The Nativity depicted in sculpture and stained glass.

I normally write a post related to pilgrimage and Christmas this time of year. This year has  been a very busy one keeping up with  the blog,  facebook page , work and everyday life so I decided instead of researching a new topic to share some of my favourite images of the Nativity as depicted in medieval and modern glass and stone sculpture from Ireland  and the Continent.


This  small ivory panel was  carved around AD 1000-1050 in Germany  and probably  came from the area around Liège or Cologne.  The upper section of the plaque depicts  the Annunciation and the lower the Nativity.  I really like the little details  that the artist has carved in the  Nativity scene such as Mary’s shoes sitting beside her on a stool (1).


11th century Ivory plaque depicting the Nativity in the Victoria & Albert Museum


Another great image of the Nativity is found carved on  a column at the Soria Monastery of San Juan de Duero, Spain  dating to the 12th -13th century. It seem the stable was very compact  (2).


Nativity scene from Soria Monastery San Juan de Duero.

This is a more modern depiction and is  one of my favourite stained glass windows. Created by Harry Clarke in 1918 for the St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland  church at Castletownshend, Co Cork  it depicts the Nativity and Adoration.  My photo does not do justice to the fantastic colours of the glass (3).


Harry Clarke stain glass window depicting the nativity at Castletownshend

Following the birth of Christ the  three Magi follow the star  to Bethlehem, brining with them gifts for the Christ child.

This scene from one of the columns at the Cathedral of St. Lazare,  built between 1120 and 1146,  depicts an angel coming to wake up the three magi so they can follow the star to Bethlehem (4) .  This carving along with many others from St Lazare were carved by  a man called Gislebertus who was one the greatest sculptor of his time.


An angel appearing in a dream to the three magi at St Lazare Cathedral (image found on

The Adoration of the  Magi was also  recorded on a number of  early medieval Irish High Crosses. Below  is an image that depicts the  Adoration of the Magi on the east face of Muiredach’s High Cross at Monasterboise Co Louth, carved in the 9th/10th century.


The Adoration of the Magi on the east face of Muiredach's High Cross (image taken

The Adoration of the Magi on the east face of Muiredach’s High Cross (image taken

The Magi are also depicted coming with  gifts in a carving in the west gable of  the 12th century cathedral church at Ardmore Co Waterford.  The  three Magi are the lower figures  under the  scene  depicting the Judgement of Solomon.


The Adoration of the Magi at Ardmore Co Waterford

Following the epiphany the next big event in the life of Christ was the “Flight into Egypt”.

I love this image of the Flight into Egypt also carved by Gislebertu,   Mary is depicted with a ball in her hand which the Christ child is also touching  maybe its a toy ? Poor Joseph looks like he is about to fall over.  The carving is found in the Cathedral of St Lazare, Autun, France  at the top of a capital in the nave and dates to circa. 1125 (5).



The flight into Egypt from St Lazare Cathedral Autun, France (

I also love this very different  depiction  of the Flight into Egypt found on the Moone High Cross. The cross which was made  around the 9th century, it was carved from granite, a very difficult stone to work. Whoever carved this possessed great skill as a stone mason and his simple design has a unique charm.


Flight into Egypt on the Moone High Cross Co Kildare.


There are many more images I could share but I think these are some of the nicest. So a very Happy Christmas to  everyone and thank you all for your support for  this blog.




3. Many thanks to Fionnuala and Richard of the Roaring Water Journal  for taking me to see this amazing window in November.



The story of the 2014 Patten Day at Durrow through StorymapJS

In June I attended the pattern day at Durrow Co Offaly and I wrote a post about it.  I have been trying out some new social media platforms and here  is  the story of the pattern day at Durrow adapted and  re told through photos and maps using   StoryMap

Durrow Pattern day.


Costello Memorial Chapel, Carrick-on-Shannon: Ireland’s smallest chapel

Recently I was in Carrick-on-Shannon and stumbled across the most amazing little building. The building in question is a small memorial chapel located at the top of Bridge Street sandwiched between two shop fronts.


Costello Chapel: Ireland’s smallest chapel Carrick-on-Shannon.

The chapel, a single room building is tiny, measuring circa 4.8m x 3.6m. The chapel, built on the site of a former Methodist chapel, was commissioned in 1877 by a Carrick-on Shannon merchant called Edward Costello  as a memorial to his wife Mary Josephine. The building was completed in 1879.

The chapel was built of cut limestone with a steep pitched stone roof with two Celtic cross finials at each gable.  On the left hand side of the door is a carved stone depicting the Costello coat of arms and  Latin motto  ‘Ne te quaesiveris extra‘  which  means ‘Seek not thyself outside thyself’.


