Medieval Pilgrimage at Lemanaghan, Co Offaly

The ecclesiastical settlement of Lemanaghan is one of Co. Offaly’s hidden treasures. There  is so much to say about the architectural remains and the history of the site  and of course its founding saint, Manchan.   I am going to  focus on the evidence for medieval pilgrimage at the site .

In early medieval times  Lemanaghan was  located  in the territory of the Delhna Ehtra tribe close to the border of the territory of the Delbna Ethra  and the Ferceall.   For the modern traveler it is located along the R436   to the east of the town of Ferbane.

Map of Lemanghan showing  the monastic remains from Bing maps

Map of the ecclesiastical remains a t Lemanghan from Bing maps (http://www.bing.com/maps/)

Lemanaghan was founded in the 7th century after King Diarmaid   son of Aedh Sláine, granted the land of the territory of Tuaim-nEirc (Doimerc) to Clonmacnoise following his victory at the battle against Guaire King of Connaught in 645/646.  It appears  that Manchan a monk of Clonmacnoise, founded a sister monastery  here  at Liath-Manchain  ” the grey place of Manchan” (Lemanaghan is the anglicized version ). There are a number of traditions  concerning the geneology St Manchan.  One tradition  suggests he was a member of the Ulaidh of Ulster while another suggest he a was a member of the Eoghanachta of Munster and another that he  was from Wales.  The saint was credited with writing many poems during his lifetime .  Manchan is also associated with the Mohill in Co Leitrim where local tradition holds he  founded a monastery here before heading to Lemanaghan. Manchan died in 664/665  having caught the yellow plague that raged through the country. This is the same plague which killed St Féichín of Fore.

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St Manchan’s church at Lemanaghan

The modern landscape of green fields that surround Lemanaghan  would not  have been the lanscape encountered by  early and later medieval travelers & pilgrim’s.  The modern landscape surrounding Lemanaghan  is  a product of  modern intensive peat cutting.   Originally the monastery  was  founded on a  natural island of dry ground surrounded by  raised bogs. Monahan writing in 1863 describes the site as follows;

Standing on a low swell, an armlet of well-reclaimed bog, it gently rises above the extensive moors with which it is almost surrounded.

This doesn’t mean the Lemanaghan was isolated  from the rest of the world. It was linked  to other settlements in the area in particular Clonmacnoise , and the wider world  through a series of bog roads and tracks . Excavations carried out in the surrounding landscape have identified several roads and tracks many  dating to the 6th and 7th centuries when the monastery was founded.  The excavations also show that roads and tracks were being built and repaired around Lemanaghan up to the 17th century, suggesting it was a focal point in the landscape throughout the medieval period.  Thus its location was not a barrier to pilgrims and visitors.

Little physical evidence remains of the early monastery with the exception of a number of early medieval cross slabs ( two of which are found with St Manchan’s church and ten others housed in national school), a large  bullaun stone (beside the holy well) and a holy well dedicated to St Manchan.  The   annals  list the names of several abbots of the monastery ( in the years  717, 767, 792, 853, 893, 1205). The fortunes of the monastery declined in the later medieval period.  By 1302-6  Lemanaghan became a parochial church.  The papal taxation records,  record that there were no returns from the vicarage of Lemanaghan as it had been ‘laid to waste by the ravages of war’.  St Manchan’s Church  continued in use probably until 17th century and  by 1682-5, the church was recorded as being in a ruinous condition, with church services being held in a nearby house.

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Early medieval cross slab within St Manchan’s church

The main monastic complex  was located at the site of   the modern graveyard. All that  remains  today of this once vibrant monastery  are  two structures called St Manchan’s church and St Manchan’s house.

St Manchan’s church  was built-in  two phases, the  west end dates to the 12th century.  Further building work was carried out in the 15th century at the eastern end .  The  western end of the building  is the oldest with  traces large limestone blocks in its  lower walls and a large Romanesque doorway of 12th century date marks the  entrance in west gable.  A  round-headed Romanesque window also survives.

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Romanesque doorway at St Manchan’s church

Little remains of the second structure called St Manchan’ house, with  only the foot prints of the foundations   visible, the Archaeological Inventory of County Offaly suggest that it is  likely contemporary with the 15th century section of St Manchan’s church.

St Manchan's house

A third church  known as St Mella’s cell,  is located  approximately 350m to the  east.  The site is connected to the main monastic centre  by a narrow paved causeway. Local folklore recounts  that  depressions visible   in the surface of the paving stones of the causeway were  caused by  the saints cow.  St Mella was Manchan’s mother and  tradition suggest she  live here as an anchorite. The present church may have been built on the original cell.

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Causeway leading to St Mella’s Cell

St Mella’s cell  is quiet small measuring  5.5m x 3.1m internally. The walls are  0.8m thick  and constructed  of large  what look like really large cut stones.  These stones are in fact thin slabs set on edge  in the manner of facing stones and the core of the wall is filled with stone rubble. This type of building technique is common in pre-Norman Irish church building.  The church is surrounded by  its original rectangular-shaped enclosure (43m E-W by 35.5m north-south).

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Evidence for Pilgrimage

So what can we say about pilgrimage at Lemanaghan in medieval times?  Pilgrims came here to venerate St Manchan and the anniversary of  the saints  death on the 24th of January would have had a special appeal for pilgrims.  Pilgrims  probably  first began coming here following Manchan’s death.  Given Lemanaghan   proximity and close connections to Clonmacnoise,  the site likely attracted pilgrims heading to Clonmacnoise and to other sites such as Durrow and Rahan, acting as a secondary shrine.  Manchan was probably buried here we have no way of knowing if the saints grave had an appeal for pilgrims.  From the 12th century  onwards  a reliquary known as St Manchan shrine   would also have attracted pilgrims.

