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)

Recording the Sheelas

The sheela-na-gig is one of Ireland’s most mysterious historical artefacts, and one that has fascinated professionals and amateurs alike since the antiquarian days. What is a sheela-na-gig? It’s a carving of a female figure (mostly – there are also male figures, or seán-na-gigs), often crudely executed, with the focus on the hands reaching down to display the vulva. The female is often described as aged, or a ‘hag’ and the carvings have certain features that are common to many, such as staring eyes, ribs, stylised hair and breasts.

This is a romanesque arch at the Nuns’ Chapel in Clonmacnoise. Can you make out the tiny exhibitionist figure carved into one of the lozenges?

The carving of Sheelas probably started in the 12th century, as part of the corpus of fanciful or grotesque carvings that were used to decorate romanesque churches. Some are still found in romanesque contexts, especially outside of Ireland. In Ireland, two possible romanesque examples I have seen are at Liathmore and at the Nuns’ Chapel at Clonmacnoise. However, most Irish sheelas appear to have been either separated from their original locations or carved later, possibly up to the late 1500s. They are found on medieval churches, 17th century castles, the sides of old barns, at holy wells, and indeed in museums. Sheelas have been stolen, lost or destroyed and many of the existing sheelas are damaged.

Does this help? This is just a screen capture of one of DH_Age’s 3D renderings – view it properly online here. This may be a very early sheela or simply one of the grotesque figures associated with romanesque carvings. The tiny figure is grinning and has its legs over its head, exposing the vulva and anus

There are multiple theories as to what a sheela represents and how they were ‘used’ on structures. Were they intended to attract and ward off the evil eye? To serve as a warning against lust? To invoke the sacred feminine through the powerful image of the vulva? The hag, or cailleach, is a vibrant motif in Irish mythology as a form taken on occasion by a goddess. Several sheelas are associate with saints, and believed to be representations of them.

At St Gobnait’s Church in Ballyvourney it is customary to rub the sheela as part of the rounds

We have visited many sheelas (and one seán) and noted that it is always difficult to photograph them well. They are invariably out in the open and very worn. The details are difficult to discern and often obscured by lichen. Even where they are indoors, they show the signs of of exposure to the elements, so it is impossible to view them in what would have been their freshly-carved state. And of course they are deteriorating with every passing decade.

From Jack Roberts’ resource map (see below) – a collection of southwestern sheelas

Fortunately, there’s this great project out there run by DH_Age, or Digital Heritage Age, to record all the sheela-na-gigs using the latest 3D imaging technology. Hats off to Gary Dempsey and Orla Power for undertaking this incredibly important initiative with the support of The Heritage Council. They are working away on visiting all the Sheelas in Ireland and already have a substantial body of images to view online.

The Aghadoe sheela is damaged (the feet are broken off) and covered in patches of lichen

Take a look at their collection of Cork sheelas to see how a good 3D image can reveal the true nature of a carving. The Aghadoe (Co Cork) example is particularly striking to me, because we visited it recently and I found it quite hard to photograph. The 3D image shows the breasts, the ribs, how one arm goes behind the legs to display the vulva while the other holds something aloft, and the curious bumps on the wrists that defy interpretation.

The DH_Age’s 3D rendering of the Aghadoe Sheela: the clarity of detail is impressive, but view it online for the full effect

The Aghadoe Sheela-na-Gig has a complicated history of being placed in different locations but it is currently on the side of a dovecote of indeterminate date and looking like at any moment it will be covered by the thick growth of ivy all around it. There was a tower house here at one point, and the sheela was reported as ‘probably from the castle’ and as ‘lying beside it.’ It’s a little tricky to track down now, so it’s a big thrill to find it and to see that, for the moment at least, it’s in the relatively protected position of being cemented into the dovecote wall.

Jack Roberts’ sketch of the Aghadoe Sheela

Our old friend Jack Roberts has written extensively about sheela-na-gigs and has published a marvellous resource – a one page fold-out map of the Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland. You can order this from Jack’s site. His illustrations, as usual, are superb, and his artist’s eye managed to make out much of the detail that my camera couldn’t catch.

The Aghadoe Sheela is currently cemented on to a dovecote

I will come back to sheela-na-gigs in a future post but for now, you can check out these resources, for Ireland and for Britain, to learn more.

Fading Treasures

For me, Ireland’s greatest treasures are those that are shy of publicity. There’s nothing more rewarding than turning off the beaten track and negotiating a narrow boreen with a lush growth of grass down the middle and brambles scratching your car on either side to find – often by chance – a stunning piece of medieval architecture, perhaps just the fragments of a ruin in a field, but revealing the beauty of a decorated doorway or an ornately carved corbel. Always these items are discernible but fading. Their splendour – and the exquisite craftsmanship that created them – are manifest. But there’s a melancholy in these finds: you see them, and wonder at them, yet you ask: how many more generations will be able to appreciate these works of ancient hands?

