Bullaun Stones abound in Ireland. They are usually found nowadays at sites with ecclesiastical connections, as in the example above at Maulinward, an ancient West Cork burial ground. This association does not reduce or affect their traditional uses – according to folk convention – to cure or to curse. The Irish word Bullán means ‘bowl’ – a water container. At pilgrimage sites, such as St Gobnait‘s, Ballyvourney (below), the bullaun stones often hold quartz fragments or smooth, rounded pebbles – perhaps incised with a cross – which are turned around each time a pattern or procession is completed.
The Maulinward example on the header picture shows how the tradition of making offerings at some of these locations continues to this day. At other sites, such as the one below, the hollowed-out stone filled with rainwater takes on the properties of a holy well, and is visited for cures or simply good fortune.
This example, outside the door of the church at Cill Lachtáin, Co Cork seems to have been mounted to perform as a holy water stoup: the plaque reads ” . . . This blessed font of Cill Lachtáin was standing in Cloch Aidhneach from 600AD to 1600AD . . . “ Others resemble fonts and are similarly associated with places of worship. Look at this striking stone from Timoleague Friary, whose purpose – according to tradition – is clearly stated:
In the sixth century, the Council of Tours ordered its ministers ” . . . to expel from the Church all those whom they may see performing before certain stones things which have no relation with the ceremonies of the Church . . . ” Such an order doesn’t seem to have prevented folk customs of curing continuing into the twenty-first century.
The ongoing use of bullauns as fonts, stoops or holy wells does not explain their original purpose (which is probably pre-Christian: here’s an interesting conjectural world view of the phemomenon), and it’s quite likely that we will never fathom for sure what they were for. The example above, at Kilmalkedar, Co Kerry is as enigmatic as they will get, with its multiple ‘basins’ carved into a large earth-fast boulder isolated in the middle of a field, although not far from a remarkably complex ecclesiastical site. But the one I find the most fascinating can be found along the Priest’s Leap road, a mere few steps away from our own home in West Cork . . .
This rock outcrop – known locally as The Rolls of Butter – is large (I’m there to give it scale!) with seven scooped-out bullaun like basins and a somewhat phallic central upright stone. The basins each contain a large, smoothed pebble. Some folk traditions in Ireland identify such pebbles as ‘cursing stones’: “. . . if you wanted to put a curse on someone, you turned the stones anti-clockwise in the morning . . . ” However, the curse had to be ‘just’ otherwise it came back to curse you in the evening! The illustration below – of ‘cursing stones’ at Killinagh, Co Cavan was made by antiquarian W F Wakeman in 1875. He also noted the similar local folk traditions of these examples.
Many bullaun stones or stone groups around Ireland have been included in the National Monuments records, and number in the hundreds. Functional, magical, sinister? Who knows . . . Your guess is as good as anyone else’s. But one thing is certain – they are intriguing and mysterious. Keep a look out for them – as we do – in your travels around this land.
Note: this is a re-run of a post I published five years ago – but it’s been augmented, updated and – hopefully – improved!
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.
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 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.
Every year we take a look at the Facebook photographs that you’ve liked or viewed or shared the most, and then edit them down to manageable proportions. Here’s our final selection for this year – we decided to stick to West Cork, and we’re starting off with Bantry, with that wonderful statue of Brendan the Navigator blessing us and inviting us into the town.
The photo this year that was most viewed and exclaimed over was our shot of Dunboy Castle (above), just outside Castletownbere. It’s a dramatic sight and an extraordinary story of the dream to build Ireland’s first six star hotel – a dream that came crashing down with the collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy in 2008. Perhaps one day a new team will take it on: meantime it sits forlornly behind barbed wire, a reminder of optimistic times.
We were surprised by the instant appeal of our stained glass St Gobnait. Although a familiar saint her in West Cork, she is not universally known elsewhere. Perhaps it is her association with the bees that resonates with people now that bees everywhere are in danger. The image is of a window in Bantry Catholic church, probably the work of William Dowling.
Kilcoe Castle seems to feature each year as it’s a firm favourite with us in West Cork. We were lucky to capture it at dusk on a hazy evening in March. It has been lovingly and magnificently restored by Jeremy Irons and if you’re curious to see inside, there are some interior images here.
