White Island Church Site, Lower Lough Erne, Co Fermanagh

On White Island, Lower Lough Erne in Co Fermanagh, the ruins of an ancient church are found near the shore, built on the site of an earlier monastic settlement. It still has an intact arched Romanesque doorway.

It contains eight figures including an uncarved figure, suggesting the figures were carved on-site, and a frowning face, or “mask”. From left to right, the figures are as follows:

The first figure is presumed to be a Sheela-na-Gig, a statue of a grinning, naked female figure with its hands resting on its thighs. However, the gender of the figure cannot be completely discerned from the carving, due to the lack of detail. Known to archaeologists as an ‘exhibitionist figure’, ‘Sheelas’ are common throughout Ireland as a supposedly magical creature, and are often found over church doorways and windows.

The second figure is a seated figure, presumed to represent a Christ figure. It is similar to a representation of a seated Christ in the Book of Kells, supporting Hickey’s view that the figures supported an Ambro (lectern or pulpit used by clergy to proclaim the Gospel).

The third figure is supposedly an abbot, or similarly highly ranking clerical figure. It is hooded, and holding a crook and a bell.

The fourth figure is possibly David with hand pointing to his mouth. This is a reference to David’s role as a psalmist. This figure is shown to be holding a scroll, and has a pouch hanging from its belt.

The fifth and sixth figures were identified by Hickey as ‘Christ with Griffins’ and ‘Christ the warrior with sword and shield’, respectively. The sixth figure is shown to be wearing a penannular brooch of 9th or 10th century fashion.

The seventh figure is uncarved, and thus blank, and the eighth figure is a frowning head.

It is recorded that Vikings attacked and destroyed the monasteries in Lough Erne in 837 A.D. For at least 400 years, therefore, these carvings laid in the ruins before a stone Romanesque style church was built.


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