Costello coat of arms and Latin motto ‘Ne te quaesiveris extra’ Seek not thyself outside thyself

The chapel is entered through two doors of simple design, made of wrought galvanised iron.


The chapel’s doors are made of wrought galvanised iron.

Within the church is a small marble altar  and tabernacle.  Mass was celebrated here from the time of Mary’s interment in 1879, on the first Friday of every month until Edwards death in 1891.


Marble altar within chapel.

Mary Costello had died in 1877 and her remains were embalmed. When the chapel was  completed she was buried within the chapel on the right hand  side of the building in a rectangular sunken grave.   Following Edward’s death  he was also buried in the chapel and placed on the left hand side  of the chapel.  Both graves were sealed by a thick clear glass and when you enter the chapel today the coffins are visible.   The floor of the chapel was tiled with  tiles depicting symbols of the crucifixion.


Decorated floor within Costello chapel

Another lovely feature of the chapel is beautiful stain glass window  which the information plaque at the site  notes was designed by Mayer of Munich.


Stain glass window within Costello chapel.

The chapel is a beautiful structure and testament to Edward’s  devotion to his wife.  If you are passing through Carrick-on-Shannon do seek it out and see for yourself.


Notice board at the site.

James Rice: A 15th century Irish pilgrim to Santiago de Compostella

The names  and stories of the vast majority of  medieval pilgrims  have gone unrecorded in the Irish historical sources but thankfully there  are some  exceptions to this rule.   During the 15th century, two  pilgrimages of a Waterford  man  called James Rice to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostella were recorded in  contemporary sources.


St James Cathedral Santiago de Compostella

Who was James Rice?

James Rice was born into a wealthy Anglo-Irish merchant family in the port town of Waterford in 15th century.  The exact date of his birth is known but  the name chosen by his parents suggests they had a devotion to St James whose cult from the 12th century onwards enjoyed great popularity across Europe.

We know also that James’s father Peter Rice  held the office of Mayor of Waterford on two occasions the first in 1426-27 and the second in 1427.  Following in the footsteps of his father,  James also  became a politician and held the office of Mayor of Waterford a staggering  eleven times.

Like the majority of people living in medieval Ireland,  James would have performed many pilgrimages  throughout his lifetime.  He  would have visited  local and regional pilgrim sites perhaps heading to Ardmore,  Co Waterford or to Lady’s Island in Co Wexford.   Unfortunately local and regional pilgrimages  tend not  to be recorded in contemporary sources as they were seen as everyday  occurrences.

Long distance pilgrimages  were very expensive and would have been beyond the finances of  most ordinary of people. Therefore to embark on a long distance pilgrimage was a rare and significant occurrence and when undertaken successful brought prestige to the pilgrim.  Being a man of means James Rice was able to  go on at least two long distance pilgrimages that we know of  to the shrine of St James at Santiago do Compostella in Spain.  To give you some idea of the  expense of such  a journey,    Irish pilgrims making the return journey from Spain to Ireland  on-board the ill-fated ship the  La Mary London  in the 15th century paid seven shillings and six pence per head  just for the return leg of  the journey (1400 miles sea voyage).   This was the equivalent  of several weeks wages for an average working man.

So why go all the way  to  Santiago  when there were many pilgrim sites closer to home?  At a basic level James Rice probably had  a great devotion to his namesake St James who was one of the most popular saints in  Ireland.  Santiago was also a high status pilgrim site,  one of the most popular pilgrim destinations in the  medieval  world,  attracting vast numbers of pilgrims from across Europe. It was  also associated with miracles and  it was a place where  indulgences could be obtained.

Pilgrimages to Santiago

In  1473 James made his first pilgrimage to Santiago.  At the time he held the position of  Mayor of Waterford.  His pilgrimage was recorded as he was vacating his office for the duration of the pilgrimage  and protocol required that he applied for permission to parliament to appoint a deputy mayor in his absence.  His request was  granted and  he embarked on  pilgrimage.

As Waterford was a port town  with trade links with France and Spain its likely James travelled by boat to the port of Corunna and then headed  on foot to Santiago. Having arrived at his destination he  would have found somewhere to stay.  Most pilgrims spent the night  in a vigil within the  cathedral in front of the high altar. The next day pilgrims  attended mass and  during the ceremony they presented their  offerings.  Pilgrims would also have made confession and  obtained  certificates of pilgrimage in the Capilla del Rey de Francia.  There are no records detailing James experiences but he must have visited the relics of the saint and perhaps even purchased some souvenirs.  From the 12th century scallop shells were sold to pilgrims in the cathedral square and a small number have been found in Irish medieval burials.


