A history of Ireland in 100 objects Breac Maodhóg Shrine, late 11th century


The Breach Maodhóg (the speckled or variegated shrine of Saint Maedoc, a bishop and patron saint of the kings of Leinster) is a house-shaped reliquary, probably made in the late 11th century. It is made of wood, covered by large sheets of bronze that formed the background to its real glory: the delightful bronze plaques depicting lively figures of clerics and women. The bronze is, as Dr Pat Wallace puts it, “so deeply moulded that it looks as if it’s carved wood”, making the materials into a visual unity.

The shrine is strongly associated with Drumlane, Co Cavan, where it was traditionally kept by the O’Farrelly family. It was bought in the early 1840s by the antiquarian George Petrie, from “Mr Reilly, a jeweller, a Cavan man”.

The shrine speaks of continuity. Its house shape is an enlargement of a form used since the eighth century, long before the Vikings. Where there are innovations, as in some of the patterns that weave their way through and around the individual figures, they are influenced by French Romanesque styles rather than by the Scandinavian art of the Vikings.

The clerics are hardly ascetic. With their fine cloaks and tunics, long ringlets and extravagant beards, all worn in idiosyncratic styles, they seem every bit as fashion-conscious as the women.

The curved ornamentation of the folds of the clerics’ garments and the serpentine elaborations of their coiffure recall the traditional styles of Irish abstract art. But the figures are so lifelike and vividly individual that it does not seem too much of a stretch to think of them as partial portraits. Certainly the artist, in depicting one of the clerics bored out of his mind, his head resting on his hand, his eyes drooping, was drawing not just on stylised forms but also on observed human behaviour.

What’s striking about these images is not just what they show but also what they don’t. The luxury, humour and personality of the portraits suggest a church at ease in its cultural environment. There is none of the exaggerated triumphalism you get from a culture that has to shout to be heard, no sense of pressure or embattlement. And this absence tells its own story.

The Vikings came with their own sophisticated religious mythology and belief systems. Initially, they were a threat to the established order in Ireland, not just as violent raiders but, specifically, as pagans. The second of these threats gradually faded along with the first. The Irish annals refer to the Scandinavians as ‘genti’ or geinte (gentiles, pagans) until the second half of the ninth century. But the last mention of the “heathens of Dublin” is in 942.

There does not seem to have been any single moment of conversion, and there was probably a considerable overlap between those who had gone native and those who kept to the old religion. Conversion, as Donnchadh Ó Corráin has put it, “must have come gradually, as an effect of assimilation”. By the end of the 11th century, clerics could afford to look bored.

Thanks to Dr Pat Wallace

Where to see itNational Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Kildare Street, Dublin 2, 01-6777444, museum.ie