Monday, 27 February 2017
Two windows by Catherine O’Brien
in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale
I was in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick, yesterday [26 February 2017], presiding at the Eucharist and preaching on the Sunday before Lent. I am in Rathkeale again today, visiting the school this morning and meeting people from other churches in the area at lunch time to discuss plans for events during Lent and Holy Week this year.
In this Church of Ireland parish church in the middle of West Co Limerick, I have been surprised to find two sets of stained-glass windows from An Túr Gloine studios that are magnificent examples of the work of the artist Catherine O’Brien (1881-1963).
In the sanctuary at the east end of Holy Trinity Church there are three lancet windows, measuring 2900 mm x 510 mm and with ten tracery lights. They date from 1925, and were erected under the patronage of the Fitzgerald Massy family of Stoneville, Rathkeale.
The windows on the left and right are ornamental, while the window in the centre depicts the Parable of the Sower in the centre.
Above the Sower, the words in a scroll proclaim: ‘The Seed is the Word of God.’
The inscription at the bottom of the window reads: ‘To the glory of God, in memory of Elizabeth, wife of James FitzGerald Massy Esq, of Stoneville, Daughter of Arthur John Preston, Dean of Limerick. Died April 5 1895.’
James FitzGerald Massy (1811-1861) and Elizabeth Preston were married in 1844. In the 1870s, the widowed Elizabeth Massy owned 1,138 acres in Co Limerick.
In the south nave, there are two lancet windows, measuring 2900 mm x 560 mm, and with five tracery-lights. This pair of windows was erected by the Norman family of Rathkeale and are the work of Catherine O’Brien and An Túr Gloine.
The window on the left depicts Saint Paul, and the window on the right depicts Saint Luke. The inscription below reads: ‘To the glory of God and in memory of Henry Norman, his wife Hannah Norman, and in memory Alfred, James and Edward Norman, sons of Henry and Hannah Norman of Rathkeale.’
Hannah Norman was the eldest daughter of John Smith of Adare and they were married in 1863. Henry died on 24 February 1884, and Hannah died on 25 December 1933.
An Túr Gloine (‘The Glass Tower’) was a co-operative studio for stained glass and opus sectileartists from 1903 until 1944.
An Túr Gloine was first proposed in late 1901 and was established January 1903 at 24 Pembroke Street, Dublin, on the site of two former tennis courts. It was active throughout the first half of the 20th century, and artists associated with the studio include Michael Healy, Evie Hone, Beatrice Elvery, Wilhelmina Geddes and Harry Clarke, as well as Catherine O’Brien and the founder Sarah Purser.
The original impetus for the project, spurred by the Irish cultural activist Edward Martyn, was the building of Saint Brendan’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Loughrea, Co Galway. Purser and Martyn hoped to provide an alternative to the commercial stained glass imported from England and Germany for Irish churches and other architectural projects.
Purser’s knowledge of French and English mediaeval glass, and her social connections and organisational skills, were crucial to the success of the co-operative.
A writer for The Studio, a magazine of fine and applied art, said An Túr Gloine was ‘perhaps the most noteworthy example of the newly awakened desire to foster Irish genius,’ and described it as ‘at once a craft school, where instruction in every detail connected with the designing and production of stained glass is given to the workers, and a factory from which some beautiful work has already appeared.’
The studio was part of the Arts and Crafts Movement, but was infused too with the contemporary spirit of Irish revivalism, drawing on the artistic tradition of Celtic manuscript illumination. An Túr Gloine contributed to Ireland becoming an internationally renowned centre of stained-glass art at the time.
The studio was run by Sarah Purser until 1940. She was succeeded by Catherine O’Brien, who ran it until 1944. O’Brien then bought the studio and leased a large section of it to Patrick Pollen.
Catherine Amelia O’Brien or Kitty O’Brien (1881-1963) was born in Durra House, Spancill Hill, Co Clare, on 19 June 1881, the daughter of Pierce O’Brien and Sophia Angel St John O’Brien. She went to school at the Mercy Convent in Ennis, and won a scholarship to the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. There she studied under William Orpen and Alfred E Child, who taught her the art of stained glass.
Her early commissions included the Saint Ita window for Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea, in 1904, which was designed by Sarah Purser. Catherine O’Brien joined An Túr Gloine in 1906, beginning her career there by designing the ‘Angel of the Annunciation’ window for a convent chapel in Enniskillen.
In 1914, she toured the cathedrals of Paris, Rouen and Chartres in France with Sarah Purser and Wilhelmina Geddes.
In 1916, O’Brien designed three windows depicting Saint John, Saint Flannan of Killaloe, and Saint Munchin of Limerick, for the Honan Chapel in University College Cork in 1916. Her 1923 design of the centenary memorial window in Saint Andrew’s Church, Lucan, was of the parable of the Good Shepherd.
In 1925, An Túr Gloine became a co-operative society, and O’Brien became a shareholder alongside Ethel Rhind, Evie Hone, and Michael Healy.
From 1937 until 1947, O’Brien worked on 22 opus sectile panels for the Church of Ireland parish church in Ennis, Co Clare. Her work also includes the Saint Patrick window (1931) in Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford (1931), the Transfiguration window in Saint Naithi’s Church, Dundrum, Co Dublin, the East Window in Straffan Church, Co Kildare, dedicated to Canon Lionel Fletcher, who was the Rector of Straffan for 50 years, and the window in Saint Bartholomew’s church, Ballsbridge, Dublin (1942), in memory of a former vicar, Harry Vere White (1853-1941), who became Bishop of Limerick, Ardfert and Aghadoe (1921-1933). Other work is in Singapore, Massachusetts and Arizona.
When Sarah Purser retired from An Túr Gloine in 1940, Catherine O’Brien succeeded her as director, and bought the studio and its contents in 1944. When the studios were damaged in a fire in 1958, she rebuilt then and they reopened by 1959.
Her last work was a three-light window for Saint Multose’s Church in Kinsale, Co Cork (1962). A commission for two windows for the private chapel of Áras an Uachtaráin for President Éamon de Valera was left unfinished at her death.
She died in Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital, Dublin, on 18 July 1963, and was buried in Whitechurch Churchyard, Co Dublin.
She is commemorated in a window designed by Pollen in the Saint Laurence O’Toole Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, where for 40 years she made floral arrangements.