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

Honan Chapel, Cork: influences of Jesuit education on the Irish Arts & Crafts movement (1894-1925)

James G. R. Cronin, History of Art & Adult Continuing Education, University College, Cork

Jesuits and the Arts and Crafts movement seem an unlikely association. Yet, if we consider the influence of Jesuit education on the patrons of the movement then the association appears more plausible. Rooted in the spirituality and humanism of the Gospel, the Jesuit educational ethos encourages the development of the whole person. Links between Belvedere College in Dublin and the Honan Chapel in Cork offer insights into the cultural influence played by the Jesuits through education in Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century.

This essay illustrates the rich connections between Jesuit education and the Irish Arts and Crafts movement through a case study of the Honan Chapel, on the grounds of University College, Cork. These connections were noted, but only briefly mentioned, in Elizabeth Heckett and Virginia Teehan’s pioneering monograph on the Honan Chapel commission entitled The Honan Chapel: A Golden Vision published in 2004. Nicola Gordon Bowe, a leading scholar of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement (1894-1925), first argued the Jesuits at Belvedere College, Dublin, educated many of the notable patrons and artists of this movement. Alumni included Thomas Bodkin, a former director of the National Gallery of Ireland (1927-35), who was nephew to the art collector Hugh Lane. 1 This survey will sketch the roles played by John O’Connell, Laurence Waldron and Harry Clarke in the Honan Chapel commission. All three men had been educated at Belvedere College.

The Honan Chapel, was dedicated to St. Finbarre of Cork on 5th November 1916. It is a unique case study illustrating the role played by the Dublin art and craft schools in helping to revive Cork craftsmanship in the first decades of the twentieth century. Both the building and furnishings were designed and produced as a single commission. This accounts for an overall harmony of style and design and the rich interplay of Celto-Byzantine motifs in the fabric of the building and the ornate furnishings, altar plate, hangings and vestments. The traditions of Celtic art and Hiberno-Romanesque architecture were blended with tastes for the Symbolist and Art Nouveau styles, engaging in fantasy and decoration, popular in Europe before the outbreak of the First World War (1914-18). In Ireland, this period was known, artistically, as the ‘Celtic Twilight’: a time for rediscovering a lost national identity through Celtic art and myths. It is manifest in the poetry of W. B. Yeats and the plays of J. M. Synge. Visually, the patrons of the Honan commission were searching for a new sense of Irish national identity on the threshold of political independence from Britain. 

Rev. Sir John Robert O’Connell was a philanthropist with a refined civic sensibility. He was very active in the cultural and social life of Dublin at the turn of the twentieth century. Educated at Belvedere College he later joined its Board of Governors. He ran the firm of T. F. O’Connell & Son, solicitors in Dublin, which had a very extensive practice. He was active as a committee member of the Arts and Crafts Association and as a member of the senate of the University of Dublin. In 1914 O’Connell was conferred with a papal knighthood. O’Connell had Cork connections. His aunt Mother Aloysius O’Connell left Rutland Street in Cork city centre in 1843 to found a community of the Sisters of Mercy in Oaklea, Sunderland in the northeast of England near Newcastle. The sisters were committed to the alleviation of poverty and the education of the poor. When John was ordained a priest, following the death of his wife, Mary, he said his first mass in Oaklea. In later life, O’Connell endowed a sister convent, formerly in Green Street, Sunderland, with liturgical gifts. 2 This example illustrates his lifelong philanthropic spirit.