A classic case study would be the medieval high crosses. There are a remarkable number of these still intact on the island of Ireland, and many more fragmentary remains. We go out of our way to search for all these traces in our travels: some of those we have visited to date can be found through this link. It’s such a rich archive, and there are many more to be written up.

Above is St Cronan’s High Cross, Roscrea, Co Tipperary. As you can see, this example has been removed to an indoor location (Black Mills Heritage Centre), to protect it from further weather deterioration, although all the fine detail has been lost. In fact, this example has been assembled from sections of two different medieval crosses for purposes of display. I am an advocate of protecting these artefacts in this way, as acid rain and modern pollution seem to be accelerating the decay of the stone monuments. As in many cases with the protection measures, a high quality reproduction cross has been placed on the original site in the churchyard of St Cronan’s, just a few metres away. Have a look at my post on Monasterboice for a further discussion on the arguments for preservation of these monuments – and compare the condition of the as yet unprotected high crosses there with the wear and tear above.

While in Roscrea, you can take your own journey along a ‘secret track’ to find treasures. Visit Inis na mBeo (Island of the Living) at Monaincha, just a stone’s throw from the town: you are likely to be the only visitors there and can fully appreciate the solitude of the location while exploring a ruined Romanesque church and a reconstructed high cross (above). The monastic site was founded in the 6th century, and was then a true island, only accessible by boat; now you can walk to it. Not least of its attractions is the fact that you are immortal while you are there (so they say). Certainly, we came back alive, but I was concerned to read later that another tradition has it that when the now dry lough contained water, no woman or female animal could ever set foot in or cross it without dying instantly. (Below – looking along the remote trackway that takes you to the former Island of the Living at Monaincha).

Another ‘rescued’ high cross can be found quietly located in the far less remote (but still a little unsung) Cathedral of St Flannan in Killaloe, Co Clare. Megalithic Ireland has a good account of the history of this cross, which can be seen in the images below (while the header picture at the top of this post shows exquisitely carved detailing from a Romanesque doorway in the same Cathedral):

. . . The High Cross in St Flannan’s Cathedral was moved to Killaloe from Kilfenora in 1821. Originally the cross stood on the highest point south of Kilfenora Cathedral, and became known as the cross on the hill. Dr Richard Mant who was appointed Bishop of Killaloe and Kilfenora in 1820, was appalled by the condition and lack of respect shown for the antiquities in Kilfenora. The cross, which had fallen in 1820, was sent to the Bishop the following year. He had it erected on the grounds of his residence Clarisford Palace. The cross was moved at a later date by a Bishop Ludlow and moved back within the Palace grounds in 1850. In 1934 the cross fell again and this time broke into three pieces. It was re-erected inside the cathedral and fixed against the west gable. In 1998 the cross was repaired and erected as a free standing cross. It stands over four metres high and bears a figure of christ in the centre of the head . . .

The White Cross of St Tola (images below) may not be on everyone’s list of things to see at Dysert O’Dea in Co Clare (you are more likely to be channelled to Corofin), but it’s easy to visit from the better known Romanesque monastery ruins: the ecclesiastical centre was founded by the saint in the 8th century. Cromwell’s forces destroyed the monastery and demolished the cross, but the cross was repaired by Michael O’Dea in 1683. The Synge family restored the cross again in 1871, and in 1960 it was temporarily dismantled and shipped to Barcelona for an exhibition on Irish art.

Clonmacnoise is likely to be on everyone’s list, and rightly so. It was one of Europe’s most important religious centres in medieval times. Ireland’s Ancient East website describes it thus:

. . . The whole of this early Christian site – including ruins of a cathedral, seven churches (10th–13th century), two round towers, high crosses and the largest collection of early Christian grave slabs in Western Europe – is a vast story in stone that keeps alive the spirit of Ireland as a Land of Saints and Scholars . . .

There are three conserved high crosses at Clonmacnoise – all are placed inside the visitor centre, while quality replicas are positioned on the original sites: this is a good exemplar of how to look after ancient stones and, while perhaps the seasonal crowds can be off-putting, I believe it’s the only answer for maintaining access to and displaying this valuable history. Ancient East mentions the important grave slab collection: after the high crosses (and, of course, Romanesque architecture) I feel these are the most beautiful representations of art and craftsmanship that connect us across the centuries to our remarkably focussed forebears.

These are just a few examples of the many grave slabs which are fortunately conserved at Clonmacnoise. But there are many more monuments that are less fortunate, albeit they may enjoy some sort of state care. There are just not enough resources to look after the huge historical heritage of Ireland: we can only hope that, in time, they will all be fully appreciated and that not too many treasures will fade away.

