Monthly Archives: April 2017

The Lady in Blue – a very brief encounter!

Lady in Blue

Lady in Blue

A visit to my dentist does not always leave me with a happy memory, but thinking back to a cold and chilly January morning certainly brings a smile. Like all the best stories its beauty lay in its surprise and, unfortunately for me, its brevity.
I was living in London at the time and was heading to my office having earlier been for my annual dental check-up. After a filling and polishing, and the inevitable admonishment from the dentist, I boarded the Tube and headed for central London.

As I had missed the main morning traffic I was able to get a seat and relaxed as we rolled towards town. I flicked my tongue across my clean teeth, unfolded my newspaper and started the crossword. I quickly filled in a few clues and then paused and looked up. Across from me one passenger was reading the sports section of a tabloid paper, while a girl sitting beside him was engrossed in one of those glossy magazines that are always full of pictures and gossip. As usual, the cover had an image of none other than the most photographed woman on the planet, namely Diana, Princess of Wales. She appeared on the cover of so many magazines and was the subject of countless articles about her style and love life, and to a lesser degree, her good works. She was beautiful, no doubt, and when the train next stopped I returned to my crossword and filled in some more clues.

A cold, sharp breeze met me straight on as I exited from Green Park station and turned onto Berkeley Street. I kept my head down, my chin stuck firmly into my chest, and headed along the empty pavement to my office that was about a two-minute walk away. Papers and other bits and pieces flew aimlessly about the street as the chilly wind whirled past me.

Where things happen...

Where things happen…

It was mid-morning and the pavement, which was usually a busy and noisy place, was almost empty. It was a slightly strange feeling, and when I looked about I only saw my reflection in shop windows as I walked by. The wind continued to whip at my ears as I crossed the street, and I felt the numbness in my jaw slowly disappearing. Dentists, I thought, and stepped onto the pavement, while down the street a large, black car slowed quietly before stopping at the kerb.

A gust of cold wind knocked me sideways and I cursed once more under my breath. It seemed as though it was going through me and I could not wait to get into the warmth of my office, now only a few hundred yards away, and have a cup of hot coffee.

Looking up I saw the large, black car drive past, its passenger now walking along the pavement. The woman was wearing a bright, blue coat that was the colour of the clear sky above. It stood out against the drab, dark colours around her and I could not help smiling at the woman’s sheer exuberance. Even on such a cold winter’s morning it was easy to see that she had style, and her casual, elegant stride, as we approached each other, made her all the more interesting. I noticed her blonde hair was cut short, but with her chin buried into her coat against the wind I could not get a full view of her face. However, as the distance between us closed I had the odd and pleasant feeling that I knew this person, but who was she?

Was she an old girlfriend who I had not seen in years; or a former work colleague, maybe? Perhaps an actress or singer that I liked? All these thoughts ran around my mind until we were about six feet apart, and her bag suddenly fell to the ground. Without hesitation I stopped forward, bent down and picked it up. The woman also stopped, and thanked me as I handed the bag to her. For the briefest moment the most photographed woman on the planet smiled at me, a smile so natural and warm that I was lost for words. The surprise of the situation was tingling and I finally heard myself utter, dry-throated, ‘Mam.’ For a few seconds she smiled, disarmingly, her eyes beautiful and enchanting. Then, in the time it takes for a couple of heartbeats, she gave me a friendly nod of thanks, turned and walked off in the direction of Piccadilly. And so, in the blink of a slightly watery eye, the vision in blue, Diana, Princess of Wales, was lost in the breezy London morning.

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Serendipity – what a surprise!

Bewleys - colour fun

Bewleys – colour fun

The aroma of coffee was strong and intoxicating, but then it always was in Bewleys. Paul and I were sitting in one of the red banquettes enjoying sticky buns, surrounded by the hum of lively conversation that was unique to the place. It was now almost midday and the sun was shining, filling the café in a magical light. It lit the stained-glass window opposite sending shafts of red, blue, yellow and green light dancing across the floor. I had to admire the craftsmanship that was now seen at its best in a kaleidoscope of shimmering colour.

‘They really are something else,’ Paul said, noting my interest in the window and the changing colours.

‘Yes…they are brilliant.’

Paul continued. ‘They are by Harry Clarke, Ireland’s greatest stained-glass window artist. The man was a genius!’ We looked closely at them, watching as tiny motes of dust floated aimlessly in the shafts of technicolour light.

‘You’re not joking,’ I replied ‘they’re fantastic.’ Of all the times that I had been in Bewleys – and they were many – I had never seen the windows in such a wonderful light and the effect was exciting.

Paul offered. ‘I studied his work when I was in college, and I’ve been a fan ever since. The detail is so good that it takes your breath away. He was a real artist.’

‘Absolutely,’ I agreed.

‘He’s done plenty of other work,’ Paul added, ‘all around the country. Some of the best are in a church in Castletownsend, in west Cork, and well worth a look the next time you’re down there. You should check them out.’

I looked forward to my next visit to Baltimore, from where I could easily visit the small town where Harry Clarke’s windows were waiting. We had a date.

Over the next couple of weeks I did some research into the works of Harry Clarke and was impressed with what I found. He learned his craft from his father, before attending college where he was awarded gold medals and scholarships. He worked on various commissions and also did many illustrations for books. But it was his skill as a master worker in glass that made his name and ensured his place in art history, before he died, aged only 41.

St Barrahane's Church

St Barrahane’s Church

And so it was on a bright day in early May that I drove down the hill, around the tall sycamore tree in the middle of the road that acted as a natural roundabout, and pulled up outside St Barrahane’s Church in Castletownsend. I climbed the 52 steps (one for every Sunday in the year!) and looked out at the still, blue waters of Castlehaven Bay where small boats bobbed in the warm breeze. It was a tranquil scene with only the sound of gulls cawing as they swooped and played in the sunshine.

HC's - Rich colours

HC’s – Rich colours

The old door creaked as I pushed it and stepped into the cool, quiet darkness. I waited for a few moments in the stillness taking in the atmosphere, and then walked slowly up the aisle. Above the old, weathered pews the sun shone through three colourful windows that were created by James Powell of London, the most famous glassmaker of his day.

HC - a lifelike image

HC – a lifelike image

But it was the works of Harry Clarke that drew me forward. Then I stopped, lost in wonderment, as I was bathed in the myriad shafts of colour. The images on the glass were so lifelike, infused with sunlight, that they might have been moving. In the quiet, almost eerie, silence I felt that I was not alone. The work is indeed the stuff of genius, and I was happy to have made the journey.

 Leaving the church I noticed a ship’s oar at the bottom of the stairs that led to the organ balcony. It was from the Lusitania that had been sunk not too far from where I stood, in May 1915. I ran a finger along the blade and felt a shiver run up my back. It was a surprise to come across a reminder of that day when almost 1,200 people lost their lives, now resting awkwardly with the beauty and calm of Harry Clarke’s window.

Outside, I was confused by what I had just experienced. I was delighted to have seen Clarke’s work, and I was now determined to find out about the tragic events that had brought the oar to this beautiful place. The old saying that ‘one thing leads to another’ never seemed so true. Serendipity indeed.

Castlehaven Bay

Castlehaven Bay


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Filed under Art, Dublin, History, Ireland