St Manchan’s Shrine, Boher, County Offaly

St.Manchan’s Shrine

‘The shrine of Manchan, of Maethail, was covered by Ruaidhri Ua Conchobhair, and an embroidering of gold was carried over it by him, in as good a style as a relic was ever covered’.

St Manchan’s Shrine on display in the church at Boher
The small village of Boher in rural County Offaly holds one of Ireland’s real treasures, a breathtaking example of early medieval craft, design, ingenuity and religious practice. This is St. Manchan’s Shrine, thought to have once contained the remains of the saint himself. St. Manchan is said to have founded the monastery at Lemanaghan located nearby to Boher. He is thought to have originated in north-east Ulster, and originally served at the nearby famous monastery of Clonmacnoise before establishing his own foundation at Lemanaghan. St. Manchan died in 665 during the Mortalitas Magna, the Great Plague. His Feast Day is on 24th January. Our friends at Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland have an excellent piece on Lemanaghan that is well worth reading, you can find it here
The shrine is thought to date to the twelfth century. It is quite possible that it was originally commissioned by the King of Connacht, Toirrdelbach Ua Conchobair, under whose patronage the similarly beautiful Cross of Cong had been commissioned. A reference in the Annals of the Four Masters for 1166 states that ‘The shrine of Manchan, of Maethail, was covered by Ruaidhri Ua Conchobhair , and an embroidering of gold was carried over it by him, in as good a style as a relic was ever covered’. Ruaidhri Ua Conchobhair was the son of Toirrdelbach, and inherited the Kingdom of Connacht and became High King of Ireland. Perhaps by redecorating and recovering the shrine he was establishing his own personal connection to the shrine, while reinforcing his father’s patrimony. The shrine is certainly a beautiful example of the patronage of Irish kings to the church.
The ‘front’ of the shrine
The ‘rear’ of the shrine
The shrine is made from yew wood, and in the shape of a gabled structure, not unlike a tent. Similar shaped stone shrines can be seen at churches of a similar date, like this example at Temple Cronan in the Burren of County Clare. The decorative elements of the shrine are of cast, gilt bronze, with interlaced beasts and snakes, and geometric designs featuring yellow and red enamels, and animal heads lead from the rings onto the shrine’s border.
Detail of the figures
Detail of the figures
The front and back of the shrine are dominated by a large and ornate cross. The crosses would have been surrounded by up to fifty figures, though only eleven of those survive today, held in place with small copper pegs. These figures are represented in great detail, all are in loincloths or kilts (some of which are quite ornate) and they are bare-chested, displaying emaciated ribs, perhaps a representation of piety or sacrifice. Though we cannot say for certain who the figures represent, it is likely that they depict saints or key religious figures. One holds a small axe, that may be a symbol of his martyrdom or it may be a representation of the early Irish saint MacTáil , who was often depicted holding an adze (for more on MacTáil please see our free audioguide to the Kildare Monastic Trail). Another of the figures wears what appears to be a bishop’s mitre. Many of the figures have beards, some of which are forked, and they have short hair, in some cases with a centre parting.
Tomás Ó Carragáin suggested that the shrine may have been modelled on the Ark of the Covenant, as described in the Old Testament. ‘Both the Ark and St. Manchan’s Shrine were constructed of wood overlain with decorative metal, and there can be little doubt that the supports at the corners of the shrine, and the pair of rings attached to them at each side, were designed to allude to the Ark ‘You will cast for gold rings for it and fix them to its four supports: two rings on one side and two rings on the other. You will also make shafts of acacia wood and overlay them with gold and pass the shafts through the rings on the side of the Ark, by which to carry it’. (Exodus 25:10–22). 
One of the rings on the shrine
Though none of the shafts have survived, it is possible to imagine the shrine being carried during processions or ceremonial occasions, like St. Manchan’s Feast Day on January 24th. Perhaps four monks would have borne the shrine high on their shoulders, followed by the rest of the monastery, as they processed through the crowds of local worshippers and pilgrims. I wonder if it would have been a noisy, celebratory atmosphere, like some present-day processions in Cuba or other Latin countries, full of music and festival food. Or perhaps it was a more sombre and pious affair, with downcast eyes and solemn bells.
Detail of the intricate decoration
One of the sides of the shrine
One of the sides of the shrine
In the seventeenth century, the shrine was taken to a chapel in the nearby village of Boher. St. Manchan’s Roman Catholic Church, in which the shrine is now displayed, was built in the 1860s. As well as the shrine, the church also has a number of stunning stained-glass windows, five of which are from the studio of the renowned artist Harry Clarke. These windows were ordered from Harry Clarke’s studio in 1930 at a cost of £320. Just one year later, Harry Clarke died at the very pinnacle of his career, aged 41. His unmistakable designs were the result of a painstaking process. After weeks of sketching and drafting the designs, he had the glass prepared with acid, etched and then painted in a wash of rich, vibrant colours that help to illuminate the interior of the church. One of his windows depicts St. Manchan standing above his shrine, which is beautifully represented by the artist.
The shrine as depicted in the Harry Clarke window
This irreplaceable treasure was very nearly lost to the Irish people when it was stolen in 2012. Thankfully the Gardái recovered the shrine shortly afterwards and it was eventually returned to the church for display.
The church at Boher is certainly worth a visit to see this remarkable shrine in the flesh. You can also see a replica of the shrine on display in the National Museum of Ireland, Archaeology on Kildare Street Dublin.
The Roman Catholic Church of St.Manchan, Boher, County Offaly

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Posted 12 Feb 2016 by 

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