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.

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Mercy Nuns, Tullamore: pragmatic women in a time of change. By Declan McSweeney

The role of religious orders in Irish society is a subject which frequently arouses passionate debate and, like many other debates, often generates more heat than light as extreme positions are taken, with members of orders seen as either saints or demons. The sisters of the Tullamore Mercy Convent are held in high esteem for their educational and charitable work and have always been willing to learn and to adapt with changing times.

The Sisters of Mercy have had a presence in Tullamore since 1836, when the original sisters came on the flyboat from Portobello down the Grand Canal, from the mother house in Dublin’s Baggot Street, founded by Catherine McAuley.

A favourite in the month of May during the rosary processions in Tullamore convent

St Joseph’s Convent was the first foundation outside Dublin by an order which was to become the largest order of women religious in the English-speaking world.

Brought to Tullamore at the request of the then parish priest, Father O’Rafferty, it went on to play a major role in local history, as well as to found convents in other locations.

In writing about the order, I am conscious of my own dealings with it as a young boy, having attended the old St Joseph’s NS (where St Philomena’s is now located) from 1965-68. In those days, the norm was that boys attended there for the first three years of schooling, until First Communion, when they departed either for Scoil Bhríde or, as in my own case, to the primary school then run by the Christian Brothers in Coláiste Choilm.

The girls then continued for another year or two until moving to St Philomena’s, which was then based in Harbour Street, in what is now St Mary’s Youth and Community Centre.

I have good memories of the four nuns who taught me in St Joseph’s – the late Sister Bernadette Nevin was my first teacher in Junior Infants, and she was followed by Sister Scholastica (now Sister Kathleen), Sister Regina (who later moved to teach in the USA) and Sister Columba (now Sister Nuala).

Sr Bernadette, teacher to so many in her early years

I cannot presume to speak on behalf of my female counterparts regarding their memories at more senior primary and secondary classes, that is something they would have to outline themselves. During my schooldays and for many years thereafter, the Sisters of Mercy ran three primary schools in Tullamore – in addition to St Joseph’s and St Philomena’s, they ran Scoil Mhuire on the other side of the town – in addition to the Sacred Heart School, the only all-female secondary school in Offaly.

In addition to such a major role in education, I am conscious of their involvement as nurses in the local hospital, where a separate convent, the Sacred Heart convent, long existed, as well as their work in Riada House and its predecessor, the old County Home.

One also thinks of the order’s legacy in terms of setting up the Day Care Centre at Whitehall, the old launderette on Convent Road and of course involvement in the development of youth services and work with Travellers.

The convent (1836-41) and the first girls’ secondary school of 1911 at Convent Road

By the late 1980s, the effect of declining vocations was already beginning to be felt – the appointment towards the end of that decade of Ann Cooney as the first lay head at St Philomena’s was followed by that of Geraldine Byrne at St Joseph’s in 1992 and Máire McRedmond at Scoil Mhuire in 1999. At secondary level, Sheila McManamly became first lay principal at the Sacred Heart School in 1991, when Sister Ann O’Neill kept her promise to do no more than six years as head following the retirement of the late Sister Dolores Walsh.

Second level girls at Tullamore convent in 1914

St Joseph’s Convent has been linked to a number of foundations away from Tullamore – in addition to the Kilcormac convent, which has closed in recent years (with the remaining sisters moved to Tullamore), it is worth noting the role in founding convents in Derry and in Costa Mesa in Orange County, California.

Sisters from Tullamore have also served in Zambia and Kenya as well as Iceland.

With the remaining sisters predominantly elderly, the time will come when few will be aware of their work, but the legacy remains in schools and youth services. Those of us of a certain generation are well aware of the great work done by Sisters Ann and Genny, among others, in the youth services, and the order’s generosity in donating the old St Philomena’s to become the Youth Centre in 1980.

We also remember the work of Sister Veronica Gilsenan in helping bereaved families, as well as her work with Travellers and others in need – at a personal level, I recall her going to see my father when he was dying in Our Lady’s Hospice in Dublin in 1990.

Sister Veronica and friends about 1990

In assessing their work, we have to remember that they often reflected the mores of their time and as sisters aged, they often re-evaluated positions they previously took for granted.

From conversations I had with sisters down the years, I could see they were quite pragmatic in coming to terms with the changing position of women and the adjustments in social mores.

St Mary’s parish church, Geashill: a personal history. By Sylvia Turner

Geashill parish church

On a walk recently, listening to the crows squawking, I was reminded of a visit to Geashill parish church, dedicated to St Mary, in the diocese of Kildare and county of Offaly just over a year ago and hearing the same sound from the trees by the path to the church. 

