Colourful legacy of stained-glass master


Distinctive, jewel-like stained-glass windows are the stunning legacy of artist Harry Clarke, and while the pieces made by his studio after his death may not be as inspiring, a tour of his work in Co Offaly leaves ROSITA BOLANDspellbound

FOR A MAN who died at the cruelly early age of 43, the stained-glass artist Harry Clarke left a stunning legacy of work behind him. It’s not only the number of windows he designed and made, it’s their distinctive jewel-like appearance, dazzling use of colour, and near-shocking reintrepratations of religious subjects that make his work so distinctive and outstanding. Clarke did not design windows exclusively for churches, but it is in churches that most of his windows can be seen today by the public.

This week is Heritage Week, and last Saturday, Offaly’s heritage officer Amanda Pedlow led an inspired free bus tour of Clarke windows throughout the county. Her aim – a form of cultural tourism – was to highlight sites not widely known outside Offaly and to provide a context to the windows on view.

The first and most confusing fact to be aware of, Pedlow explains as we leave Tullamore, is that Clarke did not personally create most of the windows.

Less than a year before his death in 1931, Clarke established the Harry Clarke Studio, which continued to produce work until 1973. Part of the reason for this tour is to make people aware of the difference between the windows Clarke created, and those made by the studio that bore his name for decades after his death.

First stop of the day is at Mount St Joseph Abbey Roscrea, a Cistercian monastery and boys’ boarding school. (Appropriately, given the latitude for confusion with the Harry Clarke name, the school is usually referred to as Roscrea College and its address is Co Tipperary.)

Mount St Joseph was founded in 1878, with the school following in 1905. At one time, there were more than 150 monks there; now there are 19. Dom Laurence Walsh, who entered the abbey more than six decades ago when he was 17, is one of them. He is the author of Lumen Christi, a book about the windows at Mount St Joseph, and he shows us around.

The least-seen windows at this location are those in the old infirmary oratory, upstairs in a vast building where only the ground floor is now in use. Today the space is empty, except for an incongruous 1970s carpet and a trio of windows. Whether there is a trio of separate windows, or a pair together, they are known as one “light”.

The oratory was intended for those monks who were too ill to attend services in the large church on the grounds. Monks who were dying could lie in the infirmary and look through another window out at the trio of Clarke windows.

“To understand their real meaning, you have to live in the prayer life,” Walsh says, explaining that for monks such as himself who see stained glass windows in at least one location every day, they became a hugely important part of a meditative consciousness.

These infirmary windows date from 1931, and were made by the Harry Clarke Studio. Since they were made only months after his death, they all have that dazzling, intricate quality, with richly detailed borders, deep colours and startling impact.

The easiest way of finding out more about the windows is to find out when they were produced. Clarke windows fall into four categories: those he made before he died in 1931; those he had designed that were made by others later; those based on his ideas; and some, such as the much later work, that was done in “the style of” Clarke.

He designed and made about 160 windows before his death. His windows at Bewley’s on Grafton Street in Dublin that are familiar to many, for example, date from 1927.

Then there are the Harry Clarke Studio windows, made and installed after his death, which number about 1,000.

Thus the nearer to 1931 the Studio windows were produced, the more closely they resemble his own work.

In Mount St Joseph’s college chapel, there is a trio of windows from 1941. It’s difficult to define what’s so different about Clarke windows from a decade or so previously, but the best way is to describe them as diluted. They are less dense, less detailed, less powerful and less beautiful.

The final window we see at the abbey dates from 1961, and is in the monks’ large church, which is big enough to service a small town. The window depicts St Patrick with Pascal fires on the Hill of Slane. It’s clearly evident how the imprint and influence of Clarke’s work has been greatly reduced over the years. The window reflects the prudent, traditional methods of another maker. It looks worthy, rather than thrilling, and the style has all but vanished. “The whole style has changed,” says Walsh.

BACK ON THE TOUR, we stop at Pollagh Church near Ferbane, where in addition to Harry Clarke Studio windows, there is a glorious and unusual set of the stations, done in glass mosaic tiles, and edged with gold. The church is right beside the Grand Canal.

Stephen McNeill, of the Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society, explains that “because they’re glass, you can have them in a damp church and they won’t lose their colour”.

It’s only when the bus reaches the small, unusual St Manchan’s church at Boher, Ballycumber, that we see the distinctive pre-1931 Clarke windows, for the first time that day.

“It’s all about context,” Pedlow says. The windows here were commissioned in 1930 for £320, for a very specific reason. The reason is located in the south transept: the magnificent 1130 reliquary shrine of St Manchan, after whom the church is named.

Shaped like a wooden tent and believed to contain some of the saint’s bones, it is decorated with intricate bronze work, gilt and enamel; a style of decoration close to the Cross of Cong, and an artefact the National Museum must surely covet.

Among the windows for three transepts that Clarke designed here is the one that is directly behind the shrine, which depicts St Manchan. It also includes a life-sized image of the shrine, aglow with gold and bronze. When you view the actual object first and then its likeness in jewelled stained glass behind, the genius of Clarke’s commissioned work is profoundly evident. It was made for this place, to complement the shrine, and its south-facing aspect means both the window and the gilt-bronze shrine glow a luminous amber for hours.

The final stop of the day is at the Church of the Assumption in Tullamore. The church was rebuilt after a fire in 1983 and the Harry Clarke Studio windows here were salvaged from Rathfarnham Castle. The Jesuits donated them on their departure.

So the windows had to fit in wherever they could. Rather than being a showcase, the scattered windows appear diminished and lost in the vast space, even though they were originally designed to be church windows, as they are here.

Some of the pairs of lights, such as those of Saints Peter and Paul, and Saints Patrick and Beginus, have been split up, so they no longer have the same impact or symmetry they had originally. And you would have to know the small, unflagged panels in the day chapel were there, and to see them you would most likely have to ask the verger to put on the electric light in the vestibule behind the panels so you could view them in their dim corner.

All of the locations visited on the Heritage Week tour are freely open to the public, with the exception of Mount St Joseph, where the monks will do their best to accommodate those who contact them well in advance of a proposed visit.

A Harry Clarke window always repays a visit, but the church at St Manchan’s in Ballycumber is very special, combining two extraordinary Irish cultural treasures in one location. Anyone interested in Clarke should see it.

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