Friday 24 January 2014

Saint Manchan: His Church and Shrine

Below is a paper from the Irish Ecclesiastical Record on Saint Manchan and his Shrine, it does not present the saint's life in so readily-accessible a form as last year's entry  from Canon O'Hanlon, but there are some interesting points nonetheless. I was particularly intrigued by the reference to the claim that the Apostle James had come to Ireland and written his canonical epistle here. I have explored this theme a bit further in this post. I was also interested to see the author suggest that Saint Manchan may be the author of the "Wonders of the Scripture," a text once attributed to Saint Augustine but now acknowledged to be of Irish authorship. I hope to post something about this text and its author the 'Irish Augustine' in the future too. 


ABOUT three miles north-east of Ferbane, King's County, skirting the main road to Clara, may be seen the site of the once celebrated monastic establishment founded about the middle of the seventh century, by St. Manchan, of Liath. Standing on a low swell, an armlet of well-reclaimed bog, it gently rises above the extensive moors with which it is almost surrounded. Here, in the midst of scenery of a character altogether desolate and lonely, but poetic and sublime, are to be found what remains of the Church and house of Manchan. Both repose beneath the shadow of one of the "Seven Fair Castles" of MacCoghlan of Delvin Eathra, and within sight of St. Columb's famous Durrow, and the now celebrated Intermediate College conducted by the Jesuits at Tullabeg. Lemanaghan was originally subject to the jurisdiction of Clonmacnoise, having come out from that great centre of religion, science and art, as a monastic foundation.

Like so many others of our once famous abbeys, it had its origin in royal munificence, as the following passage taken from the Annals of the Four Masters will clearly show:

"A.D. 645, the battle of Carn Conaill (probably Ballyconnell, in the vicinity of Gort, Co. Galway), was gained by Dermot, King of Ireland, over Guiare, King of Connaught, in which the two Cuans were killed - viz., Cuan, the son of Enda, King of Munster; and Cuan, the son of Connell, Chief of Hy-Figente; and also Talmnack, Chief of Hy-Liathin. Guaire was routed from the field. On marching to the battle King Dermot passed through Clonmacnoise, and the congregation of St. Kieran prayed to God for his success, and through their prayers he returned safe.

" After the King's return he granted Tuaim-n-Eirc, i.e., Liath Manchan, with its divisions of land, i.e. (all the lands included under that name), as an Altar Sod or Altar land, to God and St. Kieran, and he pronounced three maledictions on any future King of Meath if any of his people should take (with violence), even so much as a drink of water there."

MacGeoghegan, in his translations of the Annals of Clonmacnoise, gives much the same account: "The battle of Carne-Connell, in the Feast of Penticost, was given by Dermot MacHugh Slane, and going to meet his enemies went to Clonvicknoise to make his devotion to St. Queran, was met by the abbots, prelates, and clergy of Clonvicknoise in procession, where they prayed God and St. Queran to give him victory over his enemies, which God granted at their requests, for they had victory, and slew Cuan, King of Minister, and Cuan, King of Feiginty, and so giving the foyle to his enemies, returned to Clonvicknoise again to congratulate the clergy by whose intercession he gained the victory, and bestowed on them for ever Foyminercke, with the appurtenances, now called Lyavanchan, in honour of God and St. Queran, to be held free, without any charge in the world, in so much that the King of Meath might not thenceforth challenge a draught of water thereout by way of any charge."

It was thus Clonmacnoise obtained the ownership of that place, a spot afterwards celebrated through its connection with him who established thereon a monastery. The personal fame and greatness of its founder and patron was the occasion of acquiring for it a new name viz., Liath Manchan a name by which not alone the group of monastic ruins, but the entire parish is called and known even to this day.

The founder and patron of this old monastic establishment was Manchan. Considerable uncertainty, however, surrounds his identification, for there were several saints of that name. In the Irish calendars, records are to be found of twelve distinct festivals set apart to honour saints called Manchan. Just as there have been many saints called Ronan and Lasera, so, too, there have been several Manchans. Of these the more celebrated were Manchan, Abbot and Bishop of Tomgraney, County Clare; Manchan, of Dysart Gallen, Queen's County, who was called the wise Irishman. The remains of his church and monastery are still to be seen in a sequestered and romantic valley, surrounded by scenery of a character charmingly picturesque and lovely. But Manchan, of Liath Manchan, was the greatest of them all. Ware states that amongst the alleged works of Richard Fitzralph, Archbishop of Armagh, was a Vita Sancti Manchani.

It is even said that Ussher had it in his hand, but Dr. Todd and others searched for it in Ussher's Library and failed to find it. Some say it is in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. If so I hope yet to read it. Meanwhile, I shall set down now what appears to be certain from present available sources regarding Manchan of Leinanagh.

