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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

'The Angel’s Graveyard’

During my visits to historic sites around the country I became aware of the importance of relics in the early Irish Church. Previously I mentioned how the word ‘reilig’ (Irish for ‘relic’) became the word for a graveyard because the relics or remains of a holy people were buried there.

When St Patrick (or was it Palladius?) came to Ireland he brought with him relics of Saints Peter, Paul, Laurence and Stephen from Rome. They were probably intended to establish a link with the Church in Rome and inspire the new Irish Christians with the story and spirit of the martyrs. (Those early relics are said to be buried in Cillin Cormac.)

At ‘The Angles’ Graveyard’ in Clonmore I heard of the ‘Relic Hunter’, a poet and holy man named Onchu. In the late 6th century he went around the country collecting relics of great monastic leaders. In Clonmore he asked the founder, Maedoc, for a personal relic. The humble Maedoc replied, ‘How can I do that while I am still alive?’ At that moment his thumb fell off his hand (some say he actually cut off his finger) and was promptly added to Onchu’s collection. However Maedoc said, ‘What you have collected here will remain here,’ and indeed Onchu and his relics never left Clonmore. It became a popular centre of pilgrimage rivalling even Glendalough.

In the tiny village of Boher in the middle of Ireland is a priceless 12th century work of Irish art. It is the reliquary of Manchan, a 7th century poet/saint who had been sent from Clonmacnoise to start a community at nearby Lemanaghan.

The reliquary is surrounded by five stained glass windows by the famous artist Harry Clarke but the actual shrine itself, ‘aglow with gold and bronze’ remains the centre of attraction. It was commissioned in 1166 by the High King, Turlough O’Connor, for Manchan’s relics. The house-shaped shrine still contains fragment of the saint’s bones.

Relics of famous people are common in all the great religions so it cannot be said to be an Irish peculiarity. Touching something personal of a holy woman or man brings sacred close to people, providing them with inspiration and the hope of a prayer being granted. For churches and places of pilgrimage they can be a magnet to draw people.

If I have discovered anything distinctive to the Irish it may be a gra for a saint’s bell, crosier or portable shrine.

(If you would like to know more about the forgotten treasures of Ireland, see the Facebook pages of Hugh MacMahon.)


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