A review of the Laois Sheelagh's and a look at some of the theories behind these obscure stone figures
What are Sheela-na-Gigs?
A Sheela-na-Gig (Sighle na gCioch) is a carved stone figure, with a deliberate representation of enlarged breasts or vulva. Some have one hand raised, others have their hands on their genitalia. The Rosenallis Sheela, housed in the National museum of Ireland for example, is described by Barbara Freitag as:
'Heavy looking figure carved on irregular sandstone slab (dims. H 0.51m ; Wth 0.31m) and quite weathered. Facial features discernible; short hair indicated. Heavy, round shoulders; small breasts, a few ribs. Decidedly swollen abdomen, possibly indicating pregnancy. Arms slightly bent; both hands touching oval pudenda. Squatting position, legs splayed and bent, feet turned outwards' (Freitag 2004, 140).
While the Ballaghmore Sheela as described by John Feehan and George Cunningham in 'Undescribed Exhibitionist Figure- (Sheela-na-Gig) from County Laois' differs from the Rosenallis carving:
'the figures feet are turned outward and pointed, the legs are short and stumpy, the knees are bent outwards. The right hand appears to rest on the hip while the left arm lies on the thigh, with bent elbows. The head is pear-shaped with pointed chin and the face bears a menacing expression with v-shaped mouth and slanted eyes. The ears are prominent while the vulva is represented by a deep depression' (Feehan and Cunningham 1978, 117-18)
Research to date indicates that the stones were carved in and around the same time as the arrival of Normans to Ireland. There is no concrete evidence for Sheela-na-Gigs existing prior to the arrival of the Normans into Ireland. The Irish Sheela's are unique in their European context, as they are found primarily in churches in Europe however, in Ireland, they are found both in a religious and secular context. So from the 12th Century to approx. In the 17th century, these figures feature prominently on Gaelic Irish and Norman architecture.
Where are these figures located?
They are usually found in Romanesque type architecture, closely associated with Norman architecture, for example, medieval churches, and Norman tower houses, and some are even found on town walls. They tend to be found in what is referred to as 'secondary positions', loose in graveyards, like the Rosenallis Sheela, or among the rubble. It is believed that there are approx. 114 Sheela-na-Gigs known to be in existence and another 23 that are either missing or stolen that we know about.
The list of Sheela-na-Gigs in Ireland, and their co-ordinates as well as identifying information can be found on the Irish Heritage Map website HERE
There are approximately 7 known Sheela-na-Gigs with a Laois provenance. Another Sheela-na-Gig map HERE records 10, but three of those are located in Offaly.
Shaen: Condition: Missing
Rosenallis: Condition: Poor
Timahoe: Condition: Missing
Tinakill Condition: Missing
Portnahinch Condition: Missing
Cullahill Condition: Good
Ballaghmore Condition: Good
Sheela-na-Gigs first came to attention in Ireland in the 1840s. In 1791, the English Board of Ordnance established an Ordnance Survey, with the task of producing a series of detailed maps of Britain, out of fear of invasion by the French. In the 1820s, an Irish Commission was established, and they set about detailing maps of Ireland, starting in Derry and finishing in Kerry some 20yrs later.
A surveyor called Thomas O'Connor, first came across a Sheela-na-Gig as he carried out some field work in Co. Tipperary- he came across, what he calls an 'ill-excuted(sic) piece of sculpture, rudely done by an unskillful artist'. The artist George Du Noyer was tasked with drawing the Sheela, as well as three others found, including one from Shane(sic) Castle, Co. Laois. While we don't have a copy of Du Noyer's drawing of the Shaen Sheela, you can view his other Sheela drawings, and some 1400 digitised images from his various collection on the Irish National Library website HERE
Helen Roe and Sheela-na-Gigs
Replying to historian Seán O'Dooley in 1958, (reprinted and updated by Johanna O'Dooley in 1973), Helen Roe responds to queries about Sheelagh-Na-Gigs in Laois.
According to Helen M. Roe there were two Sheelagh-na-Gigs in Tinnekill (sic) Co. Laois; one in Cullahill Castle with a description in canon Carrigan's
History of the Diocese of Ossory
; Shaen; and one in the wall of Timahoe Castle. Not found during Helen Roe's time: the Sheel-na-Gig in St. Mary's Graveyard, Rosenallis and Ballaghmore castle both listed on the attached Sheela-na-Gig map of Ireland.
