Roadside Shrines and Grottoes

Roadside GrottoNobody can travel for any distance in Ireland without coming across a roadside shrine or grotto.

They vary from just a small statue set into a wall, to large, elaborately constructed tableaux and the vast majority are Marian Shrines, although some celebrate local saints and others, such as the one on the left, depict the crucifixion.

In spite of the documented drift away from organised religion that has taken place in Ireland over the past few decades, they are almost invariably well tended and often bedecked with fresh flowers.

Many are close to Holy Wells, places now associated with Christian saints but whose origins almost certainly date back to pagan times, and other are situated in places that have significance locally that long predates the shrines themselves.

Medieval Wayside Crosses

Wayside cross, Dunsany Co MeathIt is possible that the tradition of erecting shrines is related in at least some way to the late Medieval wayside crosses, a tradition that was mainly confined to County Meath.

The earliest of these were erected by the Plunkett family in the late 15th century though later other Anglo Norman families took up the tradition and they continued to appear up to the 1700s.

Most of these crosses were erected to commemorate family members and a number ask for prayers or offer indulgences, so in a sense they might be more akin to the memorials set up on roadsides for people killed in traffic accidents.

Some are impressive examples of stone masonry however, with elaborate carvings and decoration, so they are worth looking out for in their own right.

1954: The Marian Year

Grotto near Bruff, Co Limerick

Although a few date from the early part of the 20th century, most of the shrines you’ll encounter today date from 1954, which was dedicated by the Vatican as a Marian Year, a year of celebration of and devotion to Mary.

Probably no other country embraced this year with greater fervour than Ireland.

Statue Donegal

As well as erecting hundreds of shrines commemorative stamps were issued and the Irish named a near majority of girls born that year Marian or Mary. The number of young women gripped by vocations and entering convents soared and on May 16th over 30,000 people marched through the centre of Dublin to celebrate Queenship of Mary.

The tradition of devotion to Mary persisted after 1954, albeit among ever declining number and it is one now confined mainly to an older generation.

When I was at boarding school in the late 1970s we rose early each morning in May (the month of Mary), were trooped across a hockey pitch to a Marian Shrine close to the shoreline in the school grounds and there, although barely awake, sang hymns in praise of Mary, often to the great amusement of the occupants of passing boats.

Although this tradition didn’t exactly fill us with glee at the time I seriously doubt you would persuade any group of teenage girls to do it at all to-day!

It is a sign of changed times that when there was another Marian Year in the late 1980s it passed pretty much unnoticed by the bulk of the Irish population.

Still, in almost every parish, there is a dedicated band of people who maintain the shrines and grottoes which have become part of our landscape and our heritage.

Statues of Saints

Statue of St Patrick, near Ballingarry

While most grottoes are dedicated to Mary or are depictions of the Crucifixion, you will also see roadside statues of saints, in particular of St Patrick. These are rarely true grottoes however, instead they are statues erected over or alongside Holy Wells which bear the saint’s name.

More often than not the local area also bears the name of the saint or of the well – as with this one of St Patrick, in the townland of Patrickswell, close to Ballingarry in Co Limerick.

Moving Statues

In 1985 a phenomenon occurred which grabbed news headlines around the world, became a topic of conversation all across the country and, for a time at least, saw a resurgence of interest in Marian Shrines.

Statues moved!

Or at least many people believed they did, and flocked in their thousands night after night to experience these ‘miracles’.

Others remained skeptical, attributing what people saw to an optical illusion brought about by staring intently at a statue lit up at twilight against a dark background.


Ballinspittle GrottoThe phenomenon began when local people reported that the statue of Mary at a grotto in Ballinspittle in Co Cork (shown here) was moving.

Crowds gathered on subsequent evenings and many of those present, who had often travelled considerable distances, reported seeing movement. Others saw nothing.

Still, in rapid succession reports came in of similar phenomena at shrines all over the country, until eventually just about every part of Ireland had its very own local moving statue.

And then almost as suddenly as it began, it was over. Crowds fell away, the news cycle moved on and there was once again little attention paid to the shrines outside those who had been there anyway before the curious crowds arrived.