The Annals of Clonmacnoise state "it was erroneously affirmed that Manchan was a Welshman, and came to this country with St. Patrick." It seems good then to set down his pedigree to disprove their allegations. Manchan was the son of Failve, who was the son of Augine, who was son of Bogany, who was son of Connell Galban, the ancestor of O'Donnell, as is confidently laid down among the genealogies of the saints of Ireland. It is, moreover, certain that he was a very learned man, at least in the Scriptures and Theology, for he was called the Jerome of Ireland, being "very like unto him in habits of life and learning. He wrote a book entitled the "Wonders of the Scripture," which is still extant in the third vol. of St. Augustine's works, and is falsely ascribed to him. Several writers assert that James, the Son of Zebedee, propagated the Gospel in Spain and the western countries, and came to Ireland and wrote his canonical epistle there. Manchan denied all that, and held that the epistle was written by James, Son of Alphoeus, and that neither of the Apostles of the name of James ever left their own country. "He slew James with the sword, and set the people to seize Peter also." (Acts xii.)

Besides he was a poet of a very high order, having composed that charming poem -
" Would that, O Son of the living God!
O eternal, ancient King!"&c., &c.

O'Flaherty quotes another poem of Manchan's, beginning with the words, "Since Idols were expelled."

It appears to be beyond all doubt that he was very highly venerated in his time for learning as well as sanctity, for Tigernach, the earliest of our annalists, having recorded his death as Bishop and Abbot, speaks of him as one of the most eminent persons who fell victims to that great mortality which, sparing neither sinner nor saint, prevailed in Ireland about the year 661.

It is thus recorded in the Annals of Clonmacnoise " A.D. 661, Enos of Ulster and St. Manchan of Leith, together with many other princes, bishops and abbots, died of the said pestilence." It was called the Buidhe Connail, or yellow plague. The Four Masters record his death at the year 664, but they are generally three, and sometimes five years later than the Annals of Clonmacnoise.

Archdall, after placing the death of St. Manchan, the patron of Lemanaghan, under the year 661, adds, under the year 694: "We find another St. Manchan of Leth, who lived after this year." For this he refers to Colgan, Acta, S.S.,p. 382, but the year 694 there is only a misprint for 664, which is the date of the Four Masters, from whom Colgan translated the passage. Petrie thinks Archdall’s mind was a blunt one.

In the year 1838 Mr. Petrie visited Lemanaghan, and he tells us in the record of his visit that he sketched the original church and oratory of St. Manchan, and found it to be only twenty-four feet in length, and fifteen in width. He added that "it presents to the antiquary an interesting characteristic specimen of the architecture of the seventh century." The parish church still remains, and is situate in the village of Lemanaghan, and in tolerably good preservation. It is of much larger size and of later age, as is observable from its ornamented doorway, which exhibits unmistakable features of the architecture of the eleventh or twelfth century.

Not far distant are three holy wells, to which the blind, lame, and persons afflicted with other chronic diseases come on the anniversary of the patron saint's death, the 24th January.

A togher or paved causeway leads to one of these wells, and extends further on by several yards, until it reaches the low swell on which is to be seen the cell which St. Manchan built for his mother. The antiquarian will be much interested on reaching this spot. This road, which resembles in many respects that leading from the Seven Churches to the Church of the Nuns, or Dervogail’s restored Church, is paved with large flag-stones. At the end of it you come upon an old Cyclopean building, surrounded by an ancient Mur, or wall of earth, faced with stonework.

The enclosure is rectangular and measures fifty yards by thirty-six.

About the centre of this enclosure stands a rectangular cell of extreme antiquity, measuring about eighteen by ten feet, the walls being over three feet in width or thickness. The doorway is squareheaded. The lintel passes through the entire thickness of the wall. There is no sign of any mode of hanging or fastening a door the sides are inclined, and there is no window in the sides of the building. This is the cell which tradition states Manchan built for his mother, St. Mella.

How appalling was not the rigor and severity of sanctity in those days! Ivy now mantles this curious cell, and the enclosure or Cashel is planted with trees.

But the most interesting object of all connected with this celebrated monastic foundation is the shrine of St. Manchan. Scrinium Sancti Manchani, the Annalists declare to have been called, opus pulcherrimum quod fecit opifex in Hibernia.

This venerable shrine certainly holds a conspicuous place amongst Irish ecclesiastical antiquities. Being a monument of very high antiquity, it cannot fail to awaken at all times a lively interest amongst antiquarians, affording, as it does, an illustration of a class of objects formerly numerous, but now very rare. " It was covered by Roderick O'Conor, and an embroidering of gold was carried over it by him in as good a style as a relic was ever covered in Ireland." - Four Masters.

