Harry Clarke, Egerton Coghill and the St Luke Window in Castletownshend

Remarkably, there are three Harry Clarke stained glass windows in one small West Cork village – in St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland church, in Castletownshend. The smallest of the three windows is the St Luke, inset into the south wall of the chancel. It is a miniature masterpiece, designed with extraordinary attention to detail by Harry, and executed in his studio.

Egerton Coghill, left, with his painting companion Herbert Baxter*

The iconography that was chosen was specific to the subject – St Luke as Patron Saint of Painters. That’s because this was a memorial window to Egerton Coghill – more correctly Sir Egerton Bushe Coghill, 5th Baronet Coghill. Egerton had grown up in Castletownshend, one of a large family of Coghills who lived in a rambling house called Glen Barrahane, and who seemed to be related in multiple ways to all the other families who lived in and around Castletownshend. His father (Sir John Jocelyn, one of Ireland’s earliest photographers) was the brother of Adelaide, who had married Thomas Henry Somerville, mother of the Somerville family that included (among others) Edith (see Stories and Stained Glass), Boyle (see Boyle Somerville: Ireland’s First Archaeoastronomer and Boyle’s Bealtaine), and Hildegard. Hildegard eventually married Egerton, her first cousin. To Edith and Boyle, therefore, Egerton was both first cousin and brother-in-law.

To Edith he was also a childhood playmate, a best friend and a great supporter and artistic mentor. In periods of distress for her he encouraged her to concentrate on her work – first art and then writing, and he loaned her money when the going got tough. Everyone loved him, it seems. He gave up a career in engineering to devote himself to painting and his limited private means allowed him to study abroad. When he and Hildegard fell in love their families were delighted, but they had to wait seven years to be able to afford to marry.

Egerton and Hildegard on their wedding day

As a painter, Egerton was strongly influenced by the Impressionists. He painted en plein air, drawn to landscape and to muted colours. He loved to capture the scenery around Castletownshend, or the village itself, as in this charming depiction of the main street.

The Mall from Malmaison (Courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum)

He was accomplished and well-known in his day, exhibiting widely and selling well. A scholarship at Oxford, for landscape painting, is named in his honour. Now, he seems to have faded from memory, and images of his paintings are hard to find online.

Field of Rye, Barbizon (Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum)

Egerton’s older brother, Neville, was killed at the Battle of Isandlwana during the Zulu Wars – Robert has developed a talk on West Cork Links to the Zulu Wars and will no doubt write a post about Neville eventually. One of the windows in St Barrahane’s (not a Harry Clarke) is dedicated to his memory. When Neville died, Egerton inherited the title and moved back permanently to Castletownshend with Hildegard and his children. Egerton himself died unexpectedly in England in 1921 during the upheavals caused by the War of Independence at home in Ireland, so it was some time before his body could be brought back to St Barrahane’s for burial. According to Edith, The whole country came to the funeral, and all the men competed for the privilege of putting a shoulder to the coffin, for even a few steps.

When Edith and Hildegard were able to consider a permanent memorial for their beloved Egerton it was naturally to Harry Clarke that they turned. Edith had been entranced immediately by Harry’s work when she travelled up to Cork, on the advice of her brother Cameron, in 1916 to view the windows in the Honan Chapel. She wrote to Cameron afterwards to thank him. She was nothing short of stunned by Harry’s windows and “the quality of burning and furious brilliance that I have never seen anywhere else. . . his windows have a kind of hellish splendour”.

Edith in her Master of the Foxhounds habit, about the age she was when Egerton died

Since then, Edith had worked with Harry to install the Nativity window in 1918 (it was his first public commission) as a memorial to her grandparents, and again in 1921 on the Kendall Coghill window (Egerton’s bachelor-soldier uncle and a universal family favourite) about which I wrote in my post The Gift of Harry Clarke. She now asked him to take on this new commission, and Harry, who had known and liked Egerton, promised to pay special attention to this project.

St Luke, Patron Saint of Painters, is depicted with a palette and brushes, with the Madonna’s face appearing on the palette

The design he came up with is exquisite, and every detail is important. St Luke, perhaps better known to most of us as one of the four gospel writers, is also the Patron Saint of Painters. This is based on the tradition that he painted the first image of Mary, and that image became an early Christian icon. In Harry’s design, Luke holds a painter’s palette and brushes, and the image of Mary appears like a ghostly presence on the palette.

Luke, with St Cecelia to the left and St John, holding a chalice, to the right

Luke himself is a typical Harry creation, with his huge eyes, forked beard, and expression full of compassion. His right hand, with long tapered fingers and a sleeve point (Harry loved those), holds a brush. His hat and garments are elaborately rendered in blue, scarlet and purple. His sandals, thong style, are complex twists of leather straps.

