THE CLARKE WINDOWS IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN KILCULLEN
by Sean Landers
The poet, W.B. Yeats, might well be described as an opinionated man who quite freely expressed his opinions on a wide variety of topics. His views on Art could hardly be dismissed. After all his father, John, was a portrait painter of eminence and his brother, Jack, was a very influential modern Irish artist but when he remarked that Joshua Clarke had produced work of poor quality, his son, Harry, who was to overshadow his father and become of the most creative stained-glass artists that Ireland has ever produced, sprang to his father’s defence. In a letter to Yeats, who was at this time a senator, he wrote “When he started the studios here thirty eight years ago, he did so with an assistant named Bradshaw. After about two years he realised that their efforts were only as good as the one only competitor there was in Dublin, he brought a draughtsman and stained-glass worker, named Pope, from England. Pope was in his time one of the finest draughtsmen in these countries and worked with my father until about twenty years ago when his position was filled by William Nagle who was a contemporary with Osbourne, RHA.” This prejudice against Joshua Clarke was to continue long after his death. In “Images of Ireland”published in 1991, Terence Sheehy writes that Clarke Senior “produced indifferent Victorian windows of piety for parish priests with little or no taste, who remained conservative in their choice of glass work.” These remarks seem to be somewhat harsh.
Joshua was born in Leeds but came to Ireland following the collapse of the family printing business. He was employed by a firm of “ecclesiastical suppliers” but in 1886 he moved into 33 North Frederick Street in Dublin in 1886- which also served as the family home- where he set himself up as a church decorator. He married Bridget MacGonigal, converted to Catholicism and had two sons and two daughters. After a few years he expanded his business to include the design and manufacture of stained-glass windows which was very quickly to become his main source of income. Following Catholic Emancipation new churches were built throughout the country but most of the stained glass used to decorate these buildings was imported from either England or Germany. Very little of the work was either designed or made in this country. In 1901, “An Túr Gloine “was established in Dublin to remedy this defect.
The stained- glass windows behind the high altar in the Catholic Church in Kilcullen are the work of the studio owned and managed by Joshua Clarke
An invoice of the Kilcullen commission has survived and is dated April 15th 1902 and is addressed to Very Revd. Canon Langan, P.P. Kilcullen.
It refers to a previous order of April 11th 1902 and reads “To making, supplying and fixing two stained glass windows subjects Immaculate Conception and the Sacred Heart as per est. September 25th 1901. ” The cost is £ 40.
The second part reads: “To making, supplying and fixing two stained glass windows Subjects: Holy Family and Crucifixion as per letter Oct. 12th 1901.” The cost is £ 72 less 5% for cash on completion.
There was a further 2 1/2% on the £40. It is not clear why the second pair of windows was much more expensive than the first pair.
I have failed to find any newspaper references to the windows and when they were installed. The earliest record I can find is a photograph of the interior which forms part of the Lawrence Collection. As a result of a long exposure to have enough light to be able to photograph the dark interior, the windows appear as blobs of light which on first glance would suggest that the stained glass had not been installed at this stage but a copy of this photograph on the National Library website shows that this is not the case. The next problem is to date the picture. The only clue is the painting of angels at the back of the altar which is signed by the artist, E. Buccine and dated 1900.
The identity of the donor who paid for these windows is also unknown. There are inscriptions on the base of each window. Facing the altar and reading from left to right they are as follows:
Of your charity pray for the repose of the soul of Peter Fitzgerald,
Of your charity pray for the repose of the soul of Honoria Fitzgerald,
Of your charity pray for the repose of the soul of Peter Purcell of Halverstown,
Of your charity pray for the repose of the souls of Valentine Purcell & of John Purcell,
Pray for Monica Purcell and her family
Peter Purcell (1788–1846) of Halvestown House was a founding member of the Royal Agricultural Society of Ireland established in 1841. He farmed at Halverstown where he had a large residence and Thackeray who visited him in 1843 was impressed by his innovative agricultural methods. He was a rarity for his time. He owned a large estate and he was a Catholic. He also ran a very successful stage coach company and was chairman of the Dublin and Cashel Railway Company. There is a monument by John Hogan to his memory in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. Monica Purcell (nee O’ Connor) was his wife. She died March 15th 1879 aged 75 years. They had two sons. Peter Valentine Purcell died July 2nd 1864 aged 33 years and John Purcell died August 22nd 1857 aged 21 years. Peter FitzGerald (1807–75), who had previously served in the British army, married Honoria O’Connor (1807–66), younger sister of Monica Purcell, and joined his Purcell relatives in Co. Kildare and was converted to Roman Catholicism by his wife. He had farmed at Ballysax but may have taken over farming Halverstown after Peter Purcell’s death.
It would be reasonably certain to say that the donor was a member of the Purcell family but beyond that I have no idea. The church was designed by J.J. Mc Carthy and built in the Gothic Revival style and consecrated in September 1872. The double lancet windows are topped by circular panels surrounded by smaller panels decorated with geometric designs. The top, middle section and lower part of each window is similarly decorated with floral devices. This is very reminiscent of medieval illuminated manuscripts and the overall effect is to create stained glass which might have been produced in the Middle Ages.
The subjects may be identified as follows from the observer’s left.
Window No. 1
Circular panel: The Virgin Mary
Left panels : The Visit of the Magi and the Nativity.
Right panels: The Coronation of the Virgin Mary and the Finding of Jesus in the Temple.
The circular panel: The Sacred Heart.
Left panels: The Scourging at the Pillar and the Agony in the Garden.
Right panels: Jesus before Pilate and the Crowning with Thorns.
Window No. 3
Circular panel: Christ the King.
Left panels: The Crucifixion and Jesus carrying the Cross.
Right panels: The Ascension and the Resurrection.
Window No. 4.
Circular panel: St Joseph.
Left panels: The Flight into Egypt and the Betrothal of Mary and Joseph.
Right panels: Jesus in the Carpenter’s Shop and Jesus indicating the Temple as his Father’s home.
The windows are very much undervalued and hardly appreciated by those who frequent the church. They form an important part of Kilcullen’s heritage of religious art. At a later stage I hope it will be possible to have similar accounts written on the stained glass windows in the other churches in the Kilcullen area. I wish to acknowledge the assistance of Charlie Talbot who read the inscriptions on the windows for me and identified the subjects of the panels.
There are three other stained glass windows in the church, two of them being of particular historical interest, and it is intended to give an account of them in the February edition of The Bridge.