Sunday, August 28, 2011

Saint Begnet’s Well, Dalkey Island.

The town of Dalkey

Dalkey is a small coastal town in County Dublin.  The area has been inhabited since Neolithic times, but reached an incredible level of importance during the medieval period as a major Irish port. It has a number of standing stones dotted throughout the town, a couple of small castles and the ruins of a ninth century church dedicated to Saint Begnet.

The ninth century church of Saint Begnet in the town of Dalkey

Much of the story of Saint Begnet is lost in the mists of history. Her name is recorded in the eleventh century genealogies of Irish saints as Becnat, daughter of Colman who was the son of an aristocratic family of Dal Messin Corb. This family ruled Leinster, but in 700AD lost their power and were confined mainly to the Wicklow mountains. Saint Kevin of Glendalough was also thought to be from the same family line and interestingly the churches of Begnet eventually come under the control and protection of the great monastery of Glendalough.

Saint Begnet fled to Britain – possibly to escape an arranged marriage – where she was converted. It is said that she spent some time on an island off the Northumberland coast, before returning to Ireland on a number of missionary journeys, concentrated in the area of Dalkey. She is now the patron saint of the town and her feast day is on 12th November, as is recorded in the medieval Book of Obits of Christ Church Cathedral. You can see a somewhat curious ‘icon’ of Saint Begnet in the Church of the Assumption in the centre of the town in which she sports a fancy gold bangle which legend has it was given to her by an angel on her conversion. A bangle was said to have been preserved for some time as a relic of Saint Begnet in Saint Bee's convent in Britain.

Saint Begnet

The well is on Dalkey Island. A quick phone call to a ferryman and I was instructed to meet him at Coliemore Harbour in one hour. Coliemore Harbour is a steep enough descent from the town. It was built in 1868 and it’s a rather inviting, sleepy little harbour. The ferryman is there, so I step onto the small boat and make my way across the short but very deep stretch of water towards Dalkey Island.

Coliemore Harbour

Dalkey Island has an incredibly chequered history for a place that is so small. The island has been inhabited for an amazingly long time. A skull was found, filled with periwinkle shells, during an excavation in the 1960’s which was dated to 2,500BC. Both Mesolithic and Neolithic remains have been found, along with pottery and glass fragments from slightly later periods. 

The church on the island is dedicated to Saint Begnet. The church here is in fact later than the ruin in the town, dating from the eleventh century. The fireplace in it is from the time of the fort and Martello tower, when a few extra windows were also added. However the original windows are arranged in a very strange way and it’s thought that it relates to the keeping of a solar calendar. Behind the church is a curious stone, marked with a cross. It’s thought that this stone may have been a very ancient pagan stone that has been ‘Christianized’. It has evidence of having a carved circle on it but sadly it is now weathered so much that it is difficult to make out the shapes on it.

The eleventh century church of Saint Begnet on Dalkey Island

Tradition has it that Begnet carried out one of her many missions on this island in the early seventh century, baptizing the new converts in the well near the shore. Today the well is associated with the curing of scurvy, which seems appropriate being the point of the passage of so many sailors and merchants down through the years. The holy well is in fair condition and whitewashed, so it can be easily seen. It has evidence of once having a little gate at the front of it -  but this has long since rusted away. The construction around it today is modern, but to the left of the well entrance there does appear to be some original stone work of a very rough-hewn style. The water rises into a small basin and overflows through a metal pipe into the sea. It’s not an easy well to find as it’s slightly hidden on the coastline. The best way to find it is to try and spot it before you make your landing on the island. It is easily spotted from a boat. It’s a sheltered and quiet spot, where the waves lap gently and the seaweed swirls around the rocks. It isn’t possible to make rounds at this well, but there are plenty of rocks to sit on and admire the view and take in the benefits of the sea air. You may wish to pray for the safety of all those who make their living on the sea.

Lord Jesus Christ, at whose word the winds and waves calmed, grant to all who share in the faithful heritage of your servant Saint Begnet, a calmness of spirit and stillness of mind, that we may know and serve you in peace all the days of our lives.

Saint Begnet's Well

The Vikings are supposed to have raided the Christian settlement on the island and the island was put to use as a storage point for slaves. The surrounding tides and currents are extremely dangerous and anyone trying to swim the short distance to the shore of Dalkey would need to be a very strong swimmer indeed in order to make it there alive.

