The Marvel of Margaret Barry

When I was in my college years, I lived on the fringes of London. It was the 1960s and – among many other cultural stirrings – there was a burgeoning Irish traditional music scene, in and around Camden Town. The Irish community in the capital had been thriving since the 1950s, when London was being rebuilt following the Blitzes of the recent war. Although not a close follower of Irish music at that time I had taken up the squeeze-box, and, curious enough to hover at the edges of The Music, was fortunate to briefly encounter many singers and players who are now considered legends. One of these is Margaret Barry, seen above in her later years and, below, when she was first becoming established as an Irish traditional music performer.

If you ever saw (and heard) Margaret Barry, you would never forget her. Her voice is unlike anyone else’s. She was born in the City of Cork, and has the distinctive accent of that place, whether she is speaking or singing. I find it completely compelling, but I can understand that it’s not to everyone’s taste. Nevertheless, whatever your own views, her story is fascinating – and at the same time a valuable social commentary on aspects of twentieth century Ireland. Margaret was born in 1917 – on New Year’s Day – and died in 1989. She made a living from music – and spanned the spectrum from obscure street performer to lauded professional much in demand on radio and television, performing in venues which included London’s Royal Albert and Festival Halls and New York’s Rockefeller Centre.

The reason I’m writing about Margaret Barry today is that she was the subject of a talk given at this year’s Drimoleague Singing Festival: “…A celebration of the human voice in the heart of West Cork…”, now an established annual event held around the feast day of Cork’s patron saint, St Finnbarr, September 25th. It’s great that Ireland’s special saints – who ‘kept alive civilisation’ during the otherwise Dark Ages in pre-medieval Europe – are still living and celebrated in traditional culture, which encompasses literature, art, music and folk tradition. Yesterday’s talk, in a crowded hall, was presented by Jason Murphy and Lisa O’Neill (pictured above mid-talk, with Lisa – Singer in Residence at this year’s Festival – giving her own extraordinary rendering of one of Margaret Barry’s songs). It’s worth watching the following YouTube video of Lisa singing a version of ‘The Galway Shawl’ to give you an idea of Margaret’s characteristic style as interpreted by Lisa, and sealing her own authority on the perpetuation of The Music:

Because Margaret Barry is a legend, it’s inevitable that the life and exploits of this lady from Cork have become imbued with folklore. This can happen very quickly in Ireland! Jason – a radio documentary maker – and Lisa – who has studied Margaret’s work – set out to shed light on the reality of her life, times and travels. The talk is work in progress – look out for a comprehensive programme coming up on RTE Radio soon. The talk in no way diminished Margaret Barry’s status and renown in the folk music world, but it did question some of the hitherto accepted accounts of her life. For example, when I first became interested in her singing over fifty years ago, I gleaned (mainly from notes on the sleeves of LPs) that she was from travelling stock, and that’s something you’ll still find quoted in practically every contemporary account of her life. According to Lisa and Jason, however, she came from musical families in Peter Street, Cork. Her mother’s father – Bob Thompson – was an accomplished uilleann pipe maker and player who was married to a Spanish Guitarist and singer. Living through hard times, Bob had to temporarily pawn his own uilleann pipes but lost them when a fire broke out in the pawnshop: he did not play again for ten years! Margaret’s parents and uncles were street singers and musicians, her father earning a precarious living playing the violin in silent-era cinemas and with dance bands. 

Another invariably quoted story is that she left home at 16 with nothing but a bicycle and a banjo tied to her back with string as she set off to busk her way through the harsh streets of Ireland. It’s an engaging picture, but probably simplifies a complex situation. Margaret’s mother died when she was only twelve years old, and soon afterwards her father married a girl not very much older than she was. It’s likely that she did decide to go off and fend for herself – and during her lifetime she did travel around Ireland, sometimes in a horse-drawn caravan, but she had also become interested in the musical traditions she experienced around her and took every opportunity to learn songs from every source, to teach herself to play the fiddle and banjo – and also to use her own talents to earn money wherever she could, and to survive. Here’s her own account of those times, recorded by American musicologist Alan Lomax in the 1950s:

Alan Lomax left a valuable collection of information on ethnic musical cultures from America, Africa and Europe, which he and a dedicated team collected over many years. Much of the collection is available online in the archive of the Association for Cultural Equity. Amongst the publications of the Association is a CD of Margaret Barry singing and talking about her life, which can currently be purchased as a download.