Ten years later Rice decided to go on a second pilgrimage to Santiago in the year 1483.  1483 was the Jubilee year at Santiago. In 1181  Pope Alexander III granted jubilee years to the shrine, whenever the feast of St James fell on a Sunday.  Pilgrims  who came at this time  received a plenary indulgence (a remission from all sin) once they made their confession, attended Mass, gave a donation for the upkeep of the shrine, and undertook to perform good works.

Rice was again in public office as the Mayor of Waterford.  The Statue Rolls of the Irish Parliament record that prior to his departure  on pilgrimage, Rice’s made a formal requested to take up the pilgrim staff.  Permission was granted  to embark on his  second pilgrimage under the proviso that the mayor and  the two bailiffs who accompanied him were to appoint replacement deputies acceptable to Waterford city council for the duration of their absence ). The names of his bailiffs were Patrick Mulligan and Philip Bryan.

Prior to departure on this second pilgrimage Rice commissioned a chapel dedicated to St James and St Catherine  connected to Christ Church Cathedral  in Waterford.  The chapel was  consecrated in 1482 (Bradley & Halpin 1992, 119).  Following the completion of his pilgrimage James returned to Waterford where he lived out the rest of his days. He was eventually laid to rest with the chapel in an elaborate  tomb. The chapel was later taken to extend the cathedral yard and moved into  the nave of the  Cathedral church.



Tomb of James Rice


The tomb consist of a  chest  with images of saints carved on all sides.  The apostles are found on the north side; James the minor, Thomas, John, James the Major, Andrew and Peter and on the south side:  Matthias Jude, Simeon, Matthew, Bartholomew and Philip.


St. James Major (N. side, 3rd from W. end of the Rice tomb taken from the Edwin Rae Collection TRIARC

The west end of the tomb bears the images of St Margaret of Antioch, the Virgin and Child and St Catherine of Alexandria.  The east end depicts St Edmund the Confessor, the Holy Trinity and St Patrick.  An elaborately carved  cadaver  lies on top the tomb. It is wrapped in a shroud knotted at the head and feet  which has fallen open.


Image of Cadaver from the Edwin Rea Collection TRIARC

Frogs and toads are emerging from the body which is surrounded by  a Latin inscription that translates as

Here lies ‘James Rice,one time citizen of this city,founder of this chapel,and Catherine Broun, his wife.

Whoever you may be, passerby, Stop, weep as you read. I am what you are going to be, and I was what you are.

I beg of you, pray for me ! It is  our lot to pass through the jaws of death.

Lord Christ, we beg of thee, we implore thee, be merciful to us!

Thou who has come to redeem the lost condemn not the redeemed.


James Rice is just one of many  Irish people who  went on pilgrimage to Santiago  its likely if he had not been in office at the time of his  pilgrimages they would have gone unrecorded.


Bradley, J. and Halpin, A. 1992. The topographical development of Scandinavian and Anglo-Norman Waterford City. In (eds) Nolan, W. & Power, T.  Waterford History and Society Interdisciplinary Essays on theHistory of an Irish County.  Dublin: Geography Publications, 105-130.

Connolly, P. (ed.) 2002. Statue Rolls of the Irish Parliament, Richard III-Henry VIII. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

McEneaney, E. 1995.  A History of Waterford and its Mayors, from the 12th century to the 20th century. Waterford: Waterford Corporation.





Medieval Graffiti at Cahir Castle

Cahir Castle in  Co Tipperary is one of my favourite  historic sites.   The castle which dates to the 13th century is built  on a rock outcrop in the River Suir and was once the stronghold of the Butlers of Ormond.  The castle was rebuilt in the  15th and 16th century and there was also  a lot of restoration work carried out in the 19th and 20th century.



View of Cahir castle from the outer ward (courtyard).

The castle has a very rich and interesting history and  I highly recommend a visit  and guided tour of the  Castle.   Abarta Audio Guides also  have an excellent audio guide for   Cahir Castle.

There are many interesting features within the castle but my  favourite  is a piece of medieval graffiti  located on the east gable of  the 13th century gatehouse, which later became the castle keep.  The carving is located just inside the gateway with the portcullis (a latticed/grilled gate).  If you have any difficulty finding the graffiti just ask any of the guides who work here they are so helpful.



Portcullis gateway close to the reception area in the middle ward of the castle.

As you pass through the gateway  keep your eye out for a triangular-shaped stone with some cement surrounding it  at the top of the batter of the east gable of the gate house wall. If you are coming from the middle ward (courtyard) it will be on your left hand side.


