The shrine around the well
On the slopes of a lumpy mountain sits a well tended by numerous sheep, and beneath lies the remains of an incredibly important religious foundation complete with the saint’s resting place. The well is dedicated to Saint Monnina, who has a number of alias’; Saint Dareca and Saint Bline and a few other Irish forms of these names. Her memory is so strongly connected to the place that each new generation has kept her in a fond remembrance with their own affectionate name for her, although in recent years she has almost been forgotten. Saint Monnina is said to have been the sister of Saint Enda, daughter of King Machta and later said to be a sister of Saint Patrick (which is highly unlikely). There is another more likely tale that tells of Saint Patrick passing through the area to baptize new believers and King Machta and his wife Comwri brought the young Monnina to be baptized by him. Monnina was said to have lived and preached an austere life and this may explain why the site of her burial is not a shrine church, but instead a simple stone slab in keeping with some other Irish saint’s graves. We can be fairly certain that it is her grave though. It was tended without interruption for almost one and a half thousand years, and even after the dissolution of the monasteries the grave was a place of pilgrimage.
Saint Monnina's Grave
Monnina seems to have been more inspired by the activity of the Desert Fathers than by Saint Patrick’s diocesan church system and tales of her life are full of examples of very extreme self-sacrifice. Most of the knowledge of Monnina comes from a closely guarded text of great antiquity held in Salamanca. It’s date is unknown, but the written Life is attributed to the early scholar Conchubran. Sadly, partly because this text is so closely guarded, there is much mis-information regarding Monnina, particularly prevalent in the work of ‘Butler’s Lives of the Saints’ which quotes an enormous amount of inaccurate materials of a more modern date (mainly Archbishop Ussher) and harmonises Monnina’s tales with those of the ninth century obscure saint by the name of Modwena. Much of the other material regarding Monnina has only been kept alive in the memory through the ancient Irish rhymers. Monnina is said to have been baptized by Saint Patrick in the ‘Pool of God’s Abundance’. It’s not at all clear where or what this is, but one could propose that it was a place of early Christian pilgrimage. It is mentioned quite a number of times in various early saints lives, but never with any accomplanying descriptive material. It’s as if the reader should know and be familiar with what this is! Monnina returned to this site to make her vows as a nun and she immediately set about the task of learning the Psalms by rote. She remained under the instruction of a priest and a few others who took instruction from him, but she soon left to become associated with Saint Ibar in the western isels of Ireland. Ibar, after a time, sent her to an island off the coast of Wexford with a number of nuns and on the way the group made a pilgrimage to meet Saint Brigid and to learn from her and her foundation. Monnina was greatly impressed by the care given by Brigid to the sick and aged and the order was to remain there for some time. It is even said that Monnina took on a role in the hospital while there. It is here that Monnina began to display a rather austere approach to life. One tale tells of how a man brought here and her company of nuns new clothing as their habits were becoming tattered and old. Monnina immediately sold the lot and gave the money to the poor, saying she and her sisters had no need of them and that God provided all necessities for them. There are many miraculous tales too. At one point, when Monnina was said to take her leave of Saint Brigid’s community with her fifty nuns, they came across an area where a great river was in flood and it looked like they could not proceed on their journey. The flood was the result of one nun having sinned and stolen an artifact from Ard Conis. After the nun was admonished, she returned the object and at the behest of Monnina that flood waters subsided. It’s fairly clear that the life and times of Monnina is being paralleled with the story of Moses and the Exodus. Maybe this tale held great significance for her community, for certainly it appears they did live in a kind of wandering Exodus for many years.
A Cross in the Graveyard
Eventually Monnina and her nuns settled at Killeavey, where the people were said to have been heavily addicted to a form of paganism and witchcraft that was deeply destructive to the local communities. The people were said to have tied themselves in knots over a desire for retribution, revenge and placing curses on one another; sometimes these disagreements went back generations and the people were enslaved to them. Monnina deliberately sought a quiet and desserted place, both suited to her own spirituality associated as it was with the Desert Fathers, and to provide a haven for the local people to come and seek prayer and relief from the binding and destructive paganism that held such sway in the area. Over time King Macloithe became deeply imporessed by these women and their type of life, although he appears to have been very concerned that none of the women ate meat (although this could be a euphemism for something else! Early Irish texts are not quite so ‘proper’ as we would be and they are not without strange little quips and innuendo). This King became a benefactor to the group, helping them to establish the community and build a number of churches. Conchubran, in his Life of the saint, describes the church as stone dressed planks in a style that the Scottish are partial to. A small stone cross was erected at the centre of the community and the nuns became known throughout all of Ireland for their dedication in prayer. Many people made the journey from both far and near to visit the nuns and plead for their intercession. At times, various other saints and holy men and women had to come and keep Monnina in check because she had a tendency to inflict such an austere programme of fasting that some nuns were literally brought to the very edge of death! Monnina was very strict on herself and later in life she describes how she was visited by angels, but there are hints that the other nuns are skeptical and believe that this is the product of her mind after severe fasting. Despite a life of such incredible austerity, Monnina lived to a very considerable age. We are told that late in life she was to play a very considerable part in the Synod of Easdra. Some more modern accounts tell of her missionary activity in Scotland, but this is certainly not Monnina, but rather the somewhat obscure Saint Modwena. We do not know the date Monnina was born and we do not know what date she died, but all records suggest she died on 6th July.
