Friday, September 28, 2012

St James' Well, Carlingford

The Proleek Dolmen

Saint James' well isn't actually in the town of Carlingford, but it is immediately before the turnoff from the Greenore Road into the town. Carlingford takes its name from the 'fjiord of Carlinn' and as the name suggests, it might have been at one time a base for raiding Vikings who made good use of its sheltered position. It remains one of Ireland's best preserved Medieval towns, founded by the Anglo-Normans in the twelfth century. Today in the town you can see the remains of a Friary, a mint dating from 1467, a castle dating from around 1200 in which it is said King John stayed in and the narrow and distinctive streets associated with Medieval towns in Ireland. Add to this a number of good eating houses, plenty of pubs and beautiful views out across the lough and you have a vibrant little town steeped in history. The surrounding area is no less exciting in terms of its history and monuments. I've documented some of them here before on this blog, including the areas link with the Knights Templar. (see Our Lady's Well, Templetown). 

The remains of John's Castle, Carlingford

The whole area of Carlingford and the Cooley Peninsula is strongly associated with the tale of the Táin Bó Cúailinge which tells the tale of the famous warrior Cúchulainn who becomes entangled in a story of lust, power, battles and intrigue. Part of the battle involves a great epic battle between the two bulls of the opposing armies and the brown bull impales the carcass of the white bull on his horns, casting his entrails throughout the Cooley peninsula, then breaking up his body and finally carving up great mounds of earth near Carlingford and into Ulster.  The nearby Black Mountain has a cairn on top and Barnavave Hill has the remains of an ancient church. In behind the Ballymascalon hotel and a short walk to the far end of the golf course you will find the Proleek Dolmen. It's an impressive structure of around thirteen feet. At one time these stones were thought to be grave markers, but today the general consensus is that they are doorways into much larger structures. Behind the dolmen doorway a  large mound of earth and stones would have formed a structure that people could walk into. It's not at all clear if it served as a place to put the dead or if it had some religious or ritual significance in some other way. Close by are the remains of a wedge cairn with a long tapering gallery and a slab door that also faces west. This is most definitely a burial site and cremated remains would have been brought here. With it's close association to the dolmen, it might be that the dolmen mound was a sacred place of religious ritual and the wedge cairn is the burial site; but we simply do not know. 

The wedge cairn

Local myth and saga record an interesting version of events surrounding the formation of the dolmen and the wedge cairn. It is said locally that the wedge cairn is known as the grave of Para Buí Mór Mhac Seódín who was a giant who came to do battle with another giant by the name of Fionn mac Cumhaill. In order to impress the futility of this struggle upon his opponent, Para Buí Mór Mhac Seódín is said to have carried the thirty ton cap-stone to the battle site on his back and laid it on the three stones as a sign of his superior strength. Hence the nick-name given to the dolmen; 'the giant's load'. Today you will likely see a number of stones sitting on top of the dolmen and legend has it that if you can get a pebble to remain on top you will be married within the year or have good luck for the year.

The site of St James' well

Very little is known about Saint James' holy well, but there is a local Roman Catholic parish that bears the same dedication and has done for the last two hundred and fifty years. The Dominicans and the Franciscans had settlements in this area, but neither of them really have any strong association to St James. I think instead it must be an association with the Knights Templar again. The Knights Templar were the protectors of Jerusalem and were deeply involved for many years in the crusades and they had a presence on the Cooley peninsula. Saint James was seen as a patron saint of a sort for many involved in the Knights Templars, named at one stage as the 'matamoros'; the Moor slayer. On a rather more enlightened note, James is also the patron saint of pilgrims and very often his symbol is the same as that of travelling pilgrims - a scallop shell. 

The well

The well today is full of water and beside it a culvert runs a stream out of the site and out underneath the road. It's a peculiar site, being exposed to the road, yet there is a sense of peace about this place. Above the well is a modern cross erected in 1932, which tells us the area was refurbished and which asks us to pray for the donor. Curiously, the donor is not named. Behind this, on the ground, lies a collection of large stones laid out in the form of a large cross. I don't think they were ever a cross originally, but rather they appear to be stones that might have at one time formed the original housing of the holy well. As far as I know, no pattern is held here, but the local parish of Saint James does come here to say the rosary - especially before a funeral mass.

Stones laid out in the shape of a cross

To one side, under the shade of a large tree a headstone from 1998 sits in memory of all who were buried on this site. Apparently the site is an old burial ground for babies and very young children. There is a peculiar sadness to the absence of names and the missing tokens of those who were the parents who at one time grieved their significant loss. Thankfully the memorial stone erected in 1998 goes some of the way to reversing that sense of sadness, but it will forever be compounded by the dedication of this well site to the patron saint of pilgrims in a place where so many are buried who had barely begun their pilgrimage through this life before they were taken.

The stream and culvert at the well

If you get the chance, it's well worth travelling in the exact opposite direction, crossing the motorway and making your way out towards Louth village. Here you will find a little stone church dedicated to St Mochta. It sits in the middle of a field just outside the village and it has a very large Medieval Cathedral in front of it. Sadly, you cannot gain access to either now, but it is still worth seeing. 

Saint Mochta's House

This building is part of a monastic settlement on this site that dates back to the sixth century. Legend has it that St Patrick actually came here and founded the monastery in order to look after twelve lepers in the area who pleaded for his help. Patrick is said to have had great pity for them and then left them in the care of his most trusted and well-loved disciple, Saint Mochta. The site was raided by Vikings three times from 900-1100AD and these raids were so swift and brutal that very little was left. Saint Mochta's house dates form around the twelfth century and may be the shrine church where his relics and remains were kept, but it's proximity and positioning in relation to the large cathedral may also mean that the 'house' is a Baptistry. The Catholic parish church on its elevated position back in the town of Louth is also worth a visit to see the impressive Harry Clarke windows and the altar friezes detailing the life of Saint Mochta.

Saint Patrick by Harry Clarke

Mindful of the fact that the well site is also a graveyard for babies and children I thought it best to include a prayer here that acknowledges their presence.

O Lord, in every age you reveal yourself to the childlike and lowly of heart, and from every race you write names in your book of life; grant us the simplicity and faith of your saints, that loving you above all things, we may be what you would have us be and do what you would have us do. So may we be numbered with your saints in glory everlasting; through Jesus Christ, our Saviour.

Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid honouring the Christ child

How to find it:
Saint James's well is very easy to find as you can see it very easily from the road thanks to a large arched black metal sign at the site entrance. It is literally opposite the turn off towards the town of Carlingford, off the Greenore Road as you travel down the Cooley peninsula.

The well basin

1 comment:

  1. Just to let you know of a new holy wells forum -


    All interested parties welcome.