National and regional borders can be a great help in containing and categorising studies of visual culture. In practice, borders are permeable, just as regional entities – even islands and countries – are not as homogenous as is often assumed. In the same way, looking at stained glass in neighbouring areas across borders can reveal connections and patterns otherwise missed.
Over the last four years, the Ports, Past and Present project has been exploring the history and heritage in and around the five ports that currently link Wales with Ireland – Fishguard, Pembroke Dock, Rosslare, Holyhead and Dublin Port – and the long history of crossings and cultural exchange across the Irish Sea. The project was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through the Ireland Wales Co-operation Programme, to develop tourism between Ireland and Wales and specifically to encourage travellers to explore places that are often passed through. Places of worship can also form part of a tourist offer: medieval traditions about Welsh and Irish saints continue to fascinate visitors and church interiors are home to fascinating works of art and remnants of the medieval past.
Perhaps the best example for this particular project is the medieval collegiate church dedicated to Cybi at Holyhead (Fig. 1), built within the site of the Roman fort. Elaborate early sixteenth-century carving around the door into the south aisle was perhaps complemented by stained glass in the church, but none has survived. Eighteenth-century sources refer to the remains of inscriptions in medieval glass at the church, but the oldest painted or coloured glass in the church probably dates to around the 1840s and is likely to be the work of David Evans.
Connections both to the sea and to the communities across it are sometimes evident in stained glass commissioned for churches. Stained glass in the present east window of 1897 by Charles Eamer Kempe was given in memory of William Watson, the managing director of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company; the earliest known window at the nineteenth-century Church of St Seiriol (now demolished) was placed there in memory of Vice Admiral Charles Frederic Schomberg, who died in Holyhead in September 1874.
The window at St Seiriol’s is now on display at the Maritime Museum in Holyhead, and includes a scene of Christ calming the storm, as well as another of Christ teaching from a boat. Both episodes are represented in the east window of the church at Rhoscolyn, not far from Holyhead on Holy Island (Ynys Gybi), with a focus on Christ saving Peter from drowning as he walks on the water, together with the appearance of Christ on the shore after his resurrection. The theme of the calming of the storm was also interpreted by John Petts in his west window for the Church of St Mary, Fishguard (Fig. 2), with the words ‘Peace be still’; these words, he suggested, would have a particular resonance for those in the town familiar with the high winds of the winter storms.
The window commemorating Charles Frederic Schomberg can be attributed to Heaton, Butler & Bayne, and the same designs were used with much brighter colours in another window made by the firm for the Church of Fimbarrus, Fowey, in Cornwall in 1876. Although the firm of Heaton, Butler & Bayne are not known to have been responsible for further stained glass in Holyhead, they found plenty of patronage in Ireland. Across the Irish Sea at Dún Laoghaire – the departure point for Holyhead until Stena closed their terminal in favour of Dublin Port in 2015 – Heaton, Butler & Bayne made a series of large windows for the Mariners’ Church (Church of Ireland, Fig. 3), which is now home to the National Maritime Museum of Ireland.
Twentieth-century windows by Irish makers are scattered across Catholic churches in Wales, and two windows by Clarke’s of Dublin are found in the Catholic church in Fishguard. The first was made in 1929, depicting the Virgin Mary appearing to St Thérèse of Lisieux, in a style that is close to that of Harry Clarke, and the second is probably the work of William Dowling. The later window was commissioned in 1944, and a further version of this design by the firm can be found across the sea in the Church of the Assumption in Wexford, opposite a striking window by Harry Clarke of the Virgin and Child adored by St Adrian and St Aidan.
The saints found in stained glass also sometimes embody connections between Ireland and Wales. The eleventh-century Latin Life of St David tells us that David’s disciple Aidan, who was also known as Madog, went to Ireland and built a monastery at Ferns. He is shown as a richly-dressed bishop in Clarke’s window, and images of him can be found in many other churches in and around Wexford and Ferns. At the Catholic church in Ferns a lively scene by Lua Breen made in 1976 (Fig. 4), shows Aidan setting sail with his own disciples, as he bids farewell to St David. Aidan (as Madog) is also represented in several windows of the 1970s and 80s in Pembrokeshire.
The window of Madog by Frank Roper at Talbenny on the Pembrokeshire coast is one of four saints, including St David, St Martin and St Bride. The name of Bride (Brigid, or Ffraid in Welsh) was given to St Bride’s Bay, that extends north from Talbenny to St Davids. As well as the medieval church on the bay at St Brides, a sixteenth-century Welsh tradition claimed that Ffraid had landed at Tywyn-y-Capel, on Holy Island near Holyhead, having set sail from Ireland on a turf of grass. Her medieval chapel on the dunes was ruined by the eighteenth century and finally lost to the sea in the mid-nineteenth century. She was included in the east window of the new church, dedicated to St Ffraid, at Trearddur Bay, which was made by Christopher Charles Powell in 1940.
St Patrick is perhaps the saint that best embodies links between Wales and Ireland. Although he was British, the birthplace of the apostle of Ireland has been argued over by scholars for many years. Early in the Life of St David, the hagiographer, Rhygyfarch ap Sulien, tells us that St Patrick went to Ireland to make way for St David, who was yet to be born. The church in Rosslare Harbour is dedicated to Patrick, and he is depicted in a big baptistry window by George Walsh as part of his scheme of windows made in 1969. The ferries from Rosslare go to both Fishguard and Pembroke Dock, and a medieval tower behind the dock wall at Pembroke Dock is all that remains of the church of Paterchurch. This church was once dedicated to Patrick, as was the chapel now lost to the dunes at Whitesands near St Davids, and are hints of the medieval cult of Patrick in Pembrokeshire.
The east window by Paul Woodroffe at the Church of St Mary in Pembroke Dock (Fig. 5) neatly sums up the connections between Ireland and Wales with a depiction of St Patrick, representing the Irish community in Pembroke Dock, and the younger St David, patron of Wales.
Two books on the stained glass in Fishguard and on Holy Island were published in 2023, and further information on the imagery of Aidan/Madog, Patrick and Brigid/Ffraid can be found in Welsh Saints from Welsh Churches [Reviewed by Adrian Barlow]
Martin Crampin, Stained Glass in Fishguard (Aberystwyth: Sulien, 2023).
Martin Crampin, Stained Glass on Holy Island, Anglesey (Aberystwyth: University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, 2023).
For a series of short articles on the connections across the Irish Sea rooted in medieval and modern traditions of the saints, and the religious art found in coastal churches in and around the Irish Sea Ports connecting Wales and Ireland, see:
Author Dr Martin Crampin is based at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies and worked on the Ports, Past and Present project from 2019–23.