Detail of the lectern in Saint Laserian's Cathedral
Old Leighlin is an ecclesiastical village in County Carlow, originally founded by Saint Gobanus who built the first monastery here and then left it in the care of Saint Laserian (he moved on to a monastery in Kilkenny). Saint Laserian (also spelt Lazerian) is also known as Saint Molaise and it’s the latter name that is associated with the well. Laserian was concerned that the church throughout the known world of the time lacked a liturgical unity. One of the main issues related to the date of Easter and because he was keen that the Irish monastic and Christian community settlements would conform to Roman liturgical custom, he called the famous synod at Leighlin in 632AD. At this synod the dating of Easter was settled and was later ratified at the famous synod of Whitby.
The interior of Saint Laserian's Cathedral
Saint Laserian’s fame spread and his monastery grew rapidly in it’s numbers during his lifetime, reaching a height at around 1,500 monks. The present church incorporates a thirteenth century building, with additions made during the fourteen hundreds. Following the reformation the Cathedral was restored and extended by Bishop Saunders in the late sixteenth century. Since then the building has been restored, butchered, ‘Victorianised’ and even saved from collapse with somewhat extreme measures. An archeological survey during 2001-2002 revealed a total of 44 buildings dating from the fifth to the fifteenth century, so the site was always of considerable importance.
Detail of the east window of the cathedral showing Saint Laserian. Stained glass of the Irish school by Catherine O'Brien.
Saint Laserian began his spiritual life in Rome, where he studied and worked for fourteen years and was ordained priest by Pope Gregory the Great. He may have received some training on the island of Iona in Scotland as his name is honoured in some parts of Scotland to this day. After a time in Ireland in Old Leighlin, he returned to Rome and was consecrated Bishop by Pope Honorius I. From this moment on he returned to Ireland to take charge of his monastery until his death. The site of his burial is unknown.
Saint Laserian's well (also know as Saint Molaise's well)
Saint Laserian’s well (or Saint Molaise’s well, as it is known locally) has a rather sad tale to tell. Today there are three newly planted yew trees at the well as a gesture to replace the famous Yew of Ross (Eo Rossa) which once stood there many centuries ago. The Yew of Ross was one of the five sacred trees of Ireland. It is mentioned in the twelfth century Book of Leinster and the lives of Saint Laserian and Saint Moling, both tell the tale of how the tree fell in the seventh century. Great care had to be taken with the wood and Saint Laserian apparently gave it to Saint Moling to help roof an oratory.
A cloutie, or rag tree
The well is surrounded by a modern concrete structure with well kept and somewhat regimented flowering borders. It’s on a fairly steep slope with an ancient wheel cross fixed behind the well. A pattern is observed here and there is a local ecumenical service, sometimes with a procession to the well on 18th April, Saint Laserian’s feast day. Sadly the well is dried up.
I spotted a local coming through a neighbouring field and I wanted to ask him whether or not the well re-appears in the winter during heavier rainfall. Before I can ask him he is already telling me about Mr Murphy in 1941 - a local who made his way to the well on crutches, but went home on his own two feet! But then he hangs his head and he takes off his cap and I begin to worry that he is about to tell me someone has died. He says, in a sober and serious tone, ‘That well has dried up, just like the church.’ I’m not sure I want to press him to find out exactly what he means - although I feel I have something of an idea – but he breaks his sober mood with a smile and says, ‘Well, I guess we can still both pray there and thank God that we’re alive.’ So off he went and I followed him and stood with him watching while he prayed, his stick over the well and his cap in his hand. After a few minutes he put on his cap, gave a wave and off he went.
A local man prays at the dried up well
There is something very sad about this well. People still seem to come to it to pray and even in the hope of healing. There is a cloutie or rag tree here and a small ‘altar’ of sorts holds all manner of talismans, hoped for intercessions and offerings given in hope or maybe thanks. It is still a sacred space, connected with more than one Saint, but without the babbling water the beating heart of this place really is gone.
Offerings left on a small stone table at the well
If the waters ever do return to this important religious and historical site and if you do decide to pay it a visit, you might continue the legacy of Saint Laserian and pray for the unity of the church.
God of peace and beauty who called your servant Saint Laserian to serve in the rolling hills of Carlow; bless all the clergy of your church, wherever they are called to serve and grant to them that unity which is your will that together they may bring the Gospel of unity, reconciliation and peace to all people; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
A ballaun stone in the graveyard of the cathedral
How to find it:
Old Leighlin is well signposted on the Carlow to Klikenny road (Don’t confuse it with Leighlinbridge). The village is a small collection of houses with a post office and the Cathedral cannot be missed. The well can be reached easily on foot from the Cathedral grounds. At the far end of the Cathedral grounds there are a set of stone steps leading down to the road. Follow the road up a short distance and the well is sign posted on the left with gates and a turnstile.
Detail of the Bishop's throne in Saint Laserian's cathedral