Although the Honan Chapel is dedicated to Cork’s patron St. Finbarre its name commemorates the chapel’s benefactors, the Honan family, ‘merchant princes’, with Limerick connections, who had made their fortune in Cork through the grain and butter export trade during the nineteenth century. The last surviving member of the Honan family, Isabella Honan, died in August 1913. Before her death she appointed Sir John Robert O’Connell, to be the family’s legal executor with sole responsibility to distribute the assists most appropriately. In Dublin, O’Connell had been privately working for the abolition of tenements. As Honan executor, he saw an opportunity to imaginatively engage with culture for social benefit. In a sense, he acted out utopian Arts and Crafts philosophy, as advocated by William Morris and John Ruskin, from a uniquely Ignatian spiritual perspective. The Arts and Crafts style originated in England in the nineteenth century as a reaction against Victorian mass production and industrial capitalism. Its aesthetic philosophy promoted traditional craftsmanship and honesty of design. It advocated reviving declining crafts in economically deprived localities. 3 Ignatian spirituality affirms human potential: to find where God will best be served and where people will best be helped.4  As a patron of the Dublin Arts and Crafts movement O’Connell was in a central position to commission leading Irish craftsmen and women to furnish a proposed chapel. Correspondence between Sir Bertram Windle, the president of University College Cork and O’Connell, published in the university Gazette, 1914-16, indicate that O’Connell was firmly committed to fostering local Cork craftsmanship for the Honan Chapel project.5 This was particularly poignant since there was unemployment, poverty and a degree of industrial tension in Cork at the time. To illustrate, in the wake of his Honan Chapel commission, Harry Clarke was commissioned to design a window in Holy Trinity Church, Fr. Mathew Quay in the heart of Cork city, to commemorate Very Rev. Fr. Thomas Dowling, O.S.F.C. who had been bestowed with the Freedom of the City in recognition of his successful adjustment of industrial disputes between 1914-18 when he acted as Honorary President of the Cork and District Trades and Labour Council.6

Personal friendships were at the heart of the commission’s success. Sir John was on good terms with Sir Bertram Windle. In Windle O’Connell found a kindred spirit and an enthusiastic advocate of the Celtic Revival and Arts and Crafts philosophy as his unpublished scrapbook testifies.7 In 1914 O’Connell, with the support of Windle and the Munster bishops, purchased St. Anthony’s Hall for the lodging of Catholic male students. This hall had been briefly a House of Studies for the Irish Franciscans. O’Connell was largely responsible for the refurbishment of the hostel which reopened on 20th April 1914. He gifted a series of rare prints to the hostel, now sadly lost, which were intended for the aesthetic education of the residents. With a student population of under a thousand students in 1914, the Honan Hostel served the needs of a quarter of the student population of college. 8

O’Connell and Windle, insisted that the design of the chapel should represent the best of Irish artistic traditions. Twelfth century Hiberno-Romanesque architecture inspired the fabric of the chapel. Inspiration for the furnishings was found in the Insular manuscript tradition of the Book of Kells, in Trinity College, Dublin and the Irish medieval metal working tradition of the Cross of Cong, in the National Museum, Dublin.

The windows in the nave of the chapel illustrate local Munster saints while those in the chancel illustrate the Passion of Christ according to St. John, the Virgin Mary and her husband St. Joseph. Sir John O’Connell’s aspiration to foster fresh Irish talent was expressed in selecting a twenty-five year old stained glass artist, Harry Clarke, to design eleven of the Honan Chapel’s nineteen windows. Internationally, Clarke is regarded as one of the finest stained glass artists working in Ireland in the early twentieth century. This commission, between 1914-17, was crucial in establishing his reputation. O’Connell secured Clarke through the Belvedere alumni network, that included Clarke’s patron, the Dublin broker and businessman, Laurence Waldron. Clarke’s imagination fuses Art Nouveau, Secessionist and Symbolist styles. One can detect traces of Aubrey Beardsley’s style in the Honan commission. Beardsley, an English Symbolist artist, is today best remembered for his sixteen pen illustrations of Oscar Wilde’s dramatic text Salomé: A Tragedy in One Act translated from French in 1894 by Lord Alfred Douglas. Clarke’s glass is strongly linear with rich deep blue and purple tones. Echoes of Japonisme, a late nineteenth century fetish for Japanese art that was to influence Art Nouveau, persist in Clarke’s predominantly flat compositions comprised of blocks of colour. In early Irish hagiography St. Bridgit of Kildare is as powerful as St. Patrick. The linearity of the design and the detailed modeling of the hands and faces of the female saints, especially Saint Gobnait from West Cork and Saint Ita from Co. Limerick, reveal his perception of early Irish female saints as having personalities as strong as their male counterparts. Clarke’s decorative style resembles that of Alfons Maria Mucha, a Czech secession artist, whose windows, commissioned during 1920s, decorate the north section of the nave in St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague.  Mucha is today best remembered for his graphic posters frequently depicting the American actress Sarah Bernhardt who had performed the leading role in Wilde’s Salomé when it was first staged in Paris in 1891.Clarke’s Honan windows are much darker than the Purser windows in the chapel. The Sarah Purser Studio was the leading cooperative workshop in Ireland for stained glass, mosaics and other related crafts. It was known by the evocative name, An Túr Gloine (The Tower of Glass). Alfred Child, Catherine O’Brien and Ethel Rhind, the leading designers of her studio, made the remaining eight windows. Child, who managed the Purser studio, briefly taught Harry Clarke in the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. Child’s windows resemble work by the Munich glass firm, Franz Mayer and Co., popular in Ireland at the time.

