Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Shrine of Saint Manchán Returns to Boher, County Offaly

In researching ancient manuscripts, book shrines, and reliquaries for The Book of Killowen, I came across this fantastic 12th-century box, adorned with figures and filigreed metalwork. Saint Manchan's shrine was made at Clonmacnoise, a nearby monastery, around 1130 AD.  It is a gabled box of yew wood with gilt, bronze, and enamelled fittings. There are several remaining figures of a possible 50 or 52 originals on the outside of the shrine, and it still contains the bones of Saint Manchán (pronounced 'MON-a-han'), a major figure in Early Christian Ireland, and County Offaly in particular (my husband Paddy's home county).

There are many stories and legends about Saint Manchán, remembered vividly today even though he lived in the 14 centuries ago. He founded a monastery in the year 645 AD, at a place now called Leamanaghan, just outside the village of Clara in West County Offaly.

Graveyard at Saint Manchán's church

In one story, Saint Manchán had a cow that gave milk enough for every person in the locality, and he refused to charge anything for the milk. The people of the neighboring village stole his cow, killed it and cut it up, intending to boil the meat from its bones. According to the legend, when the saint arrived, his cow was in the cooking pot, but when he struck it with a stick, the cow was restored to wholeness and life, and went back to giving prodigious amounts of milk. That's supposedly the reason why the people of Leamanaghan refuse to sell milk.

Offerings left at Saint Manchán's Well

Saint Manchán's Well

In September 2012, I took my tour group to see the shrine at the parish church in Boher, County Offaly, where the Mooney family have been guardians of the shrine since it was made 900 years ago. When we arrived, we found that the shrine had been stolen sometime during the previous June. Fortunately, the thieves were a couple of knuckleheaded treasure-hunters, and had been caught very shortly after committing the crime. The shrine was recovered, but was not back in its case in the church immediately, for obvious reasons.

However, just this past Sunday, May 25, Saint Manchán's shrine was returned to its home in the Boher parish church, where people can see it any time the church is open. Needless to say, security has been improved, with a CCTV, an alarm system, and a special secure case.

Read about the return of the shrine in the Offaly Independent.

The most amazing thing about this story is that a 12th-century shrine should still be held at the parish church where it had always been kept, and that a particular local family would have been charged with keeping it safe. I tried to incorporate that hereditary role of certain families, given responsibility for important books and artifacts, in The Book of Killowen.

I'm delighted to see this gorgeous piece of medieval metalwork back in its proper home, and looking forward to a visit to Boher Church this coming September!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Turf cutting still kicking up dust and controversy in Ireland

When I speak to library patrons and book clubs, I often spend as much time talking about bogs as about the writing process. And I included Ireland's turf-cutting controversy in the opening chapter of my first book, Haunted Ground, way back in the mid 1990s:
Chilblains were the farthest thing from Brendan’s mind this unusually sun-drenched late-April morning. A steady westerly breeze swept over the bog, chasing high clouds across the watery blue of the sky, and teasing the moisture from the turf. Good drying today, his father would have said. Brendan worked in his shirtsleeves; his wool jacket, elbows permanently jointed from constant wearing, lay on the bank above his head. He paused, balancing his left arm on the handle of the upright sleán, and, with one rolled-up sleeve, mopped the sweat from his forehead, pushing away the damp, dark hair that stuck there. The skin on his face and forearms was beginning to feel the first pleasant tightness of a sunburn. Hunger was strong upon him at the moment, but just beyond it was an equally hollow feeling of anxiety. This might be the last year he could cut turf on his own land without interference. The thought of it burned in the pit of his stomach. As he clambered up the bank to fetch the handkerchief from his coat pocket, he searched the horizon for a bicycle.

That plot thread was prompted by some signs I'd seen posted on the roadside in east Galway while driving around on a research trip. 

Protesting the imposition of bog licenses, East Galway, around 1999.

I also included Special Areas of Conservation in The Book of Killowen, where one of the characters is cutting peat from the bottom of a protected bog, and selling it for use as a beauty product. There are a few spas in Ireland where you can sign up to soak in a peat-infused bath, which I actually had to try in the name of research, of course. More on that later (with pictures!)...

Just this week, there's more controversy, as turf-cutters near Killimor in County Galway are cutting with machines in defiance of a ban on cutting turf from their own plots. The European Union has designated the bog in question as a Special Area of Conservation, which means turf is not to be cut there. But the families have been cutting in the same bogs for generations, and resent what they consider government intrusion. Turf-cutting rights, called 'turbary rights' often accompany the sale or transfer of property and farmland.

The controversy is made all the more complicated by the fact that Bord na Móna, the semi-state body that's been in charge of Irish boglands, has been strip-mining peat in the endangered high bogs of the Midlands for a hundred years, and continues to do so. They cut loose peat by the ton, and burn it in power plants to generate electricity.

BnM has been slowing down, but only because all the bogs have been cut away, and there's nothing left. The power stations are closing, and so are the jobs that the peat extraction has generated for the past century. My husband Paddy worked on Bord na Móna bogs, as did his father. It was the best job going in many parts of the Midlands.

Christy O'Brien, my father-in-law, working out on the bog with his mate Tommy Wright.

You can read a VERY recent article about the scofflaws who cut peat from a protected bog in today's Connaght Tribune:

Turf wars re-ignite as cutters defy law
Thursday, 08 May 2014 07:00      Written by Ciaran Tierney

Thanks very much to Bridget Nicholson for sharing this article!

Sods of machine-cut turf from a County Offaly high bog, back around 2003.