Fr Kevin Hegarty
One day, some years ago, when I was teaching in secondary school, I was trying to illuminate the meaning of Patrick Kavanagh’s poem, ‘To the Man after the Harrow’, for a class of third year students. The poem depicts a farrier harrowing the fields in April in preparation for the setting of crops. Kavanagh’s central insight is that the man is participating in God’s creation. He is driving his horses, ‘through the mist where Genesis begins’.
One student found it difficult to grasp the meaning of the poem. All of my explanations were unhelpful to her until I remembered that I had seen a beautiful cabinet made by her father who was a carpenter. I brought this to her attention and light dawned. She could see that all of us through productive use of our talents can contribute to the wonder of creation.
Artists and writers do so in a heightened way. Currently I am reading a book, ‘Art and the Beauty of God’, by Richard Harries, an Anglican theologian. He sums up his theme in the following paragraph: “Human beings, made in the image of God, share in the divine creativity. We also have the capacity for creative, beautiful ordering. In particular, artists of every kind share in the work of the divine artist by giving form to recalcitrant matter. They make music of inchoate sounds and speech of incoherent babble. They give shape to the shapeless and in so doing reflect the work of eternal wisdom.”
After I read the above I opened a copy of the new ‘Cathair na Mart’ journal. There I found an article on the Mayo artist, Richard King, by Ruth Sheehy of the Department of Art in UCD. In his work he exemplified the validity of Harries’ criterion.
I would like to compliment Aidan Clarke, the editor, and his committee on a fine publication. Along with Sheehy’s article there are interesting items on Holy Trinity Church in Westport, Straide Friary and Westport’s postal history. The Westport Historical Society deserves the thanks of all those interested in Mayo history for their consistent achievement in publishing a journal of high quality.
Richard King was born in Castlebar in 1907. His father was a sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary. There was an artistic streak in the family. His uncle, Brian King, was a sculptor. Richard attended the De La Salle College in Castlebar before his family moved to Westport in 1922, where he completed his education with the Christian Brothers.
When the family located to Dublin in 1926 he became a student at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, planning to study architecture. Austin Molloy, a tutor at the college, felt his artistic talent lay in a different direction.
He introduced him to Harry Clarke, the most significant Irish stained glass artist of the 20th century. King joined Clarke’s studio. On Clarke’s death in 1931, he became its chief designer, and later manager. In 1940 he set up his own studio in Dalkey.
Examples of King’s stained glass are mainly to be found in Ireland, though he also features in the UK, Australia and the US. In her article, Ruth Sheehy concentrates on his work in St Patrick’s Church, Newport, and in the Church of Our Lady, Help of Christians in Swinford.
King’s artistic achievements were not confined to the genre of stained glass. He was versatile. In the early years of the new Irish state our postage stamps were noteworthy for the quality of their design. Between 1933 and 1949, King provided designs for 12 stamps, including a hurling one in 1934 to mark the Golden Jubilee of the GAA. He was the leading illustrator for the Capuchin Annual. He exhibited paintings in Dublin and Cork.
He is, however, best known for his interest in liturgical art. The theologian, Paul Tillich, once wrote that it ‘is the task of the Church architects to create places of consecration where people feel able to contemplate the holy in the midst of their secular life’. As an architect of stained glass and a creator of church paintings, King implicitly devoted himself to this aim.
King’s paintings of the Stations of the Cross in Swinford are a striking impression of his artistic talent. Here he was especially influenced by the Spanish artist, El Greco, and the French artist, Georges Rouault, both noted for their dramatic representations of Jesus Christ. The stations concentrate intensely on Christ’s physical and psychological sufferings as he endured his passion. They give a close-up view, vigorously expressed by the use of strong contrasting colours such as reds, blues, yellows and whites.
RTÉ showed last Tuesday the first part of a documentary on Patrick Collins, the distinguished Sligo-born artist. He also produced a Stations of the Cross, remarking that ‘God is in my hand’. King had none of the bravura of Collins. He was a shy man. It can, however, be said of him also that God was in his hand.