Monday, November 28, 2011

Struell Wells

The church ruins

Of all the wells throughout Ireland dedicated to Saint Patrick, the Struell wells must be the most famous. It is said that Saint Patrick travelled throughout Ireland using wells to baptize his new converts and in some cases to demonstrate the power of God with healing acts or with expressions of powerful piety and dedication.  In most cases the stories of saints who stood waist deep in lakes and who dug themselves into snow while saying the office or singing hymns where stories that were told to teach people about the problems of extreme asceticism and to warn them not to fall into the same trap. Rather than being a good example to the faithful, they were held up as examples of how extremism can even drive the saints to madness. Today they are often read as powerful examples of the dedication of saints, but they were never originally meant to be understood in this way. At Struell wells however, there is a story of how Patrick used to bathe under a fountain of flowing water and although this story is not quite in the same vein as the others, when you feel the coldness of the water at Struell wells you can easily imagine that it might have been seen as an act of extremism or ridiculous, foolhardy piety. It is said that one day while bathing here, Saint Patrick was heard to sing through the psalms from his morning office and from this point on, as a place where Patrick sang and prayed, the waters have forever since been considered holy.

The eye well

The Struell wells are situated just outside the town of Downpatrick and close to Saul and they were once a site of pilgrimage that was famous throughout all of Europe.  It’s likely that this is the site described as a ‘fertile fountain’ in Saint Fiacc’s eighth century hymn of the life of Saint Patrick. Initially the site was conceived as a place of penance and pilgrims would make a circuit of a stony area around Saint Patrick’s chair (now destroyed) before bathing the eyes for spiritual sight and the feet in hope of the obedience of following Christ and the head in hope of being Christ-like. By the late medieval period the wells had become associated with healing properties, which is also the period of the first clear references to the sites existence as a significant pilgrimage site. During the sixteenth century to the nineteenth century there are numerous records of many thousands of pilgrims visiting the wells, particularly around the time of the feasts of John the Baptist (due to his close association with baptism).

The drinking well

The site is the most extensive holy well site in all of Ireland and is nestled in a small valley with woodland on one side and a steep, rocky hill on the other.  The name ‘Struell’ comes from the Irish ‘an tSruthail’, which means ‘the stream’ and the site is essentially four buildings with a stream directed through a system of underground culverts. There are the ruins of a church built into a portion of the wall beside the drinking well/Mother Well. This chapel was dedicated to Saint Patrick and it is this chapel that is mentioned in the late medieval period as being part of the well site for pilgrims. The current chapel remains were started in the mid eighteenth century, but for whatever reason were never completed.  Beside this church is what is known as the drinking well or ‘Mother Well’ (at one time also a place to bathe your feet) which incorporates an ancient stone bearing an inscribed cross (none of the buildings at the site today is thought to pre-date the seventeenth century when the site was heavily restored). The central well is called the eye well, which is a small square building in the middle of the flat, grassed area, and here the water divides to feed the bath houses. The men’s bath house is a large stone structure with a barrel vaulted stone roof. The echo of the thundering water into the large stone tank is quite something, especially when it’s almost pitch black inside. The women’s bath house is separate from where the water comes out, which is a small stone building now with a missing roof.

