Margaret Stokes: a Scholar from Howth

Margaret McNair Stokes (1832-1900) claims the attention of the Early Irish Manuscripts Project for the drawings she made of the paintings in the Garland of Howth (see previous post ).  These, along with many other illustrations that she produced of Irish painting and sculpture from the early Middle Ages provided scholars with detailed images of Irish material to which they may otherwise have had little or no access.  While she is increasingly recognized for her contributions to the study of medieval Irish manuscripts and monuments, her name is far less well-known than it deserves to be.

Fig. 1 Margaret Stokes. © Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.
Fig. 1 Margaret Stokes. © Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.

As the daughter of William Stokes, the prominent Dublin physician who was president of the Royal Irish Academy (1874-1876), Miss Stokes enjoyed family connections to the intelligentsia of nineteenth-century Ireland.1 Through her acquaintance with antiquarians and her access to primary sources, she became an authority on the art and architecture of early medieval Ireland.2

Before taking up her own scholarship, Stokes edited for publication the work of other researchers.  Her work in this regard includes the English edition of Adolf Didron’s Christian Iconography (1886), a text that introduced the scholarly technique of iconography which was then shaping the interpretation of medieval images. Most notably, Stokes was the author of Early Christian Art in Ireland (1886), part of a series of handbooks published by the Victoria and Albert Museum (then known as the South Kensington Museum) and one of the earliest modern studies of Irish art from the Middle Ages.  When she died unexpectedly in September 1900, she was in the midst of a major study of Irish high crosses.3

Cromlech on Howth p 1
Fig. 2 Samuel Ferguson, The Cromlech on Howth (London, 1861), p. 1. Source.
Detail. Cromlech on Howth, p. 1. Source
Detail of drawing by Margaret Stokes for Samuel Ferguson, The Cromlech on Howth (London, 1861), p. 1. Source.

Stokes held a long association with Howth.  Her family had maintained a country house there, called Carraig Breac, since the 1840s.  This became Stokes’ primary residence in her later life.  It was an ode to a Howth landmark that helped bring Stokes’ talent to wider notice. In the small 1861 publication of The Cromlech on Howth, a poem by her father’s friend Samuel Ferguson, Stokes supplied ‘Celtic’ decoration (Fig. 2).  She added expertly observed initials and ornament replicated from the Book of Kells (TCD MS 58) to the text of the poem which was rendered in a facsimile of early medieval Irish script.

Stokes - Garland of crop
Fig. 3 Margaret Stokes, The Garland of Howth, f. 1r., in J.H Todd, Descriptive Remarks on Illuminations in Certain Ancient Irish Manuscripts (Society of Antiquaries, London, 1869). Photo by C.M. Thomas.

Her artistic skill and sharp eye for detail were again put to use when she made reproductions of the paintings in the Garland of Howth.  By the nineteenth century, the Garland of Howth was in the collection of the Library at Trinity College Dublin, however its ties to Howth were well-known (see previous post) as Stokes was undoubtedly aware.  Her copies were published as illustrations for J.H Todd’s 1869 book on early Irish manuscripts (Fig. 3).4 On the quality of the illumination in the Garland of Howth, Todd quoted Stokes for her expertise on the topic: ‘It is no exaggeration to say, that, as with microscopic works of nature, the stronger the magnifying power brought to bear upon them, the more their perfection is revealed.’

Colleen Thomas, Research Fellow


  1. Stokes’ circle included George Petrie, Samuel Ferguson, Edwin R. W. Quinn, third Earl of Dunraven, James Henthorn Todd.  Her brother was a friend of Sir William Betham (see previous post).
  2. Michael Purser, Jellet, O’Brien, Purser and Stokes: Seven Generations, Four Families (Dublin, 2004).
  3. Two shorter works on high crosses by Stokes were published from this material: The High Crosses of Castledermot and Durrow (Dublin, 1898) and Notes on the High Crosses of Moone, Drumcliff, Termonfechin and Killamery (Dublin, 1901).
  4. J.H. Todd, Descriptive Remarks on Illuminations in Certain Ancient Irish Manuscripts (Society of Antiquaries, London, 1869).