Contact Us

Our Lady of Clonfert

30 November, 1999

Bishop John Kirby maintains that some ancient statues of the Madonna carved from local trees are proof that devotion to Our Lady of Clonfert dates back over 700 years.

The Irish form of the name of the Diocese of Clonfert, Cluain Fearta, means the ‘meadow of the miracles’. Whether these miracles refer to the activity of St Brendan or some other series of events is not known. Brendan, towards the end of his life, had chosen the small Shannon-side location as the site of his monastic settlement in 579.  It became a significant centre of spirituality, learning and culture over the succeeding centuries.

An important treaty with the Danes was signed there in 999 and St Laurence O’Toole presided as Papal Legate over a synod of clergy held in Clonfert in 1170.  The area of influence of the monastery coincided with the petty kingdom of Hy Many, in what is now East Galway with small portions in present day Roscommon and Offaly. This was the area of influence of the O’Kelly clan and it explains the existence of a Clonfert parish across the Shannon in Leinster. At one time the diocese was known as Hy Many, but the name Clonfert from the monastic site quickly became established.

Very little now remains of the monastic settlement. However, the 12th century door of Clonfert Cathedral, now belonging to the local Church of Ireland, is a reminder of the significance of the site in times past. Currently, major work is underway to preserve this important artefact. Interestingly, the original monastic site is now the location of Emmanuel House of Providence, a centre of prayer and healing under the direction of Mr and Mrs Eddie and Lucy Stones.

In this small area of land west of the Shannon between Athlone and Portumna, a tradition of religious wood carving developed. There are three wooden statues that have survived, all carved from trees in the round. These have been authoritatively dated from the late 12th to the early 14th century. Similarities of style and features in all three point to the existence of a local type of Virgin and Child.  The statue of Our Lady of Clonfert is one of these. The gently smiling Virgin carries the Child in her right arm while the Child plays with a tress of the Virgin’s hair. Sadly, the left arm is now missing. According to local legend, the statue of Our Lady of Clonfert was hidden in a tree for safety during the Penal Days. A farmer cutting down the tree many years later reputedly cut off one of the arms causing bleeding and indicating the presence of the statue. However, we can dispense with that rather quickly.

The other wood carved statues of similar origin are ‘Our Lady of Bethlehem’ better known as the ‘Black Lady’ in the Poor Clare convent in Galway and the somewhat older ‘Kilcorban Madonna’ in the small Clonfert Diocesan Museum in Loughrea. The Poor Clare nuns formerly lived on the shores of Lough Ree in a convent named Bethlehem near Athlone and brought the carving of the Madonna with them when they moved to Galway in 1642.

Much more significantly, the very existence of these statues is a sign of considerable devotion to Our Lady in this part of the country for over 700 years.  The carving of Our Lady of Clonfert is currently in St Brendan’s Church, Clonfert, and is the focus of the May devotions there each year.  During the day, pilgrims, mainly from the midlands, come to the church to pray before the statue. Despite the absence of organised liturgies, the numbers are quite large. In the evenings there is a Mass or a liturgical celebration filling the church for the month. Many link attendance at the liturgy with preparing for the Leaving and Junior Certificate examinations, so there is a strong presence of younger people. During the rest of the year, local people value the statue very highly and are proud of their link with the past and with devotion to Our Lady.

Thus, while little remains in stone to link the diocese to St Brendan, this statue in wood is a reminder of the continuity of devotion to Our Lady in this area for more than 700 years.


This article first appeared in The Word (May 2005), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.

Tags: ,