Thursday, March 13, 2014

Saint Patrick's Well, Carlanstown, County Meath

The interior of the holy well

The sleepy village of Carlanstown is located in north-west County Meath, cut through by the Moynalty River and surrounded by farmland. The settlement of this town has a long history, but the main bulk of settlement came when a bridge was erected over the river in the early nineteenth century. However it is the presence of the holy well and its unusual housing that suggests settlement from a very early date. The holy well itself is dedicated to Saint Patrick and it has a beehive structure built over it, thought to date from as early as the fifth century. This structure has earth laid up all around except for the entrance to the well, but the roof of the structure is kept clear of earth and weeds. It is a very unusual structure that seems to incorporate gothic arches that wouldn't be out of place in church or abbey. It appears that these have been added at a later date, perhaps after a collapse of the structure. Nevertheless, it holds a certain air of mystery. If these pointed gothic arches did come from a church or abbey, where exactly did they come from? The archaeology of this area is is pretty much non-existent, and despite considerable development of the village in the last decade, nothing has been uncovered in the earth. The only remaining possibility is that an early settlement may have been on the far side of the river; an area that is now farmland.

The granite dome over the well

Local folklore has it that this well was blessed by Saint Patrick as he was making his journey from Meath to Cavan. Inside the well basin there is a worn, red flagstone where Patrick is said to have stubbed his toe! As it bled, the stone stained red with his blood and has remained this way ever since. To one side another stone has two small holes; one where Patrick placed his thumb and the other said to be the place where he put his big toe. Of Saint Patrick's activity in this area we know nothing, not even if he actually ever passed through this way, although the OS maps from the early 1800's do mark this well as 'St Patrick's Well'. A local village tale tells of a Tipperary man who used to attend the Carlanstown fair every year to buy and sell cattle. After missing the fairs for a year he was contacted by a local who asked why he had not been attending. He explained that at the last fair he had made a considerable sum by selling all of his cattle for twenty sovereigns which he had hidden in the wall of the holy well. When he returned at the end of the fair to collect his money he could not find it and had left, returning home destitute. For the last year he had turned his hand to new trades in an attempt to make a new living. The local suggested that he pray at the well for the return of his money and as he did he noticed a small stack of twenty sovereigns just where he had left them!

Local villagers have prayed and held services at this well on Saint Patrick's Day for many years and it was believed that if you washed your eyes in its waters you could be cured of blindness and diseases of the eyes. Water was also taken from the well every Saint Patrick's Day to cook food, which was believed to be a cure for every ailment and would ward off ill health for the rest of your life. Today the well is badly neglected, even the approach to the holy well is problematic. You have to cross through two fields and over barbed wire fences to get to it. When I asked local people of its exact location, only one person out of about ten was able to tell me. The entrance to the well was badly overgrown with weeds; so much so that you could not see into it. Earth seems to have been further piled up around its sides, hiding much of its structure. The beehive well housing is actually surrounded by four granite walls in a square with a triangular terminating flagstone pointing east. Only the triangular flagstone is visible today.

The flagstone pointing east

This is a well in a very rural area in a pleasant village with a large open main street. It's something of a shame that the holy well is so neglected, but it is mentioned in the village development plan (2008-2015), although not as a protected structure. It seems strange that the only piece of ancient archaeology in the village has no protection, while even hedgerows and trees are listed later in the documents as being afforded protection under the development scheme. 

A cleft in the dome of the well

County Meath has many wells dedicated to Saint Patrick, and oddly enough they do arrange in a line that is said to plot the journey of the saint and his followers. Whether Patrick was truly at Carlanstown or not, his influence is still strongly felt and at some point in the ancient past of this town, someone (or possibly some community) felt it was necessary to cut granite and form a fairly significant structure around this well. As to who did it will likely remain a mystery for many years to come.

O well! which I have loved, which loved me;
Alas! My cry, O dear God!
That my drink is not from the pure well.

A verse from the Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick 
after Patrick blesses the well at Uaran-garad.




