Ireland is well-known for its rolling, verdant landscapes as far as the eye can see, merry pubs equipped with homegrown spirits, and musical culture that has managed to preserve its traditional roots. But stay there for a few days, and you’re likely to discover magnificent churches built many generations ago. Described as the “Island of Saints and Scholars,” Ireland has historically had strong ties with the Catholic Church, which you might notice from the strong influence of St. Patrick even in modern culture. Although the country doesn’t have an official religion now and is becoming increasingly secular, these churches continue to attract visitors and worshippers alike, and their beauty has hardly faded with time.
In general, you’ll be surprised twice: first by the architecture from the outside, then as you go in, by the exquisitely crafted stained glass windows dominating the walls. Stained glass was especially popular in Ireland during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the point that around 100 glaziers existed all over the country. Out of all of these, several stained glass artists stood out as among the greatest. Harry Clarke tops the list, with many of his works surviving until today, along with Evie Hone, Michael Healy, and Sarah Purser. Their legacy is carried on today by contemporary artists such as Bianca Divito and Evan Connon.
Most of the stained glass in Ireland carries strong religious motifs, fitting in well inside churches and museums, but they’re gradually being integrated into modern art. While never as widespread as sculpture or painting, stained glass has been an art form since before the Middle Ages, but its shining days were during the peak of Gothic architecture. We can hardly question its presence in churches, as the effect of light shining on a stained glass window inspires awe and reverence. Its purpose was also practical—several centuries ago, stained glass windows for people who were unable to read a means to understand Biblical stories and religious images.
HARRY CLARKE: IRELAND’S GREATEST STAINED GLASS ARTIST
Connoisseurs of ecclesiastical art and secular modern glass artists alike look up to the Dublin-born Harry Clarke (1889-1931). It seemed to be his destiny from the beginning since his father was the owner of a glass art studio and he already attained proficiency in the craft as a teenager. He went on to study in Dublin, eventually putting up his own studio and making a name for himself as he created high-profile pieces that earned the admiration of locals and foreigners alike. Aside from stained glass, he was also a book illustrator, handling versions of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales and Edgar Allen Poe’s Imagination. However, he had ill health throughout his life, and he died in Switzerland while still determinedly working on a commission.
He was extremely prolific, leaving behind more than 160 stained glass windows meant for both religious and commercial settings. His art reached as far as England, USA, and Australia, and in his native country of Ireland—you can find his stained glass windows across 17 locations in the county of Mayo alone! Like a true artist, his style was distinctive and easy to identify, drawing from legends and myths as well as Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Deep evocative colors were often present in his work, with people drawn in a delicate, detailed manner.
There are plenty of choices if you want to view his work, but these two churches are said to contain his best masterpieces:
St. Patrick’s Church, Newport
Reverend Michael MacDonald played a central role in the design of this church. He was the one who requested to have it built, and he was also responsible for commissioning Harry Clarke to create the church’s most stunning feature: a three-light window called “The Last Judgment.” Clark was so renowned by then that Rev. MacDonald gave up his life insurance for it—a worthy sacrifice because this would turn out to be Clarke’s last piece, although MacDonald would be disappointed at its near-finished state. The window is placed at the east wall of the Church, over the high altar, and it took Clarke four years to make. A beatific vision of Mary surrounded by cherubs and saints is depicted on the right, while the rest get progressively grimmer: Christ appears on Judgment Day along with the souls of the dead in the middle, and the left is a portrayal of souls heading to hell, supervised by a green devil.
Honan Chapel, Cork
This chapel at University College Cork is far from nondescript—it stands as a testament to the Irish crafts and arts movement in the early 20th century. Much thought went into its creation, as it was meant to both serve as a spiritual refuge for the students and display a design that’s uniquely Irish, in support of Ireland’s impending political separation from Britain. Every physical detail is carefully curated, including the tabernacle, the mosaic floor, its textiles and vestments, and various instruments made of silver and wood. In particular, 11 out of its 17 glass windows are attributed to Clark, and these cemented his reputation as a master of his craft. Created over three years, these windows focused on various saints: Saints Brigid, Patrick, and Colmcille; St. Finbarr; St. Ita; St. Albert; St. Gobnait; St. Brendan; St. Declan; St. Joseph; and Our Lady of Sorrows.
Another revolutionary stained glass artist in Ireland was Evie Hone (1894-1955), who is credited for ushering in the arrival of modern art in the country. Similar to Clarke, she had poor health her whole life and suffered from polio as a child, so she turned to art for solace. Having studied in London, Ireland, and Paris, she was heavily influenced by Cubism. One lifelong friend of hers was Mainie Jellet, with whom she founded an innovative organization for modern art. Hone’s personality had a spiritual streak, as evidenced in her art and her decision to be part of a community of nuns at some point. She’s best known for My Four Green Fields, a nationalistic piece commissioned for the New York Trade Fair.
Hone was able to elevate stained glass making in Ireland because she infused a traditional art with modern influences such as Cubism and Impressionism. This came from her background as a painter in oils and gouaches, although very few of her paintings are left now. Because she was mainly interested in expressing strongly religious and nationalistic ideals through art, stained glass proved to be an appropriate medium. Overall, she produced more than 150 panels characterized by impressionistic brushstrokes, a subdued air, and a muted palette with occasional bright and bold colors.