The Significant Rock Art of Clonfinlough

Whenever we stray from our home territory of West Cork, we are always on the lookout for archaeological wonders. When we set our course for Clonmacnoise, in County Offaly, last week (I like the possible translation of the Irish Cluain Muccu Nóis: Meadow of the Pigs of Nós, but there is an alternative Cluain Mhic Nóis: Meadow of the Sons of Nós), we were looking for Ireland’s most important medieval monastic site, but we were diverted only a stone’s throw from our destination by a sign that we couldn’t ignore…

Tucked away to the south east of Clonmacnoise, on a by-road, sits an isolated church in front of which is a well defined and fenced pathway leading past the Priest’s house, through fields, over a stile and into a pasture where cows grazed and barely gave us a glance. There – open to the ravages of weather and cattle – is a large, earthfast slab of limestone bearing a remarkable array of markings.

Header – a detail from the stone’s crowded surface. Upper – the well-defined path leading from St Kieran’s Church to the stone (don’t confuse this St Kieran with the one from Cape Clear). Lower – the limestone slab situated beyond the stile

For Rock Art enthusiasts like us the stone was a wonderful find. The surface is teeming with rings, lines, shapes – and even lettering. In spite of the weathering, everything was deeply defined and easy to see. And the more we looked, the more we did see, and the more perplexed we became. I even noted footprints! Remember my search last week for the footprint left by Archangel Gabriel on his visit to his eponymous mountain in West Cork? Here I counted six, and my size nine feet fitted perfectly in them all.

Upper – two of the ‘footprints’ scattered on the stone’s marked surface. Lower – the stone in its landscape context: ‘footprints’ are also visible

When we returned from our visit to Offaly I was able to research the available information on the Clonfinlough Stone and was delighted to find a very comprehensive study of it written by Finola’s old friend and Rock Art expert from UCC, Elizabeth Shee Twohig. The piece – Context and Chronology of the Carved Stone at Clonfinlough, County Offaly – was published in 2002 in The Journal of The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume 132 pp 99-113. It makes the most enlightening read, outlining the ways in which the stone was regarded and drawn by early antiquarians and then opening up discussion on how much of the stone’s markings might in fact be natural formations, or natural forms which have influenced and been enhanced by ‘artists’ working with motifs which have become familiar to Rock Art researchers today, including cupmarks.

Engravings by George Victor du Noyer illustrating a paper published by James Grave in 1865. Note the emphasis that du Noyer has placed on recognisable ‘Greek’ style lettering (termed phi by Shee Twohig)

Elizabeth Shee Twohig quotes theories by RAS Macalister which evolved between 1921 and 1949, and which include the idea that the phi markings represent ‘…a possible depiction of a battle between the ‘loop men’ and the ‘cross men’ and suggested that the cupmarks …may even indicate the number of severed heads!…’ In his 1928 book The Archaeology of Ireland Macalister (quoted by Shee Twohig) suggests ‘…the carvings as showing a battle or pre-battle scene, the medicine men having prepared for their occult purposes a picture of the consummation desired…’ while in 1949 he saw it as a sign-manual of a hostile expedition from Spain which sailed up the Shannon: ‘…the battlefield, printed with the footmarks of the flying foe, strewn with weapons cast away in their flight and with missile stones…’

These are but brief extracts from the Shee Twohig account and discussions, which are essential reading – not just for possible enlightenment on the markings on this stone, but also for a well defined background on how ideas about Rock Art generally have developed since the time of the earliest antiquarians.

Elizabeth Shee Twohig has amplified her study of the Clonfinlough Stone with the first truly accurate drawing of the markings on it (above). It is certainly interesting to compare this with the 1865 engravings by du Noyer

Elizabeth Shee Twohig brings in to her study the possible significance of the stone’s positioning close to the great monastic centre of Clonmacnoise, which in medieval times was the prime pilgrimage destination in Ireland. There is evidence that one of the paved pilgrim routes passed close by the Clonfinlough Stone. It is plausible, therefore, that at least some of the markings on this limestone slab could have dated from those times: Clonmacnoise was active between the 6th and 12th centuries.

Upper – the many enigmatic markings on the stone: natural limestone solution pits, Bronze Age Rock Art, crosses carved by or for medieval pilgrims? Lower – the stone is within sight of the present day church

A trawl through the folklore records proves fertile. One legend says that at certain times of the year a horseman manifests and gallops around the stone. Another has it that a local boy named Michael used to play at the rock and there met another boy who gave him a silver knife. His mother made him take the knife back and leave it on the stone, for she said the boy was a fairy trying to entice him away. It is also said that another Michael will find the knife, and when he does he will find two big pots of gold under the rocks. Whatever the truth is about the rock and its meaning, I am struck by the path we found coming from the little church which is in sight of the Clonfinlough Stone: could there be something pagan in that stone which required the church to be built there – or is it a mutual guardianship?

PS – since publishing this post, Gearóid Ó Díomasaigh has pointed me to this 3D Sketchfab image of the Clonfinlough Stone available to view online:

In the church at Clonfinlough is a curious series of Stations: this one showing the ’empty tomb’ can be seen as a rock supplanted by a cross…