Tirconaill Revisited

A Machine Readable Version

Thomas MacGreevy

Original Source: Father Mathew Record. April 1946. p.2-3.

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Tirconaill Revisited

"Your Kerry scenery is the grandest," Sarah Purser said to me once, "but Donegal scenery is the most gracious." And as an academic artist she went to discuss, not the colour of Donegal which had always been the inspiration of A.E.'s pictures and which, through them, had become famous, but the way the forms and outlines of the Donegal mountains blended with each other, always —no matter where you stood —making a lovely unity. She said that there were isolated patches of scenery in Kerry which were so awe-inspiring as to be forbidding even in their grandeur, whereas the Donegal landscape always seemed to her to be appealing.

That was nearly twenty-five years ago am I am still wondering whether she was right. Though I was a Kerryman, Miss Purser knew Kerry, as she knew Donegal, better than I did. I had only just been to Tirconaill for the first time and came back full of enthusiasm for the beauty of Mount Errigal. I remember that, trying to write about that lovely mountain, I felt no end of a literary stylist when I had succeeded in evolving a description of it as "withdrawn and beautiful, like a pensive goddess looking out musingly over Tory Island and the sea." Miss Purser was painting my portrait at the time and the sittings, suspended during my visit to the north, were being resumed. Probably the artist was glad of the change of subject from Marie Bashkirtsheff, Bastien Lepage, Manet, Degas and her Paris background generally, on which, with an untravelled young man's eager curiosity, I was never tired of questioning her. But Donegal was near to Miss Purser's heart for other than scenic reasons. She made no bones about the fact that she took the subject of money seriously. She was, needless to say, scrupulously honest, but she would, herself, maintain cynically that it was on the principle that honesty is the best policy. Anyhow, she was always worrying about the things in which she had a material interest. And of these the best known was of course An tur gloine, the deservedly famous glass works which, under the influence and with the encouragement of Edward Martyn and one or two other Irishmen who were trying to bridge the gulf between the ascendancy and the people, she had founded. It was a risk for her. The success of the glass works depended to a large extent on her keeping the goodwill of the Catholic hierarchy. But though some of her artists, Michael Healy for instance, were, in their lives and in their work, firmly and deeply Catholic, Miss Purser herself, Protestant by upbringing, was a typical child of the second half of the nineteenth century. For her, Renan and Anatole France knew best. And then she had a tongue. Which, in discussing religious subjects with potential clients amongst the hierarchy and clergy, she did not always find it easy to control. She would, somehow or other, get in a "dig." It was not only her Catholic friends who were sometimes brought up short by her cynicism. Once, old Mr. Yeats came away from her so infuriated that he was driven to utter the terrible phrase, "the withering touch of Sarah Purser."

But amongst the members of the Catholic hierarchy who were Miss Purser's customers and friends there was one in particular who never shirked an interview with the redoubtable old lady, never lost patience with her and never failed, from the day he discovered Michael Healy, to take his custom to the Tower of Glass. That man was Patrick O'Donnell, Bishop of Raphoe from 1887 to 1923 and afterwards Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. Miss Purser loved Dr. O'Donnell (as he then was) and never tired of singing his praises. And for those who knew them both the psychological reason was perfectly plain. It was not only that the bishop was a good customer though that was of primary importance —it was also that, far from being afraid of her as so many people were, he had a kind of amusedly paternal affection for her. He was somewhat younger than she and he had no pretensions to such knowledge of the arts as she had. But he came from Tirconaill, from Colmcille's country. And never was there a worthier son of the Dove of the Churches. Elected bishop when he was little more thirty, Patrick O'Donnell had made himself a great administrator, but more important was the fact that, benign by nature, he had, like a true Christian and child of Colmcille, trained himself to be all benignity. Without claiming that he was a man of comparable genius, it could yet be said that in his mild and winning —urbanity he had more than a little of St. Francis de Sale in his make-up. Such at least, was the impression he gave to outsiders and such is the impression of him one gathers from those who knew him well.

No doubt he had his critics, but Miss Purser was certainly not one of them. They did business together over many years. She scolded and he smiled at her scolding. Probably he prayed, as it is known that others of her friends prayed that she might some day get the grace to make an act of faith, to take the leap in the dark that would land her in light, but if she did not, well, she had the courage of the stoic and she had wit. And for Dr. O'Donnell she was of course the means by which he could arrange to secure stained glass masterpieces for the embellishment of the great cathedral had built in Letterkenny to the glory of God and of Saints Colmcille and Eunan.

