My Hunt for Irish Sheela-na-Gigs

This sheela-na-gig from Seir Kieran in County Offaly was on display at the National Museum of Ireland when I visited in 2004.

Think Indiana Jones. Think of a quest for an archaeological treasure. Picture me, wide-eyed and somewhat crazed, tearing around Ireland’s rural backroads seeking a treasure. See me wading through thigh-high weeds still wet from the morning dew. Hear me cursing out loud to myself about driving on the left-hand side of the road.

Unlike Indiana Jones, no one was chasing me with a gun or a sword. I was not searching for the Holy Grail or the Crystal Skull or the Lost Ark. I was searching Ireland for sheela-na-gigs—peculiar, medieval-era stone carvings of haglike, naked women displaying their private parts.

If you read my last post, you know that during my 2004 Ireland trip, I had a bit of an obsession with searching out sheela-na-gigs, which are found on the walls of churches and castles in England, Wales, and Scotland, and Ireland. There are more known sheelas in Ireland than anywhere else, and on my journey through Éire, I stalked the gargoyle-like carvings literally over hill and dale.

Searching for Sheelas at the National Museum of Ireland

I started in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, which houses fabulous archeological treasures, such as the Indiana Jones–worthy Ardagh Chalice made by 12th-century monks of gold, silver, bronze, brass, and copper. And the golden, delicate Tara Brooch made in 700 AD is priceless.

A book with the sheela-na-gig from County Cavan, Ireland.

A book with the sheela-na-gig from County Cavan, Ireland.

Displayed alongside these magnificent works of Celtic art were two crudely carved sheela-na-gigs—much less flashy than the aforementioned treasures, but also much more intriguing. No one really knows why these “hags of the castle” were located like gargoyles on Anglo-Norman-era churches and medieval castles. But one thing we know for sure: they had meaning for people ten centuries ago.

“The name comes from the Irish language, although its meaning is uncertain,” says Dr. Eamonn Kelly of the National Museum, and author of Sheela-na-Gigs: Origins and Functions. “The most likely interpretations are Sighe na gCíoch, meaning “the old hag of the breasts,” or Síla-na Giob, meaning ‘sheela (a name for an old woman) on her hunkers.’”

I emailed the National Museum in advance and got permission on my visit to be escorted into the museum’s vaults to see a dozen more sheelas that weren’t on display but that have been in the museum’s care for decades—some for an entire century.

It’s an amazing thing to be face to face with works of sacred (or profane) art that I’ve only read about in books. (One of my favorites is The Sheela-na-gigs of Ireland and Britain by Joanne McMahon and Jack Roberts because it includes a catalogue with drawings of sheelas.) So, after I got my fill of sheelas in the museum, I set off to search for others, in situ.

The Sheela-Na-Gig of Esker Castle

Locating the sheela-na-gig—reportedly located on the walls of a ruined castle near the tiny village of Doon, in County Offaly—was quite an adventure. I felt completely lost while trying to find the village, and once there, I had no way of knowing where Esker Castle was. (If there was a sign to it, I never saw it because I was too busy driving on unmarked roads.)

This sheela-na-gig was a cornerstone on Esker Castle, near Doon, Ireland. The sheela-na-gig's right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. Esker Castle, Doon: The sheela-na-gig her right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This sheela-na-gig was a cornerstone on Esker Castle, near Doon, Ireland. The sheela-na-gig’s right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. Esker Castle, Doon: The sheela-na-gig her right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Luckily, from the road, I could see a hilltop ruin of what might be a medieval castle—though I wasn’t positive. I pulled onto a gravel road and drove to what I hoped would be the ruin, but soon the road disappeared into grass and there wasn’t enough space to turn around. My car had pretty bad sightlines for backing up (or maybe I should have looked backwards over my left shoulder instead of my right!) but I managed to drive in reverse back to the “safe,” graveled road. At the foot of the hill with the castle, I parked on a gravelly pullover spot, pulled on my rain pants and rain jacket, laced up my sturdy hiking boots, and then set off as it began to drizzle.

Foolishly, I chose a steep trail that led up toward the castle—ancient fortresses were designed to be difficult to reach—but halfway up it became apparent that no pedestrian had used it in ages—perhaps since the Middle Ages. I picked my way through brambles and briars; thorns clawed at my hair and rain jacket. I lost my traction in the mud. At last, though, I emerged at the foot of the ancient stone walls, sweating and hoping that my grit and determination would be rewarded by an easy-to-find sheela-na-gig.

The luck of the Irish was with me, because I turned the corner, and there she was, halfway up on the wall of the castle amid twisty ivy vines to the left of the castle entrance. She was carved horizontally on a cornerstone, even though she’s depicted in a standing position, with both toes pointing to the right. A shiver of excitement passed through me. I’d done it: located a sheela-na-gig in a non-museum location!

