Saturday, 22 April 2017

The House of Cleitech and Rosnaree: on the trail of the ancestors, crossing the ancient ford of the Boyne

In ancient times, long before stone bridges, the places where you crossed rivers were called fords. These were generally shallow parts of the river, sometimes stony, where one could expect to be able to walk or wade across in general safety, except when the river was in full torrent.

Ironically, there is no modern bridge across the River Boyne between Slane and Oldbridge – around the whole Bend of the Boyne – except for the pedestrian footbridge that is used by visitors to Knowth and Newgrange to access their buses from the visitor centre. However, in the olden days there were fording points along the Boyne, and one in particular that may have been where an ancient road from Tara crossed the river as it headed north.

Aerial view of the Boyne at Rosnaree showing (right) the old mill house and (arrowed) the ford.

This road was the Slighe Midhluachra, and it crossed the Boyne very near to the old mill house which still stands at Rosnaree. The ford was a paved ford, and was in regular use until the early years of the 20th century(1). Elizabeth Hickey, writing a half century ago, says this of the ford:
This was the Áth na Bóinne of the ancients. Near here Mananan, son of Lir, tied up his magic boat, the Ocean-Sweeper, the craft which knew his thoughts; here came the Sons of Turenn to borrow it in order to pursue their quest. Across this ford the builders of the great tombs, which tourists see today, passed to and from their work. Milesian fleets rowed past these tombs to battle with De Danaan magic. Warriors from the North descended to the ford, King Conchubar with Cuchulainn and his army, to fight at Rosnaree. St. Patrick and his followers passed to Slane.
The Boyne at Rosnaree, looking downstream towards the ford - Áth na Bóinne.

In ancient times of course, rivers and watercourses formed the only effective transport network. The builders of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth knew this. They brought huge stones, many weighing three tonnes and more, up the Boyne on barges. However, they did not haul these stones beyond the shallow waters of the Boyne at Áth na Bóinne. It is likely that they landed much further east, somewhere in the vicinity of the lands that now form part of Dowth Hall, and hauled their stones from there. (The journey from that landing spot to Newgrange is a very arduous one. I might cover that in a future blog post).

The ford of Rosnaree was paved, i.e. artificially augmented with stones placed by people so as to raise the river bed and provide a more solid causeway across which the crossing could be made. The owners of the mill house in the middle of the 20th century were the Johnsons. Mr. Johnson told Elizabeth Hickey about the ford, "of travellers on horseback, travellers on foot, and hay-carts passing over, and men at work to keep it paved, not so very long ago".(2)

The ford marked on an old Ordnance Survey map. (Click to enlarge)

The precise location of the ford is still known, of course, not only because it is pinpointed on the older OS maps, but because a crossing is still possible in modern times, as pointed out locally, and indeed the rocks that undoubtedly form the augmented crossing cause the surface water of the river to rise and ripple over them.(3) 

Close by to the ford of the Boyne at Rosnaree is a place anciently called the House of Cletty (spelt variously as Cletigh, Cleiteach, Cleitech and Cletech, among others). Cleitech is said to have been the place where King Cormac Mac Art died after choking on a salmon bone, something that is very interesting because of Cleitech's proximity to Rosnaree and the Boyne, and the locality of Fiacc's Pool, where Fionn Mac Cumhaill and Finnegas were said to have caught the Salmon of Knowledge.

