One of the most evocative physical remains of the ‘Celtic’ religion in Ireland is the sculptured stone idols found throughout Ulster in a variety of forms. The area around Lough Erne is particularly rich in these, as is Armagh, where a bizarre collection of them can be found at St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral. Though the idols now stand in surroundings far removed from their original temples they have about them still a strange sense of power and aura. The poem ‘January God’ by Seamus Heaney, composed about a two-faced idol from Boa Island in Fermanagh, seems to convey the sense of mystery and wonder which surround these enigmatic carvings. The six figures from Cathedral Hill are identified as the most related group in Ireland, certain similarities of stone and carving indicate they come from the same school of sculpture, maybe even from the work of one master-sculptor. They are thought to be of Iron Age date, and comprise a war-like figure wearing what could be a head-dress and short skirt, a more passive looking figure with a swept back hair style likened to the rays of the sun, the so-called ‘Sun God’; three bears, and the statuette of the ‘Tanderagee Idol’ (Jenner 1992, 69).
But the star of this motley crew is undoubtedly the ‘Tanderagee Idol’, given the name because it stood for some time in the grounds of Ballymore Rectory, Tanderagee, Co. Armagh. Its previous history is only vaguely known: it came into the possession of the Reverend McEndoo, Rector of Tanderagee in The early part of the century and was supposed to be found in a bog near Newry, but how the Rector obtained it is unknown. It was later presented to the Municipal Museum of Belfast and today stands along the south aisle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The statuette is only about two feet tall but lack of height does not lessen its effect which is powerful, even disturbing. It is a half-length figure, crudely sculptured: the mouth is like an open slot with rounded ends, and the lips are very thick. The nose reaches down to the upper lip and on each side of the nose there appears to be a short upturned moustache. A close fitting head-dress or helmet with thick rim covers the upper part of the head concealing the eyebrows of the protruding eyes. At the front of the head-dress there are two projections which could be horns, the figure itself appears clothed in a robe with short sleeves, reaching to the elbows: the sleeves seemed to be trimmed with a cuff, perhaps of thick fur. The right hand of the figure grasps the left-hand cuff. (Macalister 1935, 156-58).
It is not known what the pose of the ‘Tanderagee Idol’ may mean or indeed if it any meaning, but as with other stone images and carvings in Ireland it has become associated with a certain legend. It seems that the idol is a representation of one of Ireland’s greatest Kings, Nuadha, who lost his throne after losing his arm in battle. At that time Ireland became ruled by Bres, who turned out to be a selfish and oppressive ruler, Nuadha was so furious with Bres that he had an arm made for himself out of silver and in a triumphant return to power overthrew Bres. The statuette is said to be a representation of Nuadha holding his silver arm.
Most place-names in Ulster are Gaelic in origin and are descriptive of the topography. Here is the interpretation of Tanderagee; Gaoth is an Irish word meaning wind and features often in place-names in reference to their exposure. It appears almost as a warning, in Tanderagee, which is Tom re Gaoith, meaning ‘backside to the wind’, as if to suggest that is the right stance in the area (Flanagan 1994,89).
Flanagan, D&L., 1994. Irish Place Names. Dublin 8. Gill & Macmillan Ltd.
Hickey, H. 1976. Images of S/one. Belfast BT1 5JF. Blackstaff Press Ltd.
Jenner, M., 1996. Ireland Through The Ages. London WC1B 3QJ. Claremont Books.
Macalister, R.A.S., 1935. ‘A Sculptured Stone Figure from Tanderagee’
The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Vol. LXV.
Stokes, M., 1911. Early Christian Art In Ireland. Dublin. National Museum of Science and Art. His Majesty’s Stationary Office.