How to find it:
Carlanstown is a small village not far from Kells on the N52. If you enter the village from the far end over the bridge, pass down through the Main Street and instead of following the right hand bend, go straight on so that the school is on your right. Opposite the school is a field. cross this and into the next field, following the hedgerow by turning left. The well is straight ahead.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Saint Brigid’s Well, Liscannor, County Clare

The cliffs of Moher


There is a wildness in Clare like no other. It is not the bitter and majestic wildness of County Kerry; it is instead a contained wildness. Parts of it look relentlessly barren, but this Burren holds many surprises and many places of beauty both small and vast. Any visitor making their way up the winding roads towards the cliffs of Moher cannot fail to notice a holy well dedicated to Brigid, one of Ireland’s most loved and possibly most visited holy wells. This well has a long history and over time has developed a complicated set of rounds or turas’.  My journey began with a trip to the famous cliffs and I stumbled on this well by accident. I knew of its presence in the area, but my OS map, recently reprinted, oddly decided to leave out all holy well markings. I passed Brigid’s shrine at speed, but couldn’t help but notice her solemn form encased in glass keeping watch over a vista that looked down on small dotted cottages and a small town.

Saint Brigid

The cliffs of Moher reach a maximum of 702 feet above the roaring Atlantic, its name taken from a fort long gone. Twenty different species of birds occupy this fearsome bastion of rock and its views are certainly spectacular. Its wildness has been tamed by a somewhat ugly concrete and stone structure to contain tourists, but it is possible to make the journey along the cliffs where the structure dissolves into crumbling paths that give way to more spectacular views. Away from this exposed magnificence, just a short distance down the road is the little vale of trees that bow in solemn reverence to Brigid’s well.


The holy well entrance

Brigid’s shrine is divided into two sections; the upper sanctuary (Ula Uachtarach) and the lower sanctuary (Ula íochtarach). From the road I pass through a small gap in the low wall into a courtyard area with a large mound in the centre topped with a statue of Saint Brigid encased in glass that sits like a great lantern in the centre with Brigid as its only flame. Various pools are exposed in the circular round, indicating the presence of the well and a white painted lintel brightly exposes the way.  It has a mysterious atmosphere as the sun begins to fall low in the sky and the great cleft in the rock feels curiously daunting. As I enter it is dark and uninviting and the smell of dampness and its embracing coldness has a penitential feel. The walls are dripping with prayer; the petitions for the sick, with expressions of thanksgiving, wails of sorrow and grief and moments of hope. Planted at their centre is a crucifix that looks hewn in hawthorn, worn down by burden and incarnationally present amidst this mass of prayer and devotion. Passing down this rock of ages a few small candles flicker towards the light rattle of water into a trough. Here is the well, said to visited by a fish – an indication that this well is truly ancient in its Christian tradition – the fish being a symbol of Christianity that predates the cross. Passing down this cleft in rock is a little like passing through time to a more ancient faith, to a purity of prayerful expression. This vale of solace is a far cry from the exposure of the cliffs.

Offerings at the well

Pattern days are still observed at this well. There are four in all: the eve of the feast of Saint Brigid, Garland Saturday and Sunday, the last Sunday of July (and its Vigil – a harvest festival to ask blessings on the crops and animals) and the feast of the Assumption in August. In the past great gatherings of many hundreds of people took place here with people from all over County Clare and the Aran Islands who covered the site in small flickering candles as they prayed. The Rite of Saint Brigid at the well is still said today, although in a slightly less demanding format. The pilgrim makes a salutation to Christ, then Brigid and Mary (this is known as a ‘rann’, or ritual verse), reciting numerous ‘Hail Mary’s’ and ‘Our Father’s’ and ‘Creed’s’ before reciting the same at various points along the path through the lower sanctuary and up into the upper sanctuary before finally entering the well.