Besides the Luke and the Madonna images, there are four other sacred figures in the window. One of the unique joys of this window is that you can get close enough to it to see these tiny figures clearly, since it is at eye level (it helps to be tall). The first, on the left side of the window is St Fidelio, dressed as a bishop (below). I have been unable to find any information at all about St Fidelio, but obviously this saint had some meaning to Egerton, or to the Somerville sisters, or perhaps it was a reference to Egerton’s faithfulness. However, it could, like St Cecilia, be another musical reference, to Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio. In fact, most of the figures appear to relate to secular aspects of Egerton’s life, while thinly disguised as the kind of saintly images suitable for a church window. I can almost hear Harry, Edith and Hildegard chuckling over the choices, knowing that Egerton, who had his full share of boisterous Coghill humour, would thoroughly approve of the coded messages.

To the left of Luke’s shoulder is St Cecilia. Egerton loved music, had a fine voice, and performed happily in the musical theatre that was a staple of family life within the Castletownshend circle. Gilbert and Sullivan was a favourite. But this is also a nod to Edith – Cecilia is shown playing an organ while the organ that Edith played for over 50 years occupies the loft at the other end of the church.

Finally, at the top of the window, across from each other, are St John and St Barrahane. Barrahane, after whom the church is named (and who is pictured also in the nativity window) is the local saint, and the Coghill house was called Glen Barrahane in deference to that tradition. The tonsured monk is holding up a church (below). John was both his father’s and his grandfather’s (Baron Plunkett) name.

Egerton’s coat of arms, the dedication plaque, and Harry’s signature round out the window.

At this time, the Harry Clarke Studio was experiencing enormous demand for his work. To satisfy this demand he employed a group of highly talented artists and craftsmen, all of whom were trained to faithfully execute his designs, with Harry supervising closely. Thus it was with this window – most of it in fact was made while Harry was out of the country. The fact that he did not personally do most of the etching, staining and painting on this window does not in any way detract from its identification as a true Harry Clarke window – in every meaningful sense this was his creation and his signature indicates that he took full credit for the final product.

If you go to St Barrahane’s, make sure that you open the gate in the altar rails and go right up to the little window in the chancel. People have been known to miss it. It’s a unique opportunity to get nose-to-nose with a Harry Clarke. And when you do, spare a kind thought also for Egerton, a fellow artist, beloved by all who knew him, and honoured in this exquisite work of art.

*The four black and White photographs are from Edith Somerville: A Biography, by Gifford Lewis. I could find no copyright information on them so am assuming they are available for use, with gratitude to the author and publisher, Four Courts Press

The Melodeon

A personal perspective – by Robert – to celebrate St Cecilia, the Patron Saint of music, on her day: 22nd November

Girl with Melodeon

…My father played the melodeon
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs his melodeon called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.

Outside the cow‑house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable‑lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

A water‑hen screeched in the bog,
Mass‑going feet
Crunched the wafer‑ice on the pot‑holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.

My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.

Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — The Three Wise Kings.

An old man passing said:
“Can’t he make it talk” —
The melodeon. I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box‑pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door’post
With my penknife’s big blade—
There was a little one for cutting tobacco,
And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodeon,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.

from A Childhood Christmas by Patrick Kavanagh 1943; the photo of the girl is from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s
Traditional musicians playing ‘squeeze boxes’ – top: Fred Pearce from Norfolk and Johnny Connolly from Connemara, both playing ‘The Melodeon’ – a single row instrument, while below: Jackie Daly from the Sliabh Luachra area (Cork / Kerry borders) and Joe Burke from Galway play the Irish Button Accordion

I have been playing the melodeon for well over 50 years: I should be a lot better at it than I am… My father didn’t play it: I didn’t even know that melodeons existed until I saw a secondhand one on sale in my local music shop when I was a teenager. I was fascinated by the look of it – it beckoned me; it was ten pounds, and in those days I earned seven shillings and sixpence a week from my paper round. Eventually I had saved enough to buy it, took it home and scratched my head over it.

Spot the difference: Robert then (playing a one-row melodeon) and now (playing a two-row button accordion – photo by Peter Clarke)

There’s a logic to playing a melodeon, but it’s not an immediately obvious one. Perhaps I’d better explain that a melodeon is one sort of accordion, and the definition varies depending what country you are in. I was in England then, and the term ‘melodeon’ there covers pretty well everything that has a button keyboard, bellows, and produces different notes when you move the bellows in or out; it doesn’t refer to a ‘piano accordion’ where the keyboard has – well – piano keys, and the movement of the bellows in either direction doesn’t make any difference to the notes.

