Historical Reference : St Manchan’s Shrine

The Shrine is now magnificently displayed in the Church of St. Manchan at Boher. Visitors to Clonmacnois should ensure that they also see St. Manchan’s Shrine.

Clonmacnois is truly impressive for pilgrims and visitors. Of it Dr. John Healy, the historian, wrote a hundred years ago : “Even still her churches, her crosses and her tombstones furnish the best and most characteristic specimens of the ancient Celtic art in sculpture and architecture. View it as you may, Clonmacnois was the greatest of our schools in the past, as it is the most interesting of our ruins at present”.

When Pope John Paul returned to Rome after his visit to Ireland in 1979 it was of his visit to Clonmacnois that he spoke in particular. “I will never forget Clonmacnois as long as I live” is what he said. And no doubt many others will feel precisely as he did.

Though damaged, the Shrine is one of the masterpieces of Irish Christian art. A house-shaped box of yew-wood has been cased in bronze, and the whole elaborately gilded and enamelled. Most of the ornamental work is of mixed Viking and Irish styles which date the main body of the Shrine to around 1125 – there are close parallels with the Cross of Cong. What are controversial are the human figures which reflect Continental influence. Were they part of the original composition, a daring marrying of the Hiberno-Norse and the Romanesque, or were they added a generation later to up-date a masterpiece which was beginning to look old-fashioned? What has confused the issue is the fact that a twelfth-century workshop in Ireland was producing these figures in quantity. One of the original figures from the shrine, that holding an axe, has been identified in a recent paper as depicting Saint Olaf of Norway. If this is right, it is the earliest known representation of that saint who died in 1027, was being invoked by Irish Vikings in 1052, and relics of whom were in Christ Church, Dublin, before 1074.