and Paul, Athlone
A joint post – text by Robert, images by Finola
Last week we talked about Ireland’s very first saint – Ciarán (or Piran), who was born on Cape Clear. His aim in life was to convert the heathen Irish to Christianity, but they were having none of it: they tied him to a millstone and hoisted him over the edge of a cliff. Fortunately – and miraculously – the wondrous millstone floated him over to Cornwall where he became their Patron Saint and is celebrated with great acclaim on March 5th every year.
A typical representation of Patrick, older and bearded, in bishop’s robe, holding a shamrock in one hand and a crozier on the other. Skibbereen Cathedral
To return the favour of gaining an important saint from Ireland, the British have given Ireland their special saint – Patrick – and he is being celebrated this week in similar fashion. So here’s the story of Saint Patrick, seen through the eyes of an Englishman (albeit one with Cornish connections) and illustrated by Finola with a series of images from her collection.
Still traditional – looking fierce – but this one has beautiful detailing, including the interlacing surrounding the cherubs. St Carthage Cathedral, Lismore
Of course, there’s the real Patrick – the one we know through his own Confessio. The best summary we’ve come across of what can be deduced from the historical documents is the audio book Six Years a Slave, which can be downloaded from Abarta Heritage, and which is highly recommended (be warned – no snakes!). But what you’re going to get from me today is the good old-fashioned Patrick, with all his glamour and colour and centuries of accrued stories – just as he’s shown in Finola’s images.
Six Years a Slave – this Harry Clarke window in the Church of The Assumption, Tullamore, seems to depict Patrick tending sheep during the period of his captivity
Patrick was born and brought up somewhere in the north west of Britain. He was of Romano British descent: his father was a a decurion, one of the ‘long-suffering, overtaxed rural gentry of the provinces’, and his grandfather was a priest – the family was, therefore, Christian. In his own writings Patrick describes himself as rustic, simple and unlearnèd.When still a boy, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and taken to be a slave in Ireland. He was put to work on a farm somewhere in the west and spent the long, lonely hours out in the fields thinking about the Christian stories and principles he had been taught back home.
After six years he escaped from his bondage and made his way back to Britain – apparently by hitching a lift on a fishing boat. Because he had thought so much about Christianity during those years away, he decided to become a bishop which, after a few years of application, he did. Although he had hated his enforced capture he was aware that Ireland – as the most westerly outpost of any kind of civilisation – was one of the only places in the known world that remained ‘heathen’, and he was nagged by his conscience to become a missionary there and make it his life’s work to convert every Irish pagan.
Detail from Patrick window by Harry Clarke in Ballinasloe
When you see Patrick depicted in religious imagery he always looks serious and, perhaps, severe. You can’t imagine him playing the fiddle in a session or dancing a wild jig at the crossroads. In fact he was well know for his long sermons: on one occasion he stuck his wooden crozier into the ground while he was preaching and, by the time he had finished, it had taken root and sprouted into a tree!
Patrick with his hand raised in a blessing, accompanied by his symbols of the Paschal Fire and the shamrock. Harry Clarke Studio window, Bantry
Perhaps it was his severity that caused him to be respected: while giving another sermon (at the Rock of Cashel) he accidentally and unwittingly put the point of his crozier through the foot of the King of Munster. The King waited patiently until Patrick had finished sermonising then asked if it could be removed. Patrick was horrified at what he’d done, but the King said he’d assumed it was all part of the initiation ritual!
In Richard King’s enormous Patrick window in Athlone, the saint is depicted as youthful and clean-shaven. Here he is using the shamrock to illustrate the concept of the Trinity
Patrick first landed on the shores of Ireland just before Easter in 432 AD and established himself on the Hill of Slane – close to the residence of the High King. In those days the rule was that only the King himself was to light the Bealtaine Fire to celebrate the spring festival, but Patrick pre-empted this by lighting his own Paschal Fire on the top of the hill, thus establishing his authority over that of the High King (see the first image in this post). Somehow, he got away with it – and the fire has been lit on the top of the Hill of Slane every Easter from that day to this.
Another panel from the Richard King window – Eithne and Fidelma receive communion from Patrick. They were daughters of the King of Connaught; Eithne was fair-haired and Fidelma a redhead, and they were baptized at the Well of Clebach beside Cruachan
St Patrick seems to have been everywhere in Ireland: there are Patrick’s Wells, Patrick’s Chairs (one of which in Co Mayo – the Boheh Stone – displays some fine examples of Rock Art), Patrick’s Beds and – on an island in Lough Dergh – a Patrick’s Cave (or ‘Purgatory’) where Jesus showed the saint a vision of the punishments of hell.
Patrick blesses St Mainchin of Limerick. Detail from the Mainchin window in the Honan Chapel, by Catherine O’Brien for An Túr Gloinne
Like many Patrick windows, this one, By Harry Clarke in Tullamore, shows Patrick banishing the snakes. This one has all the gorgeous detailing we expect from Clarke, including bejewelled snakes
When Patrick considered that he’d finished his task, and the people of Ireland were successfully and completely converted, he returned to Britain and spent his retirement in the Abbey of Glastonbury – there’s a beautiful little chapel there dedicated to him.
This depiction of Patrick on the wall of his Glastonbury chapel shows him with familiar symbols but also several unusual symbols – an Irish wolfhound, high crosses, and Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain
A depiction of Patrick below comes from St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland in Castletownsend where he is shown alongside St George. The window dates from before Irish independence and is an attempt to show the unity of Britain and Ireland through their respective patron saints. Perhaps meant to represent friendship between the countries, nevertheless nowadays it seems to display a colonial overtone that is an uncomfortable echo of past mores.
The window is by Powells of London and dates to 1906
So let’s leave Patrick doing what he came back to do – a last panel from the Richard King window in Athlone shows him performing his saintly task of converting the Irish – one chieftain at a time.
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