Graveyard Recording at Shanrahan and medieval pilgrim rituals

At the moment there are some really exciting community archaeology projects taking place in Ireland. I want to tell you about one project  happening over the next two  weeks  in South Tipperary.  This project  involves the training of local communities  to record   historic gravestones at the old graveyards at Newcastle, Molough Abbey, Shanrahan and Tubbrid.  The  training and mentoring for the project  is being provided by Historic Graves.  As you can see from their  website  Historic Graves have  successfully completed similar project  all over the country.

Map showing the location of the four graveyards taken from google earth

Today I headed  over to  Shanrahan  graveyard, located  just outside of Clogheen, to see how the project works.

View of Shanrahan Church and Graveyard

Shanrahan is a really interesting place,  at the center of the graveyard are the ruins of a  medieval parish church. The church is unusual in that it has  two Sheela-na-gigs.   Sheelas  are  figurative carvings  of naked   women, usually bald and emaciated, with lug ears,  squatting and pulling apart their vulva.  These carvings are found on medieval church, sometimes castle sites in  Ireland and England.

There are lots of theories about  the purpose of these carvings,  some believe that were used to ward off evil,  others that they were symbols of fertility, others that they were used to warn against the dangers of lust  etc . If you want to find out more  about  these strange carvings check out the  bibliography below.

Sheela-na-gig on the church tower.

John Tierney of Historic Graves, kindly brought me on a guided tour and explained how  the recording is   done. I also got to meet the volunteers who were all having a great time  and doing an excellent  job recording the inscriptions.

Volunteers taking a brake for the recording

The project  also involves the  local primary schools.

John explaining the recording to the local school kids

The gravestones are numbered, then photographed using a special camera which provides each photo which a geo tag.  This information can be used to produce a plan of the  graveyard.  Next the inscriptions on the stones are recorded.

Patsy McGrath, Michael Moroney, Michael Fennessey recording an 19th century headstone

Once the stones  have been photographed and  the inscriptions recorded ,  a rubbing is taken of  each gravestone .

Rubbing of 19th century gravestone

The local  kids  from Clogheen  primary school came along  for a visit and  to help out  with the recording.

School kids taking a rubbing of gravestone

Projects like  this are really important. They help  local communities become aware  of the importance of  Irish graveyards. Each stone has its own story and can tell alot about the social  history of the time . The location of graves and style of headstone  can  tell us about class and religious differences .  They provide a record of people who lived in the area , as well as  a record  of  folk art for the 18th – early 19th century. They also provide imformation about the people who made the stones.  Additionally projects like this make people aware of good practice in maintaining and looking after graveyards. This in turn  means they are less likely to engage in bad practice like sandblasting  or cleaning stones with wire brushes which ultimately  damages the stones.


Close up of the angel Gabriel blowing a trumpet


Just  when I thought I was having a pilgrim free day  John brought me to see the grave of Fr. Nicholas Sheehy 1734—1766.  An  opponent to the penal laws, the preist was   hung , drawn and quartered  after he was falsely accused  of  murder.  The candles on the grave and the flowers immediately pointed to people coming to the grave.

The grave of Fr Sheedy


John then pointed out a small hatch or door in the side of his tomb and noted he had seen a similar hatch at priests grave in Cavan also dating to the penal times.

This opening allowed people to remove soil  from the grave within, the soil which was  seen to be holy and have healing powers,  was  take away  to be used for cures.

The soil within the tomb

Fr.  Sheehy’s tomb  immediately reminded me of medieval pilgrims who were known to take   dirt/earth from the saint’s grave, or  cloths touch against the saint’s shrines or oil from the lamps that burned at the shrine, home with them. The tradition of healing soil is recorded  in early Greek medicine, where certain soils were seen to have curative powers.   In the medieval world the healing  power of the earth came from the belief that the soil was a type of  relic. Pilgrims believed the earth or dirt from the saints graves had been scantified because of its proximity to the saints body . There are many  accounts of 19th century  and even modern pilgrims  taking  the holy earth from the grave of the saints home with them, to use for cures and protection.  At Ardmore  the soil from St Declans grave was sold to pilgrims in the 19th century, while at  Clonmacnoise the practice of taking earth from the grave of St Ciarán caused the walls of Temple Ciarán to become unstable and lean in. I think this could be a topic for another blog post.


McMahon, J. & Roberts, J. The Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland and Britain: The Divine Hag of the Christian Celts – An Illustrated Guide Mercier Press Ltd. (2000).
Kelly, Éamonn Sheela Na Gigs. Origins And Function Country House (1996).
Freitag, Barbara Sheela-na-gigs: Unravelling an Enigna   (2004)

The Pattern Day at Clonmacnoise

The ecclesiastical complex at Clonmacnoise is truly an amazing place. Founded by St Ciarán in 545, the site  developed into a vast ecclesiastical complex and became one of the great power houses of the medieval church in Ireland.

