Wilhelmina Geddes whose grandfather came from Cavan.

Wilhelmina Geddes - renowned stained glass artist

Wilelmina Geddes was a renowned stained glass artist whose grandfather was from Cavan, as we learn in Jonathan Smyth's latest Times Past column...

There is nothing more remarkable or beautiful than finding yourself fully absorbed as you dwell on a well-designed stained glass window and, here in Ireland, we have had the good fortune to boast many brilliant artists.

If asked to name an Irish stained glass artist you will no doubt hear the names Evie Hone, Harry Clarke, Sarah Purser, Kathleen Fox, Beatrice Elvery, Mary Elly de Putron, and the subject of this week’s Time Past, Wilhelmina Geddes. The work of Harry Clarke is featured in Cavan’s Cathedral of Ss Patrick and Feilim and in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Kingscourt. Indeed, the church in Kingscourt also has a beautiful stained glass windows by Evie Home in the church sanctuary.

Unlike so many people who have previously graced this column, Wilhelmina Margaret Geddes was not born in Co Cavan, although she had on her mother’s side of the family strong Cavan blood in her veins.

Recently, an excellent article in Ireland’s Own by Nicola Gordon Bowe appraised Geddes’ career, describing her as ‘Ireland’s rediscovered artist’ and calling her ‘the finest stained glass artist of our time’. In fact, Nicola Gordon Bowe is Wilhelmina Geddes biographer and a review from The Irish Times on Bowe’s fine book by the Irish Historian Roy Foster, stated: ‘This sumptuously illustrated and sharply written book is an astonishing voyage of rediscovery … Gordon Bowe conveys a life of utter artistic commitment and superbly evokes both Geddes’s powerful technical effects and her imaginative sweep.’

Staffords of Cavan

Stained Glass Expert Wilhelmina Geddes’s grandfather, John Stafford, was born in either Gradam or Pollarea townland in Co Cavan. Taking a brief glance at her family tree, her Cavan relatives included families of Staffords, Blakleys and Laheys. She was born at her maternal grandparents’ farm, the Stafford’s cottage, in Drumreilly, Co Leitrim on May 28, 1887, the eldest child of William Geddes and Eliza Jane Geddes (née Stafford).

Incidentally, Wilhelmina’s great grandfather, William Stafford, a farmer from Graddum, Crosserlough, was the man who famously printed his own bank notes that featured in an earlier Times Past column some years ago. There was a monetary crisis in Ireland from 1803 to 1804 and Mr Stafford issued his unique bank note, which measured 2 1/2” x 3 ½” and were ‘executed in black on white handmade paper without watermark, except for the issuer’s initials ‘w s’ … which are overprinted or stamped in red.’

The Geddes family were of Scottish descent and Wilhelmina’s father William from Co Armagh had emigrated to America where he eked out a living in railway construction. Returning to Ireland he became a ‘site engineer’ on the Cavan and Leitrim Railway and thereafter he, his wife and young family moved northwards to Belfast where he set out to form his own ‘building construction’ firm.

At the tender age of four years, Wilhelmina’s artistic expression shone through her drawings and her art topics were chosen from ‘life and nature’. As an adult student, she attended Belfast School of Art, which gave her work a more mature and professional proficiency. During this period of her life Wilhelmina entered the ‘Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland exhibition’ with a brightly coloured artwork called ‘Cinderella Dressing the Ugly Sister’.

However, a lucky encounter would place the talented artist on a path to greater success when Wilhelmina met the highly esteemed artist Sarah Purser who attended the same exhibition to seek out new students and then invite them to work with her in Dublin as trainees in stain glass artistry.

Geddes accepted the golden opportunity to train under both Purser and the celebrated William Orpen.

St Ann’s Church, Dawson Street

Notable commissions by Wilhelmina listed in an entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography by Ruth Devine recorded the following windows as being particularly noteworthy: ‘Faith’ and ‘Hope’, for the Karori crematorium chapel, Wellington, New Zealand (1914); a four-light ‘Parables’ window (1916) for the Presbyterian Assembly Hall, Belfast and a ‘St Michael’ window (1918) in St Ann’s church, Dawson St, Dublin. But, perhaps her most prestigious work was a commission for the Duke of Connaught in 1917 of a war memorial window for St Bartholomew’s Church, Ottawa, to ‘commemorate his staff’ who were killed during the First World War and, before being installed in 1919, it was exhibited in Dublin where it received the praise of European and Canadian critics, noted Ruth Devine.

On August 10, 1955, Wilhelmina Geddes died in London. She was laid to rest in the family plot at Carnmoney cemetery, Co Antrim. She had suffered much ill-health in life and had worked in Dublin, London and Belfast.

On May 25, 2011, the Ulster History Circle erected a plaque at 50 Marlborough Park South, Belfast, in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the world of art. In 2022, the Stained Glass Museum, at Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, successfully bid at auction for the last window produced by Geddes called ‘The Faith, Hope and Charity window’ which was ‘designed and cartooned’ shortly before her death in 1955.

The church of St. Paul in Battersea where the window featured closed in 1972 and the window remained boarded up until it was finally removed and auctioned, according to the Stained Glass Museum.

In 2022, a delighted museum announced: ‘Geddes’ stained glass works are rarely available to acquire and her output was relatively small. We are delighted to have acquired this window, which depicts the three theological virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity (Love), for The Stained Glass Museum’s permanent collection. It is an excellent addition to the museum’s collection of Arts & Crafts windows designed by women artists. As Geddes’ final commission it is also an important example of her later work, and an interesting treatment of this subject.’

I would like to acknowledge Canon Rev Billy Stafford for providing me with information about his cousin, Wilhelmina Geddes. For further reading on the artist’s life and work, see: Geddes: Life and Work, by Nicola Gordon Bowe published in 2015 by Four Courts Press.


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