Harry Clarke,famous for his stunning stained glass windows scattered all over Ireland, crafted a series of windows depicting the life of Christ that now hang in an obscure chapel in Dingle. To see one Harry Clarke Window is a gift. To see twelve at once is an mystical experience.
The Dingle Peninsula in Ireland’s south west corner is a magical place. Apart from the well-known sites like Slea Head, Gallarus Oratory, the mysterious Blasket Islands, bee hive huts, and Mount Brandon, the Harry Clarke windows in the Chapel of the Sacred Heart at the old convent of the Presentation Sisters are hidden jewels often undiscovered by the traveler who walks the streets of Dingle town.
Perhaps it’s no wonder that Dingle – one of the thinnest places in Ireland – drew unto itself one of the largest collection of Harry Clarke windows installed in a single location.
The windows are housed is a small chapel situated next to St. Mary’s Church on Green Street. Visitors can stop in the An Diseart Visitor Centre and ask for a guided tour, or contact the Centre ahead of time and secure a appointment to view the windows. The young woman who conducted my personal tour explained that this was once a convent and the chapel was solely for the nuns. They were the only beneficiaries of this magnificent art except for on rare occasions.
Harry Clarke was the son of a craftsman. He started working with stained glass under his father’s direction when he was in his teens. After he completed his education, Harry Clarke began his professional career as an illustrator. His illustrations adorned books of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and Edgar Allen Poe. It was Clarke’s craftsmanship as an illustrator that set his stained glass windows apart from other famous stained glass artists. The detail to fine lines and his method for using lead to carefully outline his figures was unique. His use color, particularly his shades of blue, made his windows stand apart.
This little chapel next to the grand St. Mary’s Church houses twelve lancet stained glass windows by Harry Clarke. Many churches in Ireland will claim one Harry Clarke window as an element to attract visitors. (And viewing one window IS worth a visit anywhere). But to have twelve all together in one spot is enough to take one’s breath away. Each pair of double windows depicts one of six scenes from the life of Christ – Visit of the Magi, Baptism by John the Baptist, Suffer the Little Children, Sermon on the Mount, Agony in the Garden, and Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene.
The faces of Harry Clarke’s characters in theses windows draw the admirer into the work of art – connecting on a deep level. The eyes of the figures follow you as you move around the chapel, and the expressions on the faces are full of emotion. They haunt you after you leave.
The series of windows transports the gazer … lifts the spirit into another realm. They stimulate the imagination.
In 1929, mystical writer George Russell (aka AE) wrote, “Harry Clarke is one of the strangest geniuses of his time … He might have incarnated from the dark side of the moon.” ~The Irish Statesman
If you’re in Dingle, ask about the Clarke windows. Anyone can direct you to St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The former convent – now theAn Diseart Visitor Centre is next door. Only escorted tours are offered and the hours of operation for the Centre vary so call ahead and inquire about a guided a tour.
The tour takes about and hour and there are beautiful walled gardens as well as a hidden tunnel that can be explored with a guide. But make the chapel the last thing you see, because everything after that will be underwhelming.
The Harry Clarke windows in Dingle are on the Places of Resurrection Tour in 2015
The Beara Peninsula which straddles Counties Cork and Kerry has some of the most mystical sites in Ireland scattered over its terrain. The Uragh Stone Circle, not too far off the main road from Kenmare to Ardgroom is one such site. The circle has 5 small stones and one large alignment stone. Surprisingly, this stone circle doesn’t appear in guidebooks or local destination publications. I only found it due to the signage along the roadside. This site is well worth traveling thousands of miles – just for the view and the energy in the place itself.
The circle rests on a small hill that sits between two lakes – Cloonee Lough Upper and Loch Inchiquin. The back drop is of mountains, veined by waterfalls. I noticed the colors of the mountains continually change as the ever-moving sunlight shifts. The effect is similar to a kaleidoscope with muted earth tones. Stand still and watch the landscape change.