For a long time there was some mystery as to where Cleitech was located. The antiquarian William Wilde (father of Oscar Wilde) suggested it might have been at Clady, near Bective, south of Navan.(4) O'Donovan, in his notes on the Annals of the Four Masters, placed it "near Stackallen Bridge, on the south side of the Boyne."(5) Both were wrong. O'Donovan was closer, but Stackallen is several miles upstream from Rosnaree, west of Slane. It was Elizabeth Hickey who finally pinpointed its location through "considerable research"(6) and a healthy dose of doggedness. Here is her own account of the matter, based on her reading of the various myths and manuscripts. It is an excellent piece of detective work:
The Táin tells us that Cuchulain, when he went to woo Emer, descended to the Boyne on its lower reaches, between the Brugh of Oengus [Newgrange] and the Sidhe of Bresal to the west, and crossed the river between the houses of Cleitech and Fessi. From the story of the death of King Cormac we know that Cleitech was on the southern bank and was likely to have been near to Rosnaree, certainly not too far below the ford, for Cormac's bier was carried from the House of Cleitech to the river and borne by the river down to Rosnaree. Another story tells us of autumn games held between Newgrange and the House of Cleitech, and from these games and young folk ran to Knowth. The story of the death of Muirchertach gives us more detailed topography – the House of Cleitech was above the Boyne and above the green-topped Brugh; a glen lay to the south of the house; the grave of Muirchertach was to the north-east, according to another poem... There is only one spot on the map which fulfills all the conditions and this is the plateau-like elevation where Rosnaree House stands today.(7)
Síd in Broga (Newgrange) viewed from the Boyne at Rosnaree, near Cleitech.

Whatever the House of Cletty might have been, it is gone now. Its earliest mention as a house above the Boyne is in the Táin. One can imagine it might have been an Iron Age ringfort, something the Irish would have called a rath or a lios. But because it was the abode of kings (Muirchertach was the last king to live there), it might have been something more special, like a multivallate fort.(8) The Edwardian mansion of Rosnaree House is the most likely location of Cleitech, according to Hickey. The house is situated high above the river and from the terrace upon which it sits a great deal of the area can be seen, and there are views across to Knowth and Newgrange. According to archaeologist Geraldine Stout, a 14th/15th century reference "indicates that Cleitech lay near the Síd in Broga (Newgrange) and opposite Knowth".(9)

What might be the meaning of this name, Cleitech?

In a dialogue between Cúchulainn and his lover Emer, in the Táin Bó Cuailnge, Cúchulainn refers to a journey and masks the locations with obscure references, including: "over the Marrow of the woman Fedelm, between the Boar and His Dam", "That is, between Cleitech and Fessi. For Cleitech is the name for a boar, but it is also the name for a king, the leader of great hosts, and Fessi is the name for a great sow of a farmer's house."(10)

The old mill house at Rosnaree, close to Áth na Bóinne, the ancient ford across the Boyne.

Pigs and boars are prominent in Irish mythology. Long before the arrival of the builders of Newgrange and the neolithic farming revolution that saw the introduction of cows, wild boar was part of the staple mesolithic diet.(11) Pigs are plentiful in myth too. Lugh Lamhfada's father, Cian, took the shape of a wild pig to try to avoid the attention of the sons of Tuirenn. Diarmuid, one of the greatest warriors of the Fianna, was gored by a wild boar and consequently died. He was later brought to Newgrange by Oengus an Broga, "to put aerial life in him so that he will talk to me every day".(12)

But there is, perhaps, another meaning for Cleitech that makes sense in the context of a paved ford across the Boyne. In Shaw's dictionary, there is a word Cleitach which means "full of rocks", and a similar word, Cleitadh, meaning "a ridge of rocks in the sea".(13)

Whatever its meaning, Cleitech was an important place, although its house is long gone. However, the area around the ford at Rosnaree and the eminence upon which the House of Cletty once sat retain an ancient feel, and it's not difficult to see how the file (poet) or the draoi (druid), who might have drawn great inspiration from being close to the flowing waters of the Boyne, might have felt himself in heaven in these places.
...from just such ancestral visions the stuff of ancient history was made. This gentleman knew the river as the men of old, the number of the cygnets with the swans, the way the salmon ran, where lay the deep pool which must have been Linn Feic, the fox's way, the badgers' earth, the sunny sheltered place, a likely spot for hermitage. If Cleitech has disappeared, its environs remain unchanged – Cuchulain could cross the river today, and thinking of Emer, see nothing of the twentieth century but a slight untidiness of overgrowth.(14)
Rosnaree House (left), the most likely location of the ancient Cleitech, overlooking the Boyne.