Helen Roe was a huge advocate of preserving, and protecting medieval stone antiquities, and the Sheela-na-Gigs were just as important to Helen Roe as medieval Christian fonts, or High Crosses. Along with her friend Mr. Henderson, a photographer, and her colleague when she was delivering her Lantern Slide lectures, they attempted to photograph some Laois Sheela's. The Helen Roe Archive, recently digitised, contains those very images. To view the archive click HERE
The story as told by Helen M. Roe to Historian Sean O'Dooley in 1958:
'Mr. Henderson of Portlaoise who photographed this figure would recall with amusement his experiences on that occasion. As he was unable to manipulate his own camera, he used an ordinary box-camera attached to a long bamboo cane; modern photographic equipment had not been introduced at this stage. From the shutter of the camera hung a length of cord. Mr. Henderson, hanging precariously to a projection of broken masonry had to lean forward and sideways to direct the camera on its objective. He was supported by Mr. Tynan (our late Agricultural instructor).
Miss Roe directed operations from the ground as neither Mr. Henderson nor Mr. Tynan could see the Sheelagh from their position on the wall. When at last the camera was in the correct position, Miss Roe cried "Now", and Mr. Tynan pulled the cord, and the deed was done, much to Miss Roe's peace of mind. She afterwards described the scene as "hair-raising".
To make matters worse, the two men were attacked by an angry hawk during the operation. I doubt if ever before a photograph was taken under such trying conditions.'
What was the purpose of these exposed carved female stone figures?
There are many theories posited as to the reason these figures were placed on medieval churches, tower houses, or town walls (these are not exclusively the only places Sheela's are found but are the general location for many of them). Barbara Freitag, who has completed one of the most comprehensive studies of these figures, has put forward some of the speculations as to what they were for:
Some see them as Ancient Goddesses
Others view them as vestiges of some pagan cult
arguments put forward that they may be protective talisman
and others that they are Christian warnings against lust
As one researcher exclaimed in a recent interview, for every Sheela-na-Gig, there are as many theories for their existence. In addition to Barbara Freitag's summation of the theories, other theorists suggest that they may be Evil Eye Stones. Helen Roe herself uses this term for them or the term 'rude stone'. The Evil eye Stone, placed on the Gable of a medieval Tower house, was designed to dispel the 'Evil Eye Curse' which could be carried by an unknown carry and have an effect over animals, crops or other people within the household.
John Feehan and George Cunningham also make the argument that they may have been used as a type of 'face on to territorial boundaries', using the Fitzpatrick castles in Laois as an example in their essay "An undescribed Exhibitionist Figure- (Sheela-na-Gig) from County Laois"
' in JRSAI, Vol.108 (1978) pp, 117-118. They claim that that the figures in each case face towards the border of territory and thus indicates that such castle figures 'did 'posses a clear apotropaic (supposedly having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck)function as territorial guardians...'
In more recent research, Jack Roberts argues here:
'Tradition does not support this view (Sheela-na-gigs as talisman or evil-eye stones) and all historical and traditional reference to them indicates that they were highly regarded, often revered images that evidently held a high position within the religious iconography of the earlier church'.
A number of the Sheela-na-Gigs, including the one from Rosenallis in co. Laois are held in the National Museum of Ireland. Denis Staunton writes a very interesting article here on the collection held by the National Museum of Ireland. It is argued that the NMI deliberately shield the Sheela's from public view, and shy away from discussing and exploring their role in Irish medieval history and their relationship with the church.
Our lack of understanding the purpose of these stone carvings creates an air of mystery, and many a debate. What we do know, unless we aim to preserve and record these stone figures, we will lose them to weathering, destruction, or accidental damage. As Helen Roe pleads, if you find a Sheela on your property, photograph, record and preserve for posterity, as you can see from the Tinnekill examples, only for the photographs, we would never know what they looked like.
To see the photographic slides of the Sheelagh-na-Gigs and other slides from the Helen Roe Archive, follow this link to the newly launched Laois Local Studies Digital Archive. Just as Helen Roe made a call to action to preserve our antiquities almost 100 yrs ago, so too are Laois Local studies, preserving our history in digital format for all to enjoy, no matter where in the world you are. To see some preservation work that has taken place to date, I highly recommend visiting the 3D Sheela project page HERE With fantastic work carried out by Digital Heritage Age, we now get to see these wonderful and enigmatic stone carvings for many decades to come.Evil Eye Stone - Helen Roe Collection Courtesy of Laois Local Studies Section, Laois County Library.