Friday, August 19, 2016

Saint Finbarr's Holy Well, Gougane Barra

Gougane Barra

Right on the border with Kerry the River Lee makes its picturesque appearance surrounded by the shelter of high hills and steep slopes to emerge as the great river that takes many turns and floods into loughs and lakes and pools before it finally flows through the centre of Cork city and out to sea. The life of Finbarr has the same meandering quality with its twists and turns through historical reference, ecclesiastical politics and even recent folklore. Untangling all the threads is not an easy prospect and some have more recently suggested that almost nothing can be said of this saint, so enriched by the numerous layers and patina of successive myths. Some have even suggested that Finbarr is completely mythical in character with no historical basis other than a re-appropriation of the cult of Saint Finnian of Moville [Movilla] (on the outskirts of Newtownards) for the purposes of a new locale. If this is the case, then he is one and the same with Saint Finnian who began life on the west coast of Britain, who moved to Moville to become a renowned scholar, who had an association with Britain's earliest historian (Gildas) and who (according to Adomnán) instructed Saint Columba as a young man. So is Finbarr really Saint Finnian; one and the same person?

The enclosure with central cross and cells at Gougane Barra

It is almost impossible to answer that question as so little of the ancient sources of the Life of Saint Finbarr survive. The issue is further complicated by ecclesiastical politics in a time of considerable church reform, involving the Bishop of Cork who was trying to regain his control of the Diocese of Ossory around 1200AD and whose predecessor had birthed the problem after the surprising loss of the diocese at the Kells-Mellifont synod of 1152. The Life document has an unusual obsession with Ossory sites and churches, linking them to the Diocese of Cork and fronting the saint as a uniting factor. It is possible to read the document in terms of a political tract and an attempt at re-uniting a diocese through a cult surrounding a local saint. The original written Life is lost and may only have been available in a written form as late as 1100. What we do have are a number of Life documents in which the hand of an editor or redactor can be seen and which have occupied scholars for many years. Rather than plough further into this issue and incur the wrath of the Rebel County, we shall instead take a look at Finbarr's holy well in the context of his Life document and in terms of the site and geography in which it resides and as we shall see, there may be some challenges to the idea that Finbarr is Saint Finnian in a new wrapping!

Interior of the nineteenth century church

Finbarr is said to have been born around 550AD near the town of Bandon in County Cork and to have studied in Ossory. On taking the tonsure, the monk cutting his hair is said to have remarked that his hair was very fair and Finbarr was the name given to him and may be a play on words for 'fair headed'. He then takes a journey to Rome with a number of other monks, stopping on his return to receive further instruction from Saint David in Wales. On returning to Ireland he lived a solitary life on a small island in Gougane Barra, before moving from here to live a settled life for a period in the Great Marsh of Munster (now Cork city). Here he gathered a band of monks to form a community and built a church which is now Saint Fin Barre's Cathedral. From here he appears to have travelled through County Cork to collect various saintly relics, almost as a tribute to the establishment of the churches in the Great Marsh of Munster (now a collection of small churches and not only one). It is in the process of one of these journeys that he falls ill, receives the Eucharist from the hand of Fiama and dies the same day. His remains were returned to Cork and he was buried in the churchyard. His grave today is incorporated into the ambulatory of Saint Fin Barre's Cathedral, topped with a large inscribed flagstone directly behind the high altar.

Saint Fin Barre's Cathedral, Cork city (image courtesy of the cathedral website)

The Life document of Finbarr is as remarkable as any other document of its type and time. It is full of stories of miraculous beginnings, of words spoken from the womb, miraculous healings of the deaf, the dumb and the blind and even stories of resurrection by the sprinkling of holy water from a well. The saint is also said to have had the touch of God and as a result his permanently glowing hand had to be forever kept in a glove. On the day of his death the monks prayed to have a little while longer with him and through their intercession the sun did not set for twelve days before his death! Today he is the patron saint of the city of Cork with a grand cathedral in a French Gothic style with its famous trumpeting angel of judgement on the roof of the sanctuary. You can see a fine carving of Finbarr as a Bishop high in the nook of Ireland's tallest cathedra in the cathedral chancel, with a relief of his face carved in the side. A considerable number of saints arose from his foundations and the establishment of the city of Cork owes much to his memory and influence. But it isn't only in Ireland that Finbarr makes a mysterious appearance and this may form part of a rejection of the idea that he is merely a local reincarnation of Finnian. Saint Finbarr appears in a number of places throughout Scotland and local tradition about the saintly dedications claim to have their root in Ireland. The most notable of these is on the island of Barra which sports an ancient church ruin dedicated in his name. We also know that some Scottish breviary had a liturgical form of the Life document incorporated into them, the only surviving one being the Breviary of Aberdeen (1509AD).