(1) Holten, Anthony (2017), The River Boyne, p.527. See also Hickey, Elizabeth (1966), I Send My Love Along the Boyne, p.9.
(2) Hickey, op. cit, p.9.
(3) The present owners of the old mill house, the Heise family, showed me the location of these rocks.
(4) Wilde, William (1849) [2003], The Beauties of the Boyne and Blackwater, p.116.
(5) O'Donovan, John (translator and editor) (1854), Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, Vol. I., pp.115-116.
(6) Hickey, op. cit., p.65.
(7) Hickey, op. cit., p.66.
(8) This, of course, is mere speculation on my part.
(9) Stout, Geraldine (2002), Newgrange and the Bend of the Boyne, Cork University Press, p.68.
(10) Lady Gregory, Cúchulainn of Muirthemne, p.353.
(11) Mallory, J.P. (2013), The Origins of the Irish, Thames & Hudson, pp.44-45.
(12) O'Kelly, Michael J. (1982), Newgrange: Archaeology, Art & Legend, p.43. This is cited from Ni Sheaghdha, N., (1967), Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne.
(13) Shaw, Rev. William (1780), Galic and English Dictionary, Volume 1.
(14) Hickey, op. cit., p.68. Hickey was here speaking with the then owner of Rosnaree House.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Climbing Slieve Gullion to see Calliagh Berra's House, the highest passage-tomb on the island of Ireland

I was up at Slieve Gullion today and decided to go and visit one of the ancient archaeological gems of Ireland that I had never seen before - the Calliagh Berra's House. This is a passage-tomb with covering cairn located on the summit of Slieve Gullion in County Armagh, at 570m above sea level. It is the highest passage-tomb in Ireland.

Setting out on the ascent up the path towards Calliagh Berra's House on Slieve Gullion.

Thankfully, there's a roadway that brings you to a small car park that is already 360m above sea level, so the walk/climb on foot is only a further 200m or so in elevation. Still, despite our brisk pace, it took my teenage sons and I about half an hour to make the climb. It was a dull day, although not cold, with only a light breeze. All the time it felt like it was going to rain but it mostly held off except for a very light drizzle for a few minutes at the top.

Looking south from Armagh towards Slieve Fuad (Fews Mountains).
The pathway up the mountain offers some beautiful views over the surrounding countryside. This was an excursion that stirred some excitement for me. I have long been a visitor to Sliabh na Calliagh, Loughcrew, hills in Meath scattered with ancient megalithic remnants. The two - Loughcrew and Slieve Gullion - are not only connected through their eponymous hag/goddess, but also through an alignment involving winter solstice.

As you get to the top of the path the cairn finally comes into view.

The path twists and turns and has been nicely laid out with smooth rocks in places, gravel in others, and just turf pathways in others. However, about halfway up things become more steep and the climb is a wee bit more arduous. This was no deterrent for my 14-year-old twins, who looked as nimble as Legolas running along the mountain ridges of Middle Earth. We met a man who said he was waiting on a bus! I suggested perhaps he was waiting on a helicopter. Truth be told, it might even be possible that a fairy bus does pass this way every once in a while.

The Calliagh Berra's Lake on the top of Slieve Gullion. Beyond it is another cairn, called the Northern Cairn.
The top of the mountain is remarkable. It has a small lake on it, known as the Calliagh Berra's lake. There is a story about Fionn Mac Cumhaill and this lake, which is nicely recounted on the Ring of Gullion website:
Fionn walked up the slopes of Slieve Gullion to the lake near the summit to find a beautiful young lady sobbing on the water’s edge. Being a gentleman he enquired as to why she was crying; to which she replied that she had dropped her golden ring in the bottomless lake. Without a moment’s hesitation Fionn ripped off his shirt and dived in, swam down until he found the ring, grabbed it and returned to the top only to find an old hag laughing, the Calliagh Berra. The witch had tricked Fionn and he fell out on the lake’s shore as an old withered man. When Fionn came down the mountain, no-one recognised him, not even the Fianna! However, when his trustworthy Irish Hounds smelled the old man they knew that he was their Master. Fionn, the Fianna, and the hounds forced the Calliagh Berra to restore Fionn to his youth, but it is said that his hair remained white like an old man’s for the rest of his life, and that his fate is said to befall anyone who bathes in the lake to this very day. Are you brave enough to dip your feet in the Calliagh Berra’s lake?