Cork craftsmen and women were employed on the commission so providing work for the local community and reviving lost local industries like silver working. Cork Huguenot craftmen had wrought silver since the eighteenth century.9  Cork silversmiths, William Egan & Sons, were responsible for many items of the chapel’s altar plate. John Lees of Cork and local seamstresses working for William Egan & Sons designed the original vestments. The sisters of W. B. Yeats and the designer Evelyn Gleeson of the Dún Emer Guild, Dublin, worked on the original dossals, hanging behind the altar, and the antependia, hanging before the altar. The set comprised the following liturgical colours: white, red, green, violet and black. A black chasuble was worn for the annual Founders´ Day Mass, which took place in the third week of October, and was the ceremonial memorial for the Honan family. The Cloth of Gold was worn on great solemnities instead of green, white or red. It is poignant to note that the names of Cork seamstresses from the Egan workshop in number 32 Patrick Street were inscribed in the lining of the Cloth of Gold. 10 Students from the Crawford Municipal Technical Institute, which became the Crawford College of Art & Design, were involved in the exterior carvings.

The foundation stone of the chapel was laid on 18th May 1915. James Finbarre McMullen was the architect and John Sisk was the builder. Both were Cork firms. McMullen had a profile in the city. He had been High Sheriff for the City of Cork in 1907-08. Significant works by McMullen in Cork city include: Eye, Ear & Throat Hospital, Western Rd. (1897); conservation of the Firkin Crane, built in 1855 in the Shandon district of the city (1900); St. Finbarre’s West Total Abstinence Club, Bandon Road. (1900), formerly known as “Lough Rovers” and now as the “Spires” apartment complex and the remodeling Holy Trinity Church, Fr. Mathew Quay (1906-08).11 Due to his involvement in the Honan Chapel project McMullen was invited to bid for the proposed new entrance to College from Donovan’s Bridge in 1917 following the collapse of the old bridge during the winter floods of 1916-17. In 1996 Sisk & Sons worked as contractors on the O’Rahilly Building project. This complex was built on the site of the former Honan Hostel (1914-91).

Apart from his interest in the visual arts, O’Connell was committed to fostering science and technology in education. Cork’s economy largely depended on agriculture and so he believed that students needed appropriate training in the natural sciences. By June 1915, the Honan Biological Institute was completed with the assistance of £3,000 of the Honan Bequest endowed by O’Connell. It housed zoological and botanical laboratories an aquarium room, research room and offices. There were glasshouses attached to aid the study of plant science. It allowed the natural sciences to move from the cramped location in the quadrangle tower to a more appropriate space. O’Connell also assisted in the purchase of new equipment for the engineering plant house.12

As a central figure behind the Honan commission, Rev. Sir John Robert O’Connell was a catalyst in Irish cultural life at the turn of the twentieth century. His collaboration with Sir Bertram Windle between 1914-17 greatly assisted the physical expansion of University College Cork and the revival of craft industry in Cork. The commission fostered the revival of silver and textile craft working, once central to the Cork economy, and supported local firms, through patronage. Egan’s of Patrick Street continued making liturgical altar plate and textiles until it ceased trading in 1986. O’Connell imaginatively engaged his professional and social connections turning his passion for the visual arts into a medium for social and cultural regeneration. What was it about the ethos of Belvedere College, at the turn of the twentieth century that fostered such an active civic spirit?


1 Nicola Gordon Bowe “A New Byzantium: the stained glass windows by Harry Clarke” in Virginia Teehan & Elizabeth Wincott Heckett The Honan Chapel: A Golden Vision (Cork University Press, Cork, 2004), 163-90. Nicola Gordon Bowe Harry Clarke (The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin, 1979), 21-27.

