St Brigid at home and on tour with Cuala
Posted on: 31 January 2023
To celebrate St Brigid's Day, Dr Billy Shortall, research fellow at the Cuala Press Research Project, shows us how St Brigid was celebrated in the visual art of Cuala Industries, a female run arts and crafts cooperative in the early 20th century.
By Billy Shortall, Ryan Gallagher Kennedy Research Fellow, TRIARC, School of Histories and Humanities.
St Brigid is one of Ireland’s three patron saints along with Patrick and Colmcille. While new generations are interested in her pre-Christian goddess namesake, Brigid the saint continues to be venerated by Irish people. St Brigid was born in Louth is about 450AD and was an important figure in the early Irish church, a fifth century abbess she founded monasteries, most notably one under an oak tree – Cill Dara, Church of the Oak, now Kildare – and an art school for illumination and metalwork. Her Kildare monastery sustained itself with a farm and contained a hospital and a scriptorium. Gerald of Wales, the 12th century priest and historian, described her art school’s output as ‘the work of angels’. St Brigid’s Day, often still referred to by its pre-Christian name Imbolc, is celebrated on the 1st February and heralds the start of spring in Ireland.
In the Irish Revival, St Brigid was celebrated in visual art. Among these representations were designs commissioned by Elizabeth Yeats for the Cuala Press, and designs in embroidery, executed by Lily Yeats and her assistants at Dun Emer and Cuala Industries.
St Brendan’s Loughrea was built by architect William A. Scott in 1902. He, along with the Cathedral’s benefactors, sought to decorate it in an Irish Revivalist arts and crafts style. Among its original artworks were stained-glass windows produced by An Túr Gloine studio, sculpture by John Hughes, and stone carvings by Michael Shortall. Another striking addition to the cathedral interior was a series of twenty-four banners of mostly Irish saints produced by Lily Yeats at Dun Emer, a female run arts and crafts cooperative. The designers were Jack Yeats, Mary Cottenham Yeats, George Russell, and Pamela Colman Smith, all of whom later worked with the Cuala Press, part of the Cuala Industries founded by the Elizabeth and Lily Yeats after dissolving their co-partnership with Evelyn Gleeson at Dun Emer. The Loughrea banners, produced in 1903 were made from silk and wool stitching on Irish linen throughout 1903. Lily Yeats embroidered the figures, and her assistants worked the background on each banner.
Pamela Coleman Smith (Design), Lily Yeats (worked). Naomh Brighid (Saint Brigid), 1903. Embroidery. 84x53cm. Loughrea Cathedral.
The banners were created in the medieval style that Lily learned while working in the embroidery department of Morris & Co in London, as assistant to William Morris’ daughter May. Lily Yeats’ work for Loughrea is defined by bold uncluttered designs, finely worked needlecraft, in block colours, set against a pale background. Pamela Colman Smith’s design for Brigid shows the finely-featured saint demurely looking out at the viewer, hands in prayer, dressed in a nun’s habit, and standing on a green island. The essentialised linear treatment of the saints’ dress and cloak, when seen hanging in situ, created a sense of gentle movement or animation. A contemporary report described the figures portrayed in the banners as familiar, ‘some of them are medieval and some of them might be met in the streets of any Irish village’. The figure’s sense of place and gaelicisation, is amplified by the caption Naomh Brighid, Brigid in Gaelic language and use of Gaelic type.
In January 1922 the emerging Irish State, to announce itself on the world stage, held a seminal exhibition of Irish art in Paris. A re-construction of this event is available at www.seeingireland.ie. The exhibition sought to present a multi-faceted independent Irish identity to an international audience. The Saint Brigid Loughrea banner, or one of the replicas created by Lily Yeats at Cuala Industries, was one of two such banners exhibited. As a patron Saint, Brigid was an important signifier of national identity, and featured in other exhibited works, by artists such as Sean Keating, Harry Clarke, Ethel Rhind, and Wilhelmina Geddes.
Kathleen Verschoyle, Saint Brigid, c. 1920s, Cuala Press, Dublin, hand coloured photoengraved print.
Two artists were commissioned by the Cuala Press to produce illustrations of St Brigid. Art works that can be viewed in a continuum from the illuminations created in Brigid’s scriptorium centuries earlier. In the 1920s, Irish sculptor and artist, Kathleen Verschoyle produced a vibrant design which was accompanied by a poem by her step-mother, and Irish war poet, Winnifred M. Letts. The image is set in an expansive Irish landscape, echoing the flat plains of Kildare, the site of Brigid’s monastery, and shows the youthful saint protecting her spring lambs, denotating the change in season and a biblical reference underlining her role as a protectress of her Irish followers. Her sweeping cloak defies the plainness of her attire, creating decorative and vibrant energy, The Saint’s flower, St Brigid’s flame more commonly known as the dandelion, appears prominently in the foreground. Verschoyle’s design was popular, it was reproduced and hand-coloured both as an art print for framing and as a greeting card. Like many other Cuala cards, because of the Irishness of its theme, it was sent to the Irish diaspora in large numbers as a reminder of home. This card was one of a number exhibited by Cuala Press at the exhibition of Irish Art held in association with the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, an exhibition when the government’s intention was to make a special connection with Irish-America. Other images of the Saint in this show were by Margaret O’Keefe of the Cluna Studios and by the Harry Clarke Stained Glass Studios.
Evie Hone, Saint Brigid, c. 1930s, Cuala Press, Dublin, hand coloured photoengraved print. TCD Business archive, TCD MS 11535/5/5/1/6/8/1
Ten years later a second St Brigid image was commissioned by Elizabeth Yeats from Irish modernist artist Evie Hone. She was an important stained-glass artist and is regarded as one of the founders of the modern art movement in Ireland. Her design for Cuala was bolder and expressionistic, lacking Verschoyle’s decorative approach. Yet Hone’s version, like preceding design follows the theme of protection. A symbolically larger Brigid head bowed and arms outstretched shelters her congregation. A few years later in 1942, Hone completed a St Brigid window for Loughrea Cathedral that borrowed from this Cuala design.
The theme of Brigid, female patron saint, defender of the faithful Irish, and national symbol inspired many artists, not least the women associated with the Dun Emer and Cuala Industries.
The Cuala Press Project is a collaborative research project between Trinity Irish Art Research Centre and the Library of Trinity College Dublin. Funded by the Schooner Foundation, the project is supporting the conservation, research and public access to Trinity's Cuala Press holdings. Read more about the project, here.