Thursday, May 3, 2012

Twisted Vagabondage Tale From Tipp Ireland

You know how sometimes you’re wandering along, trying to take everything in, making the most of the surroundings, absorbing the atmosphere, then something stops you in your tracks and makes you think...

“What the Hell?"

Despite not being a particularly religious person - spiritual yes, religious no - I have a real passion for old churches and ruined buildings. Having more than a passing interest in history means I tend to spend my holidays wandering around remnants of medieval sites or Roman forts rather than lying on a beach topping up my tan (testified to by the fact I’m almost transparent even at the height of summer). If I’m going to a place, I want to learn about the culture and vibrant past. If I wanna see sand, I can go to my local builder’s supply and buy a bag of the stuff.

Anyway, one particular year, I’d planned a special trip to Ireland – mainly as a history research holiday and for catching up with friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. My travels took me to the beautiful county of Tipperary (or Tipp as residents say) and to a stay with a friend who was not only my host but also a wonderful tour guide. Knowing my love for all things old and crumbly, she took me to see lots of run down buildings, plus one day we stopped by the village of Fethard, which is not a million miles from the town of Cashel (home to a variety of blue cheese).

The day we went was a typical tourist day, pouring rain one minute, then bright blinding sunshine the next. When the rain stopped, it made the greenery lush and sparkly. The air was "full of freshness" to quote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Within the town of Fethard lies a street named Watergate. Within this street is a wall that contains something so bold, frank and enticing I simply couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

My friend pointed out a small carving on the wall. “Look!” she said. “Do you know what that is?” I shook my head, feeling a bit of an idiot for not knowing. “It’s a Sheela-Na-Gig,” she added. I crouched down to take a further look. I wasn’t sure if my eyes were deceiving me or not. Turns out they weren’t.

“Surely…” I stuttered, “surely that’s not the woman’s bits on display, is it?” I just wasn’t sure.

My friend nodded. “Yes, it’s her bits.” I had only heard this name in association with a song written by PJ Harvey back in the 1990s. Feeling rather silly, I asked my friend to explain more while I stood and looked at the lovely edifice.

“It’s like this,” she said. “Hundreds of years ago, these things were carved into the walls of churches and other religious buildings. There are many different explanations as to why they were put there. Some folks think they were made deliberately ugly, to show churchgoing people that the idea of female lust was abhorrent and corrupted people – that sex should be used for procreation and nothing else.” It’s true that the carving had to my eyes a hideous eye-curling slant in addition to a certain beauty.

Pare it down to basics: you’ve got this notion of a woman sitting there and baring literally everything, not just her naked torso but her most secret places and not only baring them but actively opening up, all carved in stone. My friend explained that, in other places in Europe, there were similar stone works depicting women baring their most intimate parts. In Irish, the name occurs as Sighle nag Chioch, which charmingly means “old hag with breasts,” though you rarely see one with breasts. It’s usually always the ribcage and lower half of the body on display. The afternoon was quite an education. I learned so much, not just about the history of the place but also how female sexuality was viewed over the centuries (often with caution and suspicion).

When I came home from my travels, I immediately began to do some research on the topic and found out these things are scattered all over the British Isles. Some of the best ones are apparently found in the Outer Hebrides, at places like Eigg for instance. These little monuments were carved in a similar way to more familiar things like Gargoyles. Traditionally, those were made to ward off evil spirits and protect the church from malevolent harm. Sheela-Na-Gigs had associations with warding off lust and with fertility as well. For instance, my friend explained to me that some gigs were thin with no breasts on display, while others were overtly plump and sexual looking. She put forward that plumper-looking gigs may have been placed over the entrance to churches then shown to ancient brides on their wedding days as a sort of encouragement for their fertility and wedding vows. The thinner looking ones may have been used more as a deterrent against wanton sexual lust.

I have to say, it’s made me wanna go and take a look at some of the others and investigate this phenomena more. An immediate reaction to how people viewed sexuality hundreds of years ago might be that they were prudish or uptight about it. Carvings such as the ones portrayed on Sheela-Na-Gigs suggest otherwise.

Katie Reed authors Twisted Vagabondage Tales for travelers who like it rough. She is prettier than Vagabonding author Rolf Potts (though Rolf is very pretty) and could kick his ass (though only if he'd like that). She's a travel aficionado and professional writer, who has spent time on six of the seven continents to date (and is shooting for Antartica in 2014). Island cruises and camping alone in Colorado are experiences she pursues on a regular basis, plus she makes a beeline for any place rich in history.

1 comment:

  1. That's certainly unusual! I hadn't heard of this sort of thing before. Thanks for posting about it.

    Like you, I really do enjoy wandering about old ruins and churches, though I wouldn't at all call myself religious either.