The cross in the upper sanctuary

The upper sanctuary is accessed by a small winding path that makes its way up through the trees to a stone cross that stands at the entrance to an ancient cemetery, said to be the burial grounds of the Kings of Dái gCais and containing the mausoleum of Cornelius O’Brien. Cornelius O’Brien was an interesting local character who was highly regarded in his day.  He was a solicitor for Ireland from 1811 and became magistrate for Clare. Despite being a Protestant landlord, local Roman Catholics held him in high esteem for his political stance in relation to Ireland and for his care of tenants. He took great care of his tenants houses, ensuring they were always in habitable condition and well maintained and clearly had a great love of the area. He ensured there was ease of access to the cliffs of Moher and paid for pathways to be maintained and the erection of seating, a viewing tower and a structure known as ‘the Round Table’.  In 1840 Cornelius fell seriously ill while in England and sent for water from Liscannor holy well which he promptly drank. Attributing his recovery to the healing waters he endeavoured to restore Saint Brigid’s holy well, which was in a state of considerable disrepair at the time, and he paid for its restoration and greatly encouraged devotion at the site. He returned to Ireland during the famine years and is said to have done all he could to provide food to the starving and later he established a national school for the area. However, like many landlords of the time he was not without a sense of self importance, ensuring that a prominent O’Brien monument would be permanently present at the well after his death and that locals would also remember his presence in connection to the well with his imposing mausoleum overlooking the entire cemetery. A short distance from the well there is another well by the road. This is not a holy well, but one that locals used for washing and gathering water for cooking and cleaning. Cornelius O’Brien created a stone housing for the well, topped by his crest. History was to be unkind to Cornelius as Ireland’s political landscape shifted in a way in which he might have approved of, yet set him squarely on the wrong side of the fence. Despite his own actions and political sentiment, his denomination and his national allegiance was to unfortunately tarnish his record in an area where dreadful atrocities were committed and whose people were unable to distinguish him any longer from the newly deposed ruling elite.

Saint Anthony, to help you find what you lost

It is not difficult to understand why this holy well is so popular, quite apart from the fact that it is on a very popular tourist route. It’s sheltered spot gives a sense of relief to the pilgrim and tourist alike with a feeling of shrouded mystery to its dark cleft leading to the well and its rambling graveyard. This is a place that undoubtedly rewards return visits, yet is best frequented early in the morning or a little later in the evening to avoid the throngs.

The holy well

Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless, look to thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyes are closed in death,
When I soar through tracts unknown,
See thee on thy judgement throne;
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee.

Augustus Toplady (1740-78)

Looking out from the well

How to find it:
The well is impossible to miss! One mile down the hill from the car park at the cliffs of Moher on the right hand side you will see the statue of Brigid in her glass case surrounded by a low stone wall.

The Stack at the cliffs of Moher

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Holy Well At Reask, County Kerry

Gallus Oratory


The Dingle peninsula boasts a huge number of impressive archaeological sites. You can almost stand in one place and throw a stone to hit the next one. As you travel through them it is easy to become overwhelmed and unable to take it all in as you move from the Iron Age to very early Christianity to the Late Medieval period all in the space of about thirty minutes. It is part of the problem of trying to visit a place like the Dingle peninsula in a few short days. It rewards repeat visits and an opportunity to spend time lingering at sites, rather than rushing through them. I began my day at Gallus Oratory; a fine, stone-built church in the early Irish style and quite possibly Ireland’s most famous building. It is somewhat difficult to date for a number of reasons: excavation has uncovered no evidence regarding its possible use, mortar is entirely absent from the stones that form the building and nothing was found inside it, but estimates suggest that it was built at some point between the 6th and 9th century. The name is a little curious too -  ‘Gallus’ can be translated as ‘place for the foreigner’ – but it may have been a stop for pilgrims as they made their way to the famous route towards the top of Mount Brandon.

The monastic site wall

Not far from here, although further in from the coast but not out of sight of it, is the monastic site of Reask (Riasc). This site was carefully excavated by Tom Fanning between 1972 and 1975. The outer walls of the site are still marked very clearly and there are a number of remains of beehive huts (Clochans) and a church. It’s not a huge site, but it is not insignificant either. It dates to around the 6th century, but we know absolutely nothing of its founder or occupants, other than they were Christian.

The large cross

Reask’s walls housed three crosses. One cross is on a stone slab in the Latin style with two small crosses either side of it; likely a reference to the two thieves crucified either side of Jesus. The other cross is very small and now quite badly weathered. On the front it has the letters DNO and on the back it has the letters DNI. The third cross is by far the most impressive being just over one and a half metres tall with a Mediterranean style cross inscribed and ending terminals in the famous La Téne form of Celtic art. It is suffering a little from its exposure to the weather, but none the less imposing for it. Down it’s side are the barely legible letters DNE, thought to represent the simple plea, ‘O Lord’.