In the eighteenth century a festival was kept on the island that culminated in the crowning of a mock King of Dalkey with these words, “I crown you, His facetious Majesty, [Name], King of Dalkey, Emperor of the Muglins, Prince of the Holy Island of Magee, Elector of Lambay and Ireland's Eye, Defender of his own faith and Respecter of all others, Sovereign of the illustrious Order of the Lobster and Periwinkle”. Records claim that 20,000 people attended the festivities, but it all came to an end in 1798, when a ban was placed on such gatherings due to the political concerns of the time.

On the south end of the island is a well preserved fort with three remaining canon battlements and a Martello tower erected to counter the threat of invasion from Napoleonic France. At this end of the island there are some cliffs -  not very high, but not ones you would like to fall over! There are rabbit holes everywhere here and you can easily fall over and if you aren’t careful, you could break an ankle. Along with the brown rabbits you will see a small herd of feral goats, numerous terns, seagulls, cormorants and a seal or two.

The Martello Tower

Dalkey Island is beautiful and well worth a visit, but do be warned, the island is very exposed so you really must bring some sort of coat. Heavy shoes are also essential. You could quite easily spend a couple of hours on the island and for somewhere so close to Dublin city it is remarkably unspoilt.

Saint Begnet’s church in Dalkey village is also worth visiting. It is marked on the tourist map from the tourist centre and access to it is gained through the tourist centre. There are a few items of interest, including a slab stone and a few ancient pagan stones inscribed with crosses. It's a reasonably peaceful place, but it is still on the street, but within the walls of the ruin it's actually quiet enough. Cardinal John Henry Newman spent the summer of 1854 in Dalkey and he visited the well on Dalkey Island and it's church. Soon, no doubt, he too will be a saint and his name will join the ranks of Begnet and Kevin.

Lord, may you support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed and the fever of life is over and our work is done; then in your mercy may you give us a safe lodging and a holy rest and peace at the last.
Cardinal John Henry Newman

Dalkey Island

How to find it: 
From the town centre travel down Coliemore Road towards Coliemore Harbour. The telephone number for the ferryman is painted on the wall! You can also hire a boat from Bullock Harbour at the north end of the town. As you approach the island the well is whitewashed, so it can be spotted easily from the sea. It’s quite close to the coastline, between the church and Martello tower. 

Dalkey Island with the church of Saint Begnet and the well (the white spot on the coastline on the right of the picture)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Fr O’Donnell’s Well, Ardmore

Not a great deal is known about the character of Fr O’Donnell, but it is said that he would walk around Ardmore cliffs and settle in a particular area to say his office. At the very spot where he is said to have prayed, a spring appeared and it’s waters made their gentle way down the cliff face.

 The construction at the well

In 1928, a Mr. Rahilly from Limerick was staying in Ardmore, recovering from an illness. He claimed that the well had curative powers and that after he had partaken of its waters, he found it to be particularly potent in the healing of eye ailments. With some local help, Mr. Rahilly set to work to construct the somewhat hideous pile of stones that now reside there. It’s a large and ugly arch over a small uncomfortable stone seat with the well springing up from underneath it. It feels a little like sitting on an outside toilet and I fear I was not moved to prayer, despite the stunning beauty of the surrounding area.

The well under a stone seat

It is said that Mr. Rahilly expected the site, or at least hoped that it would become a site similar to Lourdes. This is Irish folk religion at its very worst. Only around the corner is a site of national and primary importance for the island of Ireland and here is another well that attempts to steal its glory but in no way manages to have the same sense of serene peace. It is surprising that this well has survived at all as Fr O’Donnell, with whom it is closely connected is not a saint, but was a silenced, defrocked priest.

A bank of heather at Ardmore cliffs

This isn’t a well I am particularly fond of. It has no sense of place, little history and spurious beginnings. I’ve said I would visit as many wells as possible, and this is one on the list. It’s on the path of the Ardmore cliff walk, so you can’t miss it – unfortunately.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Saint Declan’s Well, Ardmore

Possibly an image of Saint Declan on the outer West wall of the Old Cathedral

Ardmore is a beautiful and very picturesque village on the coast in County Waterford. On the west side of the village, on a slight slope up from Saint Paul’s Church (which houses a very fine early Christian font) is the ruin of the old cathedral dating to the twelfth century with fairly impressive external panels on the West wall which date from around the fourteenth century, an intact and imposing round tower and a small oratory dating from the eighth century thought to contain the remains of Saint Declan. 

