In the small area of land west of the Shannon between Athlone and Portumna a tradition of religious wood carving developed. There are three wooden statues that have survived, all carved from trees in the round. These have been authoritatively dated by experts in the National Museum as from the late 12th to the early 14th century. Similarities of style and features in all three point to the existence of a local type of Virgin and Child. The statue of Our Lady of Clonfert is one of these. The gently smiling Virgin carries the Child in her right arm while the Child plays with a tress of the Virgin’s hair. Sadly the left arm is now missing. In 1932 the statue was put on show during the Eucharistic Congress of that year as evidence of the long established devotion to Our Lady in Ireland.
The other wood carved statues of similar origin are ‘Our Lady of Bethlehem’ (or according to some people ‘Our Lady of Athlone’) better known as the ‘Black Lady’ in the Poor Clare convent in Galway and the somewhat older ‘Kilcorban Madonna’ in the small Clonfert Diocesan Museum in Loughrea. The Poor Clare nuns formerly lived on the shores of Lough Ree at a convent named Bethlehem near Athlone and brought the carving of the Madonna with them when they moved to Galway in 1642.
Much more significantly, the very existence of these statues is a sign of considerable devotion to Our Lady in this part of the country for the past 700 – 800 years. The
carving of Our Lady of Clonfert is currently in St Brendan Church, Clonfert and is the focus of the May devotions there each year. During the day, pilgrims mainly from the midlands come to the church to pray before the statue. Despite the absence of organised liturgies, the numbers are quite large. In the evenings there is a Mass or a liturgical celebration filling the church each evening for the month. Many link attendance at the liturgy with preparing for the Leaving and Junior Certificate examinations, so there is a strong presence of younger people. Indeed, during the rest of the year, local people value the statue very highly and are proud of their link with the past and with devotion to Our Lady.
Thus, while little remains in stone to link the Diocese of Clonfert to St Brendan, this statue in wood is a reminder of the continuity of devotion to Our Lady in this area for more than 700 years.