Seminar on Callan sculptors

A SEMINAR on Callan sculptors the O’Tunneys and the O’Sheas, who lived and worked in the area in the 1500s and 1900s, will take place from July 27-29.

A SEMINAR on Callan sculptors the O’Tunneys and the O’Sheas, who lived and worked in the area in the 1500s and 1900s, will take place from July 27-29.

The seminar ‘Continuity in Stone, the O’Tunneys and the O’Sheas’ will take place in the Droichead Resource Centre and will open the Abhainn Ri Festival.

Following on from the extremely successful first conference in 2010, the Callan Heritage Society has organised a second conference on the tradition of stonecarving in Callan. Little is known about medieval craftsmen artists and less in Ireland. The work of the O’Tunneys is known because they signed and dated their work. This year’s conference also deals with the O’Sheas, who continued on the great tradition in the 19th and into the 20th century. The Callan Heritage Society received a small grant from the Heritage Council to help cover the cost of the seminar.

The work of the O’Tunneys, regarded as the finest in the country, has left an enduring mark on the churches and funeral monuments of not only Callan but as far away as Kilcooley Abbey in County Tipperary, Abbeyleix in County Laois and – one scholar says – Devenish in County Fermanagh. There is evidence to suggest that at least four O’Tunney men from their signed tombs – Rory, Patrick, William and James – and can thereby get a little closer to them than to other medieval sculptors whose work will probably remain anonymous. About 13 signed funeral monuments are known from the O’Tunneys, one in Callan St Mary’s, and there is much speculation and no agreement in attributing other work to them.

Little enough is known about the O’Tunney family – they crop up as office-holders in Kilkenny Irishtown in the 1500s. Fascinatingly, a man who was robbed of cows in 1578 was one Donagh Tonne, Mason, of Mallardstown (or Callan). The only other artist family of the time who also signed their work is the Kerins, also based in Callan. There is undoubtedly a connection between the two workshops.

The first seminar in 2010 had a range of presentations. This time the group will look at the work of the the O’Tunneys as well as on the work of the O’Sheas, another Callan family of sculptors who worked in Dublin and Oxford as well as locally (in Templeorum) and whose many Celtic crosses can be seen in many a graveyard including Graignamanagh. The O’Shea workshop stood where SuperValu is today.

The conference will be kicked off by Joe Kennedy, the stalwart of the Callan Heritage Society, after it is opened by Michael Starrett, chief executive of the Heritage Council. There will be a talk on the context of ordinary people’s lives in the 16th century by Dr David Edwards and an O’Tunney expert Dr Rachel Moss will speak specifically about the inscriptions on the tombs. There will be a presentation by Gerard Crotty on understanding coats of arms and Con Manning will talk about St Mary’s parish church Callan and about the Augustinian Friary – this is an opportunity to hear about the little-discussed St Mary’s by an acknowledged expert.

Two presentations on the O’Sheas will be by Michael O’Dwyer and by Paul Arnold, the architect whose firm has recently cleaned the Museum Building in Trinity College Dublin and who has promised us great visuals. The two days will be chaired by Cóilín Ó Drisceoil and Beatrice Kelly. There will be outings to Gowran and to north-west Kilkenny as far as Kilcooley Abbey where there are no less than four signed O’Tunney monuments.

Anyone who would like to learn about the sculptors whose graveslabs and altartombs and other carved work lie all around us in medieval churches and graveyards is invited to attend the seminar. Bookings can be made in advance by filling out the booking form and posting it and payment to Rosemary Ryan, Callan Heritage Society, Tuitestown, Dunnamaggin, Co Kilkenny. It is possible to attend part of the seminar. For enquiries and booking forms, email The seminar kicks off the Abhainn Rí Festival, which takes place in Callan from July 27 to August 5.

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