The round tower on the site of the Old Cathedral and Oratory.

Saint Declan, a prince of the tribe of the Decies, arrived in Ireland before Saint Patrick and is regarded as the first person to bring Christianity to Ireland. His mission had only local success, but he did found a significant monastery in Ardmore, so it seems rather fitting to begin here where it all once began and to pay a visit to a well that oddly is not on the main ecclesiastical site but to the east of the village centre, up along the early stages of the path to the cliffs.

Saint Declan's Well

The well itself is in a small, flattened area at the very beginning of the cliffs that tower over the village and spread out in a horseshoe shape away from the main bay. It was thought that this area was somewhere that Declan liked to sit and pray and reflect. There are the remains of a very early church that has a capstone on the remains of the east wall full of the scratches of people marking crosses on their pattern observance. There is also a well with two points of access, capped by a large grouping of stones with two crosses above it. There were originally three crosses – the one on the left representing the unrepentant thief, the central cross representing Christ and the cross on the right representing the repentant thief. Sadly, the cross which was on the left has gone astray; possibly stolen, but some locals suggest it may have broken off and simply rolled off into the sea below.

The east end of the ruined church at the well, marked with rubbed crosses from pilgrims on pattern.

This area is a very beautiful and peaceful place and as a well site it has a very authentic feel, with its old ruined church and very early cross carvings over the well itself. Its waters are clear and refreshing and there are a few places to sit and contemplate and pray. The well is normally accredited with curative properties for eyesight which seems suitable enough seeing this was the first place in Ireland for the light of the Gospel to appear.

Saint Declan's stone on Ardmore beach

Saint Declan has a great many myths and stories relating to his time in Ireland despite the fact that his mission was very much limited to a particular area. On the beach near the village you can see Saint Declan’s stone. A monk Runanus, travelling with Declan back from a trip to Wales, forgot to bring Declan's sacred golden bell. The legend goes that a rock bore the sacred object back to Ardmore, miraculously floating upon the waves. During the pattern, which is observed on the feast day of the saint (24th July), pilgrims crawl under the stone (which is supported by two smaller stones) as a cure for arthritis. I dare say that if you can crawl under the low stone and scrape through the watery pool underneath it, there is little wrong with you anyway! There is also a story that the stone should not be approached by the unworthy and an accompanying morality tale about some unfortunate who tried to crawl under the stone to be cured of her arthritis. She is said to have been somewhat notorious in the village and God, knowing her secret sins as well as her public ones would not permit the stone to be marred and so it magically lowered as she was making her way under it and she became stuck. The story goes that it took two men to pull her back out from under it by her feet.

Another popular story connected with Saint Declan is the story of how he came to be here which is also the source of one of the symbols connected with the saint and can be seen in many pictures and carvings of him. After travelling to Rome to be consecrated Bishop by Saint Hilary, Declan received a gift from heaven while celebrating the Eucharist. A golden bell was given to him and later, following that bell he arrived at Ardmore, taking this to be a sign that he should establish his monastery there. 

Today the people of Ardmore still observe the pattern on the feast day of the saint with concerts, lectures, sports events, crafts, markets, storytelling, guided tours and even fireworks. Well worth a visit!

Saint Declan's Oratory

While at the well, you may wish to remember your own baptism at this place where it all began for Christianity in Ireland. You may wish to say a prayer for the many churches throughout this land and for all Christians in their walk with God. You may also want to keep in a special remembrance those who suffer from problems relating to sight, and maybe even those who suffer from a lack of seeing in a less than physical sense too.

Light of all who sit in darkness: we remember with thanksgiving your servant Saint Declan, and all those who spread the light of the Gospel in this land. Strengthen all those who bear witness to Christ and guide us this and every day in the right way.

The cliffs at Ardmore

How to find it:
On the main road from Youghal to Dungarvan (N25) there is a well signposted route to Ardmore (a brown tourist/cultural site sign) on the right. Follow the road towards the village. Before arriving at the main street of the village turn right up Tower Hill towards the ancient ecclesiastical site (you can’t miss it). To find the well, travel down the main street of the town and up Cliff Road. The well is situated on the early part of the track just beyond the Cliff Hotel.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What is a Holy Well?