Our friend, and professional wildlife photographer, Sheena Jolley lives in this impossibly romantic old mill just outside of Schull. Her studio occupies the building on the right, while some of the workings of the old mill are still intact and conserved by Sheena. I suspect this photograph was so popular because many of us have a dream to dwell in a piece of living history like this.
Uragh Stone Circle on the Beara Peninsula – I think we can all agree now it’s the stone circle with the best setting in Ireland. But it’s only one of the many feature of Gleninchaquin that makes this remote but accessible valley so richly enjoyable to visit.
Everyone loves driving through the Caha Pass between Glengarriff and Kenmare – the scenery is spectacular and includes several tunnels
This image, of the Barnacleeve Gap above Schull, illustrates well the colours of West Cork in winter, when the bracken turns dark amber and the Purple Moor Grass (not purple at all) earns its Irish name of Fionnán, meaning blonde, while the grasses and mosses keep the lowest growth green.
Another winter view, this time from across Reendonagan Lake, near Ballylickey, to the Sugarloaf Mountain on the Beara Peninsula.
And finally a photograph that manages to capture much of the Mizen Peninsula, taken on Brow Head and looking towards Mount Gabriel in the distance, with the village of Crookhaven and the Rock Island lighthouse on the left. And yes, you’re right – another winter photograph.
I’ve been struck by the absence of sacred women in the iconography of stained glass windows in Irish Protestant churches. Sure, there’s the odd window devoted to or including Mary (such as Nativity scenes) or Bridget, or images of women as Charity or Hope, but for windows depicting women who are venerated for their piety or leadership or courage you have to visit Catholic churches in Ireland.
The top picture is St Dympna, depicted with a sword – it is a tradition to depict martyrs with the instrument of their death. She looks wide-eyed and innocent – she was only 15 when she died. Above is St Fanchea, bearing a rose and with a kindly expression
We’ve written already about Bridgethere and here and about Gobnait: Bridget is considered the female equivalent of Patrick in being the most widely known and celebrated of the Irish women saints. Gobnait is a good example of a local saint, in this case she is associated with the Muskerry area of Cork. When you read the lives of Irish saints, women and men, you are reading accounts written many centuries after they lived, often a mixture of tradition, mythology, folklore and reconstructed hagiography.
Harry Clarke, as I have discovered before, had a thing for red hair and gave St Dympna a particularly glowing crop. Here she shelters her patients, the mentally ill poor who came to her hospital
Robert and I have been travelling in Ireland and visiting stained glass here and there, and in the process discovering more unfamiliar Irish saints. Harry Clarke, Ireland’s incomparable stained glass artist of the early part of the 20th century, was often asked to depict local saints and always did as much research as he could into their lives, to enable him to tell their stories and use appropriate elements and symbols. [For more posts about the genius of Harry Clarke, Ireland’s most famous stained glass artist, go to our Navigation page and scroll down to C5.] In Carrickmacross (Co Monaghan) this week I found three Harry Clarke windows illustrating three Irish female saints, two of whom I had never heard of before. Let’s start with the one I thought I knew because I’ve had friends with that name – St Dympna.
Dympna flees her father’s house. Following her is the court jester, his wife, bearing medicines, and Gerebran, her confessor
Dympna was the daughter of an Irish King called Damon. When his wife died, her father became unhinged and decided he would only marry the one who was as beautiful as her – his own daughter Dympna. Horrified, she fled with her confessor, Gerebran, and travelled to Gheel in Belgium. There she established a hospital and tended to the poor and sick. But her father found her and in his rage beheaded first the faithful Gerebran and then, when she refused to yield to him, his daughter.
Harry Clarke did not shy away from depicting the grizzly end of Dympna and Gerebran
She is venerated in Ireland and in Belgium, and particularly associated with care of the sick and those who are mentally ill. She is also a patron saint for those who have suffered incest. There are shrines and hospitals named for her in Belgium, Ireland and the United Stares. She is also known as St Davnet, and there are hospitals and holy wells with this name.
