The Hidden Treasures of Co Offaly. St Manchan’s Church at Boher, Ballycumber

St Manchan’s Church

In my travels around Ireland I have found you can often find the most incredible places, relics, statues etc  in the most unlikely of settings.  St Manchan’s church at Boher, Ballycumber, Co Offaly is a great example. From the outside the church looks like any other nineteenth century  parish church found around  Ireland. There isn’t anything very out of the ordinary about the building which was constructed around  1860’s.  It has a cruciform plan and  is a functioning parish church, used every day by the local community.

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St Manchan’s church Boher Co Offaly (Thanks to Abarta Heritage for the photo http://www.abartaheritage.ie)

If you take the time to go inside the church you will find  a collection of magnificent stained glass windows by the internationally renowned  stain glass artist Harry Clarke (1889-1931), as well as  St Manchan’s shrine one of the finest surviving  examples of medieval Irish reliquaries.

St Manchan’s Shrine

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.

St Manchan’s shrine is a twelfth-century reliquary. It is an outstanding example of early Irish decorative metal work and the work of a true master craftsman. It was commissioned by High King of Ireland, Turlough O’ Connor and likely 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 are still found within the shrine. From the sparse references that exist the shrine appears to have  been  housed near the high altar of St Manchan’s church at Lemanaghan  where it remained  until  the seventeenth century. It was later moved to a chapel in Boher and following the building of the parish church the shrine was moved to its current location where it remains, absent  only for a brief period following a theft in 2012.

St Manchan’s shrine is what is known as a house- shaped shrine and resembles the pitched roof of  church or oratory and it is decorated with intricate bronze work, gilt and enamel. The shrine is made of yew wood  (48cm tall by 40 cm wide by 61cm long) and is covered with highly decorated bronze figures and bosses sitting on four feet.  The bosses and decorated panels are arranged in a cruciform design on the front and back of the  shrine.

The sides or gables of the shrine are covered in elaborate filigree  and enamel work.

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Gable of St Manchan’s shrine

There were originally 52 figures bronze figures attached to the shrine by small bronze nails. If you look carefully you can still see the holes. The figures filled the spaces created by the cross motif on the front and back of the shrine. Only eleven figures are still attached and it has been suggested the figures may represent monks or abbots of the monastery.

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Bronze figures attached to St Manchan’s shrine.

The shrine was  designed to be portable  and  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 at Lemanaghan on  the more important days in the pilgrim calendar such as the saints feast day. It is likely that the date of the translation of the saint’s relics  would also have been a special day in the pilgrim calendar.

For a detailed discussion of the shrine I recommend checking out the book Sacral Geographies  by Karen Overbey.

Harry Clarke Windows

If you follow my facebook page Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland you will know I am a big fan of Harry Clarke’s work. Boher church  has five wonderful Harry Clarke windows.  The windows were commissioned from the Harry Clarke studio, in 1930 at a cost of £330. My favourite window depicts St Manchan the patron saint of the parish. It is clear that Clarke took inspiration from local folklore relating to the saint and from St Manchan’s shrine.

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Harry Clarke window depicting St Manchan in the south transept.

The window depicts Manchan holding a green book above the saints head  is an image of the saint with his cow. I have written  previously about St Manchan and his cow  who was famed for her ability to produce an endless supply of milk. The cow features strongly in local folklore.

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Harry Clarke window depicting St Manchan

Below the saint’s feet is a life-size image of St Manchan’s shrine. The window is in the south transept of the church directly behind the display location of the twelfth century St Manchan’s shrine.  Rosita Boland  sums up the visual impact of the window in article Colourful legacy of a stain glass artist

It also includes a life-sized image of the shrine, aglow with gold and bronze. When you view the actual object first and then its likeness in jewelled stained glass behind, the genius of Clarke’s commissioned work is profoundly evident. It was made for this place, to complement the shrine, and its south-facing aspect means both the window and the gilt-bronze shrine glow a luminous amber for hours.

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Detailed image of St Manchan’s shrine (Thanks Abarta Heritage for the photo http://www.abartaheritage.ie for use of their image)

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Behind the altar are three  stunning windows of the Blessed Virgin, Christ and St Joseph all depicted in rich vibrant of colours.

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Harry Clarke windows behind the altar at Boher Church

All  the figures have angels over head.  St Joseph who was a carpenter  is depicted holding a set square in his hand while the Christ figure has the holes in his feet and hand from his crucifixion. The details of the images such as the use of colour, the fine details of the folds in robes, patterns on fabric are amazing.

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The fifth Harry Clarke window is located in the north transept and depicts  St Anne with the Blessed Virgin as a child.

 

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St Anne and the Blessed Virgin as a child

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It’s amazing to think this little church in rural Ireland  houses such treasures.  If you are visiting  Offaly I highly  recommend a visit to Boher church. It is the most inspiring  and  most wonderful place to spend time.

