Saint Manchan’s Shrine – Art and Devotion in 12th Century Ireland

‘A rich and dazzling Celtic bewilderment, a perpetual challenge to the eyes and a perpetual delight.’ T.D. Kendrick (Archaeologia 86, 1936)

Saint Manchan’s shrine is one of the most remarkable survivals from Ireland’s medieval past, having been safely kept and venerated in the same locality since its creation in the early twelfth century. This masterpiece of medieval art is now proudly and reverently displayed in the rural parish church of Boher in County Offaly, not far from its original home at the ancient church site of Lemanaghan. St Manchan’s shrine is a gabled-reliquary, taking the shape of steeply pitched roof or tent, and is fitted with carrying rings, which enabled it to be carried in procession by two bearers using poles. It is not only the largest reliquary surviving from medieval Ireland but is also the only remaining example of its type. It enshrines what are believed to be the bones of its eponymous saint, St Manchan, whose death is recorded in AD 664.

This project involves close up photographs of the detailing of this shrine which is now encased in a high security glass display unit. The text will be written by archaeologist Griffin Murray and metalsmith/photographer Kevin O’Dwyer. This will provide a unique insight into the making of this artifact.

A masterpiece of medieval art, Saint Manchan’s Shrine is Ireland’s largest surviving reliquary. A unique example of Irish monastic metalsmithing combining Irish, late Viking/Urnes and Romanesque Christian art styles. This cross fertilization of styles and cultures makes it a unique study from both archaeological and metalsmithing perspectives. Archaeologist Griffin Murray and metalsmith/photographer Kevin O’Dwyer are combining their expertise to create a high-quality full colour coffee table book that features O’Dwyer’s captivating and atmospheric photographs and Griffin Murray’s in-depth story telling of the history and folklore of the shrine. The publication will feature full and double-page image spreads, antiquarian drawings and descriptive metalsmithing close-ups. The text will be presented in a series of essay’s that will cover various topics including Saint Manchan and Lemanaghan, the art and craftsmanship of Saint Manchan’s Shrine, cultural cross fertilization – the Late Viking/Urnes style  – and the shrines relationship with the makers of The Cross of Cong.

Dr Griffin Murray is a lecturer in Archaeology at University College Cork (UCC) where he teaches in the areas of Museum Studies and Medieval Archaeology. He also serves as President of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society. He holds a BA (2001), MA (2002), MBS (2015) and PhD (2007) from UCC.

His book The Cross of Cong: A Masterpiece of Medieval Irish Art was published by Irish Academic Press and the National Museum of Ireland in 2014, while he edited the book The Medieval Treasures of County Kerry in 2010. Dr Murray has published 30 academic peer-reviewed papers in journals and books and is regularly invited to speak at conferences and to historical and archaeological societies.

Kevin O’Dwyer is an internationally recognised metalsmith, sculptor, educator, and photographer. For over 35 years Kevin O’Dwyer’s artwork has explored the subtleties of ritual and imagination using Irish prehistoric art, bronze-age artefacts, early monastic metalwork, 20th century design and architecture as his creative influences. O’Dwyer circuitously began metalsmithing through his interest in early Irish metalwork and archaeology. Throughout his career he has continued to research the artefacts and land art found on the Irish landscape. In 2006 O’Dwyer worked with archaeologist Caimin O’Brien and Offaly County Heritage officer Amanda Pedlow to publish Stories from a Sacred Landscape, a 250-page coffee table book that explores the imagery, folklore and history of 6th to 12th century monastic sites found in County Offaly.

The 11th Figure of Saint Manchan’s Shrine

St. Manchan’s Shrine, Ireland’s finest twelfth century reliquary was commissioned by Turlough O’Connor, High King of Ireland (1111-1151), for the monastery of Lemanaghan, and was produced in the workshops along the River Shannon under the supervision of the Abbot of Clonmacnoise, Domnall O’Duffy. Of the fifty figures originally attached to the shrine only eleven figures remain intact. The Shrine has remained in the Boher community of County Offaly for over 900 years and is an important spiritual link to the memory of St. Manchan, who died during the great plague of 664 AD.

George Petrie: one of the first to appreciate the significance of St Manchan’s shrine and of Clonmacnoise

The 11th figure became a source of much interest during the 19th century. The shrine was observed and sketched by the artist and archaeologist George Petrie around 1821; however, when it was put on display at the Dublin Exhibition in 1853, there were only ten figures remaining! In the year 1869 a figure that resembles George Petrie’s diary sketch was found in the possession of Mr Robert Day, a well-known Cork collector. It was returned to the shrine (minus his legs!) and attached to the right hand side of the front plate, where it remains to this day.

Revd James Graves’ book of 19 pages appeared in 1875. His article was in the RSAI journal with wonderful engravings the previous year.
Revd James Graves, author of the first essay on the shrine in 1874 and published as book (now rare) in 1875.

Master silversmith Kevin O’Dwyer has studied the shrine over the past eight years and he has reconstructed the 11th figure using the same techniques and skills that the 12th century craftsmen used in the creation of the shrine.

A YouTube promotion for the book by Murray and O’Dwyer.


In Offaly, St Manchan’s shrine is deeply embedded in the local community, on display in Boher church and of international significance

Manchan’s shrine lecture, Monday 17 May 2021, 7. 30 p.m.

St Manchan’s shrine: art and devotion in twelfth-century Ireland

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Zoom Manchan’s Shrine

Happy Days when the Shrine was returned to Lemanaghan and Boher Church in 2014. Offaly History was pleased to be able to support financially the new arrangements for its display in Boher church. We very much look forward to this new publication in late 2021. We salute all who have cared for and written it up since the 1820s especially James Graves and later Kendrick and Senior. Our thanks to our speakers on 17 May and for their work on this new book which will be worthy of its subject. You can order it from us later this year.