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A glimpse of the Magi
Shining a light on Harry Clarke
by Fianna Griffin

On January 6th - the feast of the Epiphany - we celebrate the arrival of the three wise kings from the East bearing precious gifts, at the stable in Bethlehem. It is also the anniversary of the day the Irish stained glass artist and book illustrator Harry Clarke was tragically defeated by TB as he attempted to leave Switzerland.

Diagnosed with the disease early in 1929, Clarke sought a cure in the cold mountain air of Davos. At first he was optimistic, writing enlivening letters home to his children with whimsical drawings; but as time went on the tone of his letters reflected his declining hopes of recovery. He returned home to Dublin for a few months in 1930, partly to complete a work, known as the Geneva Window, commissioned by the Free State government for the International Labour Office at Geneva.

In September, before returning reluctantly to a bleak future in Davos, Clarke showed WT Cosgrave, president of the executive council, this mildly erotic, spell-binding window, depicting illustrations from 20th-century Irish literature. Troubled by the inclusion in the window of works by the iconoclasts James Joyce and Liam O’Flaherty, Cosgrave afterwards wrote to Clarke requesting changes, which were impossible under the circumstances; then communication ceased. In November Clarke wrote to his wife Margaret: “These blighters are so full of butter and dinners that they may have forgotten a work of art for which they owe £450 . . . meanwhile we are stuck”. By Christmas, he had reached his lowest ebb. In his final letter of December 29th, he said he would come home, or go to the south of England, where life would be more tolerable and less expensive. The same day, he wired Alan Duncan, a friend in Paris, to come and collect him.

On January 6th, 1931, Clarke and Duncan embarked, like the magi, on a journey west, travelling by train through the cold and snow. However, not long into the journey, Clarke could not go on and died hours later at the nearby sanatorium of Arosa. After a tiny funeral he was buried in the graveyard of the Catholic Cathedral of Chur. A decent headstone marked his grave, and the inscription informed the world that he was an artist.

We Irish, with our low density of population and much grassy land, take it for granted that a grave is our last address. However, much of continental Europe sees it differently; someone has to pay for your place in the earth, a sort of local property tax. If they don’t, you are evicted and your spot rented by someone else. Unbeknownst to Margaret, Clarke’s headstone was removed and his remains were relocated to an unmarked communal plot 15 years after his death – the length of time for which she, unwittingly, had leased his grave. By the 1970s, when Clarke’s son came looking for the grave, it had already housed two subsequent occupants and all trace of Clarke had disappeared.

Clarke’s fame faded rapidly after his death. Although the government did pay for the Geneva Window, which Clarke had hoped would win him international recognition, they locked it away in government buildings. Margaret eventually bought it back and kept it in the Harry Clarke studios. In 1963, Clarke’s last, unrivalled masterpiece was installed in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Parnell Square, where it enthralled visitors for 18 years. Unfortunately, it was only on loan from Clarke’s sons, who sold it to a museum in Miami in 1988, and it seems certain to stay there.

The real memorial to a visual artist is their work on display. However, unlike other works of art, the vast majority of stained glass windows are in churches, most with limited access, some no longer in use, others open only for a few hours a week. Perhaps the time has come to plan for a museum of Irish stained glass to safeguard the wealth of wonderful art at which the Irish have particularly excelled. In the meantime, examples of Clarke’s work that are currently accessible to the public include the exquisite Eve of St Agnes in the Hugh Lane gallery, the windows in Bewley’s in the room called after him, and 11 windows in the Honan Hostel Chapel, Cork University.

As we celebrate the Epiphany and along with it Clarke’s anniversary, let us be grateful that one of his finest windows, the three-light Nativity and Adoration of the Magi in St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland church, Castletownshend, Co Cork, can be visited all day, every day. The church is kept open to facilitate all those who come to admire this majestic tour-de-force, carried out in 1918 by Clarke when still a young man near the start of a career that brought us such precious gifts.

ED. NOTE: This article is reprinted here with the kind permission of Fiana Griffin who writes The Irish Woman's Diary for the Irish Times. The article originally appeared the January 6, 2014 issue. Please click Harry Clarke

BRIEF AUTHOR BIO: Fiana gives two-week intensive Irish Culture courses to non-native speakers of English, mainly teachers, at The Linguaviva Centre, Dublin, and teaches modules on Irish culture at All Hallows College, Dublin, on an Adult Learners B.A. (ALBA). She has published two books, Why Do the Irish, and Extracts from Irish Literature, and a number of articles of Irish interest in Ireland of the Welcomes and elsewhere. She is currently working with colleagues on plans for Irish culture courses specifically aimed at the American market.

Main Image: Detail from Harry Clarke’s Nativity and Adoration of the Magi in St Barrahane’s church, Castletownshend, Co Cork/Irish Times article

Photo of Harry Clarke & Related Story: Díseart Centre of Irish Spirituality & Culture

Geneva window: Harry Clarke web site

Headstone: Irish Times article


Thu, Jul 9, 2015
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The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats

No matter who does the collecting, the works stand on their own but this is an excellent compilation and well worth adding to your library.

1000 Years of Irish Poetry: The Gaelic and Anglo Irish Poets from Pagan Times to the Present
by Kathleen Hoagland

Interested in Irish Poetry?Here's the easy way to collect them all (well, almost all, anyway).
Malachy McCourt says in his introduction, "With the republication of this book, the Irish recover under their roof of stars all the great poets and writers who have been falsely claimed by the saxon crown and its minions - even our reprobates."
Amazon states this is out of stock. They still have used copies for almost nothing (except shipping - chuckle). If you would like a new edition, it was available at Powell's. We can't promise it's still there. Click here for Powell's 1000 Years.
Click here for used at Amazon.


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