Cross inscribed slabs in the cells, inscribed by modern pilgrims.

Personally I would lean more heavily to the idea of Saint Finbarr as a historical figure in reality and not a re-appropriated saint for a local people. While there isn't much sure evidence of this, I find the argument that the Life document has a commonality with the history of Saint Finnian to be somewhat unconvincing and I would place more trust in the oral tradition than most would probably dare. Finbarr's Life has undoubtedly been appropriated for various means throughout time, but for me the sheer strength of his cult and its geographical spread hint at a real historical figure.

Inscription on the plaque of the central cross in the enclosure.

Gougane Barra, where Finbarr spent time in isolation, is a very beautiful and peaceful place. The island is quite small, but the site is well protected from the elements and is frequently visited. It has a tiny nineteenth century church that today is very popular as a venue for weddings. A square enclosure houses a number of cell structures and a large cross in the middle proclaims that one is the original cell of Saint Finbarr. In reality the whole structure is an early eighteenth century reconstruction by a priest called Fr Denis O'Mahony who retreated to the island and spent a considerable amount of time there. It is quite possible however, that some manner of cell structure existed here whether connected directly to Saint Finbarr or not and it has been reincorporated into the present enclosure. During the worst of the penal times the island became deeply significant for Roman Catholics as a place where mass could be celebrated in peace and without the threat of repercussion. 

Saint Finbarr's Holy Well.

The holy well is still visited, although these days mainly by tourists who throw coins into it despite the signs that ask them not to. It is a basic square stone structure right on the side of the lake, topped by a large flat stone and a mound of grassy earth. Local legend has it that when Finbarr arrived at Gougane Barra a great serpent lived in the waters of the lake and he cast it out. As it fled the scene its great bulk carved a channel in the earth all the way to the sea, thus creating the River Lee. It is best to visit the site early in the morning or late in the evening as it can become very thronged with tourists and very noisy with wedding parties. The Saint Finbarr Pilgrim Way is also a good way to visit the well and site. It has been recently revived and takes place each year on the saint's feast day (25th September) from Drimoleague to Gougane Barra; although you can walk the trail at any time of year. Gougane Barra also has a number of walks with many species of trees to see and beautiful scenery and some deer if you're lucky. It also boasts Ireland's top toilet!

Ireland's top toilet!

He was the clear well through which the sins of all the people entrusted to his care by God were washed clean by the purity of his teaching.
Portion from the early vernacular Life 
(transl. by Pádraig Ó'Riain, Irish Texts Society).

The view from the causeway to the island.

How to find it.
From Cork, the easiest route is to go out the N22 taking the R584 (to the left). Follow this road out until you see signs for Gougane Barra. It is quite a journey on a winding country road. On arrival at the site walk down the lake edge towards the causeway out to the island. the holy well is on the right at the start of the causeway. The enclosure of cells and the church are all on the island.

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.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Saint Scire's Well, Kilskyre

The plaque at the holy well

Kilskyre is a sleepy little village in Meath close to the town of Kells whose history is anything but sleepy. The village grew up around a site settled by the female Saint Scire of the lineage of the Uí Choacháin and most notably the daughter of Saint Cuman. Cuman was the sister of Broicseach (the mother of Saint Brigid of Kildare). Saint Cuman's own church settlement was in County Kilkenny and the church was dedicated to Saint Brigid. There is an ancient story that tells of Cuman meeting Saint Patrick when she was pregnant with her first child. Patrick blessed Cuman with his crozier or tau, and the imprint of the cross was said to have remained forever emblazoned on her forehead. At the same time, Patrick prophesied that Cuman would give birth to forty-five saints, both male and female. Her first born child became the Bishop of Aghanagh and many of the subsequent children were associated with the  churches and religious settlements of north Cannacht. Saint Scire on the other hand is closely associated with this particular area of Meath and her settlement formed part of the extensive property linked to the monastic settlement at Kells. The parish revenue of rents and tithes and the crozier of Saint Scire are listed as the guarantors in the charter of the Book of Kells. There is a second church that was possibly part of the settlement of Saint Scire in Kilskeery glebe in County Tyrone, but her feast day is not observed in Tyrone. There is some evidence of a link to the north though, particularly in the documented Life of Forannán of Alternan, which tells of the gathering of Saint Cuman's children by Colum Cille for a special assembly (possibly close to Sligo). In Kilskyre, Saint Scire was locally remembered on 28th September, but her actual feast day as appointed in the ancient martyrologies is fixed on 24th March. A very early Irish litany invokes her name along with many other female saints of whom little is known.

