The 1916 Rising
Belvedere College lost two of its former pupils in the 1916 Rising – one on each side. They were Joseph Mary Plunkett and Reginald Clery. It is fascinating – and revealing – to read the thoughts of those who witnessed the events of that Easter Week. We can learn a lot from what they wrote.
The story of how the Rising affected one city-centre school is particularly poignant because the two former students who died were on opposing sides of the conflict. Joseph Mary Plunkett was one of the seven signatories of the Proclamation. He was an idealist who had played a part in the Irish literary revival. He was a poet. His poetry is deeply religious, full of love, and sometimes reveals a tortured soul:
The drunken stars stagger across the sky;
The morning wavers and sways like a wind-blown bud;
Beneath my feet the earth like drifting scud
Lapses and slides, wallows and shoots on high:
Immovable thing start suddenly flying by,
The city quakes and quavers, a city of mud
And ooze – a brawling cataract is my blood
Of molten metal and fire – like God am I.
Plunkett had launched the Irish Review and had helped establish the Irish Theatre in 1914. During Easter Week 1916, despite poor health, he fought at the GPO, a few hundred yards from his former school.
Plunkett was executed for his part in the Rising. The night before his death, he married his fiancée, the artist Grace Gifford. Although she lived until 1955, she never married again.
The other old Belvederian to die was Reginald Clery. He was a twenty-two-year-old trainee solicitor who joined the Georgius Rex Volunteer Corps – the Dads’ Army of the day – to serve his fellow-citizens in wartime. Most of those who volunteered in this way were men too old for military service. They were known by the wags of Dublin as the ‘Gorgeous Wrecks’. Reginald Clery and his fellow volunteers were on reconnaissance duty on Easter Monday when the Rising took place. They were told to make their way to Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Ballsbridge. They were unarmed, and wore quasi-uniforms with armbands.
The rebels in Northumberland Road must have been astonished to see these men approaching in marching order. When the rebels opened fire, five of the Volunteer Corps – including Reginald Clery – were shot dead before the others scattered into the safety of local houses.
They say that history is written by the winners, but here the opposite is true: those who fought on the side which prevailed in Easter Week are, for the most part, forgotten – even if they gave their lives.
So how was the Rising viewed in Belvedere at the time? It is interesting to look at The Belvederian (the annual report of the college) of the following year. It describes the Rising as a ‘fratricidal struggle’ and contains an obituary to both Clery and Plunkett. There is a remarkable first-hand account of the Rising by a former pupil who had fought with the rebels – entitled ‘A Rebel’s Diary’. But elsewhere there are thirty pages dedicated to those who were fighting with the British Army in the First World War. Thomas Ryan SJ, the editor of The Belvederian, composed a most balanced editorial in which he wrote:
There are in the pages that follow reflections of the views of such opposite parties as those whose sympathies are represented by the motto, “Help win the war,” and those whose doctrine is “Ireland before all.” We feel confident that our readers, in consideration of the common ground on which they stand as school-fellows, will try to realise the standpoint of their adversaries, and sympathise with the feeling which dictated its expression.
The Rising and its aftermath did bring about changes. By the end of the First World War, there is no mention in The Belvederian of the deeds of those fighting in Europe. Hurling and handball were introduced into a school that previously preferred rugby and cricket. On the cover, the two words “The Belvederian” are written in a Celtic style instead of the old Victorian style. When the first Dáil met in 1919, much was made of the fact that the Cathaoirleach was a past pupil of Belvedere, Cathal Brugha. When Kevin Barry was executed a year later, The Belvederian reported the event with these bitter words:
Kevin Barry, our school-fellow scarce a year ago, meets a criminal’s end at the hands of the freer of small nations.
The attitudes of a middle-class school in Dublin had been ‘changed utterly’ by the events of 1916.
But what of the Rising itself – did they condemn it or condone it? The answer is that they (like many of us today) had mixed feelings. We can all learn from the words of Joseph Plunkett’s obituary – written by his former school-fellow G N Reddin for The Belvederian of 1917:
We have our differences as regards the merits and demerits of the Insurrection: some say it was politically unwise, others approve of it, while many say it was premature; but one thing we must all admit and appreciate – the nobility and purity of purpose, and the passionate and burning sincerity, which prompted this man to adopt a course which culminated in his death. A warm, generous and impulsive heart has been silenced; a brave and unconquerable soul has been liberated. Go ndéanaidh Dia trócaire ar a anam.
