In January 1915, Sir John O’ Connell commissioned Harry Clarke to create five stained glass windows for the Honan Chapel. Clarke was then only 25. Yet Sir John had every reason to trust this young artist. Clarke had already distinguished himself as a book illustrator of rare talent. Although it was Clarke’s first commission for stained glass, he was already well trained in the art, and had received a number of national prizes and scholarships for his efforts. The work was to occupy Clarke for the following two years and establish his reputation as an artist in stained glass. Clarke himself remarked in later years that he believed the work he undertook for the Honan Chapel to be the finest he had ever done.
By 1916, Clarke had completed windows depicting the three Irish wonder-working saints, St. Patrick, St. Brigid and St. Columcille, as well as windows devoted to St. Finnbarr and St. Ita. They were immediately lauded by the most prominent art critics of the time, who struggled to describe their majesty. The words of one such observer, Oswald Reeves, typifies the purple prose with which contemporary critics and connoisseurs strove to adequately describe the brilliance of Clarke’s work:
"These windows reveal a conception of stained glass that is quite alone… There has never been before such mastery of technique, nor such application of it to the ends of exceeding beauty, significance and wondrousness. No one has ever before shown the great beauty that can be obtained by the leads alone, nor the mysterious beauty and ’liveness’ that each piece of glass receives at the hands of this artist, nor the jewelled gorgeousness of ‘pattern’ that may be given to a window that teems with subject interest and meaning."
Clarke had just returned from a sojourn in France when he received the Honan commission. While in France he had studied the stained glass of many of the great Gothic cathedrals. Indeed some observers proclaimed that Clarke’s windows in the Honan Chapel were the first to match those of the Gothic age in technical virtuosity and richness of imagination. Sir Bertram Windle opined that the gap had been bridged between the medieval windows and the 20th century. Sir John O’ Connell himself was so impressed that he extended Clarke’s commission to eleven windows in all. O’ Connell had already invited the studios run by Sarah Purser, An Túr Gloine, to undertake most of the stained glass work in the chapel. Purser is reputed to have been highly disgruntled by O’ Connell’s turn-around. She and Clarke’s father Joshua were already arch rivals; An Túr Gloine and Joshua Clarke’s studios were the most prominent of the time. That O’ Connell saw fit to reduce the scope of An Túr Gloine’s involvement is testament to Clarke’s young talent.
By 1917, Clarke had completed an additional six windows, depicting Ss. Albert, Declan, Gobnet, Brendan, Mary and Joseph. The response to these windows too was rapturous. All exhibit the distinctive qualities of Clarke’s art. Each of Clarke’s eleven breathtaking Honan Chapel windows are resplendent with deep and lustrous colours. His palette is typically restricted. Yet, the combinations of colours he chooses, and the techniques he employs, such as flashing different coloured panels of glass together to create tones of greater subtlety, achieves great vitality and variation. His saints are ethereal in form, and seem to simultaneously loom out from and fuse with the elaborate symbols and decorative panels which surround them. Another feature of Clarke’s work is his abstraction of the human form; Clarke’s saints are elongated, their features taut and angular. The leads which join the panels of glass themselves form a restless and lively pattern of their own, which increases the dramatic intensity of each window light.
The inventiveness of the leading effects in the St. Gobnet window is characteristic of Clarke’s best work. In this window the figure of the saint is composed from honeycomb-shaped cells, as Gobnet was the patron saint of bees. This elaborate visual symbolism is typical of Clarke, who spent much time researching the life, personality and symbolism of each of the saints he depicted before setting about constructing the windows themselves. As one critic exclaimed, "how happily Mr. Clarke can combine imagination and erudition."