A Journey Through Glass:
Michael Cullen journeys across Ireland as part of his worldwide tour to capture Harry Clarke’s colourful creations, as told to Lucy Costigan
It’s a busy Sunday in Ballinrobe. I have just had a tasty lunch in a stylish restaurant in the centre of town. I think I’ve earned a pot of tea and a large slice of cheesecake. I can sit back now and wait for the thousands of images I photographed earlier to upload to the hard drive. Deep swirling blues and ruby reds, glittering angels and awestruck apostles are digitally transferred from the four memory cards I always use. This morning’s photo shoot of the Ascension window in the old church in Roundfort village was very productive. I never cease to marvel at the glorious, marvellous, extraordinary windows created by one of the greatest stained glass artists who ever lived – Harry Clarke (1889 to 1931).
This strange adventure began several months ago when I first got the crazy idea to photograph all of the stained glass windows of Harry Clarke. My aunt had been raving about his windows since I was a kid. I’d been brought to the Eve of Saint Agnes in the Hugh Lane on one of my visits to Dublin. I had to admit that all those shimmering blues and medieval figures, the golden-haired maidens and court jesters, all created on panels of glass, spoke of a creator of rare genius.
Many years later I am in the Hugh Lane once again, staring at that same window. I am now a sports photographer, snapping shots of tennis stars, snooker champions, soccer legends and hurling kings. But I am suddenly drawn to photograph the jewel-like windows of Harry Clarke that are located in churches, cathedrals, galleries and private homes – over 160 windows in total. There are also his panels, glorious fusions of colour and light, and a further two windows in Gilford, Co. Down that have recently been discovered. An unusual project beckons that will lead a merry dance all over Ireland, England, the United States and Australia.
So armed with a collection of cameras, lens, a tripod and laptop, I set off to take the Irish windows. At this stage I’ve already photographed all of the Leinster windows. Last Monday I embarked on the remaining Munster, Connaught and Ulster windows. Díseart, in Dingle, was the first stop. The twelve windows representing the life of Christ took five hours to photograph. I am still spellbound by the long tapering fingers that give a sense of great elegance to each character. And there’s all the detail that only comes into focus when I use a 300 2.8 millimetre lens, to bring every tiny swirl and exotic bird, every exquisite face and dainty shoe that flowed from Harry’s rich imagination to life.
Two American’s from Seattle were taking the tour at Díseart as I continued to click away at the light that depicts Jesus surrounded by children. They started peering into the camera’s screen, amazed that the children’s luminous eyes were suddenly magnified, isolated from all the other dazzling forms and colours that sparked and glittered in this particular window. I focused the lens on their dresses, on their hands, on the intricate blooms, on Jesus’ robes. They said they had never seen the like of these windows anywhere. They couldn’t get enough information on Clarke’s work. They stood there for ages, gazing up at the windows, then staring into the camera’s screen. They had caught the bug.
Then there was the whistle-stop tour through Killaloe, Ballinasloe, Tullycross, Kilmaine and Ballinrobe. By this stage I have thousands of digital images stored on hard drive. Snippets of each window flash across my mind’s eye; the wonderful robes worn by the high priest in The Presentation window at Killaloe; St. Rose holding her hands over the flames in the lower panel of the Ballinasloe window; the serenity flowing from Christ’s eyes at Tullycross; Mary’s chiselled profile as she bows her head to receive the crown from Christ the King in the Coronation window at Ballinrobe; the splendid wings of the angels at Kilmaine; the child wearing glasses in the St. Fechin window at Ballinrobe. It was my plan to visit the famous Last Judgement in Newport the following day. Glancing at my watch it was now almost four in the afternoon. I fumble in my wallet for the taxi’s number that had brought me to Kilmaine the previous day. Within fifteen minutes I am ensconced in the taxi on route to my next Harry Clarke gig in Newport.
After a good night’s sleep in the town of Newport, I awaken early and pull open the curtains. The B&B overlooks a lake. I’m glad to see a bright sky with a few clouds and not too much sun. Perfect weather for photographing stained glass.
The church is just a few minutes walk from where I’m staying. I climb the twenty-odd steps and pull open the heavy wooden door. The interior is dark but there’s no mistaking the window. Harry’s Last Judgement towers above the altar, emanating an incredible power. Jesus stands with arms slightly raised and open palms, in robes of ruby and magenta. The saints and angels are on his right, the poor damned souls cast down to hell are on his left.
This is the last window that Harry ever designed. I walk up to the window and easily discern his self-portrait, his head positioned upside down, falling downwards on his journey to hell. A host of deranged, tormented souls surround him. When Harry began work on this window in 1930 he had already been diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis. By the time the window was installed in February 1931, Harry had already passed beyond this earthly realm. I’d like to think that the left light of The Last Judgement is simply Harry’s portrayal of a fantasy hell, similar to his illustrations of damnation in Faust. Having been immersed in the brilliance of his windows these past months, filled with ethereal angels and magnificent, benevolent savours, I can only feel that Harry toyed with these darker depictions while never straying too far from the light.
After a two-hour photo shoot, I step once again into the full glare of sunlight. I make my way to the bus station. I lug all my equipment on board, then drift into a hazy sleep, awaiting my next change at Sligo for the Donegal bus. It’s evening before I reach Donegal. I’m hungry and exhausted and glad to find my new B&B without any hassle.
Next morning I’m up at dawn to catch the first bus to Pettigo. This tiny village is perched on the edge of the border and has seen its fair share of bombings during the troubles. At the local shop I get directions to the office for Lough Derg. I’m greeted by the Monsignor, who has agreed to escort me to St. Patrick’s Basilica on Lough Derg. My mission is to photograph Clarke’s fourteen stations of the cross that were installed in 1929. We drive the few miles to the lake, then take the waiting ferry across to the island. I’m stunned by the raw beauty of this place: the crystal lake; the surrounding mountains; the majestic basilica overlooking the lake.
Inside Clarke’s windows gleam like semi-precious jewels in the morning sun. These windows are in a different class. Each window depicts a saint holding one of the stations. The inner medallions are really incredible. I focus my lens very close to the glass of the sixth station that immediately catches my eye: Veronica holds up a towel imprinted in sweat and blood with Jesus’ features. Every single station is beautiful, yet sad and poignant: Mary’s pale face etched in pain; the woman who kneels in reverence and softly touches Jesus’ garment; the violence and savagery of the soldiers. All this emotion and pathos Clarke achieved with his pieces of coloured glass. Here in the Basilica on Lough Derg I am overwhelmed by his sheer genius.
I’m escorted back to Pettigo and from there I get a taxi back to Donegal. Next morning is St. Patrick’s Day, and Harry’s birthday. I’m heading for Letterkenny this morning to photograph his twenty clerestory windows in the cathedral. The Main Street is cordoned off for a morning road race. A hoard of runners are crossing the finishing line. I ask a spectator for directions to the Cathedral.
The cathedral overlooks the town so it couldn’t be easier to locate. Mass has already begun so I sit in a back seat and survey the ten pairs of decorative windows that are high up near the ceiling. I’ve already inquired if the church will close during the parade and, as no one can give an answer, I resolve to photograph the windows between masses. When mass is drawing to a close I quickly set up the tripod and get into position. The windows are made of white and coloured slab glass. I decipher cut glass pieces of blue, pink, purple and red. I have time to take the first two pairs before the congregation begin to take their seats.
It takes several hours to photograph all the windows. I pack the equipment back into my bag. If I catch the next bus I’ll arrive at Carrickmacross in the late afternoon. Before I leave Letterkenny Cathedral I light a candle. “Happy birthday, Harry!”