Friday, September 30, 2011

Saint Kevin’s Well, Glendalough

The upper lake

Glendalough is somewhere that I keep returning to. As a lover of place, I find it hard to keep away from this sacred space that resides so close to the capital city and yet spiritually so far from all its hustle and bustle. It rests quietly in a deep valley in the Wicklow mountains with two lakes and the remains of small churches, a round tower, ballaun stones and large ancient stone crosses.  It is an area of outstanding natural beauty and if you are lucky enough, and quiet enough and there at just the right time, you can see a whole cross-section of Irish wildlife. Even in the depths of winter this place can be stunningly beautiful, but when the mist descends you will struggle to see three feet in front of you.

The round tower

There are two ways to approach Glendalough’s monastic site. You can park beside the Information Centre and cross the bridge by the labyrinth, travel down the path to the right and cross the bridge back over to the settlement, or you can enter the monastic settlement through the impressive stone archways that stretch over the uneven stone street. If you choose the latter point of entry be aware that you will have an experience akin to what medieval pilgrims once faced here. Not only will you find the racket of Babel as twenty different tour guides from twenty different countries direct the masses through the settlement, but you will also be faced with the hawkers selling various plastic trinkets from a factory in China. I rarely ever enter by this route: although in winter this area is deserted.

The 'monastic city'

The ‘monastic city’, originally founded by Saint Kevin in the sixth century, has an impressive thirty meter high, fully intact round tower. Below it there are various other buildings and church ruins dating from the eleventh century, but by far the most impressive is Saint Kevin’s Church, commonly called ‘Kevin’s Kitchen’.  This is a little barrel-vaulted church with a miniature round tower belfry. Nearby all of these churches is a seventh century stone cross which tourists are told is a wishing stone -  it was never a wishing stone!

Reefert Church with ancient Irish crosses

There are a number of other very important church ruins in the area. Reefert church close to the upper lake is said to be the burial place of some of Ireland’s ancient kings. The site itself dates from the eleventh century. From the same period, but in the opposite direction near Laragh are the ruins of Trinity church and Saint Saviour’s church.

The view from the ridge walk

There are many walks in this area and you really must try at the very least to do the most popular walk. Start at the monastic city and walk up past the lower lake to the upper lake and then back through the marsh to the monastic city again. There is also a walk known as the ‘ridge walk’. It’s demanding, but it is most certainly worth doing. Other walks are outlined at the information centre.

The lower lake

The whole site is associated strongly with Saint Kevin. You can visit his ‘bed’ and his ‘cell’ which is a flat area in the cliff face with a stone. Its more difficult to get to his cave, but with a keen eye you can spot it in the cliff face from the edge of the upper lake.  Saint Kevin’s birth was surrounded by both mystery and miracle. His mother supposedly had no pain in childbirth and shortly after the birth, she brought her son to Saint Cronan of Lienster to be baptized. On baptizing the child he had a vision of angels who held lit tapers for Kevin, indicating to Saint Cronan that this child was to be very special. At the age of seven, his mother sent him to a community of monks to be taught and ‘instructed in manners’. He remained with them until he was old enough to be ordained and after his ordination he decided to forsake the world and become a hermit.

Saint Kevin's 'kitchen'!

The reality of the situation is probably that Kevin was a little odd.  He chose a very extreme form of celtic spirituality and practice. He was said to read his Hours waist deep in the cold waters of the lake. It has been fairly well documented in local oral tradition and in medieval writings on the saint that he was no great socialite. In fact, he positively hated company. In spite of this, his way of life seemed to attract people to him in their thousands. Maybe God has a terribly cruel sense of humour, but for Kevin this was a difficult cross to bear. Tales are told of Kevin managing to be so still and so engrossed in prayer that over time a blackbird managed to build its nest in his open hand. There are other tales too - some none too pleasant, of Kevin trying to fight off the unwanted advances of a keen girl. She will not take no for an answer and Kevin is said to have made his way up into the solitude of his cave in the cliff to escape her advances. To his astonishment she followed him, but pushing her away she stumbled and fell down the cliff and died in the shallow waters of the lake beneath. But just as there are tales told of Saint kevin’s dislike of peoples’ attentions, there are also tales of Saint Kevin giving people the attention and help that they require. There are three stones by the upper lake which are said to be witches that Kevin had turned to stone in his rage. The story goes that a chieftan brought his new born son to Saint Kevin in desperation at having lost all of his other children to early death. As the chieftan approached Kevin with the child in his arms, the saint saw three evil witches bent on the destruction of the child. Kevin is said to have cast them out in anger and as their bodies landed by the lake they turned to stone.

