Killaloe: hermits, flags and Harry’s windows

Looking down towards St Flannan's Cathedral

Looking down towards St Flannan’s Cathedral

After a tiring, wonderful and generally overstimulating first week of classes, my classmate Robin and were both keen to get off campus and away from Limerick, to talk about something else besides chant notation, online early music resources, and how to pronounce our names in Irish. Mine’s Sailsa by the way, pronounced SILEsha, meaning emanating light. Hers is Spideog, meaning… Robin. We decided a bit of an explore into the surrounding countryside would be the go. I had met an Irish couple Cieran and Emer (and baby Kate) in our Library cafe and they’d told me all about their gorgeous town of Killaloe [Kill-a-loo] which has a Romanesque cathedral with the best acoustics for singing, plus a lake where you just have to take a boat out to the monk’s cell on an island, plus this, plus that. Cieran got quite excited really. So for our first little trip, Killaloe was the clear winner. I had a look online, found our bus route and a tourist website for the town, and began to get just a bit excited myself.

Rebuilt stone for stone when its little island home was flooded for a hydroelectricity scheme in the 1930s.

Rebuilt stone for stone when its little island home was flooded for a hydroelectricity scheme in the 1930s.

Here are just a few of the wonders of Killaloe in County Clare, gateway to Lough Derg, Ireland’s “pleasure lake.” The town was named after St Lua or Molua who was a contemporary of St Brendan. We’re talking the 500s here. Lua was hermit before he was a saint, and lived in the little house / church you can see here. It used to be on an island in the Shannon river, but when in the 1930s it was realised a hydroelectricity scheme would submerge the little island, they rebuilt it on higher ground, the highest ground in town, actually, in the grounds of the Catholic church on the top of the hill.  Here it stands in all its sweet loveliness and simplicity. And as you can see it was the best weather in Ireland of the whole year.

Actually, where they placed it is most likely where the King’s palace stood. King’s palace? you ask. Well, yes. Because Killaloe was actually the seat of Ireland’s High Kings for over a

King Brian. Looks like the work of the "Watchtower" illustrator.

King Brian. Looks like the work of the “Watchtower” illustrator.

century. The most well known of these kings was Brian Boru (941 – 1014) and the astute among you will see that next year is the 1000th anniversary of his death. He had just been successful against a hoard of marauding vikings at the battle of Clontarf (yes, Clontarf, Fremantle, people) and was chilling out in his tent, when a rogue viking came in and killed him. His hill-fort-palace of Kincora disappeared long ago, but it’s nice to know the layers of history as we potter around Lua’s house, on top of Brian’s house, next to “God’s House” though for me, this particular one I think of as Harry’s house. Oh Harry.

St Brigid

St Brigid

Harry Clarke I had not heard of until I was visiting the Trinity College library shop a few weeks ago and buying them out of Kells reproduction postcards. The nice lady behind the desk said, oh we have some other very nice postcards by Harry Clarke, stained glass artist. Do you know him? I went and had a look and was greeted by the sensual and melancholic gaze of three dark eyed women who apparently were St Brigid, St Ita and St Dymphna. Gothic. Intense. Erotic. Richly-coloured in purples and burgandy and indigo. Wow. Stunning. Harry grew up in an artsy Dublin family in the late 19th Century, went to art school and followed his father as a craftsman and artist in stained glass. Highly influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement as well as the forms and vibrancy of Art Nouveau, he illustrated many books including collections by Hans Christian Anderson and Edgar Allan Poe. He continued to work his whole life in stained glass though, (taking over as designer when his father died) and it was probably what killed him as well: he died at 42 of tuberculosis, a likely result of the toxic chemicals they worked with.

Harry's Angels

Harry’s Angels

The sacred heart

The sacred heart

There are three windows in St Flannan’s Catholic Church by “J.Clarke and sons” which means that they are amongst his earlier works when he was still working under his father as master craftsman. They do not show the pure flamboyance and originality of his solo work, but as you see, they are absolutely stunning.

So I’m on a mission now to visit as many of Harry’s windows as I can while I’m here. There are over a hundred I think. Amazingly, there is also one in Australia: St Stephen’s Cathedral in Brisbane.

… Anyway back to Killaloe.

Robin and I had a gorgeous day of gorgeous weather. In case these two churches weren’t enough, there was also St Flannan’s Cathedral down on the river bank, a gorgeous old girl, solid and sturdy with her square tower apparently climbable, but sadly not this day. Inside was a twelfth century High Cross and a carved stone with both (Viking) runes and Ogham. Who knows how long and how many blood blisters and stubbed thumbs it took Thorgrimr to carve it. He wrote: Thorgrimr carved this cross. A blessing on Thorgrimr. Bless him indeed.

The Cathedral also has a Romanesque doorway from the 1100s, which has a quiet, vibrant loveliness to it, with its Chevrons (the v-shaped carvings) and menagerie of strange animals and vines, curling around the balanced and simple form. Of course you’ll think we sang in there, but actually we were both a bit shy, and it was so very resonant, it’s like you had to be pretty confidant to just launch into something. Work in progress, the old chant, eh.

The Romanesque arch

The Romanesque arch 

Apart from churches, we found a great health food shop where I ran the risk of spending my life savings on some organic buckwheat, some red lentils and a bottle of shampoo. Robin bought a Clare flag. Up Clare! they say here. Up the banner! Clare was in the all-Ireland hurling championship Saturday week ago, and in a thrilling point scored as the buzzer sounded, drew the match with Cork. They will

Up the banner!

Up the banner!

play again next weekend, and in the meantime, the blue and yellow is strewn far and wide, flags hanging from every window and bunting across the streets. My gosh, hurling is a sport. Actually it’s the fastest field sport that exists, sort of a bit like hockey crossed with lacross but without a little net to hold the ball on your stick. The slither (ball) is made of hard leather and head protection only became the norm a few years ago. How many teeth are lying an inch under the turf on the hurling fields around Ireland I hate to think.

Anyway, thank you Killaloe, we love you. We’ll be back in 2014 to celebrate your millennium and hopefully organise a staged reenactment of the Battle of Clontarf on Clontarf Hill in Fremantle, eh!

And on we go into week two!

Wildgoose signing out.



2 thoughts on “Killaloe: hermits, flags and Harry’s windows

  1. Lucy; this is truly an amazing post; you have settled in to this country in a way that it took me a lifetime to do! carry on!!

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