The holy well

The whole site is slightly raised from the surroundings, but the whole area is generally quite flat. The site was abandoned quite early on and turned into a graveyard for children, whose graves are marked with quartz stones. Towards the back of the site is the holy well. Sadly, we know no saint associated with this site - in fact there may never have been one – but this well would have been used by the community for many purposes, both ritual and practical. Today sadly, it is dry.

The view from the site to the Three Sisters headland

Although it may have been a small site, maybe housing around ten monks, it is clear that they were not without ability. The largest cross is finely carved and archaeological evidence points to trade with the Mediterranean an a number of other cross inscribed stones are on display in the Músaem Chorca Dhuibhiine in the nearby village. I was able to spend a little time here in the heat of the summer sun and I could see why the monks settled this site. It was sheltered and incredibly quiet, disturbed only by the occasional bee going about his work.

Full view of the large cross

You are the peace of all things calm
You are the place to hide from harm
You are the light that shines in the dark
You are the heart’s eternal spark
You are the door that’s open wide
You are the guest who waits inside
You are the stranger at the door
You are the calling to the poor
You are my Lord and with me still
You are my love, keep me from ill
You are the light, the truth, the way
You are my Saviour this very day.
Early Irish prayer (oral tradition)


How to find it:
From the town of Dingle make your way along the Ring of Dingle and the site is clearly marked. You will travel inland a little from the Three Sisters headland and travel up a narrow track road. The site is hidden just over the rise.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pinnacle Well, County Clare.


 The limestone of the Burren

The Pinnacle well in County Clare is situated in the Burren; a place of incredible natural beauty with a landscape that shifts and changes with every passing hour. The Burren is the largest karst landscape in all of Europe, with spectacular limestone pavements interrupted by long and sometimes very deep fissures. It’s geology is extreme and impressive. The soil rarely dips below 6 degrees centigrade and it is thought that the extensive amount of rock in the area retains the heat to create a kind of micro-climate that allows a flora and fauna to flourish that exists nowhere else in Ireland.

 Doolin cave stalactite
 
The Burren is rich in archaeological sites dating back to the very earliest period in Ireland’s history. It has over ninety portal tombs, numerous dolmens, many religious sites and holy wells. It is also an area rich in caves, very few of which have been fully explored, although two are open to the public, one of which has evidence of use by the now extinct Brown Bear. The Doolin Cave is particularly impressive, having one of the largest stalactites in the world.

 The Pinnacle Well (or Tobercornan)
 
The Pinnacle well is situated by the verge of the coast road near to Gleninagh Castle. It is a small spring that fills a stone basin and in 1860 a Gothic Revival style housing was built over it with a corbelled rubble-stone roof, dressed stone gable copings and corner pinnacles. It is a very decorative housing, with faux corner buttresses and an arched doorway into the well that give it the appearance of a small chapel or oratory. 

 The well basin
 
It is unclear if there was any particular saint associated with this well, but it has always been considered a holy well, and the fact that such an impressive (and faux religious) structure was built around it demonstrates just how important it was considered. The well is also known as Tobercornan, but there is no saint by the name of ‘Cornan’ in Ireland (at least not a recorded one), although it could be a mis-spelling of St Cronan who has a strong association with the area. However the site is still considered a holy place and there are items inside the well housing that sets it clearly within a religious context.

Offerings at the well

Despite ireland’s annual rainfall figures, the Burren can be a remarkably dry place and in the past drought was not unknown. The closeness of the bedrock to the surface and the network of caves mean that little water collects on the surface. There are very few rivers and lakes in the area, yet oddly enough Clare probably has the largest number of holy wells anywhere in Ireland. Although these wells may have had a religious function and significance, they were also essential for survival, and in this instance the people of Ballyvaughan relied upon water from this well during times of drought.

 A full view of the pinnacles, buttresses and arched doorway
 
God of hope, God of healing and blessing, God of refreshment and peace, shower down upon us with your infinite love and righteousness. Send your Holy Spirit to fill us with faith. Lead us to green pastures and make us to lie down by still waters, refreshing our souls and giving us peace; for you live and reign with your Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. 
Amen.


 A donkey opposite the well


 

How to find it:
The well is right on the roadside of the R477 in the townland of Gleninagh North, before reaching Ballyvaughan.

 Poulnabrone Dolmen.