Short history on Harry Clarke

Photo:Harry Clarke 1889 - 1931

Harry Clarke 1889 - 1931

Harry Clarke's life

By Averil Staunton

In 1886, Harry Clarke’s father Joshua moved to Dublin, at the age of 18, from Leeds.   He had married a Sligo woman Bridget MacGonigle, and set up his own stained glass and Church decorating business, and manufacturer of objects of Art, at J. Clarke & Sons, No. 33 North Frederick St., Dublin.

Early Days

Joshua and Bridget had four children and Henry Patrick Clarke (Harry) was born of 17th March 1889.   Harry attends Marlborough Street Model School and the Jesuit Belvedere College, Dublin.  His mother died in 1903 and Harry left school and went to work in 1904 with Architect Thomas McNamara, who encouraged him to go into stained-glass design.


Harry returned to his father’s business and began a five-year apprenticeship in 1905.  He also attended night classed at the Metropolitan School of Art, Kildare Street, in stained-glass under A. E. Child.  This gave him an intimate understanding of the nature of glass, and he soon learned to employ sophisticated techniques to create decorative effects. 

Harry went to the South Kensington School of Design for two months in 1906 returning to Dublin afterwards, and followed on with another visit to London in 1907.

Ill Health

Ill health began to raise its ugly head, and he was ill for six months in 1908.   As a result of this he visited the Aran Islands the following year with his friend Austin Mulloy, and returned each summer for the next six years.   Apart from the benefits to his health, he was inspired by the wild and extraordinary nature of the Islands and its inspiration is found in many of his works


He began to get commissions, and exhibited at the Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland and annual Art Industries Exhibition at the Royal Dublin Society in 1910.  The following year 1911, Harry won the Gold Medal for stained-glass at the Board of Education national competition in South Kensington, London, and had a further two wins in 1912 and 1913.

London and Europe

He won a travelling Scholarship in 1913 having left Art School and moved to London.   In 1914, Harry travelled to Paris and Chartres and studied medieval stained-glass.    He was especially inspired by the 12th-century glass in the French cathedral of Chartres and S. Chapelle in Paris.   Harry became especially skilful in exploiting the qualities of the new slab glass, which E.S. Prior had invented in 1889.  The irregularities in the thickness of this coloured glass mimicked that used in medieval stained glass.   He also enhanced the qualities of this richly coloured glass by acid-etching, and the application of stains and fine delicate painting.


In 1914 Harry married Margaret Crilley (originally from Newry, Co. Down), a fellow artist and teacher, whom he had met at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art.   They moved into a flat at 33 North Frederick Street and subsequently had three children, Michael, David and Ann.


Between 1915 and 1918 he was commissioned by Sir John Robert O'Connell to create windows for the Honan Chapel in Cork.    There were eleven single light windows of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and nine Irish Saints.   These magnificent windows were to establish Harry’s reputation as a skilled craftsman, with extraordinary creativity.  Other important commissions followed for windows in churches throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Book Illustrator

Harry was also a very successful book illustrator and in 1913 he had travelled to London to secure a publisher for his book illustrations and secured his first commission from Harrap & Co.  Harrap realised his genius and hired him on the spot, to provide illustrations for an edition of Andersen's FairyTales in both a trade and deluxe edition - almost unheard of for an untested, unknown and very young illustrator.   It was published in 1916.   However,during the Easter Rising the blocks for these books were burnt.  He illustrated six books in total as well as a number of smaller volumes.   However, illustrations may have paid the early bills, but stained glass was his career.

Arts and Crafts

The Arts and Crafts movement triggered a resurgence of Irish art. Clarke designed fabrics and handkerchiefs, boxes and lanterns, but primarily he designed stained-glass windows.

Harry Clarke Studios

Harry’s father, Joshua, died on September 13th 1921.   He then moved into the more spacious Studios at No 6 and 7 North Frederick Street opposite No 33, the original residence, and managed the stained glass business.   His brother Walter, managed the decorating side of the business however he died suddenly in July 1930, and this ended the church and general decorating part of the business.

With his own studios in 1930 Harry continued to obtain commissions and the name of Harry Clarke soon became synonymous with original stained glass work of the highest quality and craftsmanship.   According to W. B. Yeats, "now the acknowledged best glass is made by Harry Clarke".

Ballinrobe Windows

In 1924, Dean D’Alton PP Ballinrobe commissioned windows for St. Mary’s, unusually giving Harry artistic freedom for their design.   This was a bold and innovative step resulting in Harry actually visiting Ballinrobe in December 1925 to see the finished windows in situ as a mark of respect to Dean D’Alton.  This clerical Patron was a sensibility man, and practiced a form of Catholicism that was pushed out of the way in favour of a more authoritarian, puritanical, conservative and Rome-centred type of religion and state. 

However, the Ballinrobe windows are a testament to a type of spirituality that is slowly reawakening a spirit of renewal that some say had become opaque for a number of years. The gap between intellectual culture and material culture in post-Catholic, boom-time Ireland, and the example of Harry Clarke windows for Ballinrobe, as an alternative cultural possibility, in which fin de siècle aestheticism is wedded to native stories and customs.    might be considered as possible evidence of reconciliation.  

The 1925 windows representing the Irish Saints, connect with the West of Ireland and the Tuam Diocese, and are found on the left side facing the Altar.   The four two light windows of 1924 on the right hand side, represent events for the life of Christ.  


Harry had been diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis in 1929 and had poor physical health for most of his life.   Unfortunately, this would have been exacerbated by the use of chemicals and lead in his stained-glass work. 

He travelled to Davos, in Switzerland, on occasions in an attempt to bolster his seriously deteriorating health but, unfortunately, continued to suffer with no improvement apart from short breaks.

In Jan 1931 fearing he might die in a foreign country he left Davos by train to travel home to Dublin.  Harry died in his sleep on January 6th in Coire, Switzerland, at the age of 41.  He was buried in Switzerland but the irony of this location was that after some years, because he was not a Swiss national, his burial plot was reused.

Despite his poor health throughout his short life, Harry Clarke still managed to create some of the finest work produced in the medium of stained glass in the twentieth century, and he remains one of its greatest masters of the 20th century.   

We, in Ballinrobe, have inherited a wonderful legacy left by two men, supported by the community, one with an open and inclusive mind, the other with the genius to fulfil the trust placed in him.


Bowe, Gordon, N, The Life and Work of Harry Clarke, Irish Academic Press, 1994.

Harry Clarke Papers, MS39202, National Library of Ireland, Dublin

Staunton, Averil, Ballinrobe - Aspects of a Visual History, Ballinrobe Archaeological & Historical Society, May 2013

This page was added by Averil Staunton on 16/02/2011.