"The Holy wells—the living wells—the cool, the fresh, the pure,
A thousand ages rolled away, and still those founts endure."—

Wells have always been significant places of gathering for communities and the Judeo-Christian tradition places great emphasis on wells, pools and rivers and the act of washing in water to cleanse away sin and disease. Tertullian wrote that the religious veneration of well and pool sites begins in Genesis when the Spirit of God moves over the face of the waters to bring forth light and life. The Judeo-Christian scriptures have many references to holy water sites, most notably the River Jordan and the pool of Bethesda, where a great multitude of the sick and lame lay waiting for the waters to be stirred by the movement of the Spirit of God.

The pool of Bethesda (also known as the pool of Siloam)

For early Christians in Ireland, well and pool sites were a conglomeration of a number of factors. Some of them were pagan sites before they were ‘Christianized’.  Most of them -  if they are in fact ancient – were sites that people knew provided relatively safe drinking water. Almost all holy well sites related to a saint are considered to be places which have been used to baptise new converts. Over time various traditions have been built up around these sites, leading to various religious practices, some of which can be quite peculiar to a particular site. Many of these sites have a folklore associated with them too; some of these stories recount the various miraculous works of the saint associated with the well and tales of various important people who have been healed, some are very obviously ancient Christian myths used to teach enculturated aspects of the faith and sometimes Christian ethical values, and others have since lost their meaning or usefulness or maybe had no such use other than to pass a winter’s evening by a hearth.

The most common practices at wells and pool sites are to make your ‘rounds’, which involves circling the well in a rather slow and deliberate fashion, three times as a reminder of the Trinity, while all the time praying. Some make a pilgrimage to wells to pray for themselves, for healing, or to simply enjoy the peace of the place. Others make a pilgrimage for those who cannot make it or in memory of those who were named after a particular saint and who have since passed into a greater light as a reminder of the link to a great cloud of witnesses and a Christian lineage in Ireland that stretches back thousands of years.

Visitors to wells may also observe the ‘pattern’. The pattern is normally a set of days around the feast day of the Saint to which the well is dedicated. It normally involves feasting, entertainment, a pint or two and a day of prayer and pilgrimage culminating in the celebration of the Eucharist on the feast of the saint. During the course of the pilgrimage in the pattern the saints relics may be paraded (if they are still in the keeping of the local parish -  a rare thing now), people may also bring small stones with them to throw into the well (sometimes coins) or to use to scratch a cross into a rock and some may bring a ‘cloutie’ which is a strip of linen that is hung by a tree (normally a Hawthorn tree) near the well as a symbol of prayer and devotion. Pilgrims may also leave items of clothing or objects that relate to the healing aspect of the well or represent the people for which they are praying. For instance, glasses may be left for someone with a sight impediment, bandages for someone with a broken limb or a little teddy for a sick child. The most common ailment to be healed is of course eyesight. The Christian tradition has always placed great emphasis on light and on seeing, in particular a spiritual ‘seeing’.  It’s not entirely surprising that sites where many have been baptised and ‘seen the light’ have become places associated with curing eyesight.

People still drink from the wells today and in some places in the rural counties of Northern Ireland, where community healers (still a fairly lively tradition today) are active, well water plays an important role in the creation of healing tonics and poultices. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend drinking from every well. Even the most inviting ones may have had a few dogs bathing in it not so very long before your visit! The practice generally is to either drink the water, or to scoop some up and pour it over your head or dip a finger in and cross yourself as a reminder of your own baptism. Wells associated with the healing of a particular ailment, say for instance blisters on the feet, it would be normal to dip your feet into the well. At some wells thoughtful Christians will leave tiny empty bottles for you to fill with the water to take home and bless your house with.

If you visit any of these sites and do rounds or a pattern with others you may also see people touching stones that are seemingly randomly scattered around the site. These are often relics of a pagan past with Christian mythology layered over the top, but they are still considered by some to be wishing stones or, in a rather more sinister vein, cursing stones.

Cursing stones on Inishmurray island.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Ireland has many holy wells dotted throughout its cities, towns and countryside. Some are places of peace and beauty; others are sad reflections of a forgotten past. Throughout the course of this blog I hope to visit as many holy wells as I can. Ideally, I would like to be able to post at least one blog on a well each month (hopefully more). In part, I hope that it might help to keep alive some of the memories of the associated folklore of the holy wells, but probably more importantly to encourage others to visit them too. Hopefully, if you happen to stumble across this and read it, you also will want to visit these sites so I will try as far as possible to give details of where they lie and how to find them.