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!

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