View at the upper lake

Despite his longing to be alone, Kevin found that God had a habit of pestering him to leave his solitude and preach and live the Gospel among people. At this Kevin was displeased, but he would do it grudgingly, and slowly, but surely return to his old solitary haunts. After spending another while in this manner, again angels from God, otters sent from God and even annoying farmers would come and remind Kevin that he could not live in solitude forever. Oddly enough this area is still a place of solitude for many thousands. There are retreat centres dotted all over the area and you can spend time here getting away from it all and soaking in the unspoiled beauty of the area. Here many batteries have been recharged in keeping with the tradition of Saint Kevin’s austere, self imposed solitude.

There is a strange and recurring story connected to many Irish saints that tells of the banishing of monsters and in particular worms, from lakes and rivers. Apparently in Kevin’s case, the worm lived in the lower lake and terrorized dogs, men and cattle alike! Unlike all of the other stories of other saints and ‘the worm’, Kevin does not destroy it, but instead banishes it to the upper lake and then he blessed the waters of the lower lake so that the sick could come to it and be cured.  There are also trout in the lakes and if you are lucky enough to spot one of them it is considered to be either a visitation from God or a sign of God’s presence. This is a very strange tradition rather specific to early Irish Christianity, which I will say a little more about in later blog posts, as they are directly associated with some wells.

Saint Kevin's well

Saint Kevin’s well is not marked on the tourist maps that you get in the information centre and you won’t find it marked on any of the maps on websites about the area. In fact, very few people know about the well. It’s in a bit of a sorry state, seasonally dry, messed about with and much stony rubbish deposited in its centre. It is an ancient structure contemporaneous to the monastic city church ruins, but the well itself is likely older and was said to be the baptismal site of Saint Kevin’s disciple who was called Solomon.

I suspect that the well has been dry for some time now and is more than simply seasonally effected. The rag tree has no rags hanging on it and there is no evidence to suggest that anyone has brought tokens of prayer and pilgrimage for a very long time. The track down from the path through the fern and bracken does suggest that some people do still come to see it though. The rag tree is a fairly new tree. I saw a photograph of it once dated from the 1990’s and it was very small then. Now it is large and possibly swallowing up a large amount of the water from the well making it’s appearance much less frequent. It would be rather sad to see this well disappear from both folk memory and from physical sight. Wells are often linked to, and very close to early or very important Christian settlements and it would be a great pity if this one vanished. I’m told that there is still a pilgrimage or pattern of sorts on his feast day, 3rd June. Perhaps in time, someone will deem it important enough to dig out the rubbish that fills the well proper, that water might be seen again.

The labyrinth (the well is almost directly opposite this on the other side of the river)

God of the quiet hills and the busy city: we give you thanks for places of beauty that draw people close to you and we give you thanks for Saint Kevin of Glendalough who knew your presence with him in this place. Help us to know the renewing power of solitude and the deepening of our devotion that we may be empowered to live out the Gospel fully in the world; this we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

A path up through the forest

How to find it:
Leaving Dublin city travel down the N11 until you see the signs for Glendalough. Travel up through the hills and passing through a couple of villages, all the while following the signs. It’s well signposted and easily found. The well on the other hand is well hidden! Cross over the river from the Information/Visitors Centre and turn left. A little way along you will notice an area full of low ferns close to the river on your left. The well cannot be seen from the path, but following the tracks through the fern and bracken you will find it. It’s in line with the car park, so if you walk beyond the end of the car park you will have gone too far.

