Pane management — Frank McNally on the sad story of a Harry Clarke masterwork

Clarke’s magnificent work was caught up in the repressed politics of the fledgling Free State

One day last week, Colm Mulcahy – a man I know mainly through Twitter/X – posted a picture of Harry Clarke’s stained-glass masterpiece The Geneva Window (1929) and tagged me with the question: “For the day that’s in it, is that Philo in the bottom-right panel?”

The day that was in it was January 4th, the 37th anniversary of Phil Lynott’s death. Twelve months earlier, I had written here about the 36th and final “Vibe for Philo”, an annual commemorative concert that ran for the same duration as its subject’s life. Which must be why Colm sought my opinion on this matter.

And yes, the male figure in panel eight of Clarke’s great window does indeed bear a striking resemblance to a young Lynott, wearing a glam-rock outfit typical of the early 1970s.

But if its creator foresaw the coming of an Irish rock messiah decades before it happened, he erred by giving him a spade rather than a bass guitar (on the plus side, he does appear to be playing the spade).


Anyway, joking aside, Colm elsewhere quoted Thomas Bodkin’s verdict on the Geneva Window as a whole: “The loveliest thing ever made by an Irishman.”

Alas, that was not a universal opinion in the Ireland from which the work emerged. The Free State government, which commissioned it for the Irish office of the International Labour Office in Geneva, soon got cold feet about some of Clarke’s images.

And that is why, confusingly, the Geneva Window is today located in Florida, a sad subject to which we’ll return.

In the meantime, I still didn’t know much about that story until Sunday last when, by a pure coincidence, I was showing a friend recently arrived in Ireland around the National Gallery.

There, we chanced into the stained-glass section, where Clarke is also prominent, thanks to another of his great windows, The Mother of Sorrows (1926).

And while giving my friend a bit of background on the artist, I heard myself pronounce with apparent authority that a work of Clarke’s now located in Florida had been called “the loveliest thing ever made by an Irishman”.

Unfortunately, my authority on that subject – courtesy of the University of Twitter/X – ran out quickly.

At which point, I started searching for and iPhone picture of The Geneva Window and for the story of how it had ended up in Florida. That’s when a charming young woman who had both readily at hand intervened to enlighten me.

She turned out to be Catherine Crichton. And as I now know, her expertise on the subject was hard earned, because she has just written a book about it.

An imaginative account of the window’s creation as seen by a young artist who joins Clarke’s studios in 1926 as one of his assistants, it is currently in search of a publisher.

In the meantime, Catherine confesses: “I have turned into a full-on Harry Clarke bore . . . and go around telling anyone who will listen about his beautiful, lost (to Ireland) masterpiece”.

But on the contrary, her account of this artistic tragedy was as fascinating as I’m sure her book is. And the epiphany she delivered was poignantly timed for another day that was in it, January 6th being the 93rd anniversary of Clarke’s premature death, from TB, in 1931.

His last years were overshadowed by the frustration of seeing his magnificent window caught up in the repressed politics of the fledgling Free State.

Unlike much of his output, this was not a religious work. It was instead a celebration of Irish literature, featuring 15 writers in eight glass panels.

But it included such people as James Joyce and Liam O’Flaherty, then embarrassments to official Ireland. And it featured images that bordered on the erotic, including extra-marital fondling and a vignette from O’Flaherty’s Mr Gilhooley in which a drunken protagonist enjoys the spectacle of a half-naked female dancer. The Phil Lynott lookalike, by contrast, was a gravedigger in a scene from Seumas O’Kelly’s The Weaver’s Grave, hence the spade.

But the window’s more risqué content had one senior civil servant fuming that Catholic Ireland would be represented abroad as a “bizarre, almost viciously evil people, steeped in sex and drunkenness and yes, sin”.

A nervous WT Cosgrave sought changes and Clarke was willing to compromise until his last illness and death intervened. The window was then rerouted from Geneva to the inner darkness of Government Buildings.

But Clarke’s widow soon bought it back. And Ireland’s neglect culminated in its 1988 sale by family members to a collector in Florida.

As Brian Fallon of this paper summed up, echoing Yeats, we had “disgraced ourselves again”.

Anyway, I thank Colm Mulcahy and Catherine Crichton for drawing my attention to the masterwork and its sorry saga.

But you wait ages for an insight into the Geneva Window, then three come along together. I also discovered in my researches that Oireachtas TV is now running trailers of a forthcoming documentary on the subject, featuring Ardal O’Hanlon. The Geneva Window: Through a Glass Darkly will screen in “Spring 2024″.