That cathedral, built in little more than ten years (chiefly by Mr. MacNamara of Messrs. Haig and MacNamara, who still happily survives to take a humble pride in his achievement), and consecrated at the beginning of the century, is amongst the half-dozen of the finest of the cathedral churches built in Ireland since Emancipation. A Gothic edifice with tower and spire, it stands on a commanding height above the town of Letterkenny, at the very heart of one of the districts which, of all the districts in the North of Ireland, was most thickly "planted." As one approaches Letterkenny from the east it is impossible not to think of the bishop who built the cathedral and of his countrymen all over the world who helped him to build it. For it dominates the whole landscape, and, without being an architectural masterpiece of the first magnitude, it is, beyond any question, an imposing, dignified and gracious building, a worthy affirmation in stone of the fact that after centuries of persecution and repression the people's faith and the people themselves were resurgent and flourishing. It was probably that sense of a religious and national resurgence which suggested the introduction of Hiberno-Romanesque doorways in the transepts of an otherwise Gothic building. Purists still find fault with the combination of styles, but after all, the historical justification for it in the renascent Ireland of the 'nineties was a touching and lovely justification. And as for the question of there being any real disharmony in the two styles, well, we should have to condemn Chartres, Vézelay, Durham and many other famous masterpieces of architecture in which, for reasons of no greater consequence, Gothic and Romanesque are blended, before we could condemn St. Eunan's.

Apart from the grandeur of the site and the easy way the building takes it, the striking things about the exterior are the light warm tone of the Mountcharles stone and the beautiful way in which it is cut; and then the fact that the purple slating of the roof is of such rare fineness that one cannot but think of the sixteenth century French poet who, exiled in Rome, nostalgically evoked the memory of just such ardoises fines on the roofs of the houses in his own Angevin countryside, and doing so, achieved literary immortality. The Tirconaill slaters have no poem yet, but looking at their work one feels they are as deserving of one as their French predecessors of four centuries ago. And how their bishop would have liked them to get it! Not only through Father Stephens, who was priest in charge during the building of the cathedral, but directly, Dr. O'Donnell was friendly with the slaters as with the other workmen —in the book he had published for the consecration he speaks of them all with gratitude and innocent pride. The difficulties inevitable in such a vast undertaking had only once become serious. There was a threat of a strike. But it had passed and all was going happily again in less than an hour!

It is however inside the cathedral that one comes more fully on real architectural splendour and grace. Entering by the main doorway in the admirable eastern façade, one notices that the nave is fine and that the proportions everywhere are good. But just as one reaches the crossing one finds oneself in the presence of one of those effects that make architecture seem almost a divine art. The choir wall, broken by richly glowing windows, is magnificent both in horizontal sweep and in height. The wide chancel arch soars upwards with astonishing strength and lightness and then, beyond it, the pillars and smaller [p.3] arches of the thirteen bays between the sanctuary and the ambulatory (perfectly proportioned to the great transverse arch), seem to cluster shelteringly about the tabernacle and the Real Presence. In a less grandiose way, of course, but not less surely than at Notre Dame de Paris and in the William of Sens choir at Canterbury, the very stones are made by a man's genius to offer homage to God. Here indeed, and most fittingly, we come upon the poetry of architecture. The whole choir is lovely, a prayer in stone.

It is a pity that the choir windows —by Mayer of Munich —should antedate the establishment by Miss Purser of the modern Irish stained glass industry. As Mayer windows they are not bad, but Mayer windows are out of the true stained glass tradition. At the crossing one had already noticed the fire of real stained glass, and now one turns back with eager interest to study the magnificent series of windows by Irish artists which, dominated by Healy's dazzling Colmcille at the Convention of Drumceat on the north (erected to the memory of Dr. MacDevitt, Bishop of Raphoe from 1871 to 1879), fills both transepts with scenes, vividly, richly, tenderly realised, from the lives of Colmcille and Eunan, Dallan and Conal Caoil and one or two European saints. With the architecture of the choir, these windows constitute the artistic glory of the cathedral. As art and as craft, spiritually and technically they are a monument for all time to the religious and artistic genius of the Ireland of the early twentieth century, a monument above all to the shy and unpretending but most gifted artist who, the son of a Fenian, grew up in the poorer quarters of Dublin, Michael Healy; a monument to the bishop who had the prescience to recognise Healy's gifts from the first time he saw his work, Patrick O'Donnell; and a monument too to Sarah Henrietta Purser, the crabbed old Protestant lady who, earlier still, had recognised Healy's gifts, taken him into the Tower of Glass and set him to study stained glass technique as soon as ever she could get hold of him after his return from Italy, forty-five years ago. They all, and the other artists with them, Mr. Childe, Miss Rhind and Miss Elvery, have their share in the worthiness of the great acts of homage that these windows constitute to Tirconaill's most cherished men of God.

