The Boa Island Figures – Mysterious Carvings From Our Pagan Past

We’ve been thinking lots lately about Northern Ireland and how much we enjoyed our time there. One of our truly memorable experiences was a trip to Boa Island in Fermanagh to see the mysterious carved figures in the Caldragh graveyard.

Despite the fact that this is one of Northern Ireland’s most important archaeological sites, we had the place to ourselves when we were there, in October 2016. In fact, it looked like any peaceful rural graveyard, with higgledy piggledy gravestones behind a hand-forged iron gate, lush grass, and an air of benign neglect.

But there’s one big difference – in this remote place are two of the most enigmatic carved figures on the Island of Ireland. The first one has two faces – it’s been called a Janus figure, or simply bilateral, carved in a style that is reminiscent of Early Medieval carvings, but also different. Different enough so that one can see these as pre-Christian figures, and that is how they are most often interpreted.

Boa Island itself may be named for the Goddess Badhbh (pronounced Bov), a potent character in Irish mythology. The figures do not bring saints or clerics to mind – there are no croziers, no fingers raised in blessing, no tonsures or crosses. We’ll look at the bilateral figure first. It has two faces, back to back, with a groove in between. The groove collects water and in recent years people have started to leave coins in the puddle formed by the groove, perhaps echoing its original purpose. The heads are joined at the side by herringbone or plaited lines that may represent hair.

One side has been interpreted as male and some point to a stylised penis that rests between the legs. Although I have seen photographs of this side when it had been recently cleaned, where a carved element is denoted as the penis, it is not in any way obvious now that the statue is once again covered in lichen and badly weathered, with moss growing in this area. The face is long and triangular, the mouth open and the eyes wide and staring. Two arms cross across the body, over a belt which runs around both figures.

On the other side the mouth is open and a tongue protrudes. Apart from that, the figures are almost identical. The statue is broken just below the belt on this side, so it is impossible to say that there are any female, or indeed male attributes present.

The carving has been mounted on a plain base but leaning against it is what might be the original base, or part of it. If it is, then the arms extended down into hands, resting on either side of the base.

There is a second figure, brought here from nearby Lusty More Island. This one is much more worn, or perhaps not even totally finished, but it’s possible to see that it bears a strong resemblance to the others in its triangular face. The arms are not crossed but appear to be holding something. Visitors leave coins in front of this one.

What does it all mean? In short, we don’t know, but current consensus appears to fall in the area of calling these figures representations of pagan deities. The smaller figure, rather than holding something, may be female and pointing to her genitals. This would place it in the tradition of the sheela-na-gigs, although presumably much earlier than the majority of sheelas, which are thought to be medieval.

Whatever they are, they have inspired poets and artists – even filmmakers. One of our favourite films, the marvellous Song of the Sea, has taken much of its artistic design from prehistoric Irish art, including the Boa Island figures. Watch this teaser for the movie and see if you can spot the Boa Island figure at 46 seconds.

And the poetry? Seamus Heaney, of course, himself from Northern Ireland, drew inspiration from the landscape around him and often wrote about archaeological themes. His poem, January God, captures the mysterious sense of the two-faced God and makes a shift to summon the idea of Cernunnus, the antler-headed pagan god of wild things depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldon.

Then I found a two-faced stone

On burial ground,

God-eyed, sex-mouthed, its brain

A watery wound.

In the wet gap of the year,

Daubed with fresh lake mud,

I faltered near his power –

January god

Who broke the water, the hymen

With his great antlers

There reigned upon each ghost tine

His familiars,

The mothering earth, the stones

Taken by each wave,

The fleshly aftergrass, the bones

Subsoil in each grave.

 

Into the Heartland

Elphin Windmill

Because we live on it, sometimes we get carried away by the notion that The Wild Atlantic Way represents the best that Ireland has to offer. A recent trip to the midlands – the Heartland of Ireland – convinced us (if we needed it) that there is no part of Ireland that isn’t beautiful and full of fascinating things to do and see. (Like the Elphin Windmill, Co Roscommon, above.)

Parked at Coolnahay

We spent a lot of time along rivers and canals! 