Stone with medieval graffiti on the east gable of the gatehouse at Cahir Castle.

The graffiti consists of a design of three figures which have been designed to fit the natural shape of a stone.  The central figure consists of a triangular-shaped head with a rounded crown sitting on top of  a thin neck and torso. Traces of ribs are visible in the torso.

‘The   lower part of the body is damaged  making it impossible to say where or how it terminated. The figure has a thin left arm and possibly a right arm, bent at the elbow, which many be indicated by a loop on the side. (Holland 1988, 15).



Stone with graffiti showing the three faces.

On either side of the central figure  are two inverted  faces with  eyes, eyebrows and nose.  Both  are of a similar shape to the central figure, with ears placed high on their heads.  All three are contemporary and there appears to have been some thought about the design to make use of the shape of the stone.


The photo above inverted to show the two side faces more clearly.

Given that  the stone is in situ its likely the  graffiti was carved some time after the gatehouse was built-in the 13th century.  But who carved it and why ?  Was someone bored ? Or  was it  placed here for a specific purpose ?  Most of these question may never be answered but its fun to  try and come up with some answers.  I havent come across anything like this graffiti at any other  Irish medieval site I have visited which makes it all the more special.   For a more  in-depth discussion of the Cahir castle graffiti there is a very interesting article  ‘A Carving in Cahir Castle, Co Tipperary’ by Patrick Holland (full references below).



Holland, P. 1988.  ‘A Carving in Cahir Castle, Co Tipperary’, North Munster Antiquarian Journal , Vol. 30, 14-18.



St Brendan’s Rag Tree and Holy Well at Clonfert Co Galway

Last Sunday I paid a flying visit to the medieval Cathedral at Clonfert Co Galway.


Medieval church at Clonfert

Clonfert Cathedral was built on the site of an early medieval monastery founded by St Brendan the Navigator circa 557 AD.   The history of Clonfert and its architecture is really interesting  and I will come back to it again but for this post I want to focus on a lesser known feature at the site known as St Brendan’s rag tree.

The tree,  a horse-chestnut,  is located in a grove of trees beside  the medieval church along the nuns walk. This is one of the most impressive rag trees that I have come across.  It is covered in votive offerings.


St Brendan’s rag tree at Clonfert.

The following text was written  by  Christy Cunniffe  for the  South East Archaeological and Historical Society Newsletter for Spring 2012  and provides an excellent discussion of the tree and its history and folklore.

Devotion at holy wells and sacred trees is still quite common
throughout rural Ireland. This example in the woodland near the
cathedral at Clonfert consists of a holy well dedicated to St Brendan.
It manifests itself in the form of a horse chestnut tree with a small
opening in its northern side. In its original form St Brendan’s Well
consisted of an actual well in the ground located in the corner of a
field some three hundred metres south east of here. According to
tradition the well was desecrated when a dog drowned in it. It then
dried up as is usual for wells that are interfered with in some way .

It moved to a new location in the bough of a large ash tree growing on
the ‘hill of the abbey about a hundred metres away. The folklore
attached to this latter well relates that two young boys climbed the
tree and that one of them ‘peed’ into the waters of the well causing it
to fall in a subsequent storm . So once again because the well was
desecrated it went dry and was forced to move. The well that people
now recognise as St Brendan’s Well was only discovered in the
earlier part of the twentieth century and was recognised as such due
to it resembling the shape of the nearby Romanesque doorway of St
Brendan’s Cathedral. Pilgrims and people seeking cures for illness
visit here and leave votive offerings and requests for cures. In earlier
times it was used only for the cure of warts, but in more recent times
is used as a place to seek cures for sick children, thus explaining the
particular array of votive offerings left by believers. To effect a cure
it is commonly believed that one must make three visits and leave
something (Cunniffe 2012, 2).


Offerings pinned to St Brendan’s rag tree at Clonfert.

The offerings pinned to the tree are varied.  They range from rosary beads, hair bobbins, sockets, babies dummies,  religious statues and children’s toys and brown scapular.


Votive offerings surrounding St Brendan’s rag tree at Clonfert.

The base of the  tree is surrounded with a circle of offering some may have fallen from the tree but others  are likely placed here on the ground.  These offering are similar to those pinned to the tree although I notices more items of clothing,  religious statues, inhalers, containers for tablets  and holy water bottles. The volume of objects is astonishing and shows that there is still a great devotion to the tree.


Cunniffe, C. 2012 ‘St Brendan’s Tree, Clonfert’, South East Archaeological and Historical Society Newsletter, No 9,  Spring, 2012, 2.