Wednesday, October 19, 2016

St Manchán: genocidal nut job & resident of gorgeous Romanesque shrine

Over the past few days I’ve been posting some photos I took of St Manchan’s shrine in the National Museum of Ireland. They have been particularly well received (for the beauty of the object, rather than any photographic ability of mine), so I thought I might collect them together with a few words to provide context.

St Manchán mac Silláin was an early Irish saint. He is believed to have founded the monastery of Liath Mancháin in AD 645, on land provided by St St Ciarán of Clonmacnoise. The site lies in the modern townland of Lemanaghan, near Pollagh in County Offaly.

One of the best known stories about St Manchán is that he was amongst a group of religious types who gathered to pray and fast in AD 664/665. The reason for this pray-fest/fast … enlightenment? … peace? … kindness and goodness towards the world in general? ... not at all! These holy rollers were praying (at the request of joint high-kings Diarmait Ruanaid and Blathmac) that their god would send a plague to kill off a large portion of the lower classes of Irish society ... to weed out their numbers ... basically. Ironically, the Yellow Plague that arrived carried off St Manchan, along with fellow conspirators St Féchín of Fore and St Rónán mac Beraig … and if there isn’t a socialist moral in there, you’re really not looking hard enough! After his death, Manchán was remembered for his wisdom, knowledge of religious scripture and (astoundingly) for his generosity.

Despite being party to attempted genocide, Manchán is best remembered today for the exquisite Romanesque tent-shaped shrine containing his relics. It was created in 1130 in Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly. The main structure of the shrine is of yew wood, covered with bronze plates. Each of its sides bears a large Greek (equal-armed) cross and a striking collection of cast figures.

Like many early shrines and reliquaries, it was long used to swear oaths and it was reputed to have the ability to cure illness. The shrine remained at St Manchan's monastery at Lemanaghan until the 18th century. At that time the church and monastic buildings had fallen into ruin and the artefact was moved, first to the church at Cooldorrough, and in 1860, to its current home at Boher church.

Thus, the artefact on display in the National Museum in Dublin is a replica, not the original. Nonetheless, it still conveys the splendour and beauty of what it must have looked like in its heyday.


The story about St Manchán’ death survives from two sources. The first is in the Latin Life of St Gerald of Mayo (who did not partake in the genocidal pray-fest, and so survived) and in the notes to the hymn Sén Dé in the Liber Hymnorum.