Esker Castle, near Doon, Ireland ©Laurel Kallenbach

The ruins of Esker Castle, near the village of Doon, County Offaly, Ireland ©Laurel Kallenbach

The first thing I noticed was the sheela’s large, bald head, part of which was covered in white. (Maybe someone whitewashed her for ease of seeing her?) Her mouth was open as if she were grimacing or saying something. She was a bit eerie, this sheela-na-gig: otherworldly and ancient and none too inviting despite her naked breasts (just two little mounds) and spread legs.

I took some photos, but it was difficult to relax and reflect because a nasty wind had come up. Besides that, the castle ruins were gloomy, the weather threatening. I was already a bit traumatized from the ordeal of the disappearing road and the brambly path. All I could think was, What if my car gets stuck here or I fall down the hill and sprain an ankle? There was a farmhouse just 100 meters away, but I was spooked just the same.

I walked around a bit, shielding my camera inside my raincoat from the wind-driven rain. I wanted to see the sheela from several angles. And then, Irish luck struck again, and I discovered another path—a real one this time—that I might have discovered if I hadn’t been in such a frantic hurry at the beginning. Compared to the path up, this one was fairly tame. Soon I was inside my rental car and peeling off my wet jacket. As I drove off, I took one last look at the towering walls—the home of the Esker Castle sheela-na-gig—and bid a hasty farewell.

The Sheela-Na-Gig of St. Munna’s Church

Although Indiana Jones got lost a number of times on his adventures, I seemed to have more than the usual mishaps on the sheela route. Two days after I almost missed the Esker Castle sheela, I again got confused while searching for one of the stone carvings on a church in County Westmeath. First, I got lost in the nearby town of Mullingar. Shortly later, I took two more wrong turns around Crookedwood before I eventually happened upon St. Munna Church, which ironically looks more like a castle than a church because of its crenellated tower.

I parked and walked up to the 15th-century church with its old cemetery. The four-eyed sheela-na-gig was in plain sight over a broken-out trefoil window, and just a moment after I saw her, I was greeted enthusiastically by a wag-tailed black dog from a farm across the street.

This sheela, above a window of St. Munna church, appears to have four eyes. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This sheela, above a window of St. Munna church appears to have four eyes. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This sheela was fairly eroded, but she either has four eyes or two holes drilled into her head above the eyes. Again part of her head was blotched with white—I think it must have been some sort of lichen. This sheela also had an open mouth, as if she were speaking, and this one looked like she had a beard. Though her hands were on her abdomen, there was little view of her genitals other than a deep hole. It was easy for me to imagine this sheela acting the role of a gargoyle—perhaps because her features we so indistinct. It’s possible she was defaced by people in more recent centuries who would have considered this stone carving obscene.

Perhaps it was because I was very tired, but I didn’t spend too much time with this sheela. And I felt a little out of place somehow, despite the adorable dog. This was the case a number of rural sites in Ireland. I disliked being among lots of tourists, but I also sometimes wished I wasn’t the only human around. So, I paid my respects to the naked, stone woman who has gazed fiercely down upon centuries of church-goers with her four eyes. Then I moved on to my next destination: the Loughcrew archaeological site, also called Slieve na Calliagh (“Mountain of the Hag”).

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

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Archways into the Irish Past

Nothing beckons me more than the archways of antiquity, so I was charmed by these ruined, but graceful portals that once led into a medieval abbey in Ireland. This one is located at Clonmacnoise, an early Christian site founded by St. Ciarán in the mid-6th century on the eastern bank of the River Shannon.

Just outside Ireland's Clonmacnoise are the arches of a ruined Nun's Chapel, where I discovered a sheela-na-gig. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Just outside Ireland’s Clonmacnoise are the arches of a ruined Nun’s Chapel, where I discovered a sheela-na-gig. ©Laurel Kallenbach

For an hour or more, I wandered through misting rain among the ruins of a cathedral, two round towers, several Celtic crosses, and ancient grave stones at Clonmacnoise. In the Dark Ages, this religious center was filled with scholarly monks during Ireland’s Golden Age of Learning.

Even today, this home of the 6th-century saint Ciarán is revered. In Temple Ciarán, where the saint is believed to be buried, farmers still take clay from the ruins of the church and place it at the four corners of their fields as a blessing.

A high cross and round tower at Clonmacnoise.

A high cross and round tower at Clonmacnoise.

In Search of a Sheela-Na-Gig

The historic architecture there was more than enough to make Clonmacnoise a part of my itinerary, but I was also on a quest to find an odd detail carved into the arch. The carving is known as a sheela-na-gig, a stone figure of a naked, old woman squatting and displaying her vulva. These somewhat grotesque female figures are usually found on Norman or Romanesque churches, usually over a door or window. A strange thing to put on a church fairly strange thing to find on a church, yet there are many in Ireland, and while I was visiting, I wanted to see as many as I could.