Margaret succeeded in her chosen life of itinerant song performer and always said that she had enjoyed it, regardless of the often hard times. She certainly achieved notoriety and featured in programmes on TG4 and RTE in her lifetime. She had a long-term relationship and musical partnership with the Sligo musician Michael Gorman, whose fiddle playing features on many of the recordings made of her. It seems appropriate to include here this 1965 recording of Margaret accompanied by Michael, singing ‘Still I Love Him’:

The talk we heard in Drimoleague on Saturday was a tour-de-force by Lisa and Jason, reviving my own interest in Margaret Barry, the ‘street singer’ from Cork (also known as ‘Queen of the Gypsies’, a title she was happy enough to embrace, whatever the true circumstances of her ancestry). To finish this post, here’s one of her songs for which she is, perhaps, best known: ‘She Moved Through the Fair’. Margaret was once asked if this tune had come to her from her traveller background: she is said to have replied that she had learned it from a recording of Count John McCormack…

Rossbrin Calendar

We know Rossbrin Cove intimately – more so than any other part of West cork. That’s because it’s right on our doorstep, and there is seldom a day when we don’t walk or drive along the Cove; and, even if we fail to get out, the views from our windows at Nead an Iolair will always be looking down on the Cove and its castle. I conceived the idea of sorting through all our pictures and selecting a ‘calendar’ of Rossbrin, taking us consecutively through the months of the year so that we can follow the seasons and the changes that every day brings. That’s Rossbrin Castle above, a view taken in January – which can often be atmospherically misty. But the picture below was also taken in that month, when we explored an abandoned house in the environs of Rossbrin: just as atmospheric in its own way – and bursting with a story to tell . . . But we’ll never know it.

Low tide at Rossbrin, taken from the pier and looking towards the boatyard – an important aspect of the Cove as the winter laying-up and maintenance of pleasure boats brings all-year-round life to the area and provides a livelihood. The picture above was taken in February, on a good clear day. In the middle distance you can just make out a wrecked boat uncovered by the receding water: this is the ‘Flying Foam’ – still rather enigmatic – which I wrote about a little while ago. We expect our strongest gales in February, and the picture below was taken when storm clouds began to gather.

March can also be a month when the weather is inclement (above), but we had a surprise in 2018 when snow covered the land around us (below) – a climatic event seldom experienced in Roaringwater Bay, which is more usually kept mild by the Gulf Stream. That’s Castle Island beyond the Cove – once inhabited (and with its own castle which you can see in the picture) but now just used to run sheep and cattle.

You can see how quickly the weather changes in West Cork: Rossbrin Castle Farm is enjoying blue sea and skies in April, and the gorse is in bloom, showing that love is in season! In the detail below, at the edge of the Cove and also in April, we can see the new spring growth beginning to overtake last year’s seed-heads.

By the time May arrives, boats are already being taken out of winter storage and are anchored in the Cove. We get fabulous skyscapes perched up here above Rossbrin, and these mares’ tails herald windy weather ahead.

This is one of my favourite pictures – taken by Finola from Nead an Iolair in June. Late evening sun paints the sky and sea in almost implausible colours – although the photo has not been doctored. The whole effect beautifully outlines the Fastnet Rock lighthouse on the horizon with some of Carbery’s Hundred Isles silhouetted as if floating; Rossbrin is in the foreground. By day you can see that wildflowers are abundant this month (below).

The sea in July is at its bluest. Here is Roaringwater Bay out beyond the shelter of Rossbrin on a calm day. There is hardly a ripple on the surface, except for the elegant wake of the yacht motoring in.