The men's bath house

The site was most popular during the sixteenth century when many descriptions are given of pilgrims arriving with tents to partake of the alcohol and rich foods on offer while observing patterns at the wells. By the early nineteenth century pilgrims were being charged to enter the bath houses. Normal pilgrims could partake freely of the waters from the drinking well and the eye well, but moneyed pilgrims paid a handsome sum to enter the large bath house to immerse themselves fully in the waters by using a sluice to contain it in the stone tank. They could also use the smaller women’s bath house to discreetly bathe limbs without the intrusions of the other rabble pilgrims. By the late nineteenth century it was all to come to a grinding halt. The Roman Catholic Church throughout the entire island of Ireland chose to outlaw any gatherings, patterns and even prayers at holy wells, preaching against the gluttony and over indulgence of the people who frequented the sites and against the ‘naked rollicking’. Patterns and gatherings at holy well sites in Ireland were tolerated by the Episcopalian church (which in many ways ensured its survival; certainly in respect of sites like Saint Declan’s in Ardmore, County Waterford), generally ignored by the Presbyterians (although they did gather significant amounts of saintly lore and poetry in Irish) and of little or no consequence to other churches of the reformed tradition at the time. The thinking of the Roman Catholic church was that this superstitious practice had no place in a newly emancipated Catholic Ireland and gatherings where the Irish language was both used and propagated was considered to be repugnant and backward by many in the hierarchy of the church. These attitudes were to persist for quite some time, up to and including the period immediately after the Easter Rising when even some of the republican politicians expressed such views. Oddly things have swayed the other direction: the Roman Catholic church is experiencing a revival in relation to holy well sites and it is becoming more understanding of the imagery and allusion of the ancient records of the lives of the Irish saints, while the churches and clergy of the Reformed tradition are often the more dismissive of such practices, calling them ‘pagan’ or ‘superstitious’ but more worryingly, deliberately neglecting significant archaeological sites and holy wells and allowing them to fall into the most terrible states of disrepair. Overall the effect of the attitudes of the churches in Ireland to their own holy sites has been nothing short of appalling, neglectful and at times even criminal. Many holy well sites connected to prominent saints and important archaeological and religious sites (such as monasteries and abbey’s) have now been lost forever and at one time Struell Wells looked like it might be in trouble too.

The women's bath house

In recent years this site has been much neglected, but pressure was brought to bear on the Environment and Heritage Service in Northern Ireland in 2006 and they were at one point publicly asked to explain why such an important well site had been allowed to fall into such disrepair and why they had allowed the underground culverts to fall into such a state of collapse as to allow the wells to go dry. From this point on great efforts were made to raise awareness of the site and its importance and good signage has been produced and repairs have been made to the underground culverts allowing the water to flow vigorously once again.

The stone tank of the men's bath house

Here would be a good and appropriate place to recite a psalm once sung by Patrick that captures part of the original concept of this place.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
According to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,
So that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgement.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being;
Therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation,
And my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
If I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
Then you will delight in right sacrifices,
In burnt offerings and in whole burnt offerings;
Then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Psalm 51

The fountain in the women's bath house

Nearby is the town of Downpatrick in this area so closely associated with Saint Patrick who is said to have spent time in this area learning the entire psalmody by rote. Down Cathedral has long been considered the burial site of Saint Patrick and the Cathedral is built on the site of a monastery that can trace its abbots and bishops back to 753AD. The monastery suffered a dreadful Viking raid in 1016 which almost spelled its end. Over time the monastery became a parish church and it’s round tower, which had been struck by lightning and burned, was in a dangerous state of collapse. In 1790 the remains of the round tower and the old monastery were incorporated into the present structure of the Cathedral which held its first service in 1818 and was finally completed in 1829. The present Cathedral is a peculiar building with some pleasant vistas and good features (including an ancient Irish High Cross situated to the front of the exterior of the building); but it has a most unsatisfactory sanctuary that almost disappears beside the fine pews and glittering stained glass. It is unfortunately, by virtue of its period and benefactors, something of a Masonic Temple monument, but as a Cathedral it still manages to be a quiet spiritual space.

Down Cathedral

Towards the end of his life Patrick knew that he was becoming seriously and terminally ill and he expressed a desire to die in Armagh. However, he was unable to make it there due to his rapidly ailing health and was instead tended by Bishop Tassach near Saul in his final days.  One of his biographers, Muirchu, describes the scene of his burial at Down when the Bishops decided to place his body on a cart drawn by two large untamed bulls which were permitted to draw the cart wherever they wished and wherever they stopped they would bury the saint and erect a suitable church or monastery. The bulls and cart with the body of Saint Patrick on it came to a stop near the top of the hill at Down, where the Cathedral now stands.