The cairn itself is known as Calliagh Berra's House and is just one of many ancient megalithic remnants that is named in her honour. At last we got the opportunity to enter its ancient passageway. It seemed like I had been waiting to do this for a long time. I've only ever imagined what it would be like because I had never seen it before. You have to hunker down at the entrance which takes a bit of nimble movement, but once inside the main thing to concern yourself with is the rocks on the floor. It would be very easy to sprain an ankle in there because the floor is so uneven.

Inside the chamber of Calliagh Berra's House looking out through the passage entrance.
The chamber and rear recess of the passage-tomb on the top of Slieve Gullion.
You certainly get the sense of a devoted, determined and stoic people. They built this cairn out of rocks - large and small - on top of a mountain in a far-distant age (around 5,000 years ago, maybe more) at a time when there was no proper footwear, and nothing like construction site health and safety. Building passage-tombs must have been a dangerous occupation in those times. It takes effort just to climb the mountain. But then to start hauling stones around the place in the cutting wind and inevitable rain must have been an undertaking requiring a serious devotion to the task. Calliagh Berra obviously commanded a pious respect among the ancient megalithic builders.

Another thing that strikes you is the lack of megalithic art. And indeed the lack of enormous structural stones such as those you find at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth - the large corridor orthostats, the bulky ceiling cap stones, the three-tonne kerb stones. This is a different type of structure to the Brugh na Bóinne complex. Similar in some respects, but different in others.

Sitting at the entrance of the passageway into Calliagh Berra's House.
They say first impressions last though. And Calliagh Berra's House made a deep impression on me. Such that I can say I would love to go back - and soon. Ideally in better weather, which makes for better photos. A trip up there for winter solstice sunset would be a distinct possibility. I'd love to see the sun shining in there as it sets beyond the distant hills of Loughcrew.

One thing that did slightly disappoint was the lack of a marker for Loughcrew on the direction plate on top of the cairn. However, even on a murky day like today the views are still beautiful. On a clear day, it's apparently possible to see the Slieve Bloom Mountains some 85 miles distant.

Upon turning to leave, it's not difficult to see how landscape made such a deep impression upon the imaginative and creative sensitivities of ancient people. Ireland is a beautiful country. I am reminded of this constantly. The journey back down the mountain created a greater awareness of that fact than the journey up. When you climb a hill or mountain, you are ever looking on ahead, upwards, towards the summit, the goal. You have a determination, and must concentrate your energies on getting there. On the way down, it's as if you have lightened your load, and the landscape unfurls beneath you. Even with the approaching rain, it looked heavenly. And that's a stark reminder of the real power that elevated megalithic sites must have had - engendering a sense of detachment from the sublunary world, providing an encroachment into the upper, divine levels, away from humdrum civilisation and altogether closer to something austere, numinous and regenerative.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Aislinge Oengusso - the Dream of Oengus - a retelling of the ancient love story of Newgrange by Anthony Murphy


D Eduard Muller’s translation updated for modern readers by Anthony Murphy

The story known as ‘Aislinge Oengusso’ (the vision or dream of Oengus) was first mentioned as a remscéla (introductory tale) to the Táin bó Cuailgne in the 12th century Book of Leinster, but is not recounted there. The story is contained in full in a British Library Egerton manuscript (1782, folio 70b) dating from AD1517. A translation by Eduard Müller was published in Revue Celtique in the 1870s. This translation uses somewhat archaic English, so I decided to update it for a more modern audience. (Note: It is not always implicit from the dialogue who is speaking, so I have had to use some judgement in a couple of instances. Any errors are, of course, mine). 


Oengus was sleeping one night when he saw something like a maiden near him at the top of his bed. She was the most beautiful woman in Ireland. Oengus tried to take her by the hands to bring her into his bed, but she suddenly vanished. His mind was uneasy until the morning. 

The episode brought an illness upon him – this vision of a figure he had seen but with whom he hadn’t spoken. He did not eat any food. The next night, he saw her again, this time with a cymbal in her hand. She played a song to him so that he fell asleep. He was there until morning. When he woke, he did not have any breakfast.