Nead an Iolair – our house – taken in August. You can see that Rossbrin Cove is central to our view out over the Islands. The name of the house means ‘Nest of the Eagle’, and the birds have obligingly flapped their way into the photo, courtesy of Photoshop. White-tailed Sea Eagles do survive in Kerry – not too far away – and they have occasionally been seen in West Cork. Once they were common across the west of Ireland. Below is another August picture – a wild apple tree close to the shore of Rossbrin.

I couldn’t resist adding this picture to the August tally (above): it’s an abandoned post box set into the wall of the old Rossbrin School, now closed. The school building survives as a private house and retains some of the architectural features of its previous use.

This magnificent machine is a remote-controlled boat-lift and was photographed on the large slipway which is at the western end of the Cove, last September. The Cove is a natural harbour and has been used as a resource for sheltering fishing boats and providing facilities for fish processing since medieval times. This post outlines how ‘fish palaces’ worked: there was at least one here in Rossbrin.

By October most of the boats have been taken off their moorings (above), and the weather changes again. We sometimes have the first of the winter storms this month, although it can equally be benign. Autumn brings with it dramatic skies and sunsets – and a feeling of melancholy, because the holiday houses down by the water are empty and shuttered for the onset of winter. But the weather can continue to surprise and November sunshine (below) can be as warming as any other time of year. It’s a good time for us to watch out for the wading birds – such as the curlews – who come in close to shore and forage on the mud flats.

And so we come to the end of the year in Rossbrin. This has been a fairly random selection of images, picked out because each was taken in a particular month. We know how fortunate we are to live in this rich and constantly changing environment. Not only are we surrounded by nature, but the immediate history is alive with stories – of Fineen O’Mahony, the Scholar Prince of Rossbrin, who lived at Rossbrin Castle in the 15th century and surrounded himself with a university of monks and scribes and made a fortune out of fishing dues – and of Sir William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork who exploited Rossbrin in the 17th century, also for fish. Now we look down on a sparsely populated townland and the bay beyond it: it’s a most beautiful place to know and to live in. For December I have chosen a classic view of the castle with a wintry sky and late sun creating patterns on the half-tide.

An Excursion to Dunboy

We have often visited the Beara Peninsula: it’s not too far away and makes a good day’s outing for us. Have a look at some recent posts here and here to get the feel of the geography. Yesterday we had a mission – to discover more about Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare (1561 – 1618) and his connections with Dunboy Castle, over by Castletown-Bearhaven – often known as Castletownbere or just Castletown – in the far west of County Cork.

Our first stop was at the bustling harbour of Castletownbere which sits at the foot of the Caha Mountains. …Where land and sea collide, untamed beauty abounds… – that’s the apt heading on the website of the town’s Development Association, and it most certainly seems a lively and flourishing community, a good base from which to explore the wealth of history and archaeology on the Beara. Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Hungry Hill, is set in the area and is a family saga loosely derived from the history of the Irish ancestors of du Maurier’s friend, Christopher Puxley.

We paused only for a much-needed coffee and a quick look in the Sarah Walker Gallery (precariously and picturesquely situated on the end of the town’s slipway – it’s the white building in the picture above) before setting out to find Dunboy. I had read a little of the history of the place, and knew that it had been a centre of rebellion following the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 – 1602, when allied Irish and Spanish forces were defeated at the culmination of the Nine Years War between England and the Gaelic lordships.

At the edge of the Dunboy Demense are traces of a castellated sea-wall and a gatehouse (above).  The territory was a stronghold of the O’Sullivan Beare clan leader, and was built to guard and defend the harbour of Berehaven. Its presence enabled O’Sullivan Beare to control the sea fisheries off the coast and collect taxes from Irish and continental European fishing vessels sheltering in the haven. It was also a centre for trade to and from the continent. In the aftermath of the Battle Of Kinsale Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare’s followers retreated to Dunboy Castle, which was considered an impregnable stronghold.

The 25″ historic Ordnance Survey map (upper picture) shows the location of the O’Sullivan Beare fortress, circled in red. Don’t be confused by the ‘Dunboy Castle’ label: this is a later building added to an existing tower house that stood on the hill above the promontory. The estate came into the hands of the Puxley family who invested significantly in the Allihies copper mines in the 19th century. The development in the centre of the aerial view above is Puxley Manor, and is a 21st century incarnation of the huge neo-gothic family mansion created by the family, which was burnt out by the IRA in the 1920s.