Dermot Byrne and Steve Cooney

Expert Irish button accordionist Dermot Byrne, accompanied by Steve Cooney at a recent Baltimore Fiddle Fair event here in West Cork: Dermot is playing a rarely seen Briggs diatonic instrument

Now I am in Ireland and the term ‘melodeon’ only refers to an instrument with a single row of buttons on the keyboard; anything with more than one row is known as a ‘diatonic button accordion’, and you will probably most often come across the latter when listening to traditional music here, although nothing is ever simple, and there are a number of Irish players (including many really good ones) who play instruments with a single row of buttons.

Sharon Shannon

Sharon Shannon from Corofin, Co Clare has taken Irish button accordion playing to a different level: her concerts often include magical lighting effects and state-of-the-art electronic accompaniments

By chance, that first instrument that I saved up for had only one row, so it would be a ‘melodeon’ in both England and Ireland. I now tend to play mainly instruments with two rows, and I can’t stop calling them ‘melodeons’ even though that’s incongruous to players here.

Kerryman Seamus Begley – noted Irish accordion player and entertainer; in the right hand picture he is joined by concertina maestro Noel Hill at last year’s Corofin Festival, Co Clare

In an earlier post – The Clare Trumpet – I talked about concertinas, and the invention of those instruments by Charles Wheatstone in England, getting on for two hundred years ago. He took out a patent in 1829. In the same year Cyrill Demian – an Armenian organ and piano maker – filed a patent in Vienna for an ‘accordion’ which was exactly the same as today’s melodeon:

…In a box 7 to 9 inches long, 3½ inches wide and 2 inches high, feathers of metal plates are fixed… with bellows… even an amateur of music can play the loveliest and most moving chords of 3, 4 and 5 voices with very little practice… Each claves or key of this instrument allows two different chords to be heard, as many keys are fixed to it, double as many chords can be heard, pulling the bellows a key gives one chord, while pushing the bellows gives the same key a second chord…  many well known arias, melodies and marches, etc. may be performed similar to the harmony of 3, 4 and 5 voices, with satisfaction of all anticipations of delicacy and vastly amazing comfort in increasing and decreasing sound volume… it is easy and comfortable to carry and should be a welcome invention for travellers and parties visiting individuals of both sexes, especially as it can be played without the help of anybody…

martin connolly

Excellent accordion maker and mechanic Martin Connolly of Ennis tests out Robert’s Oakwood 

That’s true: the ‘squeeze box’ is one of those instruments which you have to learn to play just by doing it. Of course, you can get books of instructions – and you can get experienced players to help you get started – but in the end it comes down to instinct – and a lot of practice, preferably out of earshot of anyone else. You can pick up the diatonic system inexpensively by picking out tunes on a mouth-organ – which is a melodeon without the buttons or bellows!

Concertinas / melodeons / button and piano accordions are different instruments but all share certain characteristics including the means of producing a note through a vibrating ‘free reed’ – a small metal leaf held at one end in a frame. A bellows pushes or pulls air through the frame and the reed vibrates, producing a musical note. The size and weight of the frame and leaf governs the pitch of the note. The quality of metal used for the vibrating reed – its density, flexibility  and tempering – determines the overall sound quality of the instrument. The best instruments use hand made reeds.

Outside Rosies

Squeeze boxes in evidence in this recital from young members of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann outside Rosie’s, Ballydehob, during the Trad Festival

Enough of the technicalities! What matters is the music that can be got out of an instrument. I like the push-pull (bisonoric) squeeze boxes because you have to move the bellows so much to get the changing notes. This adds dynamics to the music: movement and rhythm. As so much of traditional music is used for dancing, this is a definite advantage – there is already ‘dancing’ in the music itself.

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There are so many really good traditional music players in Ireland: you will know that because of our reports on the festivals we go to. Who are the best players today of melodeons and diatonic accordions? You have to decide that yourself by going out and listening to as many as you can. Or, second best, you can stay at home and use the internet – Youtube is a seemingly endless resource. There’s also The Session, which is a very good site for finding tunes and discussions on music and musicians. I also recommend ITMA – the Irish Traditional Music Archive – an invaluable free resource of information including thousands of sound recordings, videos, images and manuscript collections all related to the music tradition here in Ireland.

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If you’re twisting my arm as to who are my melodeon ‘heroes’, I’ll reel off a list of players I would (and do) go out of my way to listen to: Johnny Connolly, Bobby Gardiner, Jackie Daly, Joe Burke, Seamus Begley, Dermot Byrne, Sharon Shannon… However, I seldom have to go far because they all seem to come, sooner or later (and often frequently) to our little corner of the world here in West Cork.

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Hail Cecilia!