Saint Alphonsus' Church

In the period of Saint Scire the settlement seems to have enjoyed a time of relative peace and security and Scire herself was renowned as holy woman well practiced at fasting and penance. But part of this fame was due to Saint Scire's impressive lineage, not least the link to one of Saint Cuman's sons who later became High King at Tara, but the peace was not to last. Saint Scire's settlement seems to have later formed part of a union of three settlements of Diamor, Clonabraney and Kilskyre and was to become famous as a place of great learning and high scholarship. These were not the first settlements in the area though; Kilskyre itself has a rich heritage that predates its Christian occupation, having many passage tombs and standing stones which are indicators of a more ancient presence in the area. The Kilskyre site is opposite the present church and retains its round inner wall (none of the outer circular walls remain - if there were any). Inside there is a former Church of Ireland parish that restored the ruin of the original church, a base of a round tower and some ancient tombs with interesting carvings of figures with palms facing forwards. The peace and prosperity of the settlement was shattered by the Danes who plundered it in 949AD and then subsequently plundered it twice in quick succession. The King of Leinster sacked the settlement and another English invasion took place in 1170AD. Since that time the ownership of the area transferred through many hands and by the time the church on the settlement was restored by the Anglicans in the late 1500's it had already been lying in ruins for many years. It was not to flourish though, and gradually went into decline before finally closing.

Saint Alphonsus' Church was designed by J.J.McCarthy in 1870, restored extensively in 1999 at very considerable cost and a new window by a Dublin stained glass artist was installed more recently (2003) to commemorate the death of Patrick Aranyos in the Twin Towers in 1999. The stained glass window was funded by his mother. 

The stained glass window dedicated to Patrick Aranyos

The holy well at Kilskyre is one of three possible contenders. In the 1830's there is a listing of three wells surrounding the site of Saint Scire which were said to be able to cure any disease; one dedicated to the saint that lay south of the settlement, one called 'The Well Of The Miracles' and another called 'The Well Of The Heavenly Stone'. Dr P. Branagan tried to identify all three wells in 1970 in Riocht na Midhe, but one of the contenders to be Saint Scire's well had already dried up and been filled in before 1970. The other well that Dr Branagan identified was in Clonabraney, opposite the graveyard, but this today is dedicated to Saint Kevin. It is very likely that the current well dedicated to Saint Scire in Kiliskyre is in fact the correct one, also identified as such in John O'Donovan's mapping of the area in 1836. In 2008 the group 'Pride of Place' and a local historical society provided the funding to restore the well. It now has a large iron gate, a faux beehive structure with a gothic arch and a low perimeter wall. On the whole, it is a sympathetic restoration that will preserve the site for many years to come.

Saint Scire's Holy Well

My food, my ration,
my prayerful restraint
will not make me sinful
from eating.

A measure of dry bread,
head bowed in thanksgiving,
water from a pleasant slope
that is all one could ask.

A bitter, meagre diet,
thoughtful attention to one's book,
a hand stayed from quarrelling and visiting,
a calm easy conscience.

Blessed sight to see
the saints pure of soul,
thin emaciated cheeks,
skin weathered and lean.

Christ the Son of God, come to me,
my Creator my King,
my spirit seeks Him
in the kingdom where He is.

Let this place shelter me,
these holy walls,
a spot beautiful and sacred
and I there alone.

An eighth century Irish poem.

How to find it:
On entering the village of Kilskyre from the direction of Kells you will see the large church of St Alphonsus up ahead on the right hand side, but just before it is a turning to the left. Take this left and the holy well is only a short distance down this road on the right.

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.