No one else was at the Nun’s Church while I was there, so I wandered around trying to locate the sheela-na-gig, which my guidebook said was located in the arch. Frustrated, and with a crick in my neck, I started calling out “sheela!” as I circled around the whole ruin. At last I spotted her amid the carvings on the outer ring of the lintel.

An Irish sheela-na-gig, carved into the front arch of the Nun's Chapel in Clonmacnoise. This is a closeup; the actual size of the sheela was probably only five inches in the diamond. You can see her face, and just make out her feet behind her head, with a display of her crotch below. ©Laurel Kallenbach

An Irish sheela-na-gig, carved into the front arch of the Nun’s Chapel in Clonmacnoise. This is a closeup; the actual size of the sheela was probably only five inches in the diamond. You can see her face, and just make out her feet behind her head, with a display of her crotch below. ©Laurel Kallenbach

If I hadn’t seen pictures of this sheela-na-gig in books, I wouldn’t have recognized her, because she has a very stylized, smiling face surrounded by what I guess are her legs wrapped yoga-style behind her head. At last I was beholding a sheela in situ. Although I’d seen a number of them at the National Museum of Ireland  in Dublin, there’s just nothing like locating a piece of art in its natural habitat!

There were actually two other faces lower down that frankly looked more like a sheela-na-gig than the real one—round head, pronounced ears, and deep eyes—except the rock carving stopped at the neck; there was no lower body.

So what’s the significance of a sheela-na-gig, and why is she clutching her genitalia? No one really knows, but there are many theories:

  • Sheelas are like gargoyles, designed to ward off evil spirits or to warn people of the perils of lust.
  • They are fertility symbols. This one seems unlikely, because sheelas rarely have breasts and their boney ribs, bald heads, and almost skeletal features are often depicted. There’s nothing sexy about a sheela-na-gig.
  • Sheelas are a depiction of an ancient Irish crone goddess, Cailleach, who was very powerful and could sometimes appear as a comely maiden, a mother, or a grandmother.

This last theory is the one that interests me most. In medieval Ireland, people often embraced both Christian and pagan beliefs, and the two merged. I’m fascinated by the Divine Feminine, and I like the thought of there being a fierce hag warrior on castles and churches.

In case you think me batty, I can tell you that I’m not alone in my fascination with sheelas. There are sheela-na-gig T-shirts, hoodies, and necklaces. And singer PJ Harvey wrote and performed a song called “Sheela-na-Gig” back in 1992. (You can read more about that at my post, My Hunt for Sheela-Na-Gigs).

I’ll always remember Clonmacnoise fondly, especially because it was the first time I’d ever seen a sheela-na-gig “live,” outside of a museum.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Clonmacnoise is located 21km from Athlone, in Co. Offaly. The Nun’s Chapel is just outside the main gates of the Clonmacnoise complex. For more information about travel in Ireland, visit Tourism Ireland.

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A view of Clonmacnoise. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

A view of Clonmacnoise. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

 

 

Jedi Knights Arrive in Ireland

Little Skellig island viewed from Skellig Michael, an island off County Kerry. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

Little Skellig island viewed from Skellig Michael, an island off County Kerry. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

Do you watch the end titles of a movie just to see the locations where it was filmed? If so, here’s a news flash: Star Wars: The Force Awakens will treat you to some eye-popping views of a remote, uninhabited island off the coast of southwest Ireland.

Unveiled in the film’s closing minutes, the closely guarded secret ending to the newest Star Wars episode was filmed in September 2014 on Skellig Michael Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Director JJ Abrams—along with cast and crew—jetted into a little village called Portmagee, County Kerry, on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. From there, they traveled eight miles by sea to the starkly beautiful Skellig Michael.

To keep it a secret, locals were told a documentary was being filmed in the area, so they were amazed when it was quietly revealed that it was really Star Wars being filmed in their community.

A press release from Tourism Ireland quoted Gerard Kennedy of The Bridge Bar and Moorings Guesthouse in Portmagee, as saying: “It’s been so hard to keep this secret! It was such a weird and wonderful experience for our small village to be part of the Star Wars story. We enjoyed evenings of music and dance in our bar with the cast and crew. Mark Hamill even learned how to pull a pint with our barman, Ciaran Kelly!”

The monastic Island, Skellig Michael founded in the 7th century, for 600 years the island was a centre of monastic life for Irish Christian monks. The Celtic monastery, which is situated almost at the summit of the 230-metre-high rock became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It is one of Europe's better known but least accessible monasteries.Photo:Valerie O'Sullivan

Starting in the 7th century, Skellig Michael was a center of monastic life for Irish Christian monks for 600 years. The Celtic monastery, which is situated almost at the summit of the 230-meter-high rock, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It is one of Europe’s better known, but least accessible, monasteries.    Photo by Valerie O’Sullivan

 

In the Footsteps of the Jedi Knights

Ireland’s County Kerry is one of the island nation’s best-loved destinations—and the first place I ever visited in Ireland. Thirty years ago I was wowed while driving around the Ring of Kerry, a road along the cliff-lined coast with dramatic views over the Atlantic.