Harry Clarke was born on March 17, 1889, in Dublin, and died in his sleep at Coire, Switzerland, on January 6, 1931, on his way home to Dublin.
In his short working life he was a prolific artist. His skill and visionary power in glass had few equals in the 20th Century. He was also a book illustrator of genius, at his finest when depicting fantastic or macabre subjects. Two of his best known and most successful works being, Hans Christian Anderson's 'Fairy Tales' and Edgar Allen Poe’s, 'Tales of Mystery and Imagination'. When not working on stained glass, Harry copiously illustrated with intricate and unending inventiveness in pen and ink and watercolour.
Celtic Mysticism, Symbolism, National Romanticism, Art Nouveau, all claimed an influence in the work of Harry Clarke. He played a major role in the Arts and Craft Movement in Ireland, as well as the International stained glass revival. He can also be seen as Ireland’s major Symbolist artist, whether in his illustrations or in his stained glass work. His art displayed a religious mysticism reminiscent of medieval intensity. This ranged from the sublimely beautiful to the grotesquely macabre, something rarely found in the work of his Celtic peers.
In the words of John Piper,
Their art, pressed on strongly against the tide of browns and mauves and plentiful dirty whites, so that, positive constructive relations were again established between stained glass and painting. It is remarkable how this progress was caused by a mere handful of people.
He was talking of the Irish glaziers, in particular, Eve Hone, Wilhelmina Geddes, Michael Healy, and of course Harry Clarke.
In 1887, Harry's father, Joshua Clark (1858-1921), had moved from Leeds to Dublin. He was an 18-year-old Protestant, ambitious and hardworking. He converted to Catholicism, married Bridget MacGonigal and added an 'e' to his surname.
On St Patrick's Day, 1889, a son Henry Patrick (Harry) was born to Joshua and Bridget Clarke in 33, North Fredrick St, Dublin. This was exactly a year to the day since Walter; their first son was born. By a happy coincidence, Harry and Walter both married sisters, Margaret and Minnie Crilly. By another coincidence, this time a tragic one, Harry and Walter both died within a year of each other.
Mrs. Clarke was consumptive, and Harry and Walter, both inherited a tendency to a weakness in the chest. The fact that Harry was a chain smoker and worked with acids in his stained-glass work compounded this weakness. The girls, Kathleen (the eldest of the four children) and Dolly (Florence) were stronger.
Joshua Clarke had little formal education and no particular interest in art. In 1886, the boom in church building was at its highest, so he set up his own company of Joshua Clarke & Sons. As an entrepreneur he could see that the production of stained glass would ideally complement his church-decorating firm.
In 1892, he opened a glass studio in rooms at the family home in North Fredrick St. in Dublin – just around the corner from Belvedere College. Harry was fascinated by the work being done in the studio and spent so much time there, that by the time he was 14 years old, he became quite proficient in the craft.
Harry was educated first at Marlborough Street school, and then went to Belvedere College in 1900, where he was taught by the Jesuits. The school magazine (The Belvederian) recorded that his contemporaries remember Harry as a 'reserved and sensitive boy - a little aloof from the rough and tumble of school life … well liked by his companions, and conspicuous among them for his skills in drawing.' The three years of Jesuit teaching will leave a lasting impressing on Harry.
To sensitive young men like Harry Clarke, James Joyce, Conall O`Riordain, and Austin Clarke (three of Harry's contemporaries at Belvedere College) their imaginative recall and their emotional natures would have set up a religious-sensual conflict. This would remain with them and strongly influence their artistic output. Harry confessed to his wife on several occasions that he needed his drawings and book illustrations as an outlet from the religious subject matter: he was daily involved in his stained-glass work.
Austin Clarke, in his biography 'Twice Around the Black Church' said he found it unnecessary to describe his days at Belvedere. James Joyce had done it so adequately in his 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.' This book was published in 1916, although it had been written between 1901 and 1906.