A dirt road reaches the circle, and one must cross a bridge to get to the hillock. When I was there it was damp and muddy. Traversing up the hill to the circle required boots, but well worth the challenging mud holes. Standing on the hill near the circle I could see that this was the center of the vast landscape all around. The view over Loch Inchiquin is spectacular.
This spot is magical.
The circle itself has 5 stones tangentially placed and one great alignment stone that appears to line up with the axial stone though very close in proximity. The massive alignment stone is over 10 feet high. It dwarfs every other element of the landscape.
It’s easy to imaging Uragh Stone Circle as a portal to another place or another realm. The changing light, the shifting colors, the solitary setting of the circle – all these elements consume the spirit. I lost track of time while there. After awhile a young couple walked up the dirt road from the opposite direction – past the circle. They said they’d been watching me from the hillside. I seemed so determined to reach the circle through the mud. So they came out for a walk. They were vacationing there on Beara for a week. When I asked where they were from, they replied Washington DC (just 35 miles from my home at the time).
Strange coincidences tend to occur in thin places.
The area in southwest Ireland – West Cork and much of Kerry – has over 100 prehistoric stone circles. What was the purpose of these circles and how were they used? One can only speculate. Reading the seasons, sacred worship, sacrificial offerings, astronomical clocks, burial grounds … these are just some of the uses the pre-Christian people of Ireland had for these stone circles. But there’s much more about the circles we still don’t know.
The circles in this region all have an odd number of stones. Drombeg has 13 – but it originally had 17. Most of the Cork / Kerry circles follow a specific astronomical orientation, having an axial stone (usually a lower, shorter stone in the circle) on the western edge opposite a set of entrance or portal stones (usually taller) on the eastern edge. The axial stone is also called the recumbent stone. In the photo above, the two portal stones are in the center of the photo and the lower, axial stone can be seen between them on the opposite side of the circle.
A Winter Solstice Light Show
You can barely see the little notch in the hills behind the circle, but the hills define a sort of “V” on the horizon. On the winter solstice (Dec 21 – the shortest day of the year), the sun dips just under the ridge of that V in the hills, but as the earth moves the sun comes into the V in near perfect alignment with the axial and entrance stones – shooting its concentrated rays directly across the center of the circle. Accounts by people who have seen this process state that it looks as if for a few moments, the circle itself is illuminated independently of the surrounding landscape.
Why would this process have been important to these ancient people?
The Ridge is Man-Made
Excavations around the site back in the 1950s showed buried human cremated bones near the center of the circle coupled with broken pottery shards and stones. There were other burial pits near the circle with the same combination. Oddly, the shards of pottery and the stones seemed to be as revered in burial as the human bones. Excavation also proved that the plateau where the circle rests (Drombeg means “small ridge”) is man made. The people who built this circle evidently leveled the land – or ridge – to affect the perfect winter solstice drama that occurred in the circle during sunset.
Prehistoric Huts Nearby
In the same complex, near the stone circle are the remains of two prehistoric huts that were probably used for cooking – what we might call a “commercial kitchen” today. One of the huts had a capacity to boil about 70 gallons of water. Hot rocks from a fire were placed into a rectangular stone basin and within 20 minutes the water would come to a boil and remain hot for about 3 hours. This was probably how the ancient people boiled their meat. Remains of what was probably an oven are in the second circular hut. This tells us that the area wasn’t just a place to read the seasons or practice sacred ritual. The circle would have been a place of community.
The Drombeg complex is located between Skibbereen and Kinsale, and is easy to access with parking relatively close to the site. My first visit to Drombeg was in February of 2007. It was a cold, dreary, rainy day. I arrived tired. It was my last site of the day. The time was 5:00 pm. As I approached the site from the car park, I was unimpressed at first. The site seemed to have no sense of place. In fact, save for the shadows from the stone circle, the site looked like another farm field with houses nearby.