These pictures show the mansion after its destruction and today. In the lower photograph you can see the original tower house in the foreground: the buildings were fully restored as part of a high-profile ‘Celtic Tiger’ project to create a 6-star hotel which could have brought employment and significant economic benefits to the area. Unfortunately the project collapsed before completion, and the future of this decaying leviathan is uncertain.

We could only look in awe at the very evident and lavish quality of the restoration and development, even in its present state, and speculate how its fortunes might have fared in more stable times. But all this was a bit of a diversion, as our goal was a much less audacious – but far more historically important – site: the original ‘Dunboy Castle’. We followed the trackway along the inlet, which looks as though it was artificially constructed to form a quay serving the demesne.

The ruin itself is unassuming: thick stone walls barely a few metres high. However, the ground plan is clear to see – a typical ‘tower house’ design with splayed openings and steps contained in the thickness of the outer walls. Also visible in the surroundings, however, are the clear ‘star’ shapes of an enclosure, complete with salient angles. These outer defences, reminiscent of ‘star-shaped forts’ evidently date from Cromwellian times, constructed after the castle was destroyed.

These ruins conceal an unhappy tale. At Kinsale the clan chiefs had been joined by a large force of troops sent by King Philip III of Spain, who considered that a federation with Ireland would assist his aspirations against Elizabethan England. After the surrender, a number of O’Sullivan followers retreated to Dunboy, where they found the small Spanish force stationed there  preparing to hand the castle over to the queen’s Lord Deputy, Mountjoy. O’Sullivan overpowered and disarmed the Spaniards and later released them to return to Spain, having kept kept all of their arms, ordnance and munitions. Inevitably, an English force under George Carew set out for Dunboy: it is said that this force numbered between 4,000 and 5,000 troops. O’Sullivan Beare established defences at the castle, but set off himself with most of his own army to consolidate in the north of the Beara Peninsula. Only 143 of his men were left behind at Dunboy, together with Friar Dominic Collins to look after their spiritual welfare. The siege of Dunboy began with an artillery bombardment by land and sea. Owen O’Sullivan of Carriganass, a cousin of Donal Cam, had allied himself with the English and informed them of a weak point in the castle walls. The guns were directed to that point, and the walls were eventually breached. After a ten day siege, Dunboy was reduced to the ruin we see today.

Above is a wonderful graphic illustration of the Siege of Dunboy Castle from Pacata Hibernia or A History of the Wars in Ireland during the Reign of Queen Elizabeth first published in 1633. Only 72 of the Irish defenders survived the siege: they were all hanged, including Friar Dominic Collins. Most of the hangings took place in the bustling square of Castletown-Bearhaven, close to where we had enjoyed our coffee at the start of our excursion.

Here I am meeting Donal Cam himself in the ruins of his former stronghold. My account of the Siege of Dunboy is a very condensed version. Much more has been written about the details. As for O’Sullivan Beare, he eventually embarked on a long march to Leitrim with a thousand of his followers – but that’s a further unhappy story, best kept for another day!

Dunboy Castle and its immediate environs are publicly accessible and there is plenty of parking within easy reach. We finished our day on the Beara by following a rural loop walk from the castle ruin back to the gatehouse – about 5 kilometres in idyllic surroundings.

Oldest Lighthouse in the World!

