The Honan Chapel & Collection - Essays and Discussion

This collection of essays about the honan serve to provide a forum for discussion, and facilitate in the gathering of knowledge about the chapel and collection.

Short Essays

The part played by women in the making of the Honan Chapel

Elizabeth Wincott Heckett

The early 1900s were times of change for women in Ireland as they were more widely in Scotland, England and Wales. Emancipation was in the air. During the latter half of the nineteenth century young women began to take advantage of art and craft classes offered by the new art colleges in cities like Glasgow and Cork. These classes were intended to benefit young working men but appealed to middle class girls looking to educate themselves and gain financial independence. Some spent time in London at the South Kensington College where, for example Evelyn Gleeson, daughter of a Dublin doctor, later founder of the Dun Emer Guild, learnt to design and make carpets under the instruction of Henry Mullins.

These new trends are well illustrated by the achievements of women artists and craftspeople in the Honan Chapel. Both middle and working class women in Cork and Dublin took an active part in the design and construction of stained glass windows, book-bindings, vestments and liturgical textiles.

The well established artist Sarah Purser, RHA, whose An Túr Gloine studio made some stained glass windows for the Chapel, was a member of the Irish Arts and Crafts council as were Sir John O‘Connell, Sir Bernard Windle and Evelyn Gleeson. Purser employed artists Ethel Rind and Catherine O’Brien to design some of the Honan windows (Rind: St. Carthage; O’Brien: scenes from the life of Christ, St. Flannan and St. Munchin). The artist, Eleanor Kelly, based in Dublin, designed and crafted the tooled bindings of the missals.

As noted Evelyn Gleeson started the Dun Emer Guild in Dublin. This was in 1902 when she left London; her partners in the venture were Elizabeth and Susan Yeats. Gleeson had developed a friendship with the Yeats sisters during their years in London. With their brothers William Butler and Jack, they had decided to return to Ireland convinced that Dublin was now significantly more important. The Dun Emer partnership broke up after six years, Gleeson continued with the Guild independently, later sharing design and management with her niece Kitty (or Katharine) MacCormack.

Out of nine altar frontals and dossals made by the Dun Emer Guild five have inscriptions listing the women who designed and executed them. They are: Evelyn Gleeson, Katherine MacCormack (designer) Kate Dempsey, Susan Dillon, Tina Fanning, Sheila Stapleton, Mary Corri, Mary Perry, Mary Kerley, Josephine Mulhall and Kathleen MacLoughlin. The weavers of the red and gold tapestry dossal were Tina Fanning, Cissie Burke, May Keegan and Lily Keegan. Some workers were young girls since Gleeson writes that ‘even the smallest and youngest workers’ had put all their energies into the Honan contract, work much needed by the Guild during the difficult years of the 1914-18 war.

Sets of vestments were made in Cork by Egan and Sons under the direction of Michael Barry Egan. About thirty women over an eighteen month period completed the work. Here again names were inscribed in the cloth of gold chasuble and cope; Ethel Josephine Scully was the designer, and sadly died before the chasuble was completed. Other women named were M. Barrett, H. Harte, A. Calnan, K. Allman, M. Desmond, M. Twomey, H. Ahearne, M. Countie, K. Kramer, T. Good, M.E. Jenkins and N. Barry.

Even with the new improvements in women’s prospects it is striking that, so early in the twentieth century, at least seven women designers were engaged in works for the Chapel. It is equally significant that women textile workers and their skills were acknowledged by name on the liturgical textiles.

If readers of this piece know any of these women as relations or friends of friends, information and reminiscences about their involvement with the Honan Chapel would be most welcome.


Teehan V. and Wincott Heckett E. (eds.) 2004 The Honan Chapel – a Golden Vision. Cork University Press, Cork.

Wincott Heckett E. 2004 ‘The Embroidered Cloths of Heaven; the Textiles’ in Teehan V. and Wincott Heckett E. (eds) The Honan Chapel – a Golden Vision. pp. 133-61, Cork University Press, Cork.

Posted 2006-11-5

Does anyone have any comments to add for discussion?

James Cronin, 2006-11-5