A whole year passed by and she continued to visit him in his bed so that he fell in love. He didn’t tell anybody about this mysterious maiden. He fell ill and nobody knew what was wrong with him.
The physicians of Erinn assembled. They did not know what was wrong. One went to Fergne, the physician of Conn. He came to Oengus. He knew from looking at Oengus’s face what was wrong with him. He had an illness of the mind.

Fergne spoke with Oengus and told him that an “accidental love has fallen on you”. 

“My illness has judged me,” said Oengus. “I loved in heartlessness. And nobody dared say it to the other.”

“It is true,” said Oengus. “I met a beautiful woman, the most beautiful that is in Erinn, with a distinguished appearance; she had a cymbal in her hand on which she used to play to me every night.”

Fergne knew that love sickness had seized Oengus, so he went to fetch the young man’s mother, Boann, to come and speak with him.

“I was trying to cure this man,” said Fergne, “who has been seized by an uncertain illness.”

Fergne asked Boann to search the whole of Ireland for a maiden like that which her son had seen at night. And so Boann searched Ireland for a year, but nothing was found.

Fergne was called for again. “We have not found any help in this matter,” said Boann.

Fergne said: “Send for the Dagda, so that he may come and speak with his son.”

Brug Mac ind Oicc (Newgrange), where Oengus had his dream of the maiden Caer.
Dagda came. “Why have I been called here?” he asked. “To help your son,” said Boann.  “Your help is better for him. It would be a pity for him to die. He has an illness. He has fallen in an accidental love and there is no help for him.”

“What use is it to him to speak with me?” said the Dagda. “My knowledge is no better than yours.”

Fergne said to the Dagda that he was the “fairy king of Erinn” and he implored Dagda to send to the fairy king of Munster, Bodb, whose knowledge was known far and wide. 

So they went to Bodb, who asked why they had come. “Oengus the son of the Dagda is in love this past two years,” said Fergne. “What for?” said Bodb. “He saw a maiden in his dreams. We don’t know anywhere in Ireland that this maiden can be found.” Bodb was asked to search Ireland for a woman of this form and appearance. Bodb agreed and said it would take him a year until he could answer with certainty.

Fergne went at the end of a year back to the house of Bodb, at Síd fer Femoin. 

“I have investigated all Erinn,” said Bodb, “until I found the maiden at Loch bel Draccon at the harp of Cliach.”

The two went to Dagda with the good news. “The maiden has been found,” said Fergne. “Now Bodb insists that Oengus is to come with us in order to ascertain whether he recognises her as the maiden he saw in his dreams.”

Oengus was brought in a chariot to Síd fer Feimin. A great feast was held with king Bodb for three days and nights. Afterwards, Bodb beckoned Oengus outside, to see if he recognised the woman.
They travelled until they were at the sea, where they saw 150 young women and the maiden was among them. A silvery chain linked every two of the women, a silvery necklace around the neck and a chain of burnished gold.

Caer took the form of a swan for a year and a human the next year.

“Do you recognise the maiden?” Bodb asked.

“Of course I recognise her,” replied Oengus.

“This is not your greatest power,” said Bodb.

“Not so,” replied Oengus. “For I will not be able to take her with me this time.”

“Who is this maiden, o Bodb?” asked Oengus.

“I know who she is. She is Caer ib Ormaith, daughter of Ethal Anbual from Sid Uaman in the province of Connacht.”

Oengus returned with Bodb to Brug mac ind Oicc (Newgrange) to visit the Dagda and Boann. They related how they had seen the maiden, and had heard the name of her father and grandfather. Bodb suggested to the Dagda that he should go to Ailell and Medb in their territory in the land of Connacht, where the maiden was located.

The Dagda travelled with 60 chariots to Connacht. The king and queen welcomed him. They had a feast and drank beer for a whole week. The king asked Dagda what was the reason for his journey.
“There is a maiden in your land,” said the Dagda,” and my son is in love with her and an illness has seized him. I came to ask if you could give her to my son.”

“Which woman is she?” asked Ailell.

“The daughter of Ethal Anbual.”

