I stood surrounded by sad stern faces looking down on me. In glorious reds, blues, oranges and greens it was like they knew how I was feeling and were telling me it’s not easy, it’s not meant to be.
In St Malachy’s College on the Antrim Road there is a school chapel with a series of stained glass windows by Ireland’s Leonardo Da Vinci. Harry Clarke, from Dublin, created some of Ireland’s most important art in the early 20th century through the use of stained glass. If you have ever been to Bewley’s in Grafton Street and sat supping coffee in the shaded grandeur that only light coming through stained glass can create you have sat in the dappled beauty of Harry Clarke.
We didn’t do a lot of Mass in our house growing up. But when we did it was in the enormity of the Dublin churches mainly built after Emancipation with glorious raised roofs almost creaking under the instilled quiet and soporific incense. The only respite was staring at the stained glass windows where the saints and their friends looked down benignly either in agony or half smiling, nearly saying “don’t worry you will be out of here soon”.
Harry Clarke’s creations offer no such respite. His art deco figures do not hide the human condition. The women sadly grimace at their own oppression, and ask you are you really content with your position in life, and the men dare you to think beyond the ritual and ask yourself the meaning of life.
If you think I’m messing, next time you are in Donegal head for St Patrick’s Purgatory in Lough Derg and come back and talk to me.
In St Malachy’s there are no less than 32 such figures in a small chapel all ready to share their sad, stern wisdom with the hopeful young men, if they care to listen. Some of Ireland’s very finest stained glass resides there. I have seen them twice.
The first time I saw them was last year when my eldest son was completing his years with the College, before he sat his exams. This year I returned to be part of my second son’s leavers’ mass.
The small packed chapel was filled with the young men and their parents and carers. All of their youthful joy, nervousness and expectation was busting out of them. Their parents and teachers were all gathered, sitting and standing wondering how the little boys they brought to the school eight short years ago had suddenly become these wonderful prizes with deep voices, chin hair and possibility beyond our imaginations. Our collective hearts were breaking with a combination of pride and loss and hope.
All watched on by the figures of magnificence in the windows who have seen it all before. Since the 1930s they have watched young nationalist men pass from their care, surviving majoritarian discrimination, fighting for civil rights, struggling against military occupation and violation and now this generation building a new hopeful future. They know that our unwillingness to let them go will be matched and surpassed by the achievements of this newest generation of Malachians, our sons. And they look on to tell us that our hearts will be sore, because it is part of being a parent, but they will not break.