Sheela-Na-Gig 3D - National Museum of Ireland Collection

This collection contains digital 3D models of Sheela-na-Gigs housed in the National Museum of Ireland, Archaeology. These images are reproduced with kind permission of the National Museum of Ireland.

There are many theories and myths about Sheela-Na-Gigs, the name given to a subset of exhibitionist figures found in Ireland, UK, and Northern France. Although the original function of these exhibitionist carvings is unknown, we can state a few facts based on the evidence.  Generally, a 'Sheela' is a female figure, exhibiting an exaggerated vulva and breasts. They fall within the wider classification of Exhibitionist Figures. The carvings come in many shapes and sizes.  They appear in both religious and secular buildings, their locations often being a secondary placement.

Most of the known carvings has been found in secondary or isolated locations and as such their dating is difficult. Where carving are found within extant buildings, it should be noted that many of these buildings were improved and repaired over their history. This means that while a carving may appear on a 11th or 12th century church, it may occur in a later medieval context. It is probably safe to say that Sheela’s from the period of the Norman arrival in Ireland (12th century.) to the later Medieval period of the 17th century. Many carvings appear on Tower Houses, a form of fortified medieval residence popular among Anglo-Irish and Gaelic families during the period from 15th to 17th centuries. It would seem that the carvings, commonly called ‘idols’ by early writers, evolved from church building to secular buildings during this period.

Knowledge of the function of these carvings has been lost over time. Carvings found within Romanesque architecture of the 11th century, often had a moral function. These carvings, often including Sheela-like acrobatic figures, exposing themselves may prove an origin to the larger stylised carvings which are commonly identified as Sheela-na-Gigs today. There are often stories of the term Sheela-na-Gig being used as an insult, and indeed this is the explanation for the first recorded use of the term by the Ordnance Survey in Co. Tipperary. There have been suggestions that the term was used before this period, but this is not conclusive as the carvings were not noted previously by the Ordnance Survey, but rather refer to in reference to the Fethard carving by the survey ethnographers. Various terms were used imperviously including ‘Idol’ used both in Ireland and the UK. Many other local names also appear, again often as a slight against a particular woman or family.

After a period of popularity in the Medieval period, changing attitudes may have led to the removal and destruction of these carvings by local clergy.  Where stones do survive some have been damaged, or degraded by weathering.  The Sheela-Na-Gig Project will create a detailed digital record of the current state of the stones, providing a useful tool for current and future researchers and local communities.  

Please note the naming convention below where NMI collection names may differ from the townland recorded by NMS. The Sheela3D project has settled on a naming convention which is in line with the RMP and SMR files. This breaks with previous publishing traditions for Sheela-na-Gig, which names carvings after the site or nearest town, however we believe that it provides a more accurate catalogue and will help with future research.

The text provides a description of the Sheela carvings using standard anatomical descriptions for body parts. This follows the RMP files naming and descriptive conventions.

Sheela-na-Gig 3D Naming Convention is as follows: NMI:Ref - Townland (as per NMI) - Classification