Q: Who is the Madonna of Clonfert?

A: Clonfert is a small diocese on the west coast of Ireland in the southern part of County Galway. It's a very ancient See. One of the earliest bishops of Clonfert was Saint Brendan the Navigator. Irish tradition holds that Saint Brendan, traveling on the western sea with some of his monks, followed the coast from Ireland, to the Hebrides Islands, the Faroe Islands, on to Iceland, Greenland, and eventually landed on Newfoundland, and the Continent of America in the sixth century. Medieval legend! Children's stories! Fairy tales! Scholars retorted.

Our Lady of Confert Until in late 1976 an adventurer by the name of Tim Severin rebuilt a small boat according to the specifications and materials identified in the medieval legends of Brendan's voyage. Severin documented, on film and in journals, his own journey in his tiny replica of Saint Brendan's leather ‘currach'. Severin set out from Ireland in 1976 and landed in Newfoundland on June 26, 1977. Maybe the legend was more than a fairy tale after all!

Still to be found in one of the local churches of the Diocese is the statue known as the Clonfert Madonna. It is a beautiful image of the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus held in her arms. Although its origin is unknown, it is thought to date from, at least, the fourteenth century. The statue is believed to be of native Irish craftsmanship and is reputed to be one of a number of examples that derive from the Shannon region from a school of woodcarving that flourished from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries.

The parish information booklet gives an excellent account of a study undertaken on the image by Miss Cathriona McLeod, of the National Museum of Ireland in 1945 when the sacred image was taken for restoration:

The Holy Child is fully draped as was customary in the early fourteenth century. Unfortunately, most of the face and the top of the head have been restored with plaster. The right arm is broken off and the two feet are worn away. The Madonna's arm has been sawed off. Other parts are decayed and the appearance of the whole figure has been spoiled by recent repainting. On this statue there are at least ten coats of paint. Beneath the surface blue of the robe there are yellow, white, vermillion, brown, pink and lastly yellow upon a gesso base. The flesh tints have also been retouched. Through the modern dull pink on the cheeks appears a hint of rose; and under the dark red of the lips shine specks of bright vermillion. Two black patches blot out the eyes and the broad forehead is now mostly covered with paint to simulate hair.

Miss McLeod made this further comment on the statue:

The Clonfert Madonna is not shown in solemn distant majesty representing a theological doctrine. Here the Mother of God has become also Mother of the Human Race. She has left her remote throne and stands, as it were, within reach of all, like the living Virgin of Nazareth clasping her Child who turns to caress her with his hand.

The change of sentiment, the tenderness here displayed, reflect that humanism which was introduced into art through the influence of St. Francis. By reconciling nature and religion, by finding in passing things an image of the eternal, by indicating the beauties of nature, of love and of life as manifestations of Divine grace, St. Francis stands as the forerunner of the Renaissance. By contemplating Christ's humanity, men came to know his mother, not as the distant Majesty but as the merciful mother of mankind.

Clonfert was a very important ecclesiastical site in early Christian Ireland throughout the Middle Ages until the time of the reformation in the sixteenth century. At the time of the reformation the Diocese had its own Cathedral, churches and a variety of male and female religious communities, including the White Canons of Prémontré, Dominicans, Franciscans and Carmelites. It is likely that the statue of the Madonna of Clonfert belonged either to the cathedral or to one of these communities.

With the onset of the reformation in Ireland, under the authority of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I of England, the monasteries, friaries and priories, and convents of the Catholic Church were seized, plundered and in many cases destroyed. The property and possessions of these religious institutions was stolen by the royal administration. Later Oliver Cromwell would reinforce the religious persecution of Ireland. Religious images were ruthlessly suppressed, destroyed and desecrated. The ancient See of Clonfert was not spared the destruction and devastation. But amid the carnage and upheaval a little event took place that promised hope in the midst of despair. It was a gesture that indicated people believed that a love still remained for the “old faith.” There would be better times in the future. Maybe it was in the darkness of the night that some brave cleric or nun took the precious image of the Blessed Virgin and hid it away within the trunk of a tree in order to prevent its desecration.

From the time of its rescue in the sixteenth century the sacred image of the Virgin and Child remained hidden and forgotten until it was rediscovered in the nineteenth century almost three hundred years later. Local legend recounts the accidental rediscovery of the image. The story is told that a local wood carver was searching for a good piece of wood in order to do some work when he came across the tree in which the image was hidden. Unaware of the treasure within he began to chop at the tree. As he chopped he was amazed to see the tree bleed. Stopping, he investigated the strange sight and began to search within the trees branches and folds only to discover the sacred image. Taking the statue from the midst of the tree that had protected it for so long, he realized that he had cut into the arm of the Virgin and severed her hand. This unfortunate accident led to the bleeding which, in turn, led to the rediscovery of the image.

The people of Meelick, a pretty little town on the nestled on the bank of the River Shannon, removed the statue to their nearby church. However, it seems that the Virgin was not content to remain in Meelick, as the statue would continuously move to face the direction of Clonfert. The pious people of the region recognized the Virgin's desire and established the image of Mother and Child at the parish church in Clonfert.

Source: Fr. Benedict D. O'Cinnsealaigh
Mount Saint Mary's Seminary of the West, Cincinnati.



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