A view of the replica of St Manchan’s Shrine, which was purchased recently by the National Museum of Ireland. The original is on display in Boher Church, near Ballycumber.

National Museum confirms purchase of replica of treasured Offaly artefact

The National Museum of Ireland has confirmed it purchased a 19th century replica of St Manchan's Shrine, considered to be Offaly's most prized piece of ecclesiastical art, following an auction last month.

The life-size replica made of wood, plaster of Paris, gilding and other media, was commissioned around 1850 by Sir William Wilde and presented by him to the 3rd Earl of Dunraven who displayed in its home in Adare Manor for over a century before it was sold along with the house contents back in 1982.

It came up auction in Dublin early last month as part of a major sale by Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers, with a guide price between €20,000 and €30,000. It later sold following the event for an unspecified amount.

Considered a masterpiece of medieval art and a national treasure, St Manchan’s Shrine is Ireland's largest surviving reliquary, a container for holy relics. The original shrine is still preserved at the parish church at Boher near Ballycumber, not far from its original home in Lemanaghan, where, in the seventh century, St Manchan founded his monastery.

The National Museum of Ireland confirmed the purchase of the replica following a recent query from the Offaly Independent.

“The National Museum has in its collection a number of replicas of important archaeological objects and considers these historic replicas important in the history of collecting and antiquarianism.

“The replica of this particular shrine is important as the original is not in the collections of the NMI,” a spokesperson said.

Acknowledged as a fine example of the priceless treasure, the replica conveys “the magnificence" of the original, according to the recent auction marketing documents.

Once the shrine replica has been assessed by NMI conservators, a decision will be made as to where and when it will be displayed. Another replica of the shrine is currently on display in the NMI's Viking Ireland exhibition at its museum in Kildare Street, Dublin.

A unique example of Irish monastic metalsmithing combining Irish, late Viking/Urnes and Romanesque Christian art styles, it is this mixture that makes St Manchan's shrine such a unique piece in terms of history, archaeology and metalsmithing. Internationally known, the shrine has been the focus of detailed academic study over many years, as well as featuring in several international publications on Viking art. In 1979, it was brought to Clonmacnoise for the visit of Pope John Paul II, and the following year it was exhibited as part of a major international exhibition on the Vikings at the British Museum.

In the 1874 Journal of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, the Rev James Graves gave a detailed account of the Shrine of St Manchan. Dating from around 1130, it is the largest surviving medieval reliquary in Ireland, and with its combination of Hiberno-Romanesque and late Viking decoration, can be compared to the Cross of Cong. It is likely that both were commissioned by Turlough O'Connor, High King of Ireland, and made at the monastery at Clonmacnoise in Offaly. In the Annals of the Four Masters, there is an entry for the year 1166 which mentions the shrine of St Manchan.

By the early 19th century, when first described scientifically in glowing terms by George Petrie, the reliquary, having suffered the ravages of time, was in the care of the Mooney family, Doon in Offaly.

When first exhibited in Dublin's Great Exhibition of 1853, the Offaly shrine was a sensation attracting “enormous interest” and as a result several of the life-size replicas originate from this era.

In medieval times, on the saint's feast day which falls on January 24th, the reliquary was carried in procession, held aloft by poles passed through these rings. Restored and conserved, the Shrine of St Manchan is now displayed in the church at Boher.

Back in 2012, the priceless 12th century artefact containing the saint's bones was famously stolen before being recovered some days later by gardaí. It later went back on public display in the church following a security upgrade.