There is, and always was, an intimate connexion between shrines, reliques, pilgrimages, and processions. The shrine containing a relique was at first a plain chest of wood. Gradually it became the subject of more or less ornament in proportion to the veneration attached to the object it contained. Shrines originally portable, thus became in course of time large and stately structures, and were set up in churches for the veneration of the faithful. The origin of shrines is traceable to a very remote period. The Israelites, for example, when they were departing from Egypt, took with them the bones of Joseph (according to his own direction) and kept them during their many years' journeyings into the promised land. When the dead man was restored to life on. touching the bones of the Prophet Elisha, when diseases departed and evil spirits went out of them, to whom handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched the body of St. Paul were applied ; the foundation was laid for that veneration which found one mode of expression in the decoration of the shrine. The veneration amongst Christians for reliques and shrines began in the Apostolic times. St. Ignatius, who was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist, and who is believed to have been the child that our Lord took in his arms, was martyred at Rome, A.D. 107, and his bones were afterwards collected and placed in a napkin, and carried to Antioch, and preserved as an inestimable treasure left to the Church. Likewise, after the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who is commended in the "Revelations," and who was a disciple of St. John, the Christians who were present at his death, A.D. 147, took up his bones more precious than the richest jewels and tryed above gold," and deposited them where it was fitting, and probably in some secure depository until they could be honorably enclosed in a shrine.

In Ireland, the use of shrines is contemporaneous with the introduction of Christianity. So great has been the veneration in which our ancestors held them, that in spite of the wars and revolutions of so many centuries, a few well authenticated examples are still to be seen amongst us. And there are many places in Ireland which have been called Skryne or Skreen, owing to the bones of some saint having been deposited there in a shrine. The shrine of St. Colomba, per varios casus per tot discrimina rerum - the chief object for so long a time of the roving and murderous northmen's search was brought from Iona to Ireland for safety. Walafridas Strabus thus writes of it: -

" Ad sanctum venere patrem pretiosa metalla
Reddere cogentes queis sancti sancta Colombae
Ossa jacent, quam quippe suis de sedibus, arcam
Tollentes tumulo terra posuere cavato
Cespite sub denso gnari jam pestis iniquae
Hanc praedam cupiere Dani."

In England, Durham and Canterbury possessed the most celebrated shrines, viz., those of St. Cuthbert, the Venerable Bede, and Thomas a Becket.

By the order of Henry VIII. both were despoiled, when that of Cuthbert, an Irish saint, was broken open, the Commissioners, to their amazement, observed the body of the saint entire and uncorrupt, arrayed in his pontifical vestments. Dismayed, they stopped short, until they learned the king's pleasure. When it was known, the body was buried beneath the place where the shrine had been.

Scott, following the popular traditions regarding the concealment of St. Cuthbert's reliques in some part of Durham, wrote the following: -

"Where his cathedral huge and vast
Looks down upon the Wear,
There deep in Durham's Gothic shade,
His relics are in secret laid;
But none may know the place,
Save of his holiest servants three,
Deep sworn to solemn secrecy,
Who share that wondrous grace."

In England, nearly all the shrines were broken and plundered at the time of the Reformation. Those of Edward the Confessor, and of St. Werburgh, remain, and are preserved at Westminster Abbey and Chester.

In Ireland, the destruction was not so complete, owing to the tenacity with which its ever faithful Catholics clung to their faith. Its shrines, reliques, and consecrated objects, they guarded as the apple of their eye. It is honorable to our national character to have preserved, in spite of the strongest temptations, with such becoming fidelity, those sacred deposits, and over so many generations after they had lost their other possessions. But to return to the shrine of St. Manchan. It is preserved in the Chapel of Boher, near to the Prospect Station, on the Great Southern and Western Railway to Athlone. It was formerly kept in a small thatched building used as a Chapel in the penal times. Local traditions state that the Chapel was burned, but the shrine was miraculously saved from the fire. It was afterwards cared by Mr. Mooney, of Doon, who finally placed it in the hands of its natural and best guardian and protector, the Parish Priest for the time being, where it now rests.

Like Colomba's shrine, it has travelled much, but under different circumstances and from different causes. It has been at two of the great Exhibitions in Dublin. It was at one of the great London Exhibitions, and it was at one of the great Exhibitions of Paris, held during the reign of Napoleon III., who sent a gold medal to the then Bishop of Ardagh, Dr. Kilduff, of happy memory, in consideration for the loan of so valuable a relic. The following is the inscription on the medal :

Exposition Universelle
Histoire du travail pour services rendus.

