While revolution was in the air in Dublin in 1916, not far from the epicentre of the Rising at O’Connell St and the GPO, artist Harry Clarke was at work on what would become one of Ireland’s most celebrated series of artworks, his stained glass windows for the Honan Chapel at UCC.
Clarke was only 21 years old when he was commissioned to create the windows for the chapel, the construction of which was overseen by Dublin solicitor, John O'Connell, a leading member of the Celtic Revival and Arts and Crafts movements. A taste of what was to come from Clarke can be seen elsewhere in Cork, at the city’s Crawford Gallery, where three of his earliest stained glass panels are on display.
The Consecration of St Mel, Bishop of Longford, by St Patrick (1910), The Godhead Enthroned (1911), and The Meeting of St Brendan with the Unhappy Judas (1911) were made while Clarke was still a student at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and they were awarded a gold medal at the South Kensington National Competitions in 1911. According to the Crawford’s assistant curator, Michael Waldron, the panels are an instructive element in Clarke’s sadly short but illustrious career.
“They are essential to our understanding of his development as an artist because they date from 1910-11 when he is just finishing art school in Dublin. They show his skill and ability to innovate — his journey from there to Honan in only five or six years is incredible,” he says.
Clarke’s commission for the Honan comprised 11 windows, with fellow Irish artist Sarah Purser’s Túr an Gloine studio responsible for the remaining eight. It was a process that he undertook over three years at his studio on North Frederick St; the windows depict various Irish saints with particular focus on those from Munster.
One of the most striking and distinctive windows is that depicting scenes from the life of St Gobnait, the patron saint of bees and beekeeping, who is shown wearing richly-coloured robes and adorned with jewels. According to legend, she unleashed a swarm of bees on thieves (gadaí dubh) threatening to rob her church in Ballyvourney, Co Cork. Virginia Teehan, editor of The Honan Chapel: A Golden Vision (with Elizabeth Wincott Heckett) says the window is regarded as one of Clarke’s best works.
“The late Dr Nicola Gordon Bowe, who was a Clarke expert, was certain, as was I, that it was one of his finest works — we used to spend a lot of time looking at it,” says Teehan, CEO of the Heritage Council. “Clarke so expertly interprets the story of Gobnait in a very beautiful, colourful way. Everything in the window reflects the theme, including some of the detail of her robe, which has the effect of the translucent wings of the bee. Also, if you look closely, you will notice that some of the glass is cut in a honeycomb shape.”
Teehan says the window connects with people for many reasons, including Clarke’s informed treatment of the Gobnait legend, his exquisite eye for detail and his inspired deployment of colour.
“There is her own story and her connection with Baile Bhúirne and Cúil Aodha. Also the window itself is so beautiful and she is so majestic in the way she is depicted. Clarke’s treatment of Gobnait as a symbol of this female authority in the sixth century really stands out. In the top portion of the window, you see her elongated finger and she casts what is represented as a white marking but is perceived as this invisible spell she casts to cause plague, then you have the frightened men on the other side who are small, ugly and diminished and this very regal, powerful woman who is dispelling them from her presence.
"There is the strong contrast of the jewel colours, sapphire blue and that deep scarlet red, which is very attractive and really appealing in the light in the Honan,” says Teehan.
“I know I am not alone in loving the St Gobnait window, it really shows how Clarke is thinking,” adds Waldron. “He is not being so literal, he is bringing in symbolism and it is very stylised.” Clarke died of tuberculosis in Switzerland in 1931 as he attempted to return home to Ireland. At the time of his death, aged 41, he was working on the Geneva Window, an Irish government commission for the International Labour Commission in the Swiss city.
His work has come to be more appreciated in recent years, especially since 2016, the centenary celebration of the Honan Chapel, a building which is of significant architectural and artistic merit quite apart from Clarke’s work.
Clarke’s windows are entrancing, whether in the Honan, the Crawford or beyond, especially in the churches where they are a backdrop to daily worship and a solace to many.
“In the Crawford, visitors are really drawn to the stained glass, the illumination is magical. They often make a beeline for the top floor because Harry Clarke is there,” says Waldron. “I think people are just fascinated by how beautiful they are. Visitors will often say ‘oh, we have Harry Clarke windows in our parish’, whether that is Castletownshend or Dingle, as an acknowledgment that it is something very special for their community. It demonstrates how Clarke’s work is a really important part of the artistic landscape of communities right across the island.”