‘Hag of the Castle:’ Women, Family, and Community in Later Medieval Ireland
Different Visions: A Journal of New Perspectives on Medieval Art, Issue 5, August 2014
In a letter written as part of his work for the Irish Department of the Ordnance Survey in 1840, Thomas O’Conor recorded his reaction to a “Sheela- na-gig” sculpture—the image of a naked woman shown exposing her genitalia (fig. 1)—that he saw on the old church at Kiltinane, Co. Tipperary. He wrote, in part: “The probability is that the figure was never intended to be placed in this building and that it belongs to one of a different sort, say a castle, the stone which bears it having been removed from its proper place and laid in its present situation by someone who delighted in inconsistencies.” He continued with “it would much more creditable if Sheela ni Ghig (the figure so-called) could be proved to be of pagan origin, for as such there would be every excuse for its existence. But it is much to be feared that no such thing is possible. And it is highly discreditable to a Christian congregation to have had before their eyes a representation of the kind.”
The work of the nineteenth-century Irish Ordnance Survey marked the coming of the Sheela sculptures into scholarly consciousness and so O’Conor’s remarks are among the earliest recorded reactions to such a sculpture. His comments foreshadow the direction taken by much of the modern scholarship on these images. O’Conor’s words make clear his feeling that such a highly sexualized image had no place on a Christian church; nevertheless, Sheelas often appear on twelfth-century and later medieval churches in both England and Ireland. He is correct that these images cannot be explained by projecting them back into the pagan past, for the appearance of similar imagery on Romanesque churches in France and Spain makes clear that they originated as part of a vocabulary of architectural ornament that was introduced from the continent in the twelfth century. Scholarship has thus focused on finding a way to make the Sheelas fit into their Christian churchly surroundings and has come to see them as warnings against the evils of women and the sins of sexuality: I have critiqued this interpretation of the Sheela sculptures elsewhere.