If you’re a fan of Star Wars—or of stargazing—this might be just the destination for you. Kerry is one of only three Gold Tier International Dark Sky reserves in the world. The beautiful band of the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, star clusters and nebulas are just some of the wonders you can see with the naked eye in the region.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll even spot Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon as it drops out of hyperspace!

The island of Skellig Michael is accessible only by boat. Today it’s inhabited solely by birds, but monks settled there more than a millennium ago. The stacked-stone beehive huts that the monks lived in are restored and can be visited from May to September each year. (Advance booking required.)

Skellig boats arriving safely after the eight-mile journey to Skellig Michael. Photo: Valerie O'Sullivan

Skellig boats arriving safely after the eight-mile journey to Skellig Michael. Photo by  Valerie O’Sullivan

Traveling with Star Wars

A growing number of travelers choose to visit TV and shooting locations. (See my post about visiting Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed. ),

Locations for The Force Awakens include Scotland, Iceland’s volcanoes, the Abu Dhabi desert, England, and New Mexico. Past Star Wars movies have featured Tunisia, Spain, Lake Como (Italy), Guatemala, Norway, and Switzerland.

Watch a video of scenery on Skellig Michael are available at Tourism Ireland.

May the traveling force be with you!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

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Time Traveling to Ireland’s Temple House

No photograph could prepare me for the my first glimpse of Temple House, a Georgian mansion set on an estate of 1,000 acres a few miles south of Sligo. After I drove past the gates and through the green pastures filled with sheep, the sight of the stately home took my breath away. It’s huge and imposing—like something out of a wonderful costume-drama film.

TempleHouse

I stepped back into history during my visit to Temple House, an Irish country manor in the rural area south of Sligo, named for ruined medieval Knights Templar Castle on the grounds. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

Despite the grandeur—and everything from Temple House’s exterior to its antique-furnished rooms is grand—it’s a homey place run by the down-to-earth Perceval family, who have lived here since 1665. Deb and Sandy used to manage the guesthouse until their retirement; they’ve since turned it over to their son, Roderick, and daughter-in-law, Helena.

In My Lady’s Chamber

I stayed in the smallest room: the pink room, which is anything but small. I slept cozily in a half-canopied bed and tucked my luggage into a huge wardrobe, as if I were Irish gentry. I had a small writing desk, and I absolutely adored throwing open my ceiling-high shuttered windows each morning to behold the soft, green fields dotted with sheep. (The only thing not historic—and happily so—is the bathrooms. They’re modern.)

 

Bedroom in Temple House, Sligo, Ireland

There are six guest rooms much like this one, all lavishly furnished with a mixture of family heirlooms and other antiques. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Although the mansion has 100 rooms, only a handful of them are restored and habitable. (Imagine trying to heat 100 rooms! In fact, I doubt there’s electrical wiring to all parts of the house.)

I especially loved the elegant dining room, the site of fabulous breakfasts and dinners. (The innkeepers emphasize locally grown foods, many from their own organic garden.) Guests gather at the immense, lavishly-set table while a crackling fire warms the room and paintings of the Perceval ancestors peer down from the walls. Roderick regaled us with colorful tales of his family through the centuries. I’d look from his face to his Victorian forebears—and noticed the same features: a similar nose, the shape of the eyes, a chin!

I can’t imagine growing up amidst so much history and finery, but then I remember that it takes huge sums just to keep up the place. The Percevals have to work hard preparing meals, cleaning bathrooms, changing linens and entertaining guests, so it’s a modest living—just in a grand setting.

Tea is served every afternoon in this cozy parlor. (The homemade chocolate biscuits, shortbread and fudge are divine!) ©Laurel Kallenbach

Tea is served every afternoon in this cozy parlor. (The homemade chocolate biscuits, shortbread and fudge are divine!) ©Laurel Kallenbach

The best part of Temple House? Countless things: It’s so comfortable, wondrously welcoming, and the fellow travelers I met were excellent company. There’s a lake that you can boat or fish on and ruins of a 13th-century Knights Templar Castle on the property to explore. (The Templar Castle gives the Temple House estate its name.)

Yet, what I loved most was feeling like I had stepped back into history. (If you really like old stuff, and want to travel back to pre-history, make a day trip to the nearby ancient Carrowmore Megalithic complex.) But even if there were nothing else in the vicinity to do, I can think of no more charming place to relax, read a book, eat fabulous food and dream of eras past than at Temple House.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

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P.S. For more tips on places to visit in Ireland, visit Discover Ireland.