Kilpeck Sheela

Sheela-na-gig at Kilpeck Church, Herefordshire

Sheela-na-gigs are carved figures displaying female genitalia, set upon castles and churches in Britain and Ireland. Figures displaying male genitalia have no specific name but the two types together are described as exhibitionists. Precise numbers of them are impossible to give since there are many figure carvings, especially those on the outside of buildings, that are too damaged to be categorised with certainty, or too high up to be easily seen clearly. Some fugures display the anus only without genitalia and other figures have legs wide open but again without genitialia on display. Ireland has about forty exhibitionists roughly equally divided between churches and castles that can be visited and about twenty more in musums, especially the National Museum in Dublin, which has nine of them. There are thirty exhibitionists on church exteriors in England. The few Welsh examples are mostly inside churches or museums although those at Penmon and Margam can usually be seen readily enough.

There has been much debate as to the meaning of the figures. They seem to have originated in France and Spain (which have many examples) in the late 11th and early 12th century as part of a clerical attack on lust, luxury and fornication and were thus a warning to avoid sin. The best examples in England appear on 12th century churches at Church Stretton, Holgate, Kilpeck and Studland. Many of the Irish examples, however, appear on 15th and 16th century castles such as Bunratty, Fantstown, and Kilkea, plus the town wall at Fethard. Examples at Iona and Rodel in the Hebrides are also on 16th century buildings. By that period public perception of the meaning of the figures may have changed, especially in Gaelic society (the phrase sheela-na-gig is generally thought to be an anglicised form of a Gaelic phrase, although there is uncertainty as to which phrase). Suppression in the 17th century, causing the hiding and destruction of many of the figures, suggests they may have been regarded as symbols of fertility by the late medieval period. Many more were lost in the 19th century.

Kilkea Castle, Kildare, exhibitionists

Coital couple at Kilkea Castle, Co Kildare

Bunratty Sheela

Sheela-na-gig inside Bunratty Castle, Co Clare

Fantstown Sheela

Sheela-na-gig at Fantstown Castle, Co Limerick