To glimpse some of her remaining work firsthand, drop by these two churches:
Holy Family Church, Ardara, Co. Donegal
Built in 1903, the Holy Family Church has been a long-standing presence in the village of Ardara. One reason why travelers visit it is the world-class rose window on the ceiling. Created by Hone, it follows the classic shape from Gothic Architecture—a circular stained glass window resembling a mandala, with petal-like panels arranged around a central point. Hone was enthusiastic about it, saying that she was happy creating windows for a mountain church rather than for her flashier commissions. The palette—dark blue, rich green, dark brown—reflects the earthy colors of Northwest Ireland. At the center lies the Infant Jesus, with the rest of the six panels alluding to the Old and New Testament. The top and bottom panels portray King David and Moses, while the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John appear symbolically as a man, lion, ox, and eagle.
St. John the Baptist Church, Blackrock, Co. Dublin
Among the oldest in this list, St. John the Baptist Church was erected in 1845 as a replacement for the chapel of a Carmelite monastery. The architect Patrick Byrne designed it based on Ireland’s Gothic Revival style. Anyone interested in stained glass pieces should mark this as a destination, since its windows come from multiple artists: Evie Hone, the Harry Clarke Studio, Earley & Co., and William Wailes. Evie Hone’s three-part work, which was initially owned by the McGuire family, can be found at a prominent place behind the altar. The central panel shows Mary holding the Infant Jesus, and she’s flanked on both sides by panels of St. Bridget and St. Patrick in their traditional postures, with St. Bridget holding up her palm and St. Patrick clutching his staff. On the other hand, the windows associated with Harry Clarke are from his studio—most likely, he oversaw part of the design, but didn’t craft it himself.
Ireland doesn’t lack for beautiful stained glass churches, and in addition to those that we’ve mentioned above, travelers often recommend these:
St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork
This cathedral’s location is special—not only is it near the center of Cork, it’s also right where an ancient religious site, established as early as the 7th century, used to be. English architect William Bruges displayed excellent taste here, since both its interior and exterior are exquisite and eye-catching. It’s predominantly in the French Neo-Gothic style, and inside are marble floor mosaics by Italian craftsmen, a majestic bishop’s throne, an intricate ceiling, and more than 1,500 carvings (including gargoyles).
The stained glass windows are also exceptional, with all 74 windows were designed by Burges following a linear narrative that encompasses both the Old and New Testament. It starts with the story of creation from the Book of Genesis and the signs of the zodiac, then goes full circle from Jesus’s ministry and crucifixion to his resurrection and kingdom in heaven.
John’s Lane Church, Dublin
Its formal name is actually St. Augustine and John the Baptist, but over the years, it has been fondly referred to as John’s Lane Church, after its location at the corner of the side-street John Lane. Standing where Ireland’s first hospital had been in the 12th century, it has been a permanent landmark in Old Dublin. The Flemish architecture catches the eye, emphasized by walls of granite and red sandstone, and its steeple towers over the city. In contrast, its interior takes after a more Gothic style, featuring stained glass windows from Michael Healy, Mayer of Munich, and the Harry Clarke Studio. Despite the careful balance of elements, the windows are the church’s most striking detail, especially on a sunny day. Their themes focus on different saints, stages of St. Augustine’s life, and the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
STAINED GLASS AT HOME
Given the grandeur and history of stained glass, you might be thinking that it’s only for churches (or museums). That might have been true some centuries ago, but not today! Thanks to modern art emphasizing everyday use, not only can you try making your own stained glass pieces for fun, you can also bring them into your home. These hand painted stained glass panels from Shamrock Gift are artworks in their own right, and they come alive with even the gentlest shifting of light from outside:
For a decoration that will remind you of Ireland, this round stained glass panel just might do the trick. “Ireland” is written at the center in traditional Celtic print, and its accents hark back to classical Irish culture: shamrocks for good luck, bordered by Trinity knots in vivid red and orange.
This will look right at place in your home (or even your office)! The combination of green and yellow, balanced out by hints of blue, adds luminosity to any room. Just as comforting is the word “Failte,” which means “welcome” in Irish.
Whether you’re seeking to add a touch of color to your home or are looking for a lighthearted way to attract luck, this stained glass selection exudes cheer and whimsy. The elegantly shaped panel encloses a shamrock with a Celtic Triple Spiral at its center.
If you love music, then the Irish emblem that you resonate with the most might be the harp. In this panel, it’s painted with Ireland’s coat of arms in a bright palette of red, green, and yellow, and the shamrocks and Trinity knot add another layer of symbolism.
This home blessing panel would be a good housewarming gift, but you can also keep it around for yourself! A traditional blessing is written in Celtic script, and the bright, vibrant design is grounded with Celtic and Trinity knots against a red and green background.
Stained glass, in all its permutations through the years, is a strand of Ireland’s cultural richness that’s very much worthy of appreciation. After all, it’s a form of high art that’s woven into the fabric of the everyday—because as much as it lurks in galleries, it’s also at home in shared spaces such as churches, shops, schools, and even houses. Context matters, and stained glass still dazzles the most from within the walls of a church, intertwined with religious architecture, the solemnity of worship, and history that belongs in books. Even though it may seem more medieval than modern, the art of stained glass is very much alive in Ireland—through its many churches, but also through artists of the present who continue to evolve it.