 An Irish High Cross

The shrine of Saint Patrick was of great significance for the area and attracted a great number of pilgrims but was destroyed numerous times throughout history, although the remains of the body where preserved. At some point in the late medieval period the remains of Saint Patrick were interred alongside Saint Columcille and Saint Brigid, although the shrine erected around this grave site was destroyed soon after. From this point on the site was simply and crudely marked until a prominent member of the Belfast Naturalist’s Field Club procured a suitably large and well shaped slab of granite to mark the grave site in 1900. This granite slab still marks the site today and is now inscribed with a cross and the name of Saint Patrick.

The grave shrine of Saint Patrick, Saint Columcille and Saint Brigid

Almighty God, who in your providence chose your servant Patrick to be the apostle of the Irish people: keep alive in us the fire of faith he kindled and strengthen us in our pilgrimage towards the light 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. 

Saint Patrick in stained glass in Down Cathedral

How to find it:
Struell Wells can be found by entering the town of Downpatrick and following the signs to the hospital. The wells are about two miles out of Downpatrick beyond the hospital complex and the new road and are clearly signposted after passing the hospital. Down Cathedral is clearly visible from the town and is the much smaller church (there is a very large Gothic Roman Catholic Cathedral on the opposite hill). On approaching the Cathedral, take the path up to the left and the triple grave site shrine can be found up the steps to the left near a Yew tree.

An inscribed cross on the wall of the drinking well

Monday, November 14, 2011

Saint Buite’s Well, Monasterboice

Christ; King of the Cosmos

There are a few places in Ireland where there have been very important wells that have since long dried up or been forgotten and covered over with concrete or with houses - this is one such well and I felt it was important to state that before you begin to read and find yourself disappointed at the lack of an actual well!

The Round Tower

Monasterboice is a collection of Christian ruins at a somewhat small site in County Louth. It was founded back in the fifth century by Saint Buite (who died in 520AD); the name Monasterboice is an anglicanization of the Irish name Mainistir Buiti, meaning the monastery of Buite. Curiously there is no mention of the site as a monastic settlement at all until 723AD and it is after this point that many clerical obits begin to be recorded in the annals* and continue until the start of the twelfth century. The site was an important centre of learning and religion for both monks and nuns until Mellifont Abbey was built nearby in 1142. From this point onwards, monastic activity seems to have ceased, but the site becomes a parochial centre and an important site of the relics of Saint Buite until the fifteenth or sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century the site declined as a place of worship, but the graveyard continues to be used today as a parochial cemetery. In this cemetery there are two churches (the North Church and the South Church), a round tower, a sundial dating to the eighth century, a recently vandalized ballaun stone and three Irish High Crosses.

The remains of the Lavabo at Mellifont Abbey

The round tower at Monasterboice is missing its top and is currently 110 feet tall and was likely divided into four or more different sections when it was in use. Despite the fact that it is missing its top it is still one of the tallest examples of a round tower in the country. It has a small doorway two metres from the ground and is framed in sandstone and above this are a series of small windows dotted around the tower. The North church is a simple rectangular structure made mainly of shale as is the South church. The South church has evidence of a chancel arch in the walls, but is also fairly plain in style. The North Cross consists of four different sections; the west face shows a crucifixion scene with Christ, Stephaton and Longinus and a raised circular medallion on the east face. It has been suggested that this cross is made of fragments from a number of crosses that would have stood in the area at one time. It is said that Oliver Cromwell’s forces vandalized this cross. These crosses were hugely significant for worship, as points of prayer and mediation for pilgrims and as teaching aids in an era when few could read.

The 'Tall' Cross

The Tall cross (the West cross) is just over seven metres in height being the tallest high cross in Ireland but its base has been horribly vandalized by tourists who have chipped away ‘souveniers’ of their pilgrimage to the site. The carvings on this cross are badly weathered, but you can make out David killing a lion and a bear (or possibly Sampson), the sacrifice of Isaac, David with the head of Goliath and David kneeling before Samuel. On the other side you can make out the resurrection, Christ crowned with thorns, the baptism of Christ, Peter cutting off the servants ear and the betrayal by Judas. 