A duck poses at the upper lake

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Our Lady’s Well, Mulhuddart

The capstone above the well

From the Irish, Mullach Eadrad (meaning ‘mound of the milking’), Mulhuddart was once a quiet village close to the city but is now a busy suburb of Dublin, boasting both Dublin’s largest housing estate and largest industrial estate close by. Today there are lots of modern housing estates all over the place and the roads never seem to get a rest from the constantly moving traffic. The plethora of narrow roads with no proper edging is an indication of just how quickly this entire area has been suburbanized.

Up the hill from what was once the village centre stands a ruin of an old church within Mulhuddart graveyard. The church was called the Church of Mary and is a medieval ruin, but why exactly it stopped being used no one is entirely sure. The church was still functioning as a church in the late sixteenth century and is recorded as being ‘in good repair’ in 1615. By 1680 it was a complete ruin and in a very similar state to which it can be found today.

The ruins of the Church of Mary

The well has a close connection to this ruin and tells a tale of an unusual order permitted to thrive in this area which made the well a very popular place of pilgrimage throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. King Henry VI set up an order initially called the Order of the Guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This order of monks and nuns (presumably from existing orders) were provided with a small sum of money for the upkeep of Marian shrines in the area, but in particular for the upkeep of Our Lady’s Well. They erected a small ‘u’-shaped wall as an enclosure around the well and planted a number of trees to create the impression of a grove. The officers of the guild were not in holy orders and the first appointed officers were Sir Nicholas Barnewall and Peter Clinton; neither from the parish of Mulhuddart. Later, in addition to the two officers, two lay wardens and a master were also appointed to the guild.

The well

The Order of the Guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary appear to have either run out of money or been disbanded at some point shortly after Henry VI’s death. From this point onwards the well (and presumably the church) came under the care of the nuns of Grace Dieu. The Grace Dieu nuns were an order of Augustinian canonesses dedicated to God, the Holy Trinity and Saint Mary founded by Rohese de Verdon in 1241. They were not a wealthy order and the priory’s in England were short lived on the whole -  the last one was dissolved in 1538. This order faired rather better in Dublin, surviving the reformation and living right through the period of the penal laws. They had a convent in Luttrellstown near Mulhuddart, and they were able to raise enough money to put a stone roof on the well, building on the already existing stone walls. They capped the roof with a stone inscribed with various prayers to the Virgin and a small niche and an incised cross above. It was through their efforts that it remained a place of pilgrimage for some time and even today the Roman Catholic parish nearby is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. On the front of the stone on top of the well housing the inscription reads, ‘Holy Mary, Pray For Us’ and to the side, ‘O Blessed Mother and Ever Virgin Glorious, Queen of the World, Make Intercession For us.’ The inscription on the other side is more difficult to make out, but a partial reading is, ‘Vouchsafe that I May Praise Thee O Sacred Virgin Ob…   …an for me, For ……… Ag……Thy Fine…….”

The inscribed words to the side of the capstone

The well housing is kept in reasonably good order even if it is a little heavily painted, but it is no longer in a grove surrounded by trees and grass; it is on a main arterial road out of the village of Mulhuddart. It is busy, dirty and noisy, lacking any sense of privacy or place and surrounded by concrete and ugly railings. In one sense this could have been a rather special well in an area so heavily populated and busy that could have stood as a small pool of calm in such an industrious area, but sadly the well itself is a muddy trough.

Interior of the well

A pattern was traditionally held at this well on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when people would come and pray rounds at the well by walking around it thee times. After this they would kneel at the entrance to the well and either sprinkle the water on their heads or dip in a finger and make the sign of the cross.

The well was recorded as being full of water in 1974 and in 2006 on two separate visits by archaeologists, but there has been so much building in this area that I fear the way the water rises must have been effected. At the height of this wells fame, pilgrims would come and crawl on their bellies towards the small opening at the back of the well and out their heads in, bathe their eyes, take a drink and then kiss a glass bauble that hung from a thread. The glass bauble is mentioned by a number of writers of the period, but unfortunately they do not elaborate on exactly what it was! The opening at the back of the well still exists today, but in 1974 and in 2006 the water had already lowered so much that it wasn’t possible to drink from the well in this way. I visited on the day when the pattern used to take place; the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Lady Day) on 8th September. There was no pattern and nobody was coming to collect water from the well, so I suspect that everyone in the area already knew it was gone. It had a selection of rubbish of different kinds left in it and someone had left a number of red, cut roses. It was somewhat sad, like the bringing of flowers to a grave.

