Our Lady of Bethlehem (Athlone Madonna)

Our Lady of Bethlehem

An old wooden statue of Our Lady holding the Christ Child is preserved in our monastery. It was carved from bog oak, hence the dark colour of the wood and the reason why she is known affectionately by the sisters as ‘The Black Lady’. She has accompanied our Community for the best part of four centuries. In art history circles the statue is often referred to as the ‘Athlone Madonna’ because the motherhouse of our Community was a monastery known as ‘Bethlehem’ near Athlone on the shores of Lough Ree. The Poor Clare community had arrived there in about 1631, having been expelled from Dublin. By 1642, the political situation in Ireland was such that remaining there would have been dangerous for the sisters. In January 1642, one group of sisters, among whom were some native Galwegians, left Bethlehem to make a foundation in the relatively safer environment of Galway .

Meanwhile, in the Summer of 1642, the remaining sisters in ‘Bethlehem’ were forced to flee. Mother Bonaventure Browne in her Chronicle of the early history of the Poor Clares in Ireland outlined what happened. (The excerpt below has been modernised  by Fr. Celsus O' Brien)  

The Sisters spent some weeks there until they were finally warned that the heretics were on their way to the convent. They then escaped in boats to the other side of the lake. Seeing that their evil intentions came to nothing, the ruthless heretics entered the convent and stayed there for three days and three nights. They ate all the food of the poor Sisters and made great sport and mockery of the altars, pictures, ornaments and sacred objects found there. Some of them put on the nuns’ habits and said as a jest, “Come let’s say Mass while you serve us”. Finally, they set fire to the convent and everything that was in it only God preserved miraculously the tabernacle in the Choir where the Most Blessed Sacrament used to be kept and before which the Sisters prayed fervently for deliverance from their enemies; and likewise an old statue of Our Blessed Lady. Both of these were made of wood.



The statue was later brought to Galway when the Bethlehem community dispersed. The statue has been carefully looked after and cherished by our Community ever since and the Mother and Child are invoked regularly as we pass by on our way to and from the Choir for prayer. Details of the statue can be viewed in the gallery below. 

In 1948, the statue was included in an exhibition in the National Museum. While it was out of the monastery experts treated the wood in order to preserve it for future generations. Our archives contain a series of letters from the director of the exhibition, Caitríona MacLeod.

She had authoured an article three years previously in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland outlining the known history of the statue and comparing it with two other famous wooden Madonna statues in the West of Ireland which survived the nation-wide destruction which arose from religious persecution. We are grateful to the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland for permission to reprint the article below. Anyone wishing to use the article for any other publication must obtain a further permission from the RSAI.

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Medieval Figure Sculptures in Ireland- Medieval Madonnas in the West

1940s letters of Caitríona Mac Leod re the stsue of Our Lady of Bethlehem

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Almighty, eternal, just and merciful God,
grant us in our littleness [the grace] to do for You alone
what we know You want us to do,
And always to desire what pleases You.
Thus, inwardly cleansed, interiorly enlightened
and inflamed by the fire of the Holy Spirit,
may we be able to follow
in the footprints of Your beloved Son,
our Lord Jesus Christ.
And, by Your grace alone,
may we make our way to You, Most High,
Who live and rule in perfect Trinity and simple Unity,
and are glorified God all-powerful forever and ever.

St. Francis - Prayer from the Letter to the Entire Order.