Muiredach's Cross 

Muiredach’s cross (the South cross) has a curious capstone of different stone representing either a small church or a reliquary. An inscription on the base of the cross, accompanied by two peaceful cats, reads ‘Or Do Muiredach Las Ndernad I Chros’ (pray for Muiredach who made this cross) and it may refer to Muiredach Domnall, abbot of Armagh and abbot of Monasterboice who died in 924AD. The scenes on each of these crosses are not simply rendered to tell the story but also to explicitly convey a particular teaching of the church; for example, the panel of Moses extracting water from the rock is linked to an early Irish Christian teaching on ‘the Help of God’ both in a spiritual and a physical sense and as a means of teaching both the faithfulness of God and how we should in turn be faithful to God. Christ is presented as King of the Earth and King of the Cosmos throughout the Muiredach cross (the cosmos likely representing the spiritual, the earth the physical). Not all of the carvings have been identified, but you can easily spot Adam and Eve with Cain and Abel, David and Goliath, Moses striking the rock for water and the Visitation of the Magi. The central panel depicts the Last Judgement led by David with a harp and above is Saint Paul in the desert. It is thought that these scenes interplay teaching on sin, judgement and atonement. The other side of the cross has Christ’s arrest and mocking, doubting Thomas with Saint John, Christ giving keys to Saint Peter and a book to Saint Paul and Moses praying with Aaron and Hur. The central crucifixion scene shows a Christ who is clothed and not in pain (a typically Irish way of depicting the crucifixion), flanked by two soldiers with a spear and one with a sponge, the two circles to the side of Christ may represent the two thieves and a phoenix under Christ’s feet may represent the resurrection. The right arm of the cross has the resurrection and the left arm is not deciphered.  It is likely that all of the crosses would have been highly coloured and would have been an even more remarkable sight than they are today. All three crosses are classed as National Monuments of Ireland.

Detail of Muiredach's Cross showing Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel

Very little is known about Monasterboice’s founder Saint Buite. A single text of the life of the saint survives, but is an edited edition of two earlier sources. It tells of his life, beginning with various miracles throughout his childhood and ending close to the point of his death with his prophecy concerning the birth of Colum Cille who was later said to visit the site. Buite was a devoted follower of Saint Patrick and settled in this area to help with Patrick’s missionary work - presumably quite late in his life. His birth was supposed to have been preceeded by fire in the sky as a good omen of God’s work and the Saint’s ‘manner and habit of life’ was said to bear a close resemblance to the charism of Saint Brigid. He was a descendant of one of the chieftains of Munster and in his early life he was influenced greatly by Saint Patrick. He is said to have travelled extensively throughout Germany, Italy and England before finally settling in Ireland. Two stories tell of miracles in his life and influence. On one occasion a blind man comes to him and Buite tells him to wash his eyes in the well. The man does this and is miraculously healed. The other tale tells of how an important visitor needed to get across the River Boyne which was swollen in flood and highly dangerous, but Buite struck the waters and they parted like the Red Sea allowing a safe passage for the important visitor. There are a number of decorative stone grave slabs dating to the eighth century and the South church incorporates a slab shrine which in all likelihood is the burial shrine slab of Saint Buite, although the actual burial site is unknown.

The North Cross

The records of the presiding abbots and clergy at Monasterboice are well documented and many appear to have had illustrious careers and been abbots of other very important foundations. This may indicate that they are from the same dynastic family line or that there were strong links between Monasterboice and other places like Armagh and Clonard. The most famous cleric of Monasterboice was of course Flann Mainistrech who died in 1056 and who was described as ‘eminent lector and master of the historical lore of Ireland’. Flann was noted for his incredible insight and scholarship and as such was considered in his day as the pre-eminent scholar of the age. He was a remarkably prolific poet with a keen interest in local politics and his work may also reveal something of his shrewdness of character, as a large amount of his poetical works seems to be attempts at wooing neighbours for the sake of their kind patronage! His son**, Echtigern, continued his poetic legacy, gathering his works together and writing some of his own.