The back entrance to the well

The Order of the Guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary has gone, as have the Grace Dieu nuns and even this once deep well, but the Augustinian order has not disappeared from these shores and in fact they are very active in Dublin city. Pray for their work in hospitals, parishes, schools, nursing homes and in retreat houses and for their work in adult faith education. Here also, even though this well is dry, one surely must remember the Theotokos.

Hail Mary, full of grace,
The Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

Our Lady's well

How to find it:
As you travel up Church Road towards Mulhuddart graveyard the well house is easily spotted right on the edge of the road on the left.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Saint David’s Well, Ballynaslaney

The stone at the entrance to the well site

This well is in the town land of Ballynaslaney -  effectively in the middle of nowhere! For a well that is so discretely hidden it seems to attract an incredible amount of attention. I visited on a blustery, slightly wet Monday mid-morning and I didn’t imagine that I would meet another living soul. There are a few houses in the area, but it’s quiet and mostly farming land around. As I sat down to eat my early lunch before exploring the well and surrounding area, workmen beginning their lunch break paid a visit to the shrine. Then came a car full of four people armed with various bottles and plastic containers which they filled with well water, and so it went on - a steady stream of pilgrims; some praying at the shrine, some going to the well house and others taking water from the well.

The view down the path to the well

As a shrine this place is somewhat surprising. It has been reconstructed a number of times, but now it has an imposing and mildly smirking, whitewashed Saint David (erected in 1961) watching carefully over all the procedures around his well. He holds more prayer beads than he could ever need and is surrounded by a few broken statues and various medals. In 1810 the well was given an overhaul, but in 1840 a local farmer was beginning to get annoyed at the attention the well was receiving and he didn’t appreciate the crowds trespassing on his land to get to the well. He covered up the well and levelled the old well house to the ground with the intention of making it a functioning field for the grazing of his cattle. The farmer discovered to his horror that no grass would grow and eventually the well was reopened in 1910. It was given another major face lift in 1990 and now there is a small well house which includes a small well (piped from the main well) and a larger well at the other end of the site.

Saint David's well

The well is close to Ferns and the association with Saint David is closely related to Saint Mogue (Saint Aidan -  see Saint Mogue’s Well, Ferns) who is said to have been trained by Saint David in Wales. Saint David is the patron saint of Wales and (rather obviously) Saint David’s in Wales is where he established his first monastery. He was said to have been very intensely religious and extremely austere. He was known as ‘the waterman’ because water was the only drink he ever allowed himself and he strictly rationed his allowance of bread in the monastery. Despite this, the monastery in Wales attracted many followers and many came from Ireland also, to be trained and guided by Saint David.

The small well inside the well house

The well house is quite a sight. It’s a small tumble-down house with a dirty prie-dieu and a veritable mountain of statues, medals, pictures, flowers and mass cards. Shelves line the walls to house the things that people have brought. In one corner a small basin of small square cut tiles set into the floor, holds water piped down from the main well. If you aren’t too steady on your feet, getting water from here would certainly be easier. A small chest of drawers hides behind the door, its drawers bursting open with mass cards. It would be all too easy to be scornful of all this, and I must confess that when I paid a visit here it did come to mind when I first entered. It’s so disorganized and such a jumble of objects that it felt anything but holy. I could have written a scathing blog note about superstition and the gaudy, tacky statues. I could have been snobbish and dismissive, disgusted and self-righteous about it all, but I made the mistake of looking at a massive pile of books.

Books full of prayers

As you enter the well house there is a small table and on this table sits a pile of books - and I do mean a pile. On the day I visited, when I had a moment or two to myself in the well house, I opened the books and began to read. Page after page after page of prayers: some short, some long, some pleading, some thanking. There is not one obscenity here, not even a tiny jot of graffiti - only prayer. Peoples’ lives are laid bare in only a few words that reveal moments of joy and moments of dread. Suddenly all the chaos began to take on a new meaning and I started to see the tokens that had been brought with these prayers in a new light too - they are the semi-permanent sign of continuous prayer at this place; the cry of the human to God from the very depths. I felt intensely guilty at this well because I didn’t recognize genuine prayer when I saw it, but instead I chose to jump to a critical conclusion in my state of spiritual snobbery.