St Ceara is the subject of one window with two lights
Like Dympna, Ceara was of royal blood and established her first monastery in present-day Westmeath on land granted by St Fintan – or perhaps in Kilkeary near Nenagh in Tipperary at the behest of Brendan of Clonfert. You see, there may have been two Cearas and over time their stories were conflated. To add to the confusion, St Ceara, also known as Ciara, is known to have been an abbess who founded a monastery near the spot currently better known as Kilcrea Friary in Cork.
St Ceara and her virgins
Harry Clarke in his windows chooses to depict her as beautiful and royal, in one window carrying her monastery and in the other (below) sumptuously dressed and appearing more the princess than the holy woman.
St Fanchea was the sister of St Enda of Aran, and they share the two lights of one window. St Fanchea was famed for her holiness and founded a monastery in Fermanagh. Enda was a warrior-king but was finally won over by the piety of his sister and converted when he came to see her in her convent.
Fanchea and her brother, Enda of Aran
For a full (and graphic!) account of the brother and sister relationship, see the marvellous post in Omnia Sanctorum Hiberniae, a fabulous blog for anyone interested in obscure Irish saints. Marcella starts her story of Fanchea this way:
Aengus, son of Natfraich, King of Munster, is said to have desired Fanchea’s hand in marriage. Notwithstanding all his pressing entreaties, however, and rejecting those earthly dignities to which she might be advanced by yielding to his suit, the holy virgin’s mind was intent on a life of celibacy, and on those rewards promised by Christ to his spouses.
St Fanchea stops her brother, Enda, and turns him from his warrior ways
I’d love to hear from readers who have their own favourite women saints, especially Irish ones.
My musical acquaintances might think that this post is all about Kerry slides – lively tunes which get aired sometimes at our session: here are some fine examples played by Éamonn O’Riordan, Tony O’Connell, Brian Mooney and Gearóid Ó Duinnín…
But they would be mistaken: this is the tale of a little wintry but sunlit exploration which Finola and I undertook on the eve of St Gobnait’s feast day. It involved crossing the border into Kerry, something which is not lightly done by Corkonians because of traditional rivalries (mainly on the Hurling and Gaelic Football fields). So we had to ‘slide’ over into the Kingdom and hope that none of our friends noticed our temporary absence.
We had things to do in Kenmare (have a look at Finola’s post), but afterwards we took to the byways. We knew there is a remote, lonely and very beautiful road winding up over the mountains, shared only by a few wandering sheep, and determined that would be our way home. We headed off to the tiny settlement of Kilgarvan and there saw a signpost that said Bantry 25: we turned on to the boreen that follows the Roughty and Slaheny Rivers and immediately entered another world.
We hadn’t gone very far along the road before we were intrigued by a brown signpost – beckoning us along an even smaller boreen. Macaura’s Grave: neither of us had any idea who Macaura was, so we had to go and investigate. After about ten minutes of twisting and turning and trying to guess which of the unmarked and unsigned lanes to take whenever we came to a junction, we found ourselves back on the road we had just left! By now we were determined that Macaura was not going to get the better of us, so we flagged down a young lad who was in charge of a fine red tractor. He was very forthcoming, and told us that the grave was well worth a visit, then proceeded to give us a set of instructions that involved turning this way and that – signifying to the air which ways these were. Not a little confused, we drove off again.
It was no hardship to be exploring the magnificent countryside in south Kerry: the views were breathtaking and the variety of colours on the mountains in sunlight and shadow this early spring day was astonishing. A bit more head scratching and a few more twists and turns down a stony trackway and we were there!
Now we knew. Not only had we found the grave of Macaura – that’s the old Irish way of saying McCarthy – but we had come across the site of one of the most significant battles in Irish history! The Irish chieftain, Finín McCarthy (named as the ‘King’ of Kerry – and that’s why Kerry is known as The Kingdom), joined up with the O’Sullivan Beare from West Cork and the O’Donoghues from Ross Castle to rout the Normans, who were led by Sir John Fitzgerald. This battle took place in 1261. 1261! Over eight hundred years ago… This confirms my thesis that you can’t go anywhere in Ireland without stumbling over history. The Anglo-Normans had claimed their stake in Ireland from 1169 when Strongbow (Richard de Clare) arrived with the blessing of Henry II (and the Pope – who saw the Irish church charting its own course and not following Rome!). Reasonably, the Irish chieftains objected to the Norman invaders, hence this confrontation.