It’s a bit off the beaten track, but we had to make the journey to visit the oldest working lighthouse in the world! It’s right at the southern tip of the Hook Peninsula, in County Wexford. Maybe it’s an extravagant claim that it is the ‘oldest in the world’: there is another ‘oldest’ lighthouse – The Tower of Hercules – in Galicia, northern Spain, which is said to have been built in the 2nd century. However, the Tower of Hercules was given a major restoration at the end of the 18th century, including a new neoclassical facade, with the original Roman structure retained behind this. Wexford’s assertion that the main visible structure of the Hook Lighthouse – both inside and out – is exactly what was built in the 13th century, perhaps gives it the edge. I was delighted to find, incidentally, that the Tower of Hercules has an Irish connection: it is mentioned in the 11th century Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Invasions of Ireland). If you recall my account of the story of Cesaire – the first person ever to set foot on Irish soil – you will remember that on her travels away from Egypt in the years before the Great Flood Cesaire stopped off in Spain and climbed to the top of a very tall tower from which she could see, in the distance, Ireland’s wonderful green land, and from there she travelled on to arrive on Ireland’s shores in Bantry Bay. Well, according to tradition, it was the Tower of Hercules which she climbed!

Header – the bulky main structure of the tower dates from the 13th century – its walls are four metres thick. The chambers within the tower are stone vaulted (above)

The lowest tier of the tower consists of three storeys, and has a base diameter of 13 metres. Each storey has a vaulted stone ceiling. Above this is the narrower section – 6 metres in diameter – which would have supported the original brazier, kept burning at all times to warn ships of the rocky ‘Hook’ of land at the entrance to the channel leading up to the port of New Ross – the most important in Ireland in the 13th century.

Upper – an exploded view of the structure of the lighthouse, one of the exhibits on the guided tour; centre – the whole tower: the topmost section, housing the electric lighting system, is relatively modern; lower – the treacherous rocks around the shore of the Hook 

But there was, in fact, a light burning on this headland for hundreds of years before the construction we see today: this was a beacon fire established by Saint Dubhán, a monk from Wales, in the 5th century. Dubhán came to Ireland as a missionary, and built his monastic settlement a little way inland: this is marked today by the medieval ruins of a church and burial ground.

Dubhán’s monastic site not far from Hook Head. It was the saint who set up the first beacon light on this peninsula

The lighthouse we see today was built by Strongbow’s son-in-law William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke (1147 – 1219). He constructed it and made sure that the light was maintained in perpetuity to fulfil a promise he made when he was threatened with shipwreck off the Hook while trying to get into the port of New Ross. Marshall is one of the medieval hero-warriors: known as ‘The Greatest Knight’ he is at the centre of many legends. Turtle Bunbury gives a good account of him here.

William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke is very much in evidence at Hook Head: you can even hear him telling his own story when you are in the lighthouse (above)!

If you find your way to Hook Head Lighthouse today you are in for many treats. Firstly, it’s good to know that it is open to visitors all the year round, and guided tours are always available (you can only go inside the tower with a guide). Also there is a welcome heritage centre on site with a shop and cafe – and a fine pirate-themed children’s playground.

Saint Dubhán and his followers are remembered through the displays in Hook Head Lighthouse: the mural above shows the first beacon established by the 5th century saint

It’s a grand day out, if you happen to be within reach of the Wexford coast. There are so many strands of Ireland’s multi-facetted history to be traced here: the earliest missionary monks, Norman Knights, sea-travel through the ages, connections with the medieval world – and a wonderful piece of early Irish architecture still serving its original function.

Reviving St Patrick’s Cross!

It’s an archaeologist’s job to dig things up from the past. Today – the Feast of St Patrick – I’m digging up an old custom and suggesting that it’s something we should all revive!

Examples of St Patrick’s crosses survive in glass cases today. These three are from Ireland’s National Museum of Country Life, Castlebar, Co Mayo

I have found much of my information on this subject in Kevin Danaher’s 1972 book The Year in Ireland – A Calendar published by The Mercier Press. Danaher begins his calendar on St Brighid’s Day (his spelling), and naturally discusses the custom of the making of bogha Bríde – the St Brighid’s cross. In this tradition, very much alive today, a cross is made from straw or reed and hung in the house to ensure good luck and protection for the coming year. In future years new crosses are made, but the old ones are never thrown away: if you visit a traditional Irish cottage, you are likely to see a whole lot of Brighid’s crosses pinned over the mantlepiece or among the rafters in various stages of decay.

