Lemanaghan: A sacred landscape, past and present
This article was published in the Westmeath Independent and Offaly Independent on Sat 7th August 2021 Long-form text and an additional gallery of images below. For other published articles click here.
It’s a balmy summer’s day and I’m standing in the middle of Lemanaghan Bog, contemplating the wildly beautiful landscape. There’s a real sense of solitude and serenity out here, with nothing but birdsong and the rustling of small creatures to break the silence. A haven for wildlife, it’s home to a diverse range of flora and fauna. The Slieve Blooms provide a picturesque backdrop, and bursts of colour come courtesy of purple wildflowers.
But the area around Lemanaghan is not just famed for its scenic beauty. Described by historians as a ‘sacred landscape’, this area of Offaly provides us with an exceptional record of Irish history throughout the years. It has evolved from a likely pagan site in prehistoric times to a significant Early Christian monastic site. From the Middle Ages it moved through a phase of secular occupation to the contemporary modern settlement. Today we can chronicle those periods and timelines through the wealth of archaeological, architectural and art historical features still in existence.
The surrounding bog land has yielded a substantial number of discoveries of national importance. Acknowledged as one of the richest wetland archaeological areas in Europe, over 750 sites were recorded at Lemanaghan Bogs in the late 20th century with the earliest traces of human activity dating to 3500 BC. One of the most significant finds was the 11th century Lemanaghan Crozier, made of gilt bronze and wood. Others include a Neolithic flint scraper, a hoard of 13th century silver coins and a polished stone axe-head, all of which are now housed in the National Museum of Ireland.
Lemanaghan is best known for its monastic site, a highlight of the 37km Offaly Way national walking route from Cadamstown to Lemanaghan. The location is a peaceful and picturesque one, set behind an attractive stone wall and shielded on one side by a row of beech trees at the junction of roads to Ballycumber, Ferbane and Pollagh.
The foundation of St Manchan’s monastery is clearly recorded in the written record. The Annals in 645 A.D. make reference to the lands, at that time known as Tuaim-nEirc, being granted to the monks at Clonmacnoise by Diarmait, King of Ireland, after they successfully prayed for his victory in battle. St Manchan, noted as being a ‘scholar of great repute’, left Clonmacnoise and founded his monastery here, on an island surrounded by bogland. He died in 664 A.D but the monastery continued its operations. We can glean from written records that it was an important centre of Christian worship until at least the 13th century. After his death it became known as Liath Manchain – the grey lands of Manchan, which in turn became Lemanaghan.
Excavations have uncovered a vast network of wooden roads, or toghers, crossing the bog and leading to and from the site. Analysis of the wood dates their construction to between 600 and 1100 A.D with the greatest concentration coinciding with the foundation of the monastery. This is significant: it tells us that Lemanaghan was a site of some importance and part of Offaly’s monastic infrastructure. As well as connecting the monastery to the rest of the county, it also linked pilgrims with Clonmacnoise and other sacred places in the region.
The Heritage Council Conservation Plan for Lemanaghan was published in 2007 - click here to read. It states “the group of monuments at Lemanaghan within their setting is of national significance. The range and extent of survival of the monuments and their associated artefacts are practically unequalled in the country”. It's hard to argue with this. Let’s start by looking at St Managhan’s church, the largest of the existing structures.
Today the church is a striking ruin but retains a sense of its former glory. Built in three stages, the earliest elements date to the 9th or 10th century. 12th century additions include a Romanesque doorway to the west, supported by decorative columns. Later additions to the east-end were carried out in the 15th or 16th century and are of particularly high quality, including three exquisite ogee windows. Mounted on the wall are two crudely carved cross slabs which are thought to date between 8th - 10th century. The remaining ten from the site are now stored in the schoolhouse across the road.
Follow the path to the right of the church to what’s arguably the jewel of the site: St Mella’s Cell, a small stone Early Christian oratory. A stone-flagged togher connects the oratory to the church. Named after the saint’s mother, it is hidden from view on first approach, but reveals itself through a gap in the trees. Extraordinarily beautiful, it stands at the centre of a stone-walled enclosure. The surrounding wall was rectangular in shape which was unusual at the time, and perhaps suggestive of having a higher significance than the traditional circular or oval structures. The oratory consists of a small room with a flat-headed doorway in the west gable. A series of slanted trees frame some picture-postcard views of the surrounding landscape, including the iconic mound of Bellair Hill in the distance.
On the way you’ll pass the Holy Well and Tree, dedicated to St Manchan. Legend has it that almost every ailment can be cured at this well and to this day, gifts are still brought here as votive offerings. Modern pilgrims are also known to leave items at the font or piscina at the church. These places have remained focal points for the annual Feast of St Manchan on 24th January, highlighting that it is still viewed as a holy place, and ensuring the history of the site is kept very much alive.
It is not clear when the monastery ceased its operations but we know from written records that St Managhan’s church was still in use in 1630: by 1680s it is recorded as being in a ruinous condition. However, it’s heartening that the vibrant folklore associated with the site is still going strong.
In nearby Boher Church, we find the 12th century St Manchan’s shrine: it holds his relics and is the oldest surviving medieval reliquary in Ireland. A beautiful artefact made from yew wood, the shrine is highly decorated with interwoven snakes and beasts. Elaborate metal crosses host interlaced animal patterns, their arms ornamented with red and yellow enamel. Originally the shrine was graced with 52 human figures, though only 11 remain.
The importance of St Manchan to the people of Lemanaghan has never waned. In 1930, the Harry Clarke Studio commemorated the saint in stained glass for Boher Church. Rendered in his trademark richly coloured glass, he portrayed the shrine in its original condition with all 52 figures. In 2011 a contemporary interpretation was commissioned from artist George Walsh, illustrating various aspects of the life of the saint. Across the road from the church stands Boher Cemetery, overlooked by the Slieve Blooms. I was struck by the sense of quietude and peacefulness here as locals tended to the graves of their loved ones.
A short detour led to another significant site at Castlearmstrong. Here we find the ruins of an 18th century fortified tower house, surrounded by a thick stone wall and built on an area of high ground with a sheer drop to one side. Though now completely overgrown with ivy and foliage, the surviving stonework is in remarkably good condition and of high quality. In its heyday, there were three entrances to the Castlearmstrong estate. Green Avenue was the grandest, lined the entire way with lime trees, of which only a few survive today.
Before retiring for the day, I had one more excursion to make. A local’s tip led me to Derravane House, originally a thatched domestic dwelling, on an island in Lemanaghan Bog. Almost impossible to find due to an overgrowth of trees, it soon became clear that seclusion was a main factor in its location. Anne Connor, daughter of the original occupants, had a key role to play in Irish history. In 1919, she became the first president of the Galway branch of Cumann na mBan; in 1921 a fulltime IRA member. During the War of Independence, Derravane functioned as a safe house and unofficial field hospital for the IRA.
There is a real sense of local pride in the history, archaeology and landscape of Lemanaghan, and rightly so. Though an area of national significance in many ways, it has not been drastically altered by mass tourism. It has retained an untouched beauty that is a rarity in our modern-day world. It’s a worthy short detour from the Grand Canal Way.
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