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Francis Grose Visits Thurles & Sheela na gig’s

The address “Westgate”, (Irish – An Geata Thiar), here in the town of Thurles, refers today to that area which remains the small expanse one visits, as you exit Liberty Square unto Friar Street in the town.

Pictured Left to Right(A) Drawing of Francis Grose (1731-1791). (B) Grose’s Antiquities, Vol. I, showing an engraving of the “Black Castle” at the West end of Liberty Square as it appeared in 1790.  (C) Thurles Castle today (March 2017) viewed from the side facing north.

Picture (A) above show us a drawing of a one-time visitor to Thurles back in the late 18th century (1790 / 1791); his name Francis Grose.(1)

His engraving, (picture (B) above), give us a valuable insight into an earlier view of this same “Westgate” area, portrayed by him for his famous and historical publication “Antiquities of Ireland.” Same work was posthumously published on his behalf by Samuel Hooper and portrays, through this ‘west gateway’, a long-forgotten view of Thurles Castle, Thurles, Co. Tipperary.

This former vista through Westgate shows the “Black Castle” viewed through an archway flanked by two towers. This archway once led into a quadrangular courtyard, at the far end of which was the castle and other, now not known, imposing buildings.

While a castle still survives, alas, the Westgate itself of 1791 no longer exists, but back then it represented the entrance to the home of Elizabeth Poyntz (1587-1673), daughter of Sir John Poyntz of Iron Acton in Gloucestershire, whom, in 1608 became Lady Thurles, following her marriage to Thomas Butler, (Viscount Thurles), son of Walter, 11th Earl of Ormond.

Prince Charles Mountbatten-Windsor, the current heir to the British throne, is a direct descendant of Viscount and Lady Thurles, through their eldest son the Duke of Ormond. The Duke’s daughter, Elizabeth, married Philip Stanhope, 2nd Earl Chesterfield, and their daughter Elizabeth Stanhope married John Lyon, 4th Earl Strathmore. Later in direct line was the 14th Earl Strathmore whose daughter, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the future King George VI; the grandparents of Prince Charles.

Lady Viscountess Thurles was a staunch Catholic Royalist. During a short period between 1658-1660, while under the rule of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) and after the triumph of the Parliamentary army, the Cromwellian administration was to find that Lady Thurles was indeed a most difficult woman with which to deal. According to a Cromwellian edict, no Catholic who lived in the “Irish Quarters” before 1649, could be exempted from confiscation of their property followed by transplantation, “To Hell or To Connaught”.(2)   An inquisition found that Lady Thurles held a life interest, in the right of her jointures in the Castle, town and lands of Thurles, Leugh, Killinan, Athlummon, Clobanna, Lahardan, Derryfadda, Longfordpass, and Garranroe, in the Barony of Eliogarty; and Kilshane, Cleghile, and Lagganstown in the Barony of Clanwilliam: also she had 80 head of cattle, and 800 sheep and lambs, all of which ought to be then forfeited to the Lord Protector and Commonwealth.

The Cromwellian “Adventurers”, as distinct from the soldiers, had, among the lands allotted to them, the Baronies of Eliogarty and Clanwilliam, and clamoured for the immediate removal of Lady Thurles. Two thousand acres, calculated to return her an income of £200 a year, were set out for her in Connaught, but by various stratagems she managed to delay her removal. She succeeded in winning over to her side, to plead her cause, among others, deep-dyed Puritans as the ‘regicides’, (Name given to Cromwell’s supporters who signed the death warrant of Charles I) Sir Hardress Waller and Colonel Robert Phaire, Governor of Cork; also Colonel Hierome Sankey, Governor of the Clonmel Precinct, a man whose reputation for savagery in dealing with the Irish was scarcely less than that of Cromwell himself.

In July 1656, the Cromwellian Council transmitted the petitions of these men on behalf of Lady Thurles to the Commissioners adjudicating on the Irish in Co. Cork, for their report on it. Their report, on 13th August, shows that they were also under the spell of Lady Thurles. It stated that the good lady had several times in 1641 harboured, entertained, and preserved from murder and famine divers English families whom the Irish had plundered, robbed, and attempted to murder; in all, 60 persons, and in particular Mr. Bullock and family, Joane Harris and family, and a minister, Mr. Price, and his family.