A traditional Irish cottage, Finola and her St Brighid’s cross. See this post

When Danagher comes to the next important Irish Festival – St Patrick’s Day – he mentions a similar custom involving a St Patrick’s cross or badge, worn on the clothing for the day itself, and then hung in the house to ensure that the saint’s blessing continues through the years. The custom was still within living memory when Danaher wrote, but its practice appears to have died out altogether in the early years of the twentieth century, although surviving examples of these crosses, emblems or badges can be seen in museums today. I am not aware of anyone keeping up this custom so – to celebrate the day that’s in it – I am proposing a revival!

Danaher’s illustrations of St Patrick’s crosses from The Year in Ireland

First, the history: an English traveller in Ireland, Thomas Dinely, wrote in 1681:

The 17th day of March yearly is St Patrick’s, an immoveable feast when the Irish of all stations and conditions wore crosses in their hats, some of pins, some of green ribbon, and the vulgar superstitiously wear shamroges, 3-leaved grass, which they likewise eat (they say) to cause a sweet breath . . .

Dean Swift in his Journal to Stella wrote from London on 17 March 1713:

The Irish folks were disappointed that the Parliament did not meet to-day, because it was St Patrick’s day; and the mall was so full of crosses, that I thought all the world was Irish . . .

Here’s ‘Mannanaan Mac Lir’ writing in the Journal of the Cork Historical Society in 1895:

For a week or so preceding the National Festival, the grown members of the family are occupied in making “St Patrick’s Crosses” for the youngsters, boys and girls; because each sex have a radically different “Cross”. The “St Patrick’s Cross” for boys consists of a small sheet of white paper, about three inches square, on which is inscribed a circle which is divided by elliptical lines or radii, and the spaces thus formed are filled in with different hues, thus forming a circle of many coloured compartments. Another form of St Patrick’s Cross is obtained by drawing a still smaller circle, and then six other circles, which have points in the circumference of this circle as their centre, and its centre as their circumferential point, are added; after which one large outer circle encompasses the whole, thus forming a simple and not inartistic attempt at imitating those circle or bosses  of our beautiful Celtic cross pattern. The many spaces, concave, convex or otherwise, thus formed, are then shaded in; each a different hue, and this constitutes the “St Patrick’s Day Cross”, of which our little ones are so proud. In our time, when every school boy is supplied with a pair of compasses and a box of water colours, the making of a St Patrick’s Cross is only the work of a few idle moments . . .

Hmmm… Well, the architect in me is intrigued enough to try out these instructions and – perhaps – add a few embellishments to see what sort of a job can be made of it:

What do you think? I have to admit to using my electronic drawing board rather than the compasses and water colours! ‘Mannanaan Mac Lir’ goes on to describe the girl’s cross:

The little girl’s “St Patrick’s Day Cross” – which is made by an elder sister, or if sufficiently skilled, by herself – is formed of two pieces of card-board or strong thick paper, about three inches long, which are placed across at right angles, forming a cross humette. These are wrapped or covered with silk or ribbon of different colours, and a bunch or rosette of green silk in the centre completes the tasteful little girl’s “St Patrick’s Cross”, which is pinned on the bosom or shoulder . . .

Not a little curious is the etiquette of those children’s “St Patrick’s Crosses,” for whereas it would be considered effeminate of a little boy to wear “a girl’s cross”, it would be considered most unbecoming on the part of the little miss to don a boy’s paper cross . . .

‘Mannanaan Mac Lir’ continues to enlighten us further on this custom:

I have known two or three old priests in Cloyne diocese break up and distribute among the girls of their respective parishes their old and worn vestments, for the purpose of being made into St Patrick’s crosses. The cross thus made (from a priest’s vestment) was an object of veneration; and I have known many such forwarded by their owners to their kindred in America, where they were doubtless received as welcome souvenirs of an ancient custom in the land of their fathers . . .

My final offering (above) – have I encouraged you all to get busy and help me revive this custom in time for St Patrick’s Day next year? I hope so . . . I’ll finish off with a couple of pics of a custom that’s still as strong as ever: the annual St Patrick’s Day Parade in Ballydehob, West Cork. Of course, the sun shone out!

