Mayo’s Harry Clarke treasures

Second Reading

Mayo lucky to have churches displaying the brilliance of Harry Clarke

Fr Kevin Hegarty

IN the 1960’s a new church was built at Shanahee on the Mullet Peninsula in County Mayo. An elderly lady and a native of the community who had emigrated to the United States and done well, contributed generously to the building fund. When the church was completed a small debt remained. Hearing of it she offered to clear it if the curate, Fr Michael Lavin, would place a statue of St Jude in the Church. He agreed but was slow in providing the statue.
It was not high on his list of priorities. If the truth be told, he reckoned that, given her age, she was unlikely to return to Ireland to visit the church. He was surprised one day to receive a letter informing him of her imminent arrival. Straight away he got onto a supplier of ecclesiastical merchandise in Dublin. Memorably, he asked him had he in stock ‘a statue of St Jude or the nearest thing to him’. If he had he was to put him on the next train to Ballina. Whether the statue that arrived is of St Jude I do not know. What is over the confessional in Shanahee Church is a forbidding, bearded figure, wielding a club, which purports to be him.
After Irish Catholicism emerged from the somewhat catacomb existence of the penal days, the nineteenth and twentieth century saw a massive resurgence of church building. There was however a distinct lack of aesthetic vision in their decoration. Rather than employ Irish artists clergy usually resorted to the purchase of tawdry foreign statues and second rate stained glass. Pious devotionalism was fervently encouraged. Edward Martyn, a wealthy Galway landlord, committed Catholic and writer, was disturbed at what he saw happening. He wrote that: “As far as artistic excellence is concerned, the money laid out on those Churches, has in the great majority of cases, been lamentably squandered.”
He was particularly aghast at the quality of stained glass. “Never,” he wrote angrily, “in over a thousand years, has that art fallen so low as just at the present time.” He played a central role in developing an Irish school of stained glass which soon won critical plaudits. The most significant figure to emerge from this school was Harry Clarke.

In a short life tragically terminated by tuberculosis he made an immense contribution. The art critic of “The Irish Times”, Aidan Dunne, has described him as ‘probably the best Irish stained glass artist ever’. Clarke is in the headlines once again. Last week, Fonsie Meally, the fine art auctioneers, announced that a small collection of stained glass works from Harry Clarke’s studios, which closed in 1973, are to be auctioned on July 21. The windows were made for Churches in Ireland, Wales and New Zealand, but never installed. The distinguished art critic Joihn Ruskin believed that: “the true perfection of a painted window is to be serene, intense, brilliant, like flaming jewellery, full of easily tangible and quaint subjects and exquisitely subtle yet simple in its harmonies.”
Clarke’s work fulfills this criteria. He was influenced by Celtic and Japanese art, European symbolism and the arts and crafts and art deco movements. The figures in his stained glass masterpieces are elegant and mysterious and are sumptuously dressed. They are surrounded by rich and vibrant colours. The windows are further embellished by intriguing little details which ‘range from the bizarre and macabre to the exquisite and the evocative’.
We are lucky to have a significant body of his work in Mayo in the Catholic churches of Ballinrobe, Roundfort, Kilmaine and Newport. These are well worth a visit.