A view of the grounds of Geashill parish church

I have become very attached to the church as it is where my great–grandparents and grandparents were married and where many of my great–aunts and great–uncles were baptised and buried, sadly in unmarked graves. As the world comes to terms with the Covid–19 pandemic, I think of my grandmother, Elizabeth Kerin née Evans (1881–1967) who was born in Geashill. She lived through the tuberculosis epidemic of the early 20th century that killed her father and ten of her twelve siblings, the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic and the War of Independence (1919–1921), a particularly dangerous time for Protestants such as her remaining family in Geashill and her growing family living nearby in Clara.

My grandmother’s early life up to the 1920s was little known to her children and it is only in comparatively recent years that the tragedy she encountered in Geashill has been fully realised. Her only known relatives were her parents, two sisters and two brothers. Access to further information came to me 16 years ago when I contacted the incumbent of Geashill and Killeigh parish at the time, the Revd J. Leslie Crampton. He transcribed all the births and deaths he had for the family. The information concerning the true number of siblings she had and how many had died of tuberculosis, many as young adults, was truly shocking to my grandmother’s daughters and grandchildren. However, it has enabled us to appreciate all the more that the loving and caring person we knew who was sustained by her family and her faith. We realise now she also held the qualities of strength and resilience.

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The Round Towers of County Offaly. By John Dolan

It is unclear where the idea for a Round Tower came from, little research has been carried out on their origins. There were a few examples of cylindrical towers in northern Italy, the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna is an example. European churches had started to connect bell towers and crypts to their churches between the 900 – 1,100AD. These towers were built stand-alone and later joined to other church buildings. But European bell towers were nearly all rectangular.

What was happening in Ireland?

In Ireland churches continued to be built as small rectangular buildings, single celled with one doorway and perhaps a window or two. Irish church buildings changed from wood to stone during the 8th century. However, monasteries blossomed as locations of education, agriculture, metal and wood working, vellum production, with their skills retained in-house or shared with other church establishments. External trade and travel with Europe were a regular occurrence. Most monasteries had wealthy, secular sponsors who were frequently related to the abbot or bishop. Monasteries also acquired lands and other riches e.g., wealth from pilgrimages and relics.

Round Towers enhanced the prestige and wealth of the monastery as they created a huge visual impact. Round Towers were to see and be seen, similar to some of the buildings built in the time of the Celtic Tiger. Continue reading

The Vikings in Offaly. By John Dolan

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

Les pirates normands au IXe siècle by Évariste-Vital Luminais (1894), Musée Anne de Beaujeu, Moulin

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Offaly and the River Shannon. By Paul Clements

For his new travel book on Ireland, Paul Clements has been on a meandering journey along the River Shannon, following in the footsteps of the writer and singer Richard Hayward. His book looks back at Ireland in the 1930s but also considers the present-day Shannon which he believes is now undergoing a renaissance. [ 

The Ireland of the 1930s was an austere place in which barefoot children played in the street in a young country where the Catholic Church was all-powerful. Electrification of farms and rural houses was still some way off and some areas suffered badly from tuberculosis as well as mass emigration. Life was shaped by the rhythms of the agricultural year and farming was the mainstay of the economy.  Despite the poverty, there was another more carefree side to life which respected the arts and cultural history. People gathered at the crossroads for ceilidhs and made the most of what they had. This was the Ireland that fascinated the writer, singer and actor Richard Hayward (1892-1964), who, although born in Lancashire, grew up on the Antrim coast and became a lover of Ireland.

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AN TOSTAL  Art and Archaeology in Tullamore in the 1950s. Fergal MacCabe

 

19540424 OI historical display

 

A Golden Age

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.

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RSA1 members visit Durrow, Tihilly, Rahan, Lynally and Killeigh in Monastic Offaly in 1896. Michael Byrne

Vol 8. 007 Durrow Abbey
Durrow Abbey in 1914. The First World War had just started. 

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.

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Seir Kieran, County Offaly by John Dolan. Part 2

John Dolan writes about Seir Kieran in part 2 on Seir Kieran this week. John was born in Tullamore, now retired, and has a degree  in Archaeology and Celtic Civilisation. He speaks regularly to historical societies in Dublin. 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 183 to chose from and  you can join the 150,000 views since 2016. If you would like to write for us email us at info@offalyhistory.com.

 

 

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Seir Kieran from a drawing in the Dublin Penny Journal of 1834

 

Lives of the Saints
The Lives were generally written hundreds of years after the death of the saints and usually by people who had never met them. The format adopted by the Irish hagiographers followed that of the Life of St. Martin of Tours. These Lives were considerably removed from the texts written in the early churches, what we have today are later copies. Folklore, stories and religious/political inferences had been handed down orally over generations before the first Life was written.

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Seir Kieran- Part 1. By John Dolan

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.

032462 View of church at Seir Kieran
Seir Kieran on the boundary of Meath and Munster

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.

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