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Harry Clarke’s Modernist Gaze
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In 1914 the Civics Institute of Ireland announced a competition for a new plan for Dublin, aimed at confronting the city’s notorious slums. Professor Patrick Abercrombie’s winning entry appeared in 1922 as Dublin of the Future, with the planner and his team updating their original proposal to register the damages the city suffered during the 1916 Rising, the subsequent War of Independence, and the Civil War. The publication includes a frontispiece, “The Last Hour of the Night” (figure 1), by stained-glass artist and illustrator Harry Clarke (1889–1931). This ominous black and white illustration suggests the postindependence state of major Dublin buildings—including the General Post Office, the Four Courts, and the Custom House—all envisioned in flames. On the right a Georgian tenement slum appears to disintegrate into the street. The illustration’s central focus is a looming androgynous devil figure, catwalking through Dublin with one hand on the tenements and the other stoking the fire, his flowing rags suggesting the Liffey’s unifying force now depicted as a flood of decay. Although the Dubliners in the image stroll past the destruction, curiously immune to the decay, violence, and terror that preoccupy the illustrator, viewers cannot be so cavalier. Clarke’s devil pointedly gazes out, fixing them with a cold, even derisive, stare, implying a modern Gothic complicity in the horrors of postrevolutionary Ireland’s slum life.1

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Figure 1. 

Harry Clarke, The Last Hour of the Night (1922), frontispiece to Patrick Abercrombie’s Dublin of the Future (Civics Institute of Ireland), London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1922

Clarke was a leading figure of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement, a group of artists and craftsmen and women working during a period roughly concurrent with the Irish Revival and the rise of International Modernism. Although influenced by English and North American Arts and Crafts activity, the Irish movement represented less a negative response to the mass production of modern industry and more a search for “modern vernacular expression” in a country experiencing both rural depopulation and urban squalor.2 Nicola Gordon Bowe describes Irish Arts and Crafts in terms that might equally well apply to Harry Clarke’s work: “In Ireland, the movement was as much concerned with political, social and cultural ideology as the making of beautiful, functional, materially fitting objects and, in Dublin, with a passionate striving for individual, ‘modern’ visual expression based on glorious past achievement in craftsmanship, set against an urban backdrop of decay, unemployment and disease.”3

The poverty of tenement life in Dublin was familiar to Clarke, whose studios on North Frederick Street occupied a distinctly urban atmosphere. As prosperous city dwellers moved to southside suburbs like Rathgar and Terenure, the Georgian center of Dublin became a tenement catch basin for the rural poor migrating into the city. The most impoverished parts of the capital were in north-central Dublin, near Clarke’s studios. Here the vast Georgian houses of North Great Georges Street and Mountjoy Square held as many as sixty or seventy tenants, and overcrowding, disease, and death rates in turn-of-the-century Dublin slums exceeded those of any other European city.4 Such urban poverty, as well as the chaos of recent political upheaval, made life in this period insecure, even as nationalists strove to foster a sense of moral and cultural stability. A dark slum-urban Gothic—expressing itself in Clarke’s imagery and finding its literary parallels in early twentieth-century Irish Modernism—remains largely hidden from the historical record. Clarke’s stained-glass windows, like his 1922 frontispiece “The Last Hour of the Night,” provide visual evidence of how an ominous modern Ireland generated such new Gothic cultural forms.

This essay explores Harry Clarke’s ecclesiastical stained-glass work to reassess his oeuvre in the context of revisionary readings of early twentieth-century Irish culture. What did modern Ireland look like in 1922, and how did artists and writers envision the future of the Free State? Until recently, interpretations of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century cultural nationalism and Revivalism generally ignored International Modernism, presumably in response to the conservative outlook of a nation state recently emerging from conflict...

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