Saint Manchan, his Miraculous Cow, and his Shrine

I was in the little two-horse train which labours west from Clara to Banagher and the outlook was desolate. There was another chap in the carriage. He sat hunched up in the corner with his nose to the window. One glance convinced me that it was useless to say anything and there the two of us kept on staring rather lovingly at a wilderness of bog stretching away to the Slieve Bloom Mountains. It seemed to me that there was a kind of promised land on the other side. On past a few scattered farm houses some grey boulders and the ruins of a church. I found myself thinking dismally enough of the tourists. After all what do they get? Just ruins, ruins and more ruins – the saddest ruins in Europe. Then suddenly I heard my friend of the opposite corner speak in a mournful kind of way with his nose still glued to the window – “That’s Leamanaghan, a quare kind of place, decent people, too, the best in the world, people who’d give you all the milk you could drink but wouldn’t sell a drop of it for all the gold in Ireland and it’s all by raison of a cow, Saint Manchan’s cow.”

 

(St Manchan By Tomas O’Cleirigh, Midland Tribune 27th April 1935)

Upper – Finola is featuring the work of stained glass artist George Walsh this week. We were fortunate to find his portrait of Saint Manchan and his cow in the  little church at Baher , Co Offaly, on our travels. Centre – The Church of Saint Manchan

(From Robert’s diary, 2012) – St Manchan had a Cow, a miraculous animal that was always in milk, and the people of Leamonaghan had the milk for free (and, to this day, will not charge anyone for a pint straight from the herd). We tramped through a field of cows as we searched for St Manchan’s holy well: they gazed at us with some disdain. The well is a curious affair – old stones, concrete and rather ugly. The water is alive with tadpoles. We were tentative as we sampled the rank, slow moving stream – but it gave us the gift of credulity!

This detail from the Harry Clarke Studio window at St Manchan’s Church (dating from 1931) shows the miraculous cow

I went through a storm of real Irish rain to see Leamanaghan that very evening. It is four miles from Ferbane in County Offaly and hidden away in a vast bog region which is dotted with scattered boulders of magnesian limestone. The general depression is summed up in the name – Liath Manchan – the grey land of Manchan. Aye! The grey, lonely, chill land of Manchan. Saint Manchan lived here and died in AD 664. That might have been only yesterday, however as far as the good neighbours are concerned because he is the one subject over which every man, woman and child can get really voluble. I was taken to see the ruins of his church and then down to his well and heard how when you are sick you should pray here, walk three times round it and then go back and leave a little present for the saint himself in the window of the church . . . I was told that on the 24th January when all the rest of the world works, the people of Leamanaghan just take a holiday and make merry because it would be the unpardonable sin to think of work on their Saint’s day.

 

(Tomas O’Cleirigh, 1935)

The twelfth century shrine of St Manchan securely displayed in the church today, with the Harry Clarke Studio window behind it

St Manchan died in a plague which he had asked God to bring on his sinning people. After his death, his herdsmen – Bohooly (from which the name Ua Buachalla – or Buckley – is derived) found it necessary to call upon the Saint to help recover the Community’s cattle, which had been stolen by raiders. Manchan duly appeared, but one of his faithful herdsmen was so overjoyed to see his old master again that he threw his arms around him. This he should not have done, as he was a mortal sinner: the Saint fell into a heap of dry bones, but the cattle were recovered. We learn that Manchan’s bones were gathered up and taken to Clonmacnoise, where a fine casket was made to house them, out of yew wood, bronze and gold. Nearly a thousand years later we stumbled on this same shrine in the little church at Boher which carries the Saint’s name, with a glorious representation of itself shining out from a Harry Clarke Studio window set behind it. It resided in a case of armoured glass, alarmed and watched by cameras  – incongruous…. and ineffective: the day after we saw it there the shrine was stolen in broad daylight, evidently after only a few minutes’ work. (Robert’s diary, 2012)

It’s wonderful that we can see the actual reliquary containing St Manchan’s bones returned to the church at Boher, Co Offaly, close to the ruins of the monastery at Leamonaghan which the Saint founded in the seventh century. Although it has suffered some damage over the centuries, the detailing is exquisite: it is one of Ireland’s finest medieval treasures 