The pilgrim path to the holy well
Today there are a number of remaining churches in Killeavy. It was one of the most important convents in all of Ireland. It existed for almost one and a half thousand years, surviving two major tragedies – the great Viking raid in which many local monastery’s and convents were completely destroyed and tales of a great and terrible storm that was so severe that almost all of the churches in the area were either damaged or totally destroyed and many thousands of people killed by collapsing buildings. The fourth abbess of Killeavey, Sr Derlaisre, is said to have planned to build a fine wooden church within the walls of the community. She is said to have asked, by intercession of Saint Monnina for the materials and the very next morning a kind local is said to have anonymously left all the seasoned wood that was required. A chronicler of the area in 1110 records a visit to the new stone church where a gable of the old wooden church is preserved as a miraculous relic. By the late twelfth century the foundation had become Augustinian and was to remain so until dissolved in 1542 when the last abbess Alicia O’Hanlon left with her company of nuns to seek a new place. The land was given to Sir Marmaduke, who all but ignored it, although this was good in terms of its preservation in some respects. Sadly in 1768 the magnificent round tower, having been so badly neglected, collapsed in a storm one evening and the stone was soon after removed to be reused elsewhere. Today what looks like one large church is in fact two churches which have been joined together at some point. The western church is one of the oldest pre-Norman churches in all of Northern Ireland, and the east church dates to around 1450. A number of the stones used in both churches indicate that a considerable amount of recycling went on and some materials from the older churches have been incorparted into the present ruins. To the south lies the remains of the saint herself, capped with a stone slab seven feet in length and five feet across and one and a half feet thick.
The Holy Well
From the community boundary, walking down the south side, you can see a little pilgrims path that leads up onto the slopes of Slieve Gullion. On 6th July, a pattern is observed where people gather at the grave of the saint to say prayers and then make their way up this pilgrim path to visit her holy well. The Catholic Church, as with so many other patterns and holy well sites, suppressed the pattern during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This was done partly because of drunkenness and fighting that had become notorious at some patterns, but mainly because at that time, especially during the period of Catholic Emancipation, these practices were considered to be superstitious and part of an old Catholic culture, not in keeping with the traditions of Rome. Roman Catholic clergy at the time felt that the patterns represented an old way of life and faith associated with that period before emancipation and so in some ways it is understandable that they were keen to be rid it. The pattern here was initially suppressed by the church in 1825, revived in 1928 until 1934, foprgotten once again and then observed in the year of Pilgrimage in 1974 and marked ever since. This well almost disappeared from local memory even though it is recorded with its location in Concubar’s saint’s Life and in a number of local historians in the medieval period. If it were not for the determined and officially frowned upon actions of Fr James Donnelly, this well could have been completely forgotten about. He restored the well and with his own money constructed a shrine around it to ensure that people knew what it was. Today the shrine around the well reads, ‘Tobar Naoimh Blanthnaidh, AD 498-1929’. A walkway has been built around it recently to enable pilgrims to safely make 'rounds' at the holy well. It is a beautiful well, up a winding path that seems to go on for ever, and across a field that was full of new spring lambs when visited. A seat offers rest and a pleasant view and the water from the well contains many minerals, leaving a rusty stain on the stone where pilgrims have gathered it for years. The area is certainly conducive to the art of interior prayer, nestled as you are in the shadow of the great Slieve Gullion. Here sheep safely graze and it feels that God might indeed be listening. Sometimes there are tales told of people who see the ancient symbol of Christianity in these holy wells - the fish - and when they see it, it reminds them of God’s presence and how he hears our prayers. I didn’t see a fish in the well, but something dangling from the nearby rag tree on what was to turn into a very wet day, caught my eye. It was a little fish, but even before I spotted it this place had already invoked a special presence of God.
A wooden fish hangs from a rag tree near the well
View me, Lord, a work of Thine:
Shall I then lie drown’d in night?
Might Thy grace in me but shine,
I should seem made all of light.
But my soul still surfeits so
On the poisoned baits of sin,
That I strange and ugly grow,
All is dark and foul within.
Cleanse me, Lord, that I may kneel
At thine altar, pure and white:
They that once Thy mercies feel,
Gaze no more on earth’s delight.
Worldly joys like shadows fade,
When the heavenly light appears;
But the cov’nants Thou hast made,
Endless, know nor days, nor years.
In Thy word, Lord, is my trust,
To Thy mercies fast I fly;
Though I am but clay and dust,
Yet Thy grace can lift me high.
The view from the well as the mist rolls in
How to find it:
The easiest way to find it is from the carriageway from Belfast to Newry. Just before reaching Newry you will see signs to Killeavy churches. It’s further inland than you might think, but eventually the road comes straight to it. Walking up the south side of the community boundary wall, follow the well-trodden pilgrim path up the slope of the mountainside, past a seat and a wooden gate until you come to an open field. The well and shrine are at the top end of the field.