Monday, September 29, 2014

Saint Maolcethair's Well, Kilmalkedar.

Kilmalkedar monastic site

Legend holds that this church and site was built by Saint Maolcethair (Maol Céadair or Maol Céaltair) and Saint Brendan some time in the mid to late 500's. It is a beautiful site that lies in peaceful repose at the foot of Mount Brandon on the Dingle peninsula not far from the Reasc settlement. In fact, this is where the newly signposted route for the turas, or pattern, begins which normally takes place on the 29th June. The feast day of Saint Maolcethair is 14th May. 

A Tau cross with an inscribed Latin cross

The site is littered with all manner of antiquities, including ancient crosses (including one that looks like it may be an unfinished decorated cross), ballaun stones, an old sun dial, some collapsed underground passages, a church and a number of grave slabs and ogham stones. The church itself is an ancient foundation with a twelfth century nave attached. The original church looks somewhat similar to the nearby Brendan's Oratory, but parallels have also been drawn with Cormac's Chapel in Cashel. 

The Alphabet Stone (Latin inscription on the left hand side)

The church houses a small cross and a large grave slab with a Latin inscription down the left hand side. It is thought that the first three letters represent the word 'Domini'. The ruins are an impressive size, but the original church would have been considerably smaller. The chancel and sanctuary were added in the twelfth century. The church is a good example of the Romanesque style, with an impressive doorway and a number of carved heads that have been reasonably well preserved.

The sun dial

Despite his lengthy and impressive genealogical lineage, very little is known of Maolcethair. He was originally from Ulster and the martyrology of Donegal lists his date of death as 636 AD and his lineage stemming from a previously unknown or unlisted Ulster King. Only one small fragment of story exists about his arrival in the area. On arrival from Ulster he undertook to settle the area and learnt of the ways and religious thoughts of the local people who believed in impersonal or ambivalent deities who inhabited the sea and the sky. His message of a single unified and personal  God was apparently well received! His name is slightly peculiar in that it is thought to be a pun relating to the cross of Christ. A legend tells of the cross of Jesus been hewn from a cedar tree and Maolcethair's name incorporates the Irish word for 'cedar'. It may -  at a stretch -  explain the preponderance of crosses on the site!

The well

The holy well is across the road, opposite the monastic site. In the middle ages this site was quite considerable, and wealthy too, being subject to the papal tax. A two-story stone late medieval dwelling was erected (possibly to house clergy and monks) and the well has been incorporated into the side wall at the very front of the house. It has a good flow and runs off through a stone carved channel into an underground culvert with worn stone steps leading down to it. It would appear that some of the original structure of the well has been preserved or re-used when the house was built.

The ogham stone

Almighty God, who in the passion of your blessed Son made an instrument of painful death to be for us the means of life and peace; grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ that we may gladly suffer for his sake; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Detail of the Romanesque doorway

How to find it: The site is very clearly signposted from the ring of Dingle around the peninsula. It lies at the foot of Mount Brandon and is the starting point for the trek up to the top of the mountain. The holy well is at the left hand corner of the ruined house across the road from the site.

A view out over the mountains in Dingle.


  1. interesting..... does it still hold a spiritual meaning to the whole congregations?

  2. Very much so. It is a stopping place on the pilgrim way of St. Brendan. The pilgrimage was important in medieval times, but interest has revived in recent times, and people walk the path to Mount Brandon.

  3. There is a ruin Abbey across the road. Is this where it is at? Last few times I have been there it has been locked up with a Private Property sign on it.

    1. There is a ruined house across the road. It shouldn't be locked up as it is an OPW site as far as I know.