In the lapse of time it has lost some of its original ornaments, but a fair idea of what it was in its perfect state may be gathered from the fac-simile (No. 1857) by Dr. Carte, to be seen in the Gold Room of the Royal Irish Academy. In this fac-simile the deficient parts have been restored from those which remain. In form this very valuable relic (four hundred pounds sterling were offered for it, but they would not sell it for money) resembles that generally belonging to the ancient Ciborium, and usually represented by the top of the stone crosses. Some think the form of this ancient shrine was adopted in imitation of the high pitched stone roofs which covered the ancient cells of the Saints in whose memory and honor they were made. Its material is of yew, and artistically covered with brass-work, inlaying of ivory and enamelling. On each of its two sides are crosses formed in the centre, and extremities by five large cups or paterae. Underneath are to be seen figures in bass-relief, formed of brass also and separate from each other. The figures of one side have been lost altogether, but eleven still remain on the other. There are fifty-two figures missing, which filled in the other six compartments.

The vacant places in the wood of the shrine proclaim their absence. Mr. Graves, in his beautiful essay on this shrine, illustrated by striking and excellent photographs, which are so valuable in connexion with such a subject, observes that he heard on undoubted authority, the servant-maid of one of its conservators, set to work to clean it, and succeeded in scouring off most of its gilding. It reminds one of the fate of the CONG IRISH MANUSCRIPTS, IN VELLUM, SPLENDIDLY ILLUMINATED. One of the figures, however, is in the Petrie Collection of the Royal Irish Academy in the same room with the Crozier of the Clonmacnoise Abbots and the Chalice of Ardagh, objects of much interest to the antiquarian. There is also at present another of these missing figures in possession of his Lordship, Dr. Woodlock, the venerated Bishop of Ardagh.

A learned writer on this subject thus briefly describes this shrine: "The Shrine of St. Manchan is a wooden chest of cruciform figure that is of a wedge resting on its base with the edge uppermost. The two principal sides which slope upwards after the manner of a double reading desk, overlap both the base and the triangular ends or gables." But any description of this Shrine, minus photographic views, can convey only an imperfect notion of its beauty. There is one figure, that of a warrior helmeted and wearing the philibeg or kilt, which deserves a passing notice, for it, together with the other figures, illustrates not only the state of the fine arts in Ireland before the arrival of the English, but, moreover, proves that the use of the kilt was not confined to the Scottish Highlanders, but was common amongst the Irish.

Petrie tells us in his Book on the Round Towers, that before the irruptions of the Danes in the eighth and ninth centuries there were few distinguished Churches in Ireland without costly shrines containing the relics of their founders.

Cogitosus speaks of the two shrines of Kildare and their costly materials. There were, moreover, the shrines of Sts. Bridgid and Ciaran, and Ronan and Comgall, and a host of others. There were the decorations of St. Bridgid's Church, of which Cogitosus tells, and the frescoes at St. Cormac's Chapel, on the Rock of Cashel, not yet wholly destroyed; there were the illuminations of the religious books in which the painter's skill was best known.

There was that copy of the Four Gospels seen by Cambrensis, and so much praised even by him.

There were those beautiful works of art and many others well calculated to excite admiration. But the Annalists say pulcherrimum opus quod fecit opifex in Hibernia fuit Scrinium Sancti Manchani. Surely the words of the great skeptical poet Byron, apply here with double force :

“Even the faintest relics of a shrine
Of any worship wake some thoughts divine."

The following extract from Petrie will, I hope, appropriately conclude my observations regarding this shrine:

"This reliquary, sadly mutilated as it is, still preserves enough of its original characteristic features to enable us to form a correct idea of its primeval, costly and elaborate beauty, and to become intimately acquainted with what may be regarded as the linal development of that phase of Celtic art-ornamentation in Ireland, which has excited such a deep interest throughout Europe in our own time.
"And in this shattered, mutilated shrine we behold an impressive illustration of the final extinction of that graceful imaginative art, as well as that of the Monarchy, which had seen its birth and fostered its development."

Throughout this essay I have assumed that the word Moethail which occurs in the " Annals of the Four Masters," is one of the errors of transcription, or guesses to supply an obliteration, in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, from which they copied the reference to this shrine. Moreover, many writers suppose St. Manchan of Mohil, and St. Manchan of Lemanaghan, to be the same person, and thus he is styled the patron of Seven Churches, and invoked in the Tallaght Martyrology in the following words:

"Sanctum Manchan cum ejus centum et viginta fratribus invoco,
per Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum, &c."

From what I have written, the following conclusions may be drawn: 1st, Manchan was a practical man, in that he was the builder or promoter and patron of Seven Churches; 2nd, he was a poet; 3rd, having been the most learned man of his day in the Sacred Scriptures, he was therefore a distinguished theologian; 4th, he was a saint. This is a union of qualities rarely found in the same person.


Irish Ecclesiastical Record Volume VII, (1886), 203-213.

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