Harry left school in 1903, the same year his mother died. During his days at Belvedere, he had watched her failing health. She had become the sole confidante of his schooldays. With her he conversed, argued, joked, questioned, and laughed. He did not have the same bond with the rest of his family - not his father, busy and preoccupied, and certainly not with the Jesuits. He was 14-years-old when his mother died.
After leaving school Harry worked for a time as a trainee draughtsman, in the offices of Thomas McNamara, an architect. In 1905, Harry began a five-year apprenticeship to his fathers firm of church decorators. He also attended night classes at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin were he won the highest awards for his work.
In 1906, Harry was to spend three months in London, to try and get placed in a glass firm. He was unsuccessful despite the efforts of his father and Mr Salmond of Hetleys, who were the Clarke Studios, main glass supplier. However he did attend the Royal College of Art in South Kensington, daily for two months. He then returned home to Dublin to resume his apprenticeship and night classes, at the Metropolitan School of Art.
Harry was awarded a scholarship to the Metropolitan School of Art for the 1910-1911, term. This meant he could he attend daytime classes, free of fees, and could also take part in exhibitions, and competitions open to day students.
Harry was informed in 1911 that he had won the first of his three Gold Medals for his stained glass entries in the South Kensington National Competition. He won again in 1912 and 1913. By 1914, he had exhibited, won a travelling studentship, and travelled to Paris and Chartres. In October of 1914, Harry married Margaret Crilly, a fellow student of his the Metropolitan School of Art. Harry, who was shy, despite his obvious talents, knew Margaret, a quite self-possessed girl, had all the gifts he lacked - their different natures complemented each other.
Harry's first major commission for his stained glass work and his book illustrations came in 1915. This was the year he began the illustrations for Hans Christian Anderson's Fairy Tales: the first of eight books he was to fill with his drawings. The same year he was commissioned to make eleven of the nineteen windows for the Honan Chapel, University College, Cork. Sarah Purser, co-founder of An Tur Gloine (The Tower of Glass) was commissioned to make the remaining eight windows.
Harry was aware of the colour symbolism that dictated the schemes of early Gothic artists. In the Honan Chapel, ten of the eleven windows were of Irish Saints, and Harry gave each of these windows a dominant colour.
John Ruskin, one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain, wrote in 1898:
Windows should be serene, intense, and brilliant like flaming jewellery. That we are always trying to get colours bright, when their chief real virtues are to be deep, mysterious, and subdued.
Harry Clarke fully met John Ruskin's tenet in his Honan Chapel windows. Harry made these windows over the period, 1915-1917, and were considered by many, and Harry himself, to be among his best work.
When Joshua Clarke died in 1921, Harry took over the running of J. Clarke and Sons, his father's church-decorating firm. This was on top of his own work in his glass studio. Never strong physically, overwork led to a serious deterioration in Harry's health in the 1920s.
Despite his ill health, a serious eye infection in 1925, and a near fatal bicycle accident in 1926, Harry worked at a feverish pace creating book illustrations and masterpieces in stained glass.
'The Eve of Saint Agnes,' is a stained glass window made in two sections and twenty-two panels, illustrating John Keats poem of the same name. These panels would illustrate in detail scenes from literature, and would fuse together, Harry's immense talent for book illustration, and his stained glass work. He made this window over the period 1923-1924, and shows Harry at the apex of his career.
Time for Harry was running out. His health deteriorated even further as he struggled to fulfil commissions for his clients. In 1929, he left Dublin for a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland. He stayed in the sanatorium for fourteen months to try and delay the advance of tuberculosis. He returned to Dublin, in July 1930, on the death of his brother Walter. He may have sensed his time was near, for he reorganized his workshop, to give his sisters more control of the business.
He was back in Davos for the last time in October 1930. He died in his sleep during the night of Monday 6, January 1931, at Coire, a small Swiss village.
In their brilliance of colour, delicacy of design, and jewel-like effect, Harry Clarke's windows are unmistakable. They fulfil the true function of stained glass, in that they provide a decorative scheme of rich and splendid colour in their luminous settings.
In 1921, the poet W B Yeats made a speech on the arts in Ireland declared:
About twenty years ago, the stained glass made in Ireland was the worst in the world. Now some of the best glass is turned out in Dublin.
Then the maker of the worst glass in the world was a Dublin man named Clarke, now the acknowledged best glass in the world is made by his son Harry Clarke.