“We have no power over her,” said Ailill and Medb, “that we could give her to him.”

“Let the king be called here,” said the Dagda.

The stuart of Ailell went to Ethal Anbual and told him he was to go and speak with Ailell and Medb.
“I will not go,” he said. “I will not give my daughter to the son of the Dagda.”

Ethel Anbual’s answer was related to Ailell. “He will not come. He knows the reason for which he is called.”

“Not so,” said Ailell. “I will go and my soldiers will be taken to him.”

Then the household of Ailell and the army of the Dagda rose up towards the fairies. They destroyed the whole síd. They went to the king who was in the caves of anxiety.

Ailell said to Ethal Anbual: “Give your daughter to the son of the Dagda.”

“I cannot,” he said. “There is a greater power in them.”

“What greater power?” asked Ailell.

“Not difficult to say,” replied Ethal Anbual. “To be in the shape of a bird every day of a year; and the other year to be in human shape.”

“Which year will she be in the shape of a bird?” said Ailell.

“I don’t know,” said Caer’s father.
Ailell threatened to cut his head off if he did not explain. So he did.

“She will be in the shape of a bird the next summer at Loch bel Draccon and beautiful birds will be seen with her and there will be 150 swans about her.”

Afterwards, Ailell, Ethal and the Dagda became good friends and Ethal was set free.

The Dagda went to his house and told the news to his son.

“Next summer, you must go to Loch bel Draccon and call her to you at the lake.”

Mac Og went to Loch bel Draccon when he saw the 150 white birds at the lake with their silvery chains and golden caps around their heads. Oengus was in human shape at the edge of the lake. He called the maiden to him.

“Come to speak with me, o Chaer.”

“Who calls me?” said Caer.

“Oengus calls you. Come and yield to me.”

Swans at Newgrange...these birds may have inspired some of the old myths.
“I will come,” she said. She went over to him. He put his two hands on her. They slept in the shape of two swans until they surrounded the lake three times. They left the lake in the form of two white birds until they were at the Brug of the mic ind Oicc and they made sweet music so that the people fell asleep for three days and three nights.

The maiden Caer remained with Oengus at the Brug after that.

Afterwards, Oengus became good friends with Ailell and Medb and as a consequence Oengus went with three hundred others to Ailell and Medb for the Táin bo Cuailgne.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Painting with light: the three most highly decorated kerb stones at Newgrange in gorgeous detail

To celebrate the fact that the Mythical Ireland Facebook page has just passed 30,000 likes, I am revealing these three images of the most decorated kerb stones at Síd in Broga (Newgrange). The photos were taken in the pre-dawn twilight around winter solstice, with the kind permission of the Office of Public Works (OPW). In order to capture these stones in a way that has probably never been seen before, I used an old technique called "painting with light".

Kerb stone 52 at Newgrange, which is diametrically opposite the entrance kerb stone, K1.
My favourite of the three is the above photo of kerb 52 (K52), which can be found at the very rear of the mound, diametrically opposite the entrance kerb stone (K1). I'd only ever previously been able to photograph this stone in daylight. And while I have a couple of nice photos of it, I always longed to use the painting with light technique on it. The image was captured by putting the camera on a tripod and keeping the shutter open for about 15 seconds. During this time, I was "painting" the stone with light using a small LED torch, first from the right and then from the left. The result is an image that I've been waiting for years to achieve. I hope you like it. I have speculated that it contains representations of stars we know today as Orion's Belt and Sirius. At the time of the construction of Newgrange, Sirius was visible from its interior chamber as it transited the roof box.

Spirals on the entrance kerb stone at Newgrange, kerb 1 (K1).
The entrance kerb stone at Newgrange is one of the most famous artefacts from the ancient world, and its design has been photographed perhaps millions of times over the decades. One of the OPW guides at Newgrange regularly tells visitors that "it's the most photographed stone in the world, after Mick Jagger"! Sometimes, especially in midwinter, the evening sunlight catches this stone so that it is illuminated at a very shallow angle, which is the perfect angle for bringing out the relief. I have in previous years been able to get a nice photo using remote flash to achieve the same result. However, I still think that the above image, painted with light during dark twilight, is better than anything I would have achieved during the day.