The North Church

Monasterboice was also a place with a famous scriptorium, and having links with other monasteries may have ensured its survival for a while in this regard. It is thought that the Cotton Psalter may be a product of this site. With the production of quality goods came the accumulation of wealth and with this came the attention of rival families and those in league with the Norse raiders. One entry in the obits of 970AD records a particularly vicious raid on Monasterboice by those ‘raiding on behalf of the foreigners’ when three hundred people were murdered in one building in the space of a single day. In 1097 a fire broke out in the round tower, destroying many significant books and treasures. Within thirty years of this event, all references in the annals to this foundation cease. It may have been that the huge site of Mellifont Abbey nearby spelled the end for Monasterboice as a monastic settlement, or it may have been that the fire did significant damage to the scriptorium and library, or that all important relics were burned and destroyed so that pilgrims were drawn elsewhere. The most likely situation is that after the fire there was little money to make the necessary repairs to continue as the patronage they enjoyed would have very likely moved to Mellifont Abbey and added to this was the fact that the twelfth century was a period of massive reform in the Irish church. Under the new diocesan structures and the removal of petty bishoprics enforced by the 1111 Synod of Raith Bressail, Monasterboice developed into a parochial centre. The North Church was constructed in the thirteenth century and the South church was considerably refurbished in the fifteenth century. The South Church appears to have functioned up into the early seventeenth century, but by 1622 it was described as being in a ruinous state.

 The Sundial

The holy well at Monasterboice was originally part of the foundation and known as Saint Buite’s well. Curiously, Isaac Butler describes the well as being south of the graveyard and he called it ‘Saint Kiarnan’s well’. It’s not clear why he gives it this attribution as the name is likely derived from Saint Kieran but that saint has no direct association with this site, but would have known about the site through his association with Clonmacnoise. Sadly the actual location of the well is no longer known as it was drained, filled in and covered in the 1960’s. It’s rather sad that this site has lost its well as it is a very beautiful site and its crosses are incredibly impressive. Nevertheless, it is still an important pilgrimage site and if you get a chance to pray amid the hustle and bustle of tourists, remember on this site that was once of huge scholarly importance all who are involved in the translation of the scriptures and in their production and all who - in the tradition of this place – through word and picture, spread the hope of the Gospel.

Detail of Muiredach's Cross

Direct and bless, O Lord, by the inward work of your Holy Spirit, our reading of the scriptures, to illumine and teach all students, expositors, and translators of the sacred text; and may your blessing be with all who print it, publish it, read it and carry it into the homes and hearts of people, that your word may have free course and Christ be made known in this and in all lands; through the same, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Detail of the Tall Cross

*The annals that are referenced in these blog posts as simply ‘annals’ are; the Annals of Ulster, the Annals of Tigernach, the Cronicum Scotorum, the Annals of the Four Masters and the Annals of Inisfallen.
**Generally speaking, monks and nuns were celibate and under vows, but clergy appear to have been free to marry until a relatively late period in the Irish church.

The two cats with the inscription on Muiredach's Cross

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Our Lady’s Well, Templetown

The gates to Our Lady's well, Templetown

Along the Cooley peninsula, off the R175 and close to the beach is a small ruin of church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, with grave slabs arranged in neat rows and well cut grass. It has a well-maintained path leading up to it and suitable gate through its beautiful stone wall.  For some time this church has been called Kilwirra, a derivation of ‘Cill Mhuire’, meaning ‘Mary’s Church’. This is a building that has gone through a number of significant changes, but most significant has been the population change. This area is quiet and rural, but back in the twelfth century it was once a bustling and highly populated area.

