‘How exciting it was to be a Catholic’

Week II.

Clare at work on her Madonna and Child which she hoped would be accepted by Galway Cathedral.

Clare at work on her Madonna and Child which she hoped would be accepted by Galway Cathedral.

 When Clare Sheridan bought Spanish Arch House in the late autumn of 1946, she was seeking refuge from an eventful life, to find peace and quiet to continue her sculpture, and needed time to give expression to her religious fervour. She had recently converted to Catholicism, and could not resist telling anyone who listened ‘how exciting it was to be a Catholic.’

She was only in her mid fifties, yet she looked much older. She had inherited her father’s (Hugh Moreton Frewen ) restlessness, and up to her arrival in Galway had travelled, writing and sculpting, through North Africa, the Balkans, Turkey, Europe, America, and Soviet Russia. Her adored husband William Sheridan, was killed at the Battle of Loos, September 1915, and two of her three children, Elizabeth and Dick, both died tragically to her inconsolable grief.

She was a journalist, and believed to be a Russian spy. Among her many acquaintances, were Princess Margaret of Sweden, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, Dianna Cooper, Vita Sackville-West, and Vivian Leigh; and if we are to believe the legends then Leon Trotsky and Charlie Chaplin were madly in love with her, while Benito Mussolini, snorting and red with lust, chased her around his enormous office in a sexual fever.

It is easy to dismiss Clare Sheridan as an eccentric English woman. Although she was one of a kind, she was an artist, and arriving in Galway she instantly saw the wreckage of medieval stone carvings either abandoned around the old town or still embedded in its walls. Thanks to her she bought for £5 the 15th century Athy doorway from a wall in Abbeygate Street, and reassembled the door and window (which once led into the prosperous home of the Athy tribe ), on top of the Spanish Arch. Undoubtedly she saved it from becoming rubble, as there was little interest in old stone carvings at the time.

‘They were fascinated’

Although Clare shared her time here with her cousin Anita Leslie at Oranmore Castle, where she did most of her carving, she became a well known figure in the town. She was described as a woman who floated along ‘in her violet-shaded tweed cloaks’, often with ‘ecclesiastical designs’. Unlike her father Moreton Frewen, she had no interest in money, and rarely had money to spend. Women in the Claddagh, who sold fish in the square before her house, regularly left some in her door. Clare believed that artists should be fed and looked after by the community, rather than receive a salary. She accepted the offerings gratefully.

Initially she found it hard not to tell everyone about her Catholic conversion. Anita tells us that on the Dublin to Galway train ‘she couldn’t resist telling the ticket collector and the tea waiters how immensely exciting it was to become a Catholic. Born and reared in the faith themselves, they were fascinated to learn what it felt like to get it late in life. They ceased clipping and serving, to sit and chat. Some nuns got in - there are always nuns on Irish trains - and she was able to add delight to their journey…’

No trousers

As plans for Galway’s cathedral progressed, and still glowing from the joy of becoming a Catholic, Clare felt that it was only a matter of time before she was given a commission. To hurry matters along she undertook to carve from a gigantic Sussex oak, a rather austere Madonna, wrapped in a large cloak, with the child Jesus standing at her feet. She spent twelve months working on the project. But when she suggested that it could form the centre of a Lady Chapel, in the Cathedral no one showed any interest.

When finally the cathedral was opened in 1965 and she saw the bright, modern mosaic of President John F Kennedy (who had visited Galway two years previously ), she railed against the bad taste that allowed such a travesty of design to appear in the very place she had hoped would accommodate her Madonna and Child.

But an even more discouraging instant occurred when she offered the statue to a convent guest- house. It was politely refused. It was pointed out to her that the Holy Child ‘had no trousers’. It would not be a fit article to be seen in a religious guest-house. Some people could be shocked.

Clare, apparently, was lost for words. She could only reply with all the anger and hurt she felt at rejection: “The Renaissance did not consider underwear necessary, so why should you!”

Next week: From Russia with Love.

NOTES: Clare Sheridan’s collection of stones is now prized, and will be exhibited in the planned enlarged Galway Museum, which will incorporate Spanish Arch House, in the near future. The pillars on either side of the front door of Spanish Arch House are from Ardfry House, now a ruin in east Galway.

Richard Hayward, the writer of popular regional travel books, criticised her purchase. In his Connacht and the City of Galway (1952 ) he argued that no private purchaser should have been allowed to buy a civic treasure. However, the fact that it was neglected at the time, even though regarded as the finest example of carved Medieval stone in Ireland, meant it was unlikely to have survived intact. All Clare’s ‘treasures’ now belong to the city.

Sources include Cousin Clare - The Tempestuous Career of Clare Sheridan by Anita Leslie, Hutchinson and Co., London, 1976.

Listen to Tom Kenny and Ronnie O'Gorman elaborating on topics they have covered in this week's paper and much more in this week's Old Galway Diary Podcast.


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