Kerb stone 67 with its double spiral, triangles and lozenges.
The other of the three most decorated kerb stones at Newgrange, and perhaps the least famous, is this one, kerb 67. It is remarkable that of the 97 huge greywackle slabs that form the kerb around Newgrange, only three are highly decorated. There are carvings on plenty of others, but K1, K52 and K67 are the only stones that feature designs over most of their visible surface. Fascinatingly, there are some stones that are decorated on their rear side, where the carvings cannot be seen.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Up close with the Rosnaree Sheela-na-gig

I was very fortunate to have been given an opportunity to see and photograph an enigmatic and fascinating relic of Ireland's past in recent days. I had long known that once upon a time there was a Sheela-na-gig built into the wall of the old mill house at Rosnaree on southern bank of the River Boyne.

An old photo showing the Sheela-na-gig in place in the wall of the mill. Photo courtesy Barbara Heise.

About quarter of a century ago the ancient stone-carved figure was removed from its place in the wall of the mill for safekeeping. Before that, it had been whitewashed over so many times that it was becoming difficult to see its features.

The owners of the old mill, Georg and Barbara Heise, beautifully and lovingly converted the old structure into a modern habitable home. I was delighted to be given an opportunity by the Heise family to examine and indeed take photos of the Sheela-na-gig.

You might ask what a Sheela-na-gig is. They are "female exhibitionist carvings found on walls, abbeys, convents, churches, pillars and other structures in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, as well as in other parts of Europe. They come in many different shapes and sizes, but all share the same characteristic of a prominent and often enlarged genitals, often held open by the figure's hands. Most date from the middle ages."(1)

There are various theories as to what their intended meaning or purpose was, but we simply don't know for sure. Some suggest they were fertility figures, and that touching them was considered a blessing for assured pregnancy. Others say the fact they were often positioned on the walls of churches meant they served as a grotesque warning against the "sins of the flesh". Is the Sheela-na-gig supposed to represent a goddess? Or a crone/hag, like the cailleach?

Anyway, regardless of the theories, they are indeed fascinating. Here is a montage of photos I took of the Rosnaree Sheela. In order to capture as much of the detail as possible, I used a remote flash and illuminated the figure from left, right, above and below. Click the image to see a larger version.

Four views of the Sheela-na-gig, illuminated from the left, right, above and below.

Here's a description from the Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) taken from the Archaeological Inventory of County Meath: "Sheela-na-gig now in private possession. Figure formerly built into wall beside door of mill that was not its original location. Removed from wall of mill and kept safe in store. Described by Freitag as a figure, ‘crudely carved on irregular stone slab; widest at bottom part which is cut straight, allowing figure to sit firmly on ground. Elongated, deeply hollowed out groove in crown of head (presumably for libations) further indication of figure originally free-standing. Left side defaced, and some damage also to chin, right forearm, right foot and lower part of leg. Large head, no ears, big owl-like eyes with eyebrows, clearly marked nostrils, jagged incision indicating mouth and possibly teeth. Four striations on right cheek running down to side of slab. No neck or breasts, but clearly marked navel. Right arm reaches under leg which is widely splayed, but no hands or fingers traceable. Genitals indicated by deep semi-circular depression’ (Freitag 2004, 140)."(2)

Recently, a link has been suggested between these grotesque Sheela-na-gig figures and the wife of Saint Patrick, who was called Sheela. The scholar who suggested that link, UCC folklorist Shane Lehane, says the following of the Sheela-na-gigs:
Sheela-na-Gig is a basic medieval carving of a woman exposing her genitalia. These images are often considered to be quite grotesque. They are quite shocking when you see them first.  Now we look at them very much as examples of old women showing young women how to give birth. They are vernacular folk deities associated with pregnancy and birth.

I wish to express my thanks again to the Heise family for making me so welcome and for allowing me the opportunity to see this rare and fascinating relic of the past.

A photo of the old mill house at Rosnaree during winter floods a few years ago.

(1) Sheela-na-gig theories by Tara McLoughlin.