Saint Mary's Church and Graveyard

Templetown received its name from the presence of the Knights Templar – a monastic brotherhood most famous for their activity during the Crusades. Strongbow - whose grave can be found in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin – added Ireland to the property portfolio of the Anglo-Normans and the Knights Templar were soon to follow. Under Henry II, over two hundred Templar’s were sent to the Cooley Peninsula. Despite their numbers at one time, there are remarkably few remains of their presence. The church of Saint Mary is in the main a nineteenth century building, but there is evidence that it incorporates older buildings. In the graveyard you can find a couple of Templar graves - identifiable by the insignia of the cross and the lamb.

Carlingford Lough

Despite the large numbers sent to this area under deed of Henry II, Clontarf remained their principal site in Ireland. Their presence in this area is thought to have been for the purposes of protection of the northern extremity of the Pale, but there is little or no evidence of the heavily fortified preceptories that would normally be associated with their presence for this purpose. By 1312, after various political movements to remove their power and influence, they were closed down as an order and their lands and wealth granted to the Knights Hospitallers.

St James' Church

There is plenty to see in the surrounding area and a drive up towards Carlingford Lough is very rewarding. It’s a busy enough area in summer with beautiful views and few good café’s and is supposed to be the second landing site of Saint Patrick. There is also a massive and hugely impressive portal tomb and well preserved wedge tomb out at Proleek to the east. In the village of Grange nearby there is an interesting church dedicated to Saint James and part of Cooley parish in the diocese of Armagh. This church was once part of the Cistercian foundation in this area and linked to the main Cistercian Abbey of Newry. During the suppression of the monasteries in Ireland it was confiscated and granted to the Meryman family. The lands were later acquired once again to build a new church, which was completed in 1762 and additions made in 1812. From the outside it is pleasant enough, but inside it’s a little gem of a church - well kept and not too much gaudy chintz. In many ways it would remind you of American churches in New England with its painted woodwork, low roof and open sanctuary and it feels appropriate to be visiting a church dedicated to Saint James as a pilgrim visiting holy wells. There are a couple of decorative stained glass windows from Harry Clarke studios badly back lit with artificial lighting. From this church, if you head back onto the main road to Dundalk, but turn left, you will eventually see a sign for the R175 which will lead you to the well.

St James' Church (Interior)

As you travel down the road you can see the ruined church on a hill in the distance. You can see the path to well before you reach the path from the road to the church - it has large decorated gates that are hard to miss. It’s so well kept that there must be a pattern held here still or a parish that maintains the area. The surrounding land is a little boggy but much is farmland and the area immediately surrounding the well has a kind of garden with fencing, hedges and some tall pine trees to the back. The well is enclosed in a whitewashed circular stone housing overlooked by a large statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The 15th August is the day when this well is most visited (or when a pattern possibly takes place).

Our Lady's Well

Very little is known about this well, and despite my best efforts I couldn't glean much information, although it is mentioned in a number of surveys done in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. On the feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary the waters are said to rise and water taken at these times is said to be especially efficacious for curing sickness. Due to its rural location this is a very peaceful place and even on a windy day in early autumn, the high hedges protect you from any noise at all. It’s quiet and private and beautiful, despite the fact that there is no stunning scenery, nor is the well that remarkable; but it is hard not to enjoy this place.

The well and statue

Hymn to the Theotokos

Into his joy, the Lord has received you,
Virgin God-bearer, Mother of Christ.

You have beheld the King in his beauty,
Mary, daughter of Israel.

You have made answer for the creation
to the redeeming will of God.

Light, fire and life, divine and immortal,
joined to our nature you have brought forth,

that to the glory of God the Father,
heaven and earth might be restored.

A cross marks a grave in St Mary's ruins

How to find it:
From the motorway take the exit to Carlingford and travel down the old Dundalk road towards Carlingford Lough until you see a sign for the R175, follow this road until you come to Templetown and you can’t miss the church ruins. From here the well is easy to find (you can see it).