Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Mermaid & A Big Eared Lady (part 4)

Across the Shannon, in the eastern part of County Galway, lies the historical townland* of Clonfert (As Gaeilge "Cluain Feart" meaning 'meadow of the grave') which formerly had one of the many Celtic Christian monastic settlements of the 5th/6th century. Today all that remains is a lovely, small cathedral whose founder was Saint Brendan the Navigator; it is said to be the oldest living church in Ireland with an unbroken history of public worship.

The Cathedral of St Brendan with its' monastery college was founded in the 6th century and flourished for hundreds of years, suffering many raids by the Vikings who frequently sailed up the River Shannon from Limerick. It was burnt down in 1016, 1164, and again in 1179.

The monastery and most of the church were destroyed in 1541 and the monastery was not rebuilt after this final assault. Prior to the destruction of the monastery college in the early sixteenth century it flourished with as many as three thousand students being educated here at one time. Recorded in a state paper of Queen Elizabeth the First is a proposal to found a University at Clonfert, it being a celebrated seat of learning in the centre of Ireland and a convenient place for Irish students. The proposition was rejected however and Dublin obtained the Charter leading to the foundation of Trinity College Dublin in 1592.

It is here in the cathedral, on the entrance to chancel, that we discovered the mermaid.

About 10 inches high she is complete with comb and mirror and has been rubbed to a shine by visitors.

Next to the cathedral lies a small woodland and we stopped to pay a visit to the rag tree where people leave offerings to their god(s) in the hope of cures and the fulfilment of wishes or prayers.

We travelled south of Clonfert and across one of the few Shannon bridges to the ancient town of Banagher ( Beannchar na Sionna meaning 'place of the pointed rocks'), County Offaly. From here the 'big eared lady' is about 3km away though not visible from the road. She is a Sheela na Gig sitting 20metres up on the end wall of the ruins of Garry Castle whose ancient owners, the MacCoughlans, had many strongholds in the area.


Ireland has hundreds of 'sheelas' many of which are stored in the National Museum though their

purpose is unknown. Sheelas that are still in situ and accessible are often rubbed by women

wishing to conceive and are often known as hags or the witch on the wall.

For more info visit


Townland: is the smallest geographical unit in the Irish census returns and are still in use today. Anything from 5 to 30 townlands may be grouped together to form a civil parish. A townland can vary in size from the smallest, of less than an acre to over 7,000 acres (an average size is 200-400 acres ) There are over 62,000 townlands in Ireland and are generally named after natural or geological features.


  1. A great day full of fascinating places -felt like I'd been on holiday for a week! BTW love the way that Fred manages to sneak into the pictures....

  2. What is the significance of the mermaid? Isn't it a strange thing to have in a cathedral? I thought that mermaids were considered bad luck to sailors and certainly not a very Christian symbol?

  3. You've taken us to some very interesting places over your last four posts. I've enjoyed hearing about the history of this area. Thankyou.

  4. Enjoyed this post, lovely pics , love the one of the mermaid!

  5. Ha' Fran! This is Ireland things are different here for there was/is a great deal of intertwining between pagan & christian beliefs Celtic-ness lives on. The early christian beliefs were in Ireland long before St Pat hit these shores, it came via the Irish sea traders & brought ashore in story form. All I can say is that what the early christians perceived as holy faith is probably a lot different than what is believed today and I am saying this as a Pagan Druid.
    More information can be found here:-

    In Irish folklore, tales of mermaids tend to be more romantic. It was believed that mermaids could transform into human form through the removal of a cap or sea-skin. Instead of mermaids who lure men to their death, Irish mermaid legends often tell of men who hide the cap or sea-skin of a mermaid in order to marry them and bring them home. There are several Irish families who claim mermaids as ancestors, and include mermaid images on their family crests and arms.

  6. What a great day out, Heron. That little church has quite an unusual tower. I noticed too on the picture of the rag tree, someone had left a small pink teddy. Whoever it was, my thoughts go out to them.

  7. MARGARET said:
    Just love that mermaid. think I will make one for the garden.
    Margaret x

  8. BIRGIT H said:-
    Hey Mel, I try to post again on your blog, but it is not working.
    I like to say thank you for the lovely mermaid !

  9. Ireland is so full of interesting places - I really must pay another visit soon. Rag trees are often found near ancient wells and springs, there's one near to West Kennet Long Barrow - the old beliefs are only just below the surface.

  10. Not surprised about the mermaid- we have a basilica called St Anne de Beaupre on Quebec's south shore with vestibule filled with mosaics of zodiac signs. I am quite interested in the rag tree and plan to find out more. Again, thanks or the armchair travel!

  11. Miranda Cookson said:-
    Hi HV
    I am so glad it is not only me having trouble with posting a comment!
     I too loved the mermaid .Well I would being named after one! The sheela was one of the most attractive I have seen. Some of them can be really gruesome .I am not at all surprised to find a “pagan” carving in a church. Most very old churches and cathedrals have them. Probably because in England too the cross over from paganism to Christianity was much less defined than people think.  York has dozens of beautiful greenmen and women carved in stone up in the roof and Winchester has greenmen in wood in the choir stalls.A tiny ancient church near me has one on the end of a pew .My husband and I go looking for them.We even found one in a Stave church in Norway.So if you want to see  pagan  carving look in a church!

  12. Another lovely post about a fascinating day out. I love the sheelas!, and the rag tree reminds me of a novel I read a few years ago in which the ladies of a village visited a special statue of Mary, mother of Jesus, in a wood in the hopes that she would cure their aliments, woes and any other problems they might have, including conception. I vaguely remember that they also left rags, but I'm not really sure now.

  13. My dad was from Galway. He died some years ago so I can't ask him of he was familiar with the cathedral

  14. LIZZIE said :- Hi Mel

    This is what I've been trying to post as a comment, and like many times before it wont let me.

    'I've enjoyed greatly catching up with your travel blog posts, what an interesting time you've been having. That pilgrim looks how I feel, or may be he's just nursing a little hangover, in which case the same applies . . . Thanks for all your good wishes lately. I sure could do with some time out too, but I've just returned from a walk round Hurlestone Point and feel uplifted for now. '

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