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.

Read more about my travels in Ireland:

A view of Clonmacnoise. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

A view of Clonmacnoise. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

 

 

4 thoughts on “Archways into the Irish Past

    • Well, next I’ll post a couple of photos of other sheela-na-gigs that I visited in Ireland. You can see them a lot better, although some…ahem…details have weathered.

  1. Such an interesting take on Sheela-ne-gigs. You bring an interesting merging of art, history and lore, which always are of interest to me.
    Wish i cold go to Ireland again. I could never have too much of it. Did you see the Nature program on the river Shannon? 2 parts. So very excellent.

    All best to you Laurel, keep on traveling and writing, you enrich my life.

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