They have all kinds of stories about the good saint but the best one of them all explains why Leamanaghan people don’t sell milk. Here it is: Saint Manchan had a cow – a wonderful cow that used to give milk to the whole countryside – good, rich milk for which no charge was ever made by the saint. Then, the people of the neighbouring Kil Managhan got jealous and watched for their chance. One fine day when Manchan was absent they came and stole the cow and started to drive her along the togher through the bog back home to Kil Managhan. The good cow, suspecting something was wrong, went backwards and most unwillingly, fighting, struggling and disputing every inch of the way. Now she’d slip designedly on the stones: again she’d lie down but every where she went, she managed to leave some trace of her rough passage on the stones of the togher. The marks are there to this day, – hoof marks, tail marks – every kind of marks and the chef-d’oeuvre of them all has a place of honour at the entrance to the little school. Alas! In spite of that very gallant resistance, the cow was finally driven to Kil Managhan. There, horrible to say, she was slain and skinned.

 

(Tomas O’Cleirigh, 1935)

The shrine wonderfully depicted in the Harry Clarke Studio window at St Manchan’s Church, Boher

Prior to being housed in the church the shrine had rested in an ancient chapel. This burned down, but the shrine was rescued and then was kept in a thatched cottage nearby: legend has it that the ruin of this cottage became the unprepossessing holy well that we had found . . . Miraculous cows; plagues; holy wells; a modern theft – St Manchan’s bones do not rest lightly in his casket. The stories tell that Manchan was a tall man with a limp. When the shrine was sent to the British Museum some years ago for refurbishment, the experts examined the bones and proclaimed that they belonged to a tall male who had suffered from arthritis. (Robert’s diary, 2012)

Remarkably, St Manchan’s Shrine has been exactly replicated. This full-sized copy of the reliquary is in the National Museum of Ireland: all the ‘missing’ figures and details have been restored. The drawing dates from 1867, and is a plate in a book titled The Towers and Temples of Ancient Ireland by Marcus Keane MRIA. In that book it is said that the copy belonged to Sir William Wilde, and it may well have been commissioned by him. It is likely that the Harry Clarke Studio modelled their version of the shrine on the replica, rather than on the original

In the meantime, the saint returned, missed his cow, and straightaway started in pursuit. He succeeded in tracing the thieves by the marks on the stones and arrived just at the moment when she was about to be boiled. He carefully picked the portions out of the cauldron, pieced them together, struck at them with his stick and immediately the cow became alive again. She was every bit as good as ever, too, except that she was a wee bit lame on account of one small portion of a foot which was lost. She continued to supply the milk as before, and, of course, no charge was made by the saint. Ever since the famous custom still lives on, and good milk is given away but never gold by the loyal people of Leamanaghan. Now, can any lover of the grand faith of Medievaldom beat that?

 

(Tomas O’Cleirigh, 1935)

A detail of the original Shrine in St Manchan’s Church

There’s one more piece to this Saint’s story: the fame of his miraculous cow grew and the people of neighbouring Kilmonaghan were jealous, and sent out some rustlers to drive the cow over into their own parish. The cow proved reluctant and stalled and slipped all the way, leaving hoof marks on the many stones that lay on the road. Those marks are still on the stones to this day (they say) and the Saint was able to follow her tracks and recover her. (Robert’s diary, 2012)

Saint Manchan, depicted in stained glass: Harry Clarke Studio (left) and George Walsh (right). Both can be seen in the church at Boher, Co Offaly

The very old vellum books state that Manchan of Liath was like unto Hieronomus in habits and learning. I can well believe it. Some distance away from the church is the little rectangle cell which he built for his mother – Saint Mella. Cold, austere and with no window, you get the shivers by even looking at it. There is also a large flag-stone on the togher leading from the well, and they say the saint and his mother used to meet here every day and sit down back to back without speaking a word because the saint had vowed never to speak to a woman!

 

(Tomas O’Cleirigh, 1935)