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Clonfert Madonna and Child

From the upper floor north window of Brackloon castle the small nineteenth century Catholic parish church can be seen, only three hundred metres down the road. For most of the year the church is home to a small local congregation but most evenings throughout the month of May, the church becomes the site of significant Marian devotion and pilgrimage and full to capacity. The focus of this pilgrimage is the 700 year old statue of the Madonna and Child, known locally as Our Lady of Clonfert.

Sometime about the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century the four feet high statue was created from one solid section of an oak tree. Split down the centre, the wetter central core was cut away to reduce the risk of shrinkage as the timber aged. From the remaining timber, hollowed-out at the rear, the statue was carved.

The statue's early history is uncertain but, given its similarity of style to a number of other contemporary timber religious statues, it appears to have been carved by craftsmen local to the region. Neither is it known where the statue was originally displayed but, as it was said to have been discovered in Clonfert, there is no shortage of possibilities, from the existing Cathedral to the now disappeared Augustinian Abbey or Arroasian Convent, all of which were active when the statue was originally carved. A favoured suggestion has been the nun's convent but it is not possible to be certain.

The facts surrounding the discovery of the statue are also shrouded in uncertainty to the extent that it is not certain exactly when it was discovered. It appears likely to have been discovered sometime in the 1800s. Various different versions of the story survive, one of the most popular that it was discovered by men felling a tree locally. As they sawed through the tree the men stopped on seeing blood emanating from the tree. Closer inspection revealed the presence of the statue hidden within the hollow of the tree, the blood reputedly having come from the left arm of the Madonna, accidentally sawn off by the men.

Most stories around the statue's discovery report it having been concealed for safe keeping in the hollow tree for safety during a period of Catholic persecution and there it was forgotten until sawn by the woodcutter. Another story reported that when it was brought by the local priest from Clonfert and placed in the nearby church at Meelick (another version would suggest the nearby church in the village of Eyrecourt) the statue was repeatedly found having turned its back to face in the direction of Clonfert.

Whatever the true origin of the statue, it became an object of Marian devotion locally after being placed in the new Catholic church at Clonfert, within view of the castle. This small church was built in the 1820s on a site donated by the local Protestant landlord on whose farm the castle also then stood. The statue stood to the left of the sanctuary until a niche was formed in the wall in the 1960s to house the statue where it remains to this day.

The statue is believed to have been taken out in 1932 and carried in procession during the Eucharistic Congress celebrations in Dublin and again in 1945 when it was taken for restoration to the National Museum. The statue and its condition at that time was described by Miss Catriona McLeod, curator at the Museum in the following manner;

‘The Holy Child is fully draped as was customary in the early 14th 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 sawn 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.’

In style the Clonfert Madonna is somewhat stiffer and primitive when compared with the fluid Gothic statuary produced on the Continent at the same time, the only movement suggested by the zig zag pattern in the madonna’s robe. The lack of movement, however, may contribute in some way to an appearance of serenity. In the words of Ms. McLeod ‘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.’

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