Saint Patrick lighting the fire at Slane
by Michael Healy (1873-1941)
Some artists have a spotlight of fame directed on them from an early age, others have to wait longer. Then there are those who live and work almost unnoticed. Michael Healy belonged to this latter category. Yet he was a superb draughtsman and a pioneer in the technique of his chosen medium of artistic expression—stained glass.
He was born into a Dublin family of modest means, living at 40 Bishop Street, in 1873. Because of the early death of his father, he was obliged to enter the workforce at the age of fourteen. But he loved to draw and spent all his pennies on pencils. Ten years passed by before he was able to fulfil his ambition to study art. In 1897 he attended the Metropolitan School of Art and the RHA Schools, progressing quickly, with the utmost industry, through the different grades. His first job was illustrator of the Irish Rosary magazine, offered to him by the editor, Fr Glendon OP, who recognised his exceptional artistic talent. Fr Glendon was able to get him several other commissions but he urged Michael to continue his studies in Europe, obtaining for him an introduction to the Florentine painter, de Bacci-Venuti. Michael entered the studio of the Master as a pupil and ended up by becoming a lifelong friend.
He returned to Ireland with the intention of entering the Dominican Order but first took on the post of art teacher in Newbridge College, Co Kildare. After one year, realising that he was not called to the religious life he took a very decisive step in a different direction. He joined the new Stained Glass firm of “An Túr Gloine”, founded by Sarah Purser in 1903.
His first window, depicting Saint Simeon, was for Loughrea Cathedral. In the years that followed, working beside other Irish stained glass artists of the twentieth century, such as AE Child, Wilhelmina Geddes and Evie Hone, he designed and crafted hundreds of windows, not only for clients in Ireland but for those in other countries, notably France, England and the USA. Illness prevented him from finishing his final commission of seven windows representing the Seven Dolours of Mary for a chapel in Clongowes Wood College. The work was completed by his friend and colleague, Evie Hone. So it was that this quiet, gentle, solitary, gifted man slipped silently to his death and to his reward in 1941.
The Saint Patrick window for the Church of the Sacred Heart, Donnybrook, Dublin 4, is a cinquefoil panel of five arcs. In the centre, the intrepid Patrick raises his arms in triumph, the triumph of the risen Lord, symbolised by the fire he had lit on the hill of Slane at Tara, in defiance of the High King, whose prerogative it was to light the first fire. The Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, hovers over the fearless Patrick. Two angels occupy the left and right arcs. In the lower left a warrior bows down in homage and on the right an ancient druid raises his eyes to the saint.
Irish people, all over the world, have a great love and reverence for Saint Patrick. His attention to prayer, day and night, as boy-slave and later as priest and bishop, is beacon and model for us.
Sr Maureen’s Selection of Irish Art takes us on a cultural journey as Dominican Sister Maureen MacMahon shares her reflections on the creative works of 42 Irish men and women worth knowing.