In the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1961, Volume 66, there is a comprehensive – but not entirely enlightening – article by Diarmud Ó Murchadha on The Battle of Callan:
…Finghin Mac Carthy had learned much from his opponents during his years of conflict, while he had the added advantage of knowing intimately the territory over which he fought. At Callann he chose his battleground, at a spot where a mountainy river called the Slaheny joins the Ruachtach, close by the castle of Ardtully. No doubt he reckoned that here the heavily-armoured cavalry of the invader could be used to the least advantage. Battle was then joined and Finghin mac Domhnaill mic Charthaigh emerged victorious… Unfortunately no details of the conflict – apart from the names of those slain – are available. Incidentally, the fullest account of the battle is given, not by the Munster annals, but by the Annals of Loch Ce and Annals of Connacht:
AD 1261 – A great war was waged, and numerous injuries were committed in this year by Finghin, son of Domhnall Mac Carthaigh, and his brothers, against the foreigners.There was a great hosting by the Geraldines into Desmond, to attack Mac Carthy, but it was Mac Carthy attacked them, and defeated them…
The Annals go on to record the fact that Finghin followed up his victory at Callan by attacking and destroying every Norman castle and stronghold in Munster. As the sign over Macaura’s Grave tells us: …he liberated the Kingdom of South Munster from Norman domination forever…
But who is it that the Macaura Grave celebrates? ‘Donal, Chieftain of the McCarthy Fineens’… Presumably this is not the Finghin, who, according to the Annals, went on after the battle to rout the Normans out of Munster: the Finghin who is known as mac Domhnaill mic Charthaigh – ‘son of Domhnaill MacCarthy’. Could it be his father (Donal is an Anglicisation of Domhnaill)? In which case it was the clan chieftain who died in the battle and his son who went on to clear the Normans out of Kerry. There are a few accounts of the battle, but none of them clarify this. It all happened a long time ago, of course, and memories fade. In fact this site was all but lost: an article in The Kerryman takes up the story, illustrated by this photograph:
…The men of Kilgarvan were busy in November 1981 – making a road fit for a king! The king in question is Finín McCarthy who died in 1261 after being the first Irish king to defeat the Normans, thus giving Kerry the name of the Kingdom… Legend has it that after the battle, McCarthy stood on a ditch to survey the battlefield, when a dying Norman killed him with an arrow. McCarthy was buried on the spot, and a large slab was used as a headstone. The grave now lies on a narrow little road in Callan beside Tom Healy’s farm. When retired Dublin civil servant Frank Shanley spent a recent holiday in Kilgarvan he went looking for the grave, which was buried by shrubs and bushes… He decided to organise a meeting of the local men to try and get them to improve the grave and access to it…. It was Dan O’Sullivan, Down, Tom O’Donoghue and Michael Teehan, who were slaving away widening the roadway from eight feet wide to 16 feet, when he visited in November 1981… Apart from the narrow roadway and the briars and trees, there was also a steady stream of water running over the grave, but the men got the pipes to divert the water in another direction. There was no actual inscription on the grave that the men could read, but there were a series of lines and crosses on it, which they hope will be examined by an expert…. They hope that when they have the roadway to the grave cleared, they can erect signposts to the grave, and notices around the grave telling the history of McCarthy’s death in the battle of Callan…
So we have the ‘men of Kilgarvan’ – back in the 80s – to thank for leading us to this now tranquil but historically turmoiled and fascinating spot. There is still the puzzle of which McCarthy is commemorated: perhaps we’ll never know for sure. But it’s not bad to have access to a story which has survived for the best part of nine hundred years – just about within living memory by Irish standards! After this excitement we continued our journey over the spectacular Coomhola road through the mountains towards Ballylickey and gently slid back into West Cork. If you can cope with very narrow roads (it’s not so bad – we only saw two other vehicles, both local farmers, in the whole 25 kilometres!) it’s one of the great road trips of Ireland – with the added bonus of a history lesson to be taken in.
For any student of Harry Clarke stained glass there are delights to be discovered far beyond the main depiction. A host of subordinate or secondary figures reveal themselves to close examination, sometimes only after repeated viewings.