But as I walked into the complex and took in the surroundings, the place became magical. This is a site worth visiting. Take some time to gather your senses about you and notice everything about the surroundings – the distant hills, the views of the sea, the sounds, the light, the stones themselves. Then when your sensitivities are peaked, enter the circle through the Portal stone entrance.
The following is from my travel journal which is mostly transcribed recordings of impressions I dictated into a digital recorder during the visit.
I take back what I said about this site being unimpressive. The stone circle is beautiful. It’s in a big clearing where the entire valley just unfolds as you approach the circle. And there are views of the sea – the Celtic Sea.
There are hills and hills of green. Expansive sky. It’s a big wide area. It’s a beautiful stone circle. The stones are thick and tall.
Walking through the entrance of the Drombeg portal stones is pretty powerful. You walk in through the center and you can feel it. There’s just something sacred about the center of the circle.. I noticed the axial stone had two notches. There is energy here. Old energy. Ancient energy.
One of the most scenic drives in Europe is the Dingle drive around Slea Head – the western tip of the Dingle Peninsula where glimpses of Slea Head and the Blasket Islands provide stunning sea views.
My favorite part of the drive is just past the Great Blasket Center. Across the water on sees the “Sleeping Giant” – an off-shore island that looks remarkably like a giant stretched out on his back with hands resting across his stomach.
Nearby on the hilly ground on the land-side of the road are abandoned potato farms, left when the blight hit, never to be reclaimed. Whether sunny, cloudy or pouring rain, the Slea Head drive offers the traveler or pilgrim a peaceful, scenic look that has been relatively unchanged for centuries.
Slea Head is marked by a life-size white crucifix with Mary and St. John standing by. It appears incredibly stark in contrast to the gray rock and earth behind it and the blue / white surf below it. The white statues stand out, identifying Slea Head to the fisherman, and on a clear day- even some islanders can catch a glimpse.
One of the few places in Ireland I can photographically remember is Kilshannig, a small dilapidated village on the Dingle peninsula at its northernmost point. Most visitors that spend a day or less in Dingle seldom visit the northern route which has spectacular sea views, beautiful sandy beaches and commanding perspectives of Mount Brandon.
Just past Castlegregory is the turn-off to go out toward Rough Point. Kilshannig is a hilly village with a few small houses and narrow roads. We found cows wandering freely on the roadside and most of the buildings looked vacant. St. Senan or Seanaigh built a monastery in the Magharee Islands just off the coast of this village in the 7th century that was accessed by sea. A 15th century (some say earlier) church ruin now occupies the site at the edge of village overlooking Brandon Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. This little church was the mainland church for the monastery on the island.
Inside the church walls is cross-pillar slab from the 7th century. It has a Greek style cross carved on it and has been white washed. There are similar carvings on pillar slabs in Glencolmkille in County Donegal. It’s believed that the slabs were part of a pagan ritual before the area was Christianized. This may have served as a wayside marker. No one really knows for sure what these standing stones represented.
What a remarkable experience to add one’s own hands to the collection of thousands that have traced the engraved path of the cross on that ancient stone.
Cary Meehan, author of A Traveller’s Guide to Sacred Ireland writes:
“In the graveyard is a cross pillar with a fine incised cross with expanded terminals and a double spiral at its base, similar to those at Kilfountain, Kilmalkedar, and Reask.”
The ruined church was converted to a cemetery as were most of the church ruins in Ireland. And though the church was built on high ground above the sea, Brandon Bay has occasionally eclipsed the banks and invaded some of the old graves. Bones have washed out of the graves and litter the area in and around the church. While it was a somewhat macabre site for us, it was also a reminder that our remains join all the elements of nature eventually. We all return to dust.
We found some interesting green chards scattered in one place. They had no sharp edges, either glass shards worn down by the sea or some type of stone.
The views from Kilshannig are spectacular. Mount Brandon dominates the western view with Brandon Bay lapping up on a shoreline that extends nearly a half mile out to sea. In the distance, the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean can be seen and heard. The silence of the village – save for the wind and sea – is almost eerie. This is a holy place.