‘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.
Our traditional view of the Vikings in Ireland was established by our early primary and secondary schooling. We were aware that the Vikings commenced raiding in 795 AD by their raid on Rathlin Island. Eventually they settled in a few areas around our coastline. However, most of the country was within reach of Viking raiding parties. One of the primary bases from which Viking raids emerged was from the city of Limerick. Limerick provided a springboard for raids up the Shannon, affecting areas on either side of the river.
These raids were on church monasteries resulted in the slaughter of monks and workers in the monasteries. It also appears that the Vikings knew exactly where these monasteries were located and regularly their arrival coincided when particular religious events were underway. From other evidence they were after people, cattle and very occasionally the gold and silver in the monasteries. People were regularly taken to be sold at slaves. The largest such raid was carried out at Howth in the year 821 AD where over 600 females were taken away by ship for slavery. In later times Dublin became the largest Viking slave centre in Western Europe; Kiev in Ukraine was their largest slave centre in the East.
Les pirates normands au IXe siècle by Évariste-Vital Luminais (1894), Musée Anne de Beaujeu, Moulin
Consumed by political and economic turmoil, the first half of the 20th century was a fallow period for the visual arts and archaeological scholarship in Ireland and certainly Offaly was no different. The post-war period dominated by scarcity and emigration, was particularly stifling.
The first glimmerings of change came with the national festival of An Tóstal in 1953. Emulating the very successful Festival of Britain two years earlier, its primary intention was to boost tourism in the Easter off peak period – or as the poet Patrick Kavanagh called it ‘The Monsoon Season’.
Whether or not the festival brought any tourists to Ireland or not is debatable but it certainly had a dynamic cultural impact, particularly outside of Dublin. Local societies emerged to organise exhibitions of arts, crafts and heritage. An awareness of the need for civic improvements led to the Tidy Towns movement. Most importantly, a spirit of optimism and openness was created.
This sense of a new beginning was particularly evident in Tullamore where a small local elite led by individuals with connections to the Dublin art and theatrical world were beginning to promote a more open and less traditional approach.
It must be conceded that the unassertive landscapes of County Offaly have never been a great source of inspiration to painters, most of whom just made a quick stop at historic Clonmacnoise before dashing on to record the West of Ireland.
Yet, others took the trouble to look more closely (or were paid to do so) and found inspiration in its lush farmland, bogs and woods, slow rivers, rolling hills and ancient ruins. Happily, their numbers have grown in the recent past.
The Cotton Map
The first, and in my opinion the finest, artistic image of Offaly is the Cotton Map of 1565. Prepared to assist the Elizabethan Plantation, this is an imaginative creation more akin to Harry Potter’s ‘Marauder Map’ or Robert Louis Stevenson’s chart of Treasure Island than a realistic cartographic exercise. One wonders if its unknown compilers ever visited Offaly or were relying on travellers’ tales.
Leaving to one side the work of the Ordnance Survey in the 1830s, the work of Petrie at Clonmacnois, and that of Cooke at Birr in 1826 and 1875, the references to and work done or written up on the historical sites of north Offaly in the nineteenth century are hard to come by. Fr Cogan published historical material on the Offaly parishes in the diocese of Meath in his three-volume work, 1862-1870; Thomas Stanley corresponded with the Royal Society of Antiquaries (RSAI) in 1869 in regard to the nine-hole stone or bullaun at the Meelaghans while Stanley Coote contributed an illustration of Ballycowan Castle for the Memorials of the Dead – a published record from the 1880s to the 1930s of selected tombstone inscriptions in Ireland and in County Offaly.
We welcome a new contributor this week to our series of articles on the history of County Offaly. John Dolan writes about Seir Kieran in this fine piece. John was born in Tullamore, now retired, and has a degree Archaeology and Celtic Civilisation. He speaks regularly to historical societies in Dublin. Part 2 will be published next Wednesday. Seir Kieran is the ‘island parish’ in Offaly belonging to the diocese of Ossory. Our blog articles are brought to you twice weekly during these weeks of the plague to hopefully provide some inner peace through historical inquiry. You now have 182 to chose from and can join the 150,000 views since 2016.
The parish of Seir Kieran is one of the many early Christian sites that remain under reported and hidden in today’s world. Since its destruction by ‘the O’Carrol and the English’ in 1548 and similar to many other Offaly early churches, it has dropped into insignificance.
Seir Kieran is now mainly known for the history of its GAA club rather than its claim to be a Christian site before the arrival of St. Patrick.
In a region crowded with fine buildings, County Offaly has a lot of significant works of architecture of which to be proud. It is rich in early Christian and Romanesque remains at Kinnitty, Durrow and Rahan, while the monastic settlement at Clonmacnoise is one of the outstanding survivals of this period in Ireland.
The county is less fortunate in its late medieval ecclesiastical buildings, but of the three Central Leinster counties (Laois, Offaly and Kildare) retains perhaps the most extensive architectural legacy of its Gaelic lordships – notably in tower houses such as Leap, Cloghan and Clonony, among others.
Columba, son of Eithne, daughter of Mac Naue, and Fedelmid mac Ferguso, is one of the most important Irish saints, and the strength of his saint’s cult in the centuries after his death on June 9th, 597 attests to this. Columba, or Colmcille, meaning the dove of the church, was born around 520 as a prominent member of the Cenél Conaill, This was a branch of the northern Uí Néill, a powerful dynastic grouping tracing its origins back to Niall of the Nine Hostages and based in north-western Ireland (Tír Chonaill takes its name from the Cenél Conaill). Columba’s influence extended into political matters as well as the religious sphere, but he is remembered as a monastic saint above all else. Like most early Irish saints, he was never formally canonised.
On Sunday 8 July, Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society will be visiting sites of historical interest in the Ballyboy and Kilcormac area. This outing has been greatly facilitated by local Agnes Gorman, who recounts here the history of the church in Kilcormac.
About 1,500 years ago, Cormac O’ Liathain, a priest, left Cobh, in Co Cork and travelled to Durrow, in Co Offaly to meet with Columcille, who was Abbot and a priest in the monastery. A short time later, Columcille left for Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. Cormac received the “Durrow Crozier” a symbol of authority, but he had a burning sense to become a hermit – his dream site was where the sound of the river would lull him to sleep, the bird song in the daytime and a vista towards the south, with Knockhill and the Slieve Blooms mountains, acting as his ‘satnav’, and that spot chosen is right here in Kilcormac. Continue reading →
On 23rd April I will get another chance to show you some modern clues to our ancient past. I have a lot more evidence than I had when I gave a presentation in 2010. My article on the subject is in OHAS Journal 6, pp 84-98, published in 2011. Here is the short version again just to whet your appetite and encourage you to attend the lecture at Offaly History Centre, Bury Quay, Tullamore at 8 p.m. on 23rd April. Feel free to email me your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org so I can answer them on the night. Continue reading →