Brendan of Kerry – AKA Brendan the Navigator. Note the borders with their exotic birds
The tall windows I describe in this post typically have three parts – the main section containing a large image of the saint, and an upper and lower section (sometimes called a predella) each of which may contain a separate image/story. In addition, the border around the outside of a Clarke window is always highly decorated in endless imaginative patterns.
The Mary Mother of Sorrows window was executed slightly later than the other windows and shows some stylistic changes. But it illustrates well the three parts to the window and the use of all available space for supporting and secondary characters to tell the story
Clarke was obsessed with detail: there are few white spaces or plain glass in his work. Every inch is filled with richly figured and never-repeated decoration or with additional figures that fill out the story and the symbolism of the central character. These figures tend to fall into a group we can call saintly and a group we can call macabre. Whichever they are, they reflect his vivid imagination and his gift for portraiture.
The Honan Chapel is the Catholic church at University College, Cork. It is a masterpiece of Celtic-Revival Hiberno-Romanesque design and a wonderful place to visit
Designing windows for the Honan Chapel at University College, Cork, was Harry Clarke’s first major commission and launched his career. The windows, finished and installed between 1916 and 1917 contain all the hallmarks of the intricate style he made uniquely his own. I will use four of his Honan windows to look at the cast of supporting characters he employed in his quest to incorporate as much as possible of the saint’s story.
St Gobnait is, famously, depicted in profile, allowing her red hair to take centre stage. She is the patron saint of beekeepers and her bees surround her. Above the main image she is shown spreading her arm (note the honeycomb design of her robe) and extending her staff to prevent a plague descending on her people. She is attended by two maidens and to the right you can see the faces of three men who have not been spared the plague. (There’s another little detail you might spot in this picture!)
To quote Nicola Gordon Bowe, in her magisterial The Life and Work of Harry Clarke:
Harry here shows the delight he took in depicting deformity, disease and the macabre. This fascination with the poles of the beautiful and of the ugly and grotesque is a propensity he shared with many medieval artists.
On either side of St Gobnait another fearful scene unfolds. According to legend, robbers attempted to break into St Gobnait’s abbey but she set her bees upon them and here they are fleeing in terror.
At the very bottom of the panel she is depicted directing the bees and attended by a novice, while on the left a fourth robber runs in panic.
St Brendan the Navigator, with his red beard, gazes serenely out, holding an oar. By his shoulder, his tiny curragh sails westward into the setting sun. In this window pay special attention to the border. Because he was a voyager, discovering the Americas, Clarke decorate it with exotic birds. He intersperses these with tiny roundels of other Irish saints.
Judas suffering on his rock – a medieval vision of misery. Note also the roundels: on the left is St Brigid and on the right is “the poor monk with the iron in his head.” Amazing that Clarke managed to get all that information on to the border of the roundel
In one episode on his seven year journey, Brendan encountered Judas, suffering eternal torture because of his betrayal of Jesus. The bottom panel depicts the scene of the wasted and agonised Judas, while the monks look on in horror. Only Brendan is able to look stoically forward.
Detail from the St Ita window
St Ita (the first photograph in this post) was the daughter of a chieftain but renounced all worldly things to live a life of poverty and to teach. Once again, Clarke uses tiny roundels to depict other saints associated with Ita: Brendan, Colman, Finbar and Carthage.
Below her feet is another tableau, depicting a prayerful scene in which she is attended by two holy women and St Colman and St Brendan. The portraiture of the the two saints is exquisite.
St Albert of Cashel – a little known saint who journeyed to Ratisbon in Germany on a conversion mission
A last window from the Honan Chapel – this time St Albert of Cashel, depicted as a seated bishop. In the top portion he is depicted converting the people of Ratisbon in Germany. Once again the individuals are beautifully drawn and sumptuously dressed. I particularly love the red hair – always a feature of a Harry Clarke window.
Citizens of Ratisbon listening to St Albert preaching
I highly recommend a visit to the Honan Chapel if you’re in Cork. See Robert’s post, Cork Menagerie, for an in-depth look at the mosaics. And take your time – the windows (there are several more than the ones I’ve used in this post) reward patient and detailed study. For more on Harry Clarke’s stained glass, see my post The Gift of Harry Clarke, which will walk you through an analysis of his style and his influences.
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