That also, after the fall of Archerstown Castle, Thurles, she received the wounded Major Peisley, and others of his company, into her home, entertained them for several weeks until they were cured, and then gave them money and other necessaries when they betook themselves to the English garrison at Doneraile.

This appears to have settled the matter in favour of the Adventurers, and the Council was powerless to refuse their claims. But although Lady Thurles lost her lands, it would seem that she was never ejected from her castle in Thurles.

That was in in 1658; however, the Adventurers did not long enjoy their newly acquired lands. Two years later, in 1660, Charles II was recalled to the throne, and James the son of Lady Thurles, returned to Ireland as Lord Lieutenant. He immediately ran the planters off his own lands, and those lands of his mother and their friends.

Sheela na gig
Of course, this West gateway had also another name, that of “Geata na gCailleach”, which translated from the Irish means “Hags Gate” or the “Gate of the Old Woman.”  This gate most likely got its name from the fact that a carved stone ‘Sheela na gig’ made up part of this west gateway’s rock construction.

Presently there are some 140 Sheela na Gigs known to be in existence; 100 alone of which are to be found here in Ireland, with about another 40 to be found, located in Britain and France.  These 12th century stone carvings portray naked females, often taking on the appearance of wizened faced old woman (Hence the description ‘hag’), arranged in a crouched position with their legs wide apart, using one or both hands to direct the attention of the observer to their genital region; where they are observed pulling their vulvae apart. (See image of the Thurles Sheela na gig directly left.)  Indeed the Irish phrase “Sheela na gig” could be a derivation of ‘Sighle na gCíoch’, meaning “The old hag of the breasts,” or perhaps ‘Síle ina Giob,’ meaning “Sheila on her hunkers.”

Perhaps the ‘Sheela na gig’ is the same ‘Sheelah’ which is now being promoted by our national media as St Patrick’s wife.  Was ‘Sheelah’ an all-powerful deity, that had to be tolerated by the early Irish Church, because she was too popular to be completely extinguished from former, firmly held, pagan beliefs? e.g. Contrary to the lyrics of Kris Kristofferson Jesus was not a Capricorn, but was born more correctly towards the end of September. Christmas therefore celebrated in December is also a deliberate compromise with the Roman pagan feast of the winter solstice.

Although some Sheela na gig’s were carved in the 12th century, they do not appear to come to the attention of scholars until the early part of the 19th century, thus today creating much debate as to their original role and meaning. Many historians believe that these carvings arrived here courtesy of invading Normans, however earlier benign figures appear to pre-date the arrival of the Normans to Ireland. This latter statement therefore leads other scholars to suggest that these carved figures are perhaps Celtic in origin, hence the reason the vast majority of these carvings are to be found here in Ireland.

Whatever their origin; there is little tradition or folklore recorded in today’s Ireland which provides us with factual insight into their ancient and once obvious original function. Whatever the real truth; given the diverse nature of these carvings, it is possible that there are more than one explanation for their continued existence.

One of the towers shown in the engraving (picture (B) above) by Francis Grose, was probably later referred to as the castle which fell across the street at Westgate in 1868, same containing a carved stone Sheela na gig. Stone rubble together with this Sheela na gig was later used to raise the height of an existing stone wall within the town boundary.

While Sheela-na-Gig’s can be located both in Thurles town and in nearby Holycross village, perhaps the easiest to locate and examine at close quarter is to be found in Fethard, Co. Tipperary, latter just a 32 min (30 km) drive via R689.

(1) Francis Grose (1731-1791) (Picture (1) above) himself was an English antiquary, draughtsman, and lexicographer, born the eldest of seven children in Broad Street, St Peter le Poer, London. Having a good classical education, he united his taste for drawing, and began to publish his work in 1773. Before he eventually concluded his publications, he visited Ireland not for the first time, intending to furnish views and descriptions of antiquities, in a similar manner he those he had published of Great Britain. Shortly after his arrival in Dublin, however he experienced a stroke at the home of Horace Hone, a miniature painter, in Dorset Street on the 6th May 1791, and died immediately. He was buried on the 18th May 1791 in Drumcondra churchyard in North Co. Dublin.

(2) “To Hell or To Connaught”. Bristol traders were given license to choose men and women for shipment as slaves to the West Indies. All priests who had not been killed on sight during this war were ordered to leave the country. It was also decreed that if any dislodged Irish papist supporter was found east of the Shannon beyond May 1st, 1654, same were to be killed.

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