Aerial photo of Clonmacnoise (from

I have  visited Clonmacnoise on many occasions and each time I spend hours walking around , there really is so much to see here.

Plan of the ecclesiastical complex at Clonmacnoise

This visit coincided with the Pattern Day celebrations of St Ciarán’s feast day on the 9th of September. Clonmacnoise is one of the very few Irish ecclesiastical sites to have an unbroken tradition of pilgrimage that stretches from the 6th /7thcentury to modern times. The history of pilgrimage during the early to late medieval period and  the early modern period is very interesting and complex and is best discussed in more detail in another blog post.


According to the Clonmacnoise Heritage Centre there are two special days of devotion here at Clonmacnoise. The Church of Ireland hold an open air  service on the last Sunday in July which I hope to attend next year, while the annual St Ciarán’s Pattern Day  is held on the third Sunday in September, or if possible celebrated on the 9th of September (St Ciarán’s feast day) as it was yesterday.


Pilgrims beginning to arrive for the Pattern day


The Pattern celebrations began around 3pm. From around 2.30 pm people began to come into the main ecclesiastical complex in small groups and before  the main celebrations began there must have been well over a 100- 150 people present. A local man I spoke too said that even more people would normally be present but  the All Ireland final between Kilkenny and Galway had kept many away.

Unlike the pilgrimage I documented earlier this year at St Mullins, pilgrims were spread out around the site. A large group of people were seat on chairs in front of the open air oratory, which was  built for Pope John Paul II ‘s visit in 1979,

Pilgrims seated in front of the open air oratory

Pilgrims seated in front of the open air oratory

the rest of the pilgrims were scattered among the gravestones and the ruins of other churches at the site.


Pilgrims scattered around the ruins of the churches

Like the  Pattern at St Mullins, there is also a social element to this occasion,  this it is time for people to catch  up and chat, it is also a time for people to remember those who have died. Many of  people who attended the pattern also visit the graves of loved ones buried within the main complex and the modern graveyard beside it. Visiting of the graves takes place  before and after the Pattern Day mass.


During the nineteenth century and up to recent times   St Ciarán’s well, located a short distance away on the Shannonbridge road,  was a central part of the Pattern Day.  According to one lady that I spoke too,  mass and the stations here are now the main focus of pilgrims  but  some people still visit the well on the saints feast before or after the mass.

St Ciarán’s Holy Well


Clonmacnoise is part of the Catholic Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise.  St Ciarán is one of the patron saints of this diocese. The pilgrimage  is an import part of the Diocesan Calendar, so much so that  the Bishop of Colm O’Reilly officiated at the mass, aided by 11 priests.

The pilgrimage began with the procession of the ‘Pilgrim Cross’ (a processional cross) around the  monastic complex while the rosary was recited.

Pilgrim Cross being carried in procession to the first station

Local people were invited to join in the procession but most preferred to pray where they were and only a small group of people joined in the procession. The first station began at the small oratory known as Temple Ciarán, the  traditional burial-place of St Ciarán.


The first station at Tempel Ciarán

The Pilgrim Cross then  moved  to the second station at the top of the enclosure  among the gravestones.

The second station among the gravestones


The cross was then carried on to the third station at the Cross of the Scriptures opposite the Cathedral church.

The third station at the Cross of the Scriptures


The Pilgrim Cross then moved on to the fourth station was at the Round Tower.

The fourth station at the Round Tower


The Pilgrim Cross was then brought on procession down to Temple Connor the fifth station. This is the only church at Clonmacnoise which is still use, built in 1010 by Cathal O’Conor, it has been used as a place of worship by the Church of Ireland since the eighteenth century and services are still held here.

Procession past Temple Connor, the fifth station

The stations ended with the bishop reciting a litany of the saints of Ireland .  The mass began and  just as the sermon was being delivered by Fr Liam Hickey PP of St Ciaran’s parish Hartstown , Dublin, who was originally from this  area, the heavens opened and the Clonmacnoise became a very pretty sea of colourful umbrellas.

The umbrellas come out with the rain

As quickly as it began the rain cleared away. As the mass continued a few curious tourists looked on taking photos, perhaps wondering what was happening.

Bishop O’Reilly giving communion to the pilgrims


Looking around at the Clonmacnoise I really felt like the site was transformed from a museum into a living place belonging to the community. There was also a real sense of history and tradition, the pilgrims scattered around the site were following the same age-old traditions of their ancestors,  arriving here to celebrate St Ciarán just as their parents and grandparents had done before them and their parents before them and so on. As I will discuss in another post on Clonmacnoise the pilgrim rituals have changed through the centuries but the core act of pilgrimage, the community coming together in honour of their saint  on his feast day is unchanged and I feel really lucky to have been here to experience this.


Pilgrims praying during mass at the Clonmacnoise Pattern Day