Robert explains the background and purpose of our trip in his post, Travel by Water. I knew very little about canals before I met Robert and it’s been eye-opening to learn about the history and the sheer extent of Ireland’s inland waterways. We spent a lot of time exploring the canals – walking and driving – and enjoyed it all tremendously.

Boa Island figures

Boa Island on Lough Erne, Co Fermanagh, is home to these mysterious carved figures. Lower left: heads on a medieval church in Kilmallock, Co Limerick. Lower right: a contemporary sculpture celebrates the mythical Finn McCool, in Keshcarrigan, Co Leitrim

But wherever we went there were always other places luring me away – tower houses and fortified houses, churches and graveyards, friendly villages and colourful houses, stained glass windows and prehistoric sites. We drove along roads where we counted ring forts in every field. We explored ancient graveyards and we found a Holy Tree. We visited two sites we posted about last week, the Corlea Iron Age Trackway, and the Hill of Uisneach.

Holy Chestnut

The Holy Tree. A local man we met called it a ‘holy show’ and it certainly had some very questionable items mixed in with the statues and offerings

It’s autumn now, and, while we do experience a change of colour here in West Cork, it’s really in the midlands that the colours of the deciduous trees can overwhelm the senses. They were just starting to turn. I’m strongly tempted to head back in another couple of weeks for the full experience.

Birr Castle Gardens 2

These photographs were all taken at Birr Castle Gardens. Birr Castle (Co Offaly) was one of the most interesting and beautiful places we visited, home of the famous telescope and beautifully maintained

We visited thirteen of Ireland’s 32 counties on this trip – and never came close to the sea or the Wild Atlantic Way. Instead, everywhere we went we saw notices for the latest iteration of the Tourist Board’s marketing scheme. This one is called Ireland’s Ancient East, and appears to take in every county that isn’t on the Atlantic seaboard. A good resource, if you’re considering a trip like this, is Neil Jackman’s guidebook, Ireland’s Ancient East – we kept it by us and found it invaluable.

Grange Stone Circle, Lough Gur

Grange Stone Circle, the largest in Ireland, is one of a complex of monuments at Lough Gur, Co Limerick

Our headquarters for the biggest chunk of our time away was the incomparable Mearescourt House near Mullingar, Co Westmeath. George and his team made us welcome and comfortable, there were glorious grounds to wander around and animals to meet, and delicious breakfasts that left us feeling full for the rest of the day.

Mearescourt House

Mearescourt House – highly recommended!

When tourists are interviewed about their holidays in Ireland they praise the scenery, the food, the music – but most of all, they say, it’s the people who make it so enjoyable. We agree! Everywhere we went we ended up in conversation, as you do here, with local people delighted to help out with information, share old stories, invite us to the sessions, tell us where to go for a nice dinner, or point out places off the beaten track (and then rescue us later when we got lost).

Claire and Paddy Crinnegan, Coolnahay

Paddy and Claire Crinnegan maintain the canal lock at Coolnahay on the Royal Canal. in Co Westmeath They made us tea, fed us Claire’s delicious currenty bread, told us about the trad concert that evening, loaned us a book, and related stories of growing up at the lock, where Claire’s father was the lock keeper.

Future posts will go into more depth on some of what we saw and experienced on this trip. This one is just an introduction, to share some of our impressions and drop some hints about what might be upcoming.

Clonfert Doorway

Clonfert Cathedrall (Co Galway) has the most beautiful Romanesque doorway I have ever seen
Along the canals and rivers, flora and fauna
Top left: in case you might get too happy with yourself; top right: the imposing gates to Portumna Castle, Co Galway, a 17th century house now owned and managed by the Office of Public Works; Bottom left: I peeped inside the priest’s section of a confession box and observed how he maintains an efficient count of time spent on each confession; bottom right; we disturb the rooks at Ballycowan Castle, Co Offaly

HC Studio, Athlone

Athlone Cathedral (Co Westmeath) has a gorgeous set of enormous windows from the Harry Clarke Studios – this is a detail from just one of them.

Can you detect a future post or two?