The shrine was   commissioned by High King of Ireland, Turlough O’ Connor and  was reputed to house the bones of St Manchan  and manufactured at Clonmacnoise. The annals for 1166 state

The shrine of Manchan, of Maethail (Mohill), was covered by Ruaidhri Ua Conchobhair , and an embroidering of gold was carried over it by him, in as good a style as a relic was ever covered.

This reference likely refers to the Lemanaghan shrine  although it is possible it may refer to second shrine now lost, that existed at Mohill.  Fragments of bone possibly from the saint were found within the shrine.  From the sparse references that exist the shrine appears to have  been  housed near the high alter of St Manchan’s church untill  as late as  the 17th century. It was later moved to the parish church at Boher where it remained until it was stolen last year. Thankfully the shrine was recovered the next day. St Manchan’s shrine is one of the finest  medieval reliquaries to survive in Ireland and its loss would have been significant.

St Manchan’s shrine is what is known as a   house- shaped shrine and resembles the pitched roof of  church or oratory. The shrine  is made of yew wood ( 48cm tall by 40 cm wide by 61cm long) and decorated with highly decorated bronze figures and bosses and  sits on four feet. The shrine was portable  which meant it could be  carried in processions. Four metal loops are found at each corner which allowed wooden poles to be treaded through.  A reliquary procession may have formed part for the pilgrim rituals on  the more important days in the pilgrim calendar such as the saints feast day. It likely that the date of the translation of the saints relics to the shrine would also have been a special day in the pilgrim calendar.

In modern times a piscina   (a shallow basin placed near the altar  of the church  used for washing the communion vessels), at the east end of the south wall of St Manchan’s church   became  a point of modern devotion. Votive offerings such as  coins, pins  and a small plastic statue of Christ are left  behind by modern pilgrims.

Piscina fille with votive offerings

Piscina with votive offerings

Apart from the  aforementioned reliquary, pilgrims would also have visited St Manchan’s holy well.  According to  Monahan writing in 1886  there were  three wells at the site

to which the blind, lame and persons afflicted with other chronic diseases, come on the anniversary of the patrons saint’s death.

Today only one well holy well  remains, it is located close to  the main monastery beside the paved causeway  that connects the main monastic site with  St Mella’s church.  A large bullaun stone and rag tree are also associated with the well.

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Bullaun stone at St Manchan’s holy well

The wells at Lemanaghan may have been a focus of pre-Christian devotion and were christianised when the monastery was founded. The origin  legend for the well tells that  St Manchan struck a rock with his staff and water poured forth.  Another version of the tale states that an existing  well  was blessed by him.  Today people  visit the well throughout the year but the 24th of January the saint’s feast day still has a special appeal.  The  present  well, a natural spring,  is a product of   restoration work carried out  during the 1930s.  Four grave slabs in upright positions were revealed, set out in a cruciform pattern. The spring is enclosed by a stone wall ( key hole shaped) and accessed by series of steps. The surrounding area has been paved. The base of the well is full of coins left by modern visitors to the well.

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St Manchan’s well

The waters of the well are reputed to cure   nearly every ailment is cured , but particularly neuralgia, cancer and warts. The folklore suggests that for a  person to be cured they must apply water to the affected part and walk three times around the well. Beside the well is a misshapen ash tree, covered in rags, handkerchief, rosary beads etc. There is  local  tradition of taking pieces of wood to protect the home.  Similar  practices occur at other sites church as St Moling’s well at Mullinakill Co Kilkenny, where the wood of the tree beside the well is supposed to protect against fire.

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Rag tree beside St Manchan’s holy well

Like most sites we can only get a  glimpse of the medieval pilgrimage tradition  here, through the centuries  pilgrimage has continued and adapted  to the modern pilgrim landscape which focuses on the  piscina within the church and the holy well and rag tree.  I think Lemanaghan was a pilgrimage site in its own right with St Manchan attracting pilgrims  from the locality and beyond but it may have also acted as a secondary shrine for pilgrims enroute to Clonmacnoise & Durrow. If you want to find out more about the site and its history check out the sources listed below.

© Louise Nugent 2013

References

Crawford,  H. S. 1911. ‘The early slabs at Leamonaghan, King’s County’, JRSAI, xli,  151-56.

De Paor, L. 1998, ‘The Monastic ideal; a poem attributed to St. Manachan’ in Ireland and Europe,   163-169.

Fitzpatrick,  E. & O’Brien, C.  1998.  Medieval churches of County Offaly.  Dublin: Government of Ireland.

Graves, J.1874, ‘The Church and Shrine of St. Manchan’ JRSAI, xiii , 134-150.

Monahan, J. 1886. Records relating to the dioceses of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise. Dublin : M. H. Gill and son.

O’Carroll, E. 2001. The Archaeology of Leamonaghan: the Story of an Irish Bog. Dublin.

O’Riain, P. 2011. The dictionary of Early Irish Saints. Dublin : Four Courts Press.

O’Brien, C. &  Sweetman, D. P. (eds) 1997.  Archaeological Inventory of County Offaly . Dublin : Stationery Office.

http://www.logainm.ie/Viewer.aspx?text=lemanaghan&streets=yes

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One comment on “Medieval Pilgrimage at Lemanaghan, Co Offaly

  1. […] It is though St Manchan’s shrine was originally constructed to house the bones of St Manchan the founder of the nearby  monastery of Lemanaghan. I have previously written about the history of the monastic site of  Lemanaghan. […]

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