References  & Useful Links

Boland, R. 2011. ‘Colourful legacy of stained-glass master’. Friday 26th August The Irish Times http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/art-and-design/colourful-legacy-of-stained-glass-master-1.607027

Harbison, P. 1991. Pilgrimage in Ireland. The Monuments and the People. Syracruse University Press.

O’Brien C. 2006. Stories from a Sacred Landscape Croghan Hill to Clonmacnoise.  Mercier Press.

Overbey, K. Sacral Geographies. Saints, Shrines and Territories in Medieval Ireland. Brepols. (https://books.google.ie/books/about/Sacral_Geographies.html?id=vJeQPgAACAAJ&redir_esc=y)

http://timetravelireland.blogspot.ie/2016/02/st-manchans-shrine-boher-county-offaly.html

https://pilgrimagemedievalireland.com/2015/12/17/holy-cows-the-miraculous-animals-of-the-irish-saints-part-two-st-manchans-cow/

https://pilgrimagemedievalireland.com/2013/01/30/medieval-pilgrimage-at-lemanaghan-co-offaly/

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Holy Cows. The Miraculous Animals of the Irish Saints: Part Two St Manchan’s Cow

St Ciarán was not the only saint to have a magical cow, his  neighbour St Manchan of Lemanaghan also had a cow with the ability to produce an endless supply of milk.

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Cow and calf taken around Carrick-on -Shannon

Lemanaghan was founded in the seventh century, when 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.  Manchan a monk of Clonmacnoise, founded a sister monastery within this newly acquired territory at Lemanaghan. The place-name Lemanaghan “Liath-Manchain” in Irish means the grey place of Manchan”.

 

Map of Lemanghan showing the monastic remains from Bing maps

Map of Lemanghan showing the monastic remains from Bing maps

Manchan died in 664/665 having caught the yellow plague that raged through the country. Most of what we know about the saint comes from local folklore.

St Manchan and his Cow

According to folk tradition St Manchan had a cow that had the ability to supplied milk to all the people of Lemanaghan. The cows amazing milk producing qualities inspired envy in others and according to a local folk tale one day when the cow was grazing outside of the monastery the people of Kilnamaghan came and stole her (The Schools Manuscripts  1939 Vol 810, 104).

They brought the cow backwards and at every little well that was on the way the cow drank. As she came up from the well she even left the track of her feet in the stone. The well and the tracks of her feet in the stone are yet to be seen. When the Saint came back he missed the cow and set out in search for her.

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View of St Manchan’s road at Lemanaghan. The cow was said to have left marks of her feet on this  small stone causeway beside the main monastic site at Lemanaghan.

When Manchan realized  his cow was missing  he was very upset but luckily was able to traced the cows movements by following the tracks made by her hooves and tail on stones along the route of her journey. Manchan followed the signs left by the  cows until he reached Kilnamaghan. The saint to his horror found his beloved cow boiling in a large pot inside a hut. The hide of the cow was left behind the door.  The saint hit the hide a kick and up jumped the cow alive and well.  It was said she was every bit as good as she had been before but for the loss of a bone which caused her to be a bit lame (The Schools Manuscripts  1939 Vol 810, 104). This tale has many similarities to contemporary folk tales told about St Ciarán’s cow.

The kidnapping and returning from the dead didn’t seem to cause too much distress to the cow and when she came back to Lemanaghan she supplied  milk to the people just as good as before.  It is saint that ever since that time the people of Lemanaghan have never sold milk and also they keep St Manchan’s day as a holiday of obligation (The Schools Manuscripts  1939 Vol 810, 104).

The tradition of not selling milk  survived down to modern times and in 1999 an Irish Times article reported on the tradition among farmers in Lemanaghan to not sell any milk.

The tradition is observed to this day by the locals who believe that if they sell their milk they show disrespect to their local patron saint. They will give any surplus milk away but will not accept any payment for it. They make their living by rearing suckler cows, beef cattle and sheep.

The same article tells of

one man who moved into the area refused to believe the tradition and in the 1940s set up a dairy herd. Eleven of his cows died overnight, and the calves were born with heads like sheep. The man gave up dairying.

St Manchan and his cow are still fondly remembered in the area  and have a meaning for the local community. This is clearly seen at the local parish church at Boher which boasts a magnificent  Harry Clarke window which depicts the saint and his cow.

St Manchan and his cow

Harry Clarke Window showing St Manchan and is Cow at Boher Co Offaly ( image taken http://irelandsholywells.blogspot.ie/2012/04/saint-manchans-well-county-offaly.html)

References

Farmers refuse to sell milk out of respect for local saint Irish Times, March 4th, 1999 http://www.irishtimes.com/news/farmers-refuse-to-sell-milk-out-of-respect-for-local-saint-1.158972

DEPARTMENT OF FOLKLORE, U.C.D Schoolbook vol 810, Leamonaghan (1939)

http://irelandsholywells.blogspot.ie/2012/04/saint-manchans-well-county-offaly.html

https://pilgrimagemedievalireland.com/tag/st-manchans-shrine/