This great excerpt from a documentary made at the time has a gently cynical undertone:

Off topic: Look out for perhaps the greatest comb over ever just after 7 minutes

Visiting Shrines & Grottos in Ireland

There is little need to direct anyone to a particular place to see a shrine or grotto – you will just see them, they really are everywhere!

Published: January 10, 2009 | Updated: March 31, 2017 | Image Credits

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  • Seamus says:

    Been going back for 50 years but shrines were never a feature of conversation. If they were people would bless them selves at least but ignored them. I think they were plonked down by the church. How on earth could anyone respect a life-size cheap statue which idiots buy in droves from shops Jesus himself would trash. I drove the cows home past one and they still shat over her feet and no one bothered. Dumb tourists now gaze over that plaster white washed statue I once shat over on their tours.

  • Ann Marie says:

    I was one of of those people who DID actually see the statue move in Ballinspittle …It was not my imagination….and have never forced anyone to believe me. I know what I saw and it was a mirice !!!! I was about 15 at the time and am now 40 and when I have my doubts about religion I always think of what I saw that day….And I am not expecting anyone to believe me x x

  • Laurence says:

    I’d love to know how many of these monstrosities have planning permission. And by extension, how many could be legally torn down. They’re a blight on the landscape, though with all the ghost estates, there’s little hope for the Irish countryside these days. West Cork seems particularly badly afflicted. Ever been to Ballinadee?  Just a few miles from the infamous Ballinspittle. The whole village is dominated by an enormous wall with a “Virgin” Mary statue embedded in it. Just like the Russians building gigantic states of Stalin and Mother Russia, Ireland was a land in thrall to an absurdity, and it’s people were completely delusional.

    And it wasn’t just in the fifties. I remember one being built in Stillorgan, Co. Dublin in the late eighties, just across from the shopping centre. Sometimes, getting off the 46A, you’d see a huddle of middle aged and elderly folk crowded around it, praying to a statue. No wonder the country is a shambles.

  • Erin says:

    *sigh* It’s impossible to have a place to post where someone doesn’t come out with random religious fanaticism. regardless these really are not the places.

    On a more relavant note, however, In New Jersey (US of course) we have a legend of a moving jesus statue. I believe it’s in a cemetary in Middletown, nj or somewhere near there. supposedly if you pull into the cemetery in your car at night and find this gigantic jesus statue and flick your lights at it you see it move.

  • Rin says:

    The idea of the separation of Church and State may look good on paper, but, Ireland, I’m here to tell you, unless you want to end up like the United States–where every crackpot philosophy and bizarre religious sytem is permitted to exist and flourish without restraint EXCEPT Christianity (which principles the US was founded on, like it or not), then keep heading down the road you’re on.  We (America) are a complete mess these days, and I blame it on the erosion of our morals derived from our Christian heritage.  I’m not saying absolute parochialsim is the way to go, but the total opposite is no good, either.  It’s not too late for the Irish…!!

    • Katherine says:

      I could get into an argument over whether morals are the perogitive of Christians or not, but this is not the time or the place.

  • PMcK says:

    Although I was only 10, I always feel slightly embarrassed for my country when I think back on the time of the moving statues.

    The country really was in thrall to a very backward, parochial, superstitious and absurd Catholicism. No divorce. No condoms. It was weird.

    No wonder northern Protestants were having none of it (although they had their own absurd idolatries).

    Ireland these days is far from perfect, We can’t honestly say that everything has improved for everyone. But I’m glad to say that probably the majority of Irish people would look back on this, cringe, wonder ‘what the hell were we thinking?’ and get on with modern life.

    • Deb says:

      Modernity is from satan. “Superstition and absurd Catholocism”? Have you ever read the bible? If you have you really should know that Jesus’ words NEVER change, ever. The bible does not change. Jesus states in the bible “I hate divorce” excepting fornication (Matthew 19:9) and as far as condoms go, we should not be having premarital sex period. If we do we will certainly pay for it with the exception of repentance and need to atone for our sins and these are deadly sins. No need to feel embarrassed for your country. If you are embarrassed when it comes to God, he will be embarrassed when it comes to you. God bless.

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