Columbia University Seminar in Irish Studies (#535)
Minutes of the meeting held Friday, March 7th, 2003
Chair: Professor Mary McGlynn, Baruch College, CUNY
Rapporteur: Dermot Ryan, Columbia University.
Submitted: April 23rd, 2003
Attending: Coílín Parsons (Columbia University), Patrick
McNierney (Columbia University), Terry Byrne (College of New Jersey),
Maggie Williams (Columbia University), Bob St. Cyr, Ed Hagan (Western
Conn. State University), Martin Burke (Lehman College), Barbara
Young (Molloy College), Mary Butler Shannon (Bergen Community College),
Diane Menagh (Fairfield University).
Speaker: Professor Karen Overbey
Title: “Holy Ground: Politics, Patronage, and Iconography of St
Prof. Overbey presented a talk with slides. St Manchan’s Shrine, which
is kept in the parish church in Boher, Co. Offaly, very near to the
site of St Manchan’s medieval monastry at Lemanaghan, is the largest
surviving Irish reliquary—the richly decorated, containers for the
remains of a saint. Holy relics, and even their reliquaries, were the
prized possessions of medieval monasteries; the presence of the saint
guaranteed the sanctity of the monastic space, and allowed a connection
between the earthly inhabitants and the world of the divine.
Many of the shrines features mark it as exceptional. Professor Overbey
noted, however, that the oddities of the shrine—its size, its form, its
decoration, its figures—rather than spurring exploration, has spurred
categorization. Prof. Overbey suggested that through a re-evaluation of
the literary, folkloric, political and geographic contexts, St
Manchan’s shrine would become less “bewildering.”
St Manchan’s shrine was clearly intended to be carried and displayed—at
each junction of base and leg there is a stout brass ring through which
a pole could be slid, allowing the shrine to be hoisted and carried. St
Manchan’s shrine is approximately five times larger than the
tomb-shaped shrines, and its display, on the shoulders of four monks
presumably in a procession—would have been public and communal. The
small tomb-shaped shrines in contrast were designed to be carried
individually, and perhaps somewhat privately or protectively, as on a
St Manchan himself was a founder of monastry approximately twelve miles
east of the community of Clonmacnois; the site was called Lemanaghan.
Despite its small size, Lemanaghan appears to have had a close
relationship with the nearby prominent monastery of Clonmacnois. While
the story does not survive in any medieval hagiography, a legend,
recorded in the early twentieth century by a local historian, suggests
a folkloric “sibling rivalry” between Sts Ciaran (the founder of
Clonmacnois) and Manchan, in the tale of a dispute about the boundaries
of the respective territories. This may well have some historical
basis. In the early eleventh century, King Maelsechnaill donated
several more parcels of land in the parish of Lemanaghan to the
community of St. Ciaran, specifically as a payment for rights of royal
burial in the Clonmacnois graveyard. Seen in this context, the form of
St Manchan’s shrine takes on a new possible resonance, which may help
to explain the differences from the earlier tradition of tomb-shaped
reliquaries. Instead of a fixed burial site located in a bounded
graveyard or at the side of a church, St Manchan’s tomb was moveable.
It could travel around the boundaries not only of the church, but of
the territory, allowing an extension of the sacred and protected space
of the monastic graveyard. Prof. Overbey suggested that the burial
space of St Manchan’s Shrine functioned to dilate the boundary of the
Clonmacnois graveyard, extending the sacred space to the edges of
Prof. Overbey also suggested that the form of St Manchan’s Shrine,
coupled with its historical context, imply a strategic political
function for the reliquary. In its fusion of divine protection and
political expansion, St Manchan’s Shrine proclaims that it was the
destiny of Ua Conchobair, Clonmacnois’ patron in the twelfth century,
to occupy the province of Meath forever, and that the saint and the
king would be dual guardians of the territory and its people.
The Annals of the Four Masters tells us that, in 1166, “The shrine of
Manchan…was covered by Ruaidhri Ua Conchobair, a prime contender for
high-kingship of the whole island. Ruaidhri’s bid for military and
political dominance in Ireland was contested. So it wouldn’t be unusual
for Ruaidhri to become an ecclesiastical patron, enchancing his
position with grants and gold.
We might therefore view the figures on St Manchan’s shrine as having
not religious, but military significance. The figures might represent a
particularly valuable type of warrior: one with experience, prowess,
and identifiable status. Yet, these warriors are not poised to strike.
This symbolic troop may function as a kind of visual reminder, or even
visual surrogate, of a military exchange of vassals and soldiers
between Ruaidhri and his Connacht and Breffney rivals. St Manchan’s
shrine is both the site and visualization of the political contract
that allowed these rivals to join forces under the protection and
assurance of St Manchan, their co-patron. Prof. Overbey answered
questions from the floor. A sampling follows.
Q: What are the figures wearing around their necks?
A: They don’t have anything on their necks. That’s actually the nail
pole. Those rings were used for carrying the shrine.
Q: How is Jesus depicted? Is Jesus depicted as a warrior?
A: He wears similar clothing: he wears a loin cloth but he has insized
Q: Was the touching of relics and bones common?
A: It appears that early on they were readily touchable, but they
regularly get stolen and traded. For instance, St Manchan’s is sealed.
This starts happening in the tenth century. Viewing crystals appear in
the fourteenth century.
Q: Is there a change in making reliquaries after the arrival of the
A: Unfortunately, we don’t have enough evidence to say. There does
appear to be subtle changes in the representation of saints. There are
only three or four examples of post-Norman shrines.
Q: Is the bone house in Clare identified?
A: No, I actually had to go and track it down in the Burren.
Q: You say that these figures are mature warriors but they’re not
dressed for battle and they’re shirtless. Might they not just be
A: I guess I’d want to know why they have axes and sticks. This
depiction of beard tugging is a common attribute of warriors. It might
be just enough to indicate that they are warriors.