Inside the well house

The main well is surrounded by a wall with steep steps down the centre to the water and a poor's box to one side. The water is clear and I watched many people drinking it. It’s said that the waters are a cure-all. Despite its business this place is remarkably peaceful. It has no great views and even though they have tried to make a garden area out of it, it doesn’t quite work. But what is so special about the area is the fact that it is imbued with good old honest prayer. If you will pardon the weak pun, it is soaked in it. There is a seat beside the well, which for me proved to be the perfect location to say an office and an apology.

The well house

Pray for the searching, intercede for those who have asked for prayer in the books in the well house and give thanks to God for the influence of Saint David on many of the Irish saints.

Almighty God, who called your servant David to be a faithful and wise steward of your mysteries; in your mercy, grant that, following his purity of life and zeal for the Gospel of Christ, we may with him receive the crown of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Looking down into Saint David's well

How to find it:
Travelling down the N11 from Enniscorthy to Wexford, the well is about half way there, signposted for Ballynaslaney (If you get as far as the petrol station on the left you have gone too far). Travel down the narrow road keeping to the left until the road turns down a small slope and up the other side while banking to the left. The well is on the right hand side.

A statue of Saint David

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Saint Mogue’s Well, Ferns

View of Saint Edan's Cathedral from the well

Ferns in County Wexford would be a sleepy little village if it were not for the fact that a main road runs through it.  In many ways it could be a very peaceful and beautiful village, but the sheer volume of traffic that runs through it constantly destroys any possible sense of peace. Admittedly it is not the ‘bottle neck’ that it once was.

Ferns is a village that is built upon an old iron age settlement. An archaeological dig in 1999 found a ring ditch that had been in use between 2000-500BC. It had a number of burials too, but interestingly it had a significant quantity of amber, some of which had been worked into beads and jewelry. This amber would have come from Scandinavia, so the iron age people of Ferns must have had trading links of some kind with them. It was to later become a very significant settlement when the resident King of Lienster (Dermot McMurrough) brought the Normans to Ireland to help him in warfare in 1169. The village was once dominated by an imposing Norman Castle. Part of the ruins of the castle survive and you can enter one of the southern towers. It dates from the late Norman period in Ferns and from the top of the tower you can get a magnificent view over the village and the surrounding countryside.

Stained glass window of Saint Patrick in Saint Edan's Cathedral by Catherine O'Brien

There are two large churches in Ferns. The Roman Catholic church of Saint Aidan was built in 1974.  It’s hideous both inside and out, but particularly on the outside as it’s modern jarring architecture sits with nothing else in the village. It is a great carbuncle on the fair face of Ferns.  The Cathedral of Saint Edan (Church of Ireland) has a certain charm from the outside, but inside its only redeeming feature is a magnificent window of Saint Patrick by Catherine O’Brien. Other than this window, it is a dull, lifeless barn and hardly seems a fitting resting place for such a significant saint. If you want to see something truly beautiful and inspiring, go and visit the Pugin Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saint Aidan’s in Enniscorthy. The Church of Ireland Cathedral site is however, important. The Cathedral, said to be the smallest in Europe, stands on the site of a thirteenth century cathedral site. You can still see some of the ruins of this cathedral at the east end of the existing building. Not far from these ruins are another set of ruins from an old Augustinian Abbey called Saint Mary’s. This was originally built by Diarmuid MacMurrough  (who is buried in the adjoining graveyard) in 1158 for ‘the health of my soul and my ancestors and successors’. Presumably he was referring to his allowance of beer from the Abbey as the original charter gives him a significant claim of entitlement to a portion of all beer brewed there. The entire area sits on the large settlement of Saint Aidan’s original sixth century monastery.

