The National Museum of Ireland has the largest collection of sheela-na-gigs in the world. The Clonmel and Sier Kieran sheelas, pictured below, are on permanent exhibit.
Clonmel Sheela, Co. Tipperary Sier Kieran Sheela, Co.Offaly
Sheela-na-gig enthusiast and scholar Starr Goode told me that she had met with Dr. Eamonn Kelly, Keeper of Antiquities at the National Museum on her last visit, and that he had shown her the sheelas in the museum's storage vaults. She referred to the visit as "the most fascinating hour of my journey". Emboldened by her experience, I wrote to Dr. Kelly myself, and to my delight, he invited me and my boyfriend to explore the sheelas in storage during my November 1998 visit.
Feeling tremendously in awe, and dressed in our Sunday best, we headed out to the museum bright and early on a Monday morning. Dr. Kelly put us immediately at ease with his warm welcome and easygoing charm. He has studied the figures for years, and published an excellent book entitled "Sheela-na-Gigs: Origins and Functions" in 1996. He told us that as fascinating as sheelas themselves are, more fascinating still are the people who study them. He regaled us with some hilarious stories about the eclectic groups of people who have come to see the sheelas over the years, and the bizarre things they have said and done during their visits. Dr. Kelly told us (only half-jokingly) that his next book will be on sheela-na-gig fans.
We then headed into the basement, passing row after row of treasures, jewelry, ogham stones, etc. until we finally came to the sheelas. The collection is spectacular. Most of the figures are very weathered and worn, and it is a good thing that they are preserved in the museum. Dr. Kelly loans the figures out periodically to other galleries and museums (the Cavan sheela, one of my favorites, was, alas, on loan during our visit) . We took the shots I have included below during this visit. I have outlined the figures that are very badly weathered. My favorite figure is the Swords one, for sentimental reasons. This figure was taken from a gatepost in the Glebe in Swords, Co. Dublin. My grandfather was a gardener in the Glebe, and must certainly have passed the figure every day. Dr Kelly was kind enough to let me touch her, and to say a little prayer in Grandad Edward's memory...hopefully he will send down a blessing, and will help my garden to grow!
Dr. Kelly with his collection
Ballylarkin Sheela, Co. Kilkenny
Ballyporty Sheela, Co. Clare
Bergesbeg Sheela, Co. Tipperary
Laois Sheela, Co. Laois
Swords Glebe Sheela, Co. Dublin
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© copyright 2000 Tara McLoughlin