2 Teehan, V. ‘A Golden Vision John O’Connell, Bertram Windle and the Honan Bequest’ in Virginia Teehan & Elizabeth Heckett The Honan Chapel: A Golden Vision (Cork University Press, Cork, 2004), pp. 29-30. I wish to thank Mother M. Nolasco and the Sisters of Mercy, Convent of Mercy, Oaklea, Tunstall Rd., Sunderland, Co. Durham, England for her assistance in tracing O’Connell’s Cork connections.

3 Paul Larmour The Arts and Crafts Movement in Ireland (Belfast, 1992).

4 Donald Modras Ignatian Humanism: A Dynamic Spirituality for the 21st Century (Loyola Press, Chicago, 2004).

5 I wish to acknowledge the assistance of the Chaplaincy, Heritage Office and University College Cork Archives in tracing sources. The President’s Report  1913/14 mentions that plans were already underway to build “a very handsome chapel” of the Irish Romanesque order see John A Murphy The College: a history of Queen’s/ University College Cork, 1845-95 (Cork University Press, Cork, 1995), 195. John R O’Connell The Honan Hostel Chapel Cork: Some Notes on the Building and the Ideas which Inspired It (Guy & Co., Cork, 1916), 20. Bertram Windle, “The Honan Benefactions” University College Cork Gazette iv 12 June 1914, 103-07. McMullen, J. “St. Finn Barr’s Collegiate Chapel” University College Cork Gazette vii 19 December 1916, 187-88.

6 ‘Roll of the Honorary Burgesses of The City of Cork -Freedom of the City’ Cork City Council accessed 29th February 2008.

7 Thanks to Ms. Laraine O’Connell for allowing me to view this unpublished book. Her mother-in-law Dr Madoline O’Connell is president B. Windle’s grand daughter for details see O’Connell, L. ‘The Windle Scrapbook’ Honan Chapel & Collection Online accessed 27th February 2008.

8 For O’Connell’s role in the patronage of the college see John A Murphy The College: a history of Queen’s/ University College Cork, 1845-95 (Cork University Press, Cork, 1995).

9 John R Bowen &, Conor O´Brien Cork Silver and Gold: Four Centuries of Craftsmanship (the Collins Press, 2005).

10 Jeanne Sheehy The Rediscovery of Ireland’s Past 1830-1930 (Thames & Hudson, London, 1980) 167 ills. 136. Paul Larmour “The Honan Chapel: a shrine to the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement” Decorative Studies V (2002) 23-47.

11 I wish to sincerely thank Ann-Martha Rowan, Irish Architectural Archive, Dublin, for her invaluable assistance in tracing the Cork commissions of James F. McMullen. Ann-Martha Rowan unpublished biographical index of Irish architects, Irish Architectural Archive, Dublin (05 March 2004) 1-19.

12 Bertram Windle “The Honan Biological Institute” University College Cork Gazette v 15 June 1915, 143-46.

Gordon Bowe, N. Harry Clarke (The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin, 1979)
Bowen, J & O’Brien, C. Cork Silver and Gold: Four Centuries of Craftsmanship (the Collins Press, 2005).
Larmour, P. The Arts and Crafts Movement in Ireland (Belfast, 1992)
Larmour, P. “The Honan Chapel: a shrine to the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement” Decorative Studies V (2002) 23-47
Modras, D. Ignatian Humanism: A Dynamic Spirituality for the 21st Century (Loyola Press, Chicago, 2004)
Murphy, J. A. The College: a history of Queen’s/ University College Cork, 1845-95 (Cork University Press, Cork, 1995)
McMullen, J. “St. Finn Barr’s Collegiate Chapel” University College Cork Gazette vii 19 December 1916,187-88
O’Connell, J. The Honan Hostel Chapel Cork: Some Notes on the Building and the Ideas which Inspired It (Guy & Co., Cork, 1916)
Rowan, A. Biographical index of Irish architects, Irish Architectural Archive, Dublin (unpublished)
Sheehy, J. The Rediscovery of Ireland’s Past 1830-1930 (Thames & Hudson, London, 1980)
Teehan, V. & Heckett, E. The Honan Chapel: A Golden Vision (Cork University Press, Cork, 2004)
Windle, B. “The Honan Benefactions” University College Cork Gazette iv 12 June 1914, 103-07

Honan Chapel & Collection Online

Cork City Council

Posted 2008-3-3