A small statue of Saint Aidan at the new monastery

Around Saint Edan’s Cathedral there are a number of ancient Irish crosses. Many of these crosses in Ireland are very impressive, but the crosses in Ferns tend to have an understated, and possibly under-appreciated beauty. The grave of Diarmuid MacMurrough was once adorned with a beautifully carved Irish stone cross. Sadly Oliver Cromwell smashed it, as he was wont to do to anything that had beauty or substance, and all that remains is a decorated stump.  Dotted around the cathedral are four high crosses. Their shafts have been destroyed and replaced with modern reinforced concrete, but the bases and heads are original. They have a stark beauty despite their plainness and even on the rainy day when I visited, they emitted a solemn grandeur.

One of the high crosses in the grounds of Saint Edan's Cathedral

At the far end of the village is the modern monastery of Saint Aidan. It is a large functional home with a collection of nuns (Sisters of Adoration), a very plain, but beautiful chapel of adoration (when inside it feels like sitting in an egg – a peculiar, yet pleasant experience) and a collection of tiny retreat cells for visitors and pilgrims who seek solitude, silence and space to pray and reflect.

Part of the Augustinian settlement

Ferns is inextricably bound up with the character and mission of Saint Aidan. Before I go any further I must explain the proliferation of seemingly differing names. Aidan was known locally by the nickname ‘Mogue’ which is a derivative of his old Irish name ‘Maogh-Og’ but he is also known by the ancient spellings ‘Edan’ and ‘Aedan’.  Aidan is credited as being the first Bishop of Ferns and through a close friendship with Bran Dubh the King of Hy-Kinsellagh, was able to build his monastery in Ferns; but his more significant mission was in the conversion of the people of Northumbria. Aidan spent some time in Iona and he was also instructed by Saint David in Wales. He settled around Lindisfarne and became Bishop of the same in 635AD and he was to greatly inspire faith in Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. Aidan demanded much of anyone who followed him. Even those who accompanied him on the roads as he travelled where required to join him in saying his offices and spend much time in mediation and prayer. Anyone who chose to follow him for any length of time where obliged to learn all the Psalms by heart and to know at least one Gospel by rote. He is said to have enjoyed times of silence even though he was also said to have at times opened his mouth a little quickly. When a missionary Bishop from Northumbria complained to Aidan about the barbarous and uncivilized monsters of his new diocese, Aidan quickly scolded the Bishop for his lack of patience at which the Bishop told Aidan to go to Northumbria to see if he could be patient. Saint Aidan died in 651AD on 31st January.

The 1847 well house

Saint Mogue’s well is on the main road through the village of Ferns. It’s not the most peaceful or pleasant of sites, but they have tried to make something of it. The well is said to have appeared at the behest of Saint Aidan himself. While building the monastery, some of the monks complained that there was a lack of clean, safe drinking water in the area. Aidan apparently told them to go and chop down a tree, and when they did a well miraculously sprang up from it’s centre. The well house that is situated on the side of the road is now locked up, but the well is actually right underneath the road. This well house was built in 1847 and some of the stone faces on the well house come from an old medieval ruin in Clone. To the side of the well house is a short path down towards the stream and on this path near the bottom is another structure where the well water is piped into a kind of well shrine. It leans to one side at a slightly odd angle, and nobody has left anything here. It doesn’t really evoke a sense of peace as trucks thunder past above, but they really have tried to make it a special area. A small garden has been created with a bird table and the stream has been enclosed by a small stone wall with a grassy area in front of it and a place to sit. Maybe at certain times of the day this place can be quiet, but I suspect that until they redirect the traffic, this place will never really be a popular spot to continue that tradition of Saint Aidan of meditation and prayer. If you can concentrate through the noise, pray for the people of Ferns and for Christianity in Wales and Northumbria. Pray too for those who come to this place on retreat and for visitors, that they might find it a restful and peaceful place.

Saint Mogue's well

Loving God, look with mercy on your servants who seek in solitude and silence refreshment of soul and strengthening for service; grant them your abundant blessing in the peace of Christ our Lord. 

The garden at Saint Mogue's well

How to find it:
As you enter the village of Ferns via the N11, the well house can be seen on the right hand side of the road. If you are in Saint Edan’s Cathedral, the well is directly opposite its main entrance.

A view of Saint Edan's Cathedral from the adjoining graveyard