The present distinguished occupant of the See of St. Eunan, the Most Reverend William MacNeely, Bishop of Raphoe, would certainly. rather see attention drawn to Cardinal O'Donnell's achievements at Letterkenny than to his own —he has had a full-length statue of his beloved predecessor by Mr. Doyle Jones erected outside the main entrance to the cathedral —but it is only fitting that reference should be made not only to the solicitous care for the cathedral as a whole that he has shown since he was appointed bishop —at the age thirty-four —in 1923, but also to the rare artistic discretion he showed in getting Harry Clarke to fill all the clerestory windows of the nave with stained glass, beautiful in quality, but of simple, abstract, religiously symbolical design, thus toning the light so as to allow the precious windows of the transepts to make their full effect, as they could not, of course, do, while the clear glass originally there remained. Less dramatic than Harry Clarke's figure windows these abstract windows are yet amongst the most gracious things the lamented young artist ever did.

There is no space left to refer to much else that is of interest in the cathedral, especially to the relief sculptures of scenes from the lives of Colmcille and Eunan which Mr. Purdy carved right up the two curves of the arch of the crossing and the altar rails which were carved by the father of Patrick Pearse. Nor are reminders lacking amidst the decoration of those other great sons of Tirconaill, the Four Masters. Again on the eastern façade outside, there is an indirect reminder of one of the most tragic stories in the secular history of Donegal. For the fine statue of Colmcille was a gift from a lady who bore a name ill-omened in all that region, the name of Adair. The story of the Glenveagh Evictions needs no retelling in Ireland. It of the most terrible in the annals of landlordism. But it is pleasant to recall that forty years after the evictions, this truly gentle gentlewoman, who had married into the notorious landlord's family, tried to heal the breach between the Adairs and the people, and to achieve the healing under the patronage of the Dove of the Churches himself. Mrs. Cornelia Adair not only gave the statue of St. Colmcille to the cathedral. She also had the ground cleared round the birthstone of the great saint at Gartan, to the west of Letterkenny, and beside it erected a lofty and imposing celtic cross to mark the hallowed place.

The drive out from Letterkenny to Gartan and then on by Glenveagh and the Lough to Muckish Gap and down to Sheephaven is one of the grandest drives one could take anywhere. A few weeks ago I was privileged to revisit Tirconaill after many years and to take that drive. And once again Donegal reminded me of Sarah Purser — I certainly never foresaw when I began to write that she would haunt this article —it is probably because of her association with Cardinal O'Donnell. The reason for the present reminder of her is this. About fifteen years ago when she was already well over eighty I got a postcard from her. It bore an Italian stamp and all that was written on it besides the address was, "If ever you drive from Gubbio to Perugia think of me. S.H.P." Some years later I covered that ground, but going in the reverse direction, from Perugia to Gubbio. And in that perhaps most sublime passage of scenery in the whole Appenines, I did remember her and her message. The Donegal mountains are less lofty than the Appenines, but the drive through St. Colmcille's country is not less grand than the Italian one and in some intangible way I was reminded of Umbria. I found myself thinking of St. Francis and St. Colmcille, of Cardinal O'Donnell and Miss Purser, and of their friend and mine, Michael Healy, all together. Then, when we came to Muckish Gap, there was my beautiful Errigal, crowned with snow, and in her white loveliness more serenely the Greek goddess than ever. But Alec MacBride, who was driving, turned away from Errigal to go down to Sheephaven and the next thing was that on the main road below Muckish there suddenly appeared a big sign, "Franciscan Capuchin Friary." So we went on to Ard Mhuire and found Father Andrew, all brown habit and gold beard, beaming a welcome and looking, there in the middle of Colmcille's country, as if he had come straight out of Umbria. He gave us a marvellous tea, but at the back of my mind and for the first time in my life, I was associating the spirits of the royal Dove of the north and the Little Poor Man of the south. Colmcille and Francis meet at Ards.