I spoke yesterday with an artist I know whose young daughter died in May. I only heard the news very recently and didn’t want to merely text or message, so I made a phone call. We had a brief chat and, as sad as it was, I’m glad I made contact. Her daughter, Rachel, died just weeks after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. ‘It is what it is,’ her mother said.
In the hours after our conversation, my thought’s turned to an infant whom I’ve known only because her name is on a stained glass window that depicts Christ the Shepherd holding a lamb to his chest. It's in memory of Mona, the infant daughter of Courtenay and Jessie Mona Moore and it includes the biblical quotation ‘He shall gather the lambs with his arm’. I used a photograph of that window on the cover of a book I wrote 18 years ago. I’ve always liked it but until lately my curiosity went no further. Most people who enter the former church don’t give it a second thought. Because of that window, her parents’ timeless grief and their tragedy have transcended 140 years and I wanted to discover more about this little infant's story.
Who was Mona? Who was this child that inspired such a beautiful piece of art in a building that I share in trust as chairman and director? I began by hunting for her birth certificate which I found in the Superintendent’s Register for the South Dublin Union. I learned that Mona was born in Saint Patrick’s Hospital at Upper Pembroke Street on the 19th of June 1878. Her father was described as ‘Clergyman Church of Ireland’ from Upper Conva, Ballyhooly, and his wife’s maiden name was Jessie Mona Duff. Canon Courtenay Moore has been the catalyst behind my life-long passion for history. His portrait watches over where I sit in my study. Even though he died long before I was born, he has been an inspiration to me for over forty years, and his writings have always inspired and intrigued me since I first read one of his pamphlets when I was in Secondary School.
Research is sometimes hit and miss but I was lucky to find one more record of little Mona. It said that Mona died on the 20th of June 1878. She was three-and-a-half hours old - she didn't make it through a second midnight. Her cause of death was ‘weakness’. I have no idea where she was buried or if she has a headstone but I’m quite sure that her father baptised her and that he prayed over her tiny grave. What else could he and Jessie do but remember and be sad, and hope that their Faith would see them through.
Four years later, Courtenay and his wife moved to Mitchelstown, having left the rectory in Ballyhooly to lead a new flock at Saint George’s Church, in the parish of Brigown. He had briefly worked there in the past as a curate, and his return must have meant that the good Protestant folk of Mitchelstown were keen to have him back amongst them. But the pain the Moore's felt over the loss of their child had not eased. They erected this stained glass window over the baptistery. It was a reflection of their faith, of their hope in everlasting life, and it became their way of acknowledging that ‘it is what it is’.
What a curious thing it is to think that the only legacy of this little girl’s existence are two entries in official registers and a beautiful stained glass window. It’s more than most children have to remember them by when they die so soon after birth. Sometimes morning light bathes through the glass and reflects a rainbow of colours into the darkness inside. It elevates that dim corner of Saint George's to the sublime. It gives it life. That’s Mona’s gift and it has given me much thought and a moment of inspiration. Her legacy lives in a piece of vitreous art, surrounded by Celtic and Christian motifs. A legacy from an era long gone and of her parents' love for her. Light through that window has shone on every child baptised there ever since.
Mona’s sister, Louie, later married and divorced, then married again only to suffer the loss of her second husband, who was killed leading the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers into the Battle of Ypres on the 9th of May 1915. Under the pen name 'Mrs Victor Rickard' she wrote thirty books and counted Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Lady Lavery among her friends. Her imagination survives through her writings and she ensured her husband would not be forgotten when she commissioned the iconic Irish painting of World War I, ‘The Last Absolution of the Munsters’. A huge reproduction of that painting hangs in the military section of the Collins Barracks Museum in Dublin, and it has become the most iconic Irish painting from that war where so many sons were needlessly sent to their destruction. She also wrote a book about the 2nd Battalion in which she immortalized her husband and his fallen comrades.
My heart goes out to that mother in Wicklow who has lost her precious beautiful daughter. There are no words to ease her pain. The lost moments, the lost conversations, the loss of a future. Memories cherished. Through her wonderfully exceptional talent she expresses her loss and her love through the images she creates and exhibits on the internet and in galleries across the globe. The beauty of art is one of the special things that defines us as a species and we sometimes express our moments of greatest happiness and deepest sadness through what we create.
I am touched by the grief and hope captured in glass by the parents of an infant child whose life never got the chance to blossom and by the heartbreak and love of a mother whose precious daughter’s life was cut far too short. Every parent’s worst nightmare is to lose a child.
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