From the sublime to the spectacular

Second Reading

JEWEL-LIKE EFFECT ‘St Finbarr is dressed in a chasuble of rich red colour, which shows brilliantly through the northern light’

Stunning Cork chapel reopens after restoration

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

The magnificent Honan Chapel in Cork has reopened recently for public worship. It had been closed for extensive renovation at a cost of €1.2 million. Situated in the grounds of University College Cork, it was completed in 1916 to provide a place of worship for Catholic students. It is richly decorated and furnished by Irish artists and craftsmen of the time.
The Honan Chapel was built when the great resurgence in the construction of Irish Catholic churches was coming to an end. The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 gave a tremendous psychological boost to the Irish Catholic community as it emerged from the some what catacomb existence of the ‘Penal Laws’.
In the century that followed, 24 cathedrals and over 3,000 churches were built. Many of these buildings have been criticised for their use of imported ideas and materials and cheap Italian statuary. Edward Martyn, a significant figure in the Irish literary renaissance and a devout Catholic stated that though he had the ‘greatest veneration for the clergy of Ireland’ he could not say that they were ‘gifted with aesthetic taste’.
No such criticism could be be levelled at those involved in the construction and adornment of the Honan Chapel.
A Dublin solicitor, John O’Connell, who had a deep interest in art and architecture, masterminded the chapel’s development. The project was funded by Isabella Honan, a member of a wealthy Cork merchant family who left the university a substantial bequest in her will.
O’Connell planned for ‘a noble and dignified building’. He believed that the chapel ‘must call into life again the spirit and work of an age when Irishmen built churches and nobly adorned them under an impulse of native genius’.
He looked to the past for ideas. He was inspired by medieval Irish architecture. The style of the Honan Chapel is Hiberno-Romanesque. Its facade resembles the old St Cronan’s Church in Roscrea, while its bell tower is based on the 12th century Teampaill Finghin in Clonmacnoise.
Some architecture critics have deemed the building to be dull. That cannot be said of its exquisite interior. One of its most dramatic features is the mosaic floor representing the river of life. Paul Larmour, the historian of the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement called it the most spectacular thing of its type in Ireland.
The chapel was built at a time when that movement was flourishing in Ireland. Its practitioners have left their imprint on its decoration. The tabernacle has superb enamels by Oswald P Reeves. The Dun Emer guild in Dublin designed and embroidered the altar cloths and vestments. The statue of St Finbarr, after which the chapel is named, is by Oliver shepherd. Its 19 stained-glass windows were created, respectively, by An Túr Gloine and Harry Clarke. They depict several saints from early Irish Christianity and also ‘Christian Majesty’, ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’ and ‘St Joseph’.
Choosing a favourite item from many splendid things is difficult, but the highlight of the chapel for me are the eleven Harry Clarke windows.
They mark his emergence as the leading Irish stained-glass artist of the 20th Century. The art critic Thomas Bodrin wrote of them: “The windows which Mr Harry Clarke has designed and executed for the collegiate chapel of the Honan Hostel in Cork are very notable achievement. Nothing like them has been produced before in Ireland.
“The sustained magnificence of colour, the beautiful and most intricate drawings, the lavish and mysterious symbolism combine to produce an effect of splendour which is overpowering.”
Each of Clarke’s Honan Chapel windows portray a full-length figure surrounded by a wealth of symbolic and iconographic detail. Sts Brigid, Patrick and Colmcille are arranged in dramatic blues and greens. St Finbarr is dressed in a chasuble of rich red colour, which shows brilliantly through the northern light; St Brendan stands proudly surrounded by birds recalling a legend associated with him. St Declan is robed in dramatic yellow. For St Gobnait, the patron saint of bees from Ballyvourney in Cork, Clarke used the image of a honeycomb as a decorative device.
When it opened in 1916 the Hanan Chapel, refurbished a source of pride in our past and was a beckon of hope for our future. It continues to inspire us.