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Catherine Amelia O'Brien

Stained glass and mosaic artist, Catherine Amelia O’Brien was born at Durra House, Spancilhill, near Ennis, Co. Clare. Her father was Pierce O’Brien, a man of property and a Justice of the Peace for Clare. Her mother was Sophia Angel Hickman of Fenloe House, Newmarket-on-Fergus.

Catherine, or Kitty, studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, and was taught by A.E. Child and William Orpen.

The early twentieth century witnessed great activity in church building and there seemed to be a great sense of pride and enthusiasm at all levels in the decoration and adornment of churches. In 1903 "An Túr Gloine" (The Tower of Glass) was founded to meet the requirements of tasteful design in church decoration.

The Tower of Glass was a co-operative studio set up by Edward Martin and Sarah Purser, the portrait painter. They aimed to train young artists in the technique of stained glass and to encourage an Irish character in their work. The studio presented an ideal opportunity for young artists. In 1904 Catherine O’Brien went to work in this studio in upper Pembroke Street in Dublin. She remained working there for many years and in 1943, when Sarah Purser died, Catherine took over the position of director. During that time she produced countless designs and hundreds of windows for churches at home and abroad.

One of the most attractive windows she created can be seen in the Church of Ireland, Killoughter, Co. Cavan. In this window, "The Sower", the clear glass of the background holds a very delicate role, as it changes colour with the weather outside. Other windows much admired include "The Good Samaritan" in the Church of Ireland, Harold’s Cross, Dublin and "Angel" and "Christ and Peter on the Water" in the Church of Ireland Cathedral, Gorey, Co. Wexford. St. Brendan’s Cathedral in Loughrea, Co. Galway has some outstanding work from "An Túr Gloine", including work by A.E. Child and Evie Hone. Catherine O’Brien is represented there by a window depicting the infant figure of St. Brendan receiving the gift of a ship from an angel. It is based on a design created by Sarah Purser. Other works of note are the eastern window at Carrickmines, Co. Wicklow and "Stations of the Cross" at Vero Beach Church in Florida.

Perhaps her most ambitious project was the memorial she executed to her parents in Drumcliffe Parish Church, at Bindon Street in Ennis. The memorial depicts St. Patrick and St. Brigid. It consists of two dozen mosaics, representing many of the Apostles and well known Irish saints. The images are divided by white marble columns and occupy the entire length of the reredos of the church. Two small windows representing Mary and Martha, symbols of work and worship, were inserted in the north porch as a memorial to her three sisters who were baptised in the church.

Catherine O'Brien was also adept in opus-sectile, the technique in which sections of coloured glass are set into a concrete frame. Fine examples of her work in this field can be seen over the doorways of the Franciscan Friary in Athlone.

One of her last commissions was for two windows in the private chapel of Aras an Uachtaráin but she died in 1963 before the work was completed. Catherine O'Brien's numerous contributions to the Irish stained glass movement were remarkable. She, together with her colleagues in the studio, raised the art to a high level which is now being more widely appreciated. A beautiful window has been erected in her honour in the St. Laurence O'Toole Chapel of Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. Catherine had been in charge of the floral arrangements and decorations of the sanctuary there for forty years. The window was designed by Patrick Pollen and was commissioned by Catherine's brother, Brigadier Pierce O'Brien. The inscription on the nearby tablet reads as follows - "This window is erected to the glory of God and in memory of Catherine Amelia O'Brien of the Tower of Glass who designed so many windows to His Glory."

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