Thursday, December 13, 2012

Saint Kavan’s Well, Annatrim, County Laois.

The sign at the holy well

Nestling in the silent shadow of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, and by the meandering River Nore there remains but a few small signs of a significant monastic settlement that existed until the time of dissolution. Not far from the village of Coolrain, a small and beautifully cared for church oozes a certain Celtic austerity. It is the church of Ireland parish of Annatrim (or Anatrim) that was built in 1835 and it sits beside a now dilapidated structure that was an earlier church, possibly dating from around the early 1700’s that looks almost Spanish in style, and which also may incorporate some of the original monastic ruins. The Red Book of Ossory lists a church on the site as the Parish of Enahtrum in 1510, so it is likely that there was yet another earlier church built here too. Not far down the hill from the church lies the holy well of Saint Kavan.

The Church of Ireland Parish of Annatrim

Annatrim, which from the Irish ‘Eanach Truim’, means the marsh of the Elder tree, and was the site of an ancient monastery. Up to the tenth century the River Nore marked the boundary between Leix and Ossory. It is said that Saint Mochaemhog was the first to establish the monastic site. We are told of this in the Annals of Annatrim Monastery itself, but of the life of the monastery (or in fact of any other detail relating to it) the annals are curiously silent. They tell us absolutely nothing; but this is not the only mystery which surrounds this site.

The Slieve Bloom Mountains

Saint Kavan (sometimes incorrectly spelt Saint Kavin) is an Irish nickname for the Welsh Saint Cadfan (Kavan in Irish meaning ‘wise man’, Cadfan in Welsh meaning Gideon, but in his day he acquired the nickname Kadvan which in Welsh means ‘warring wise’). It’s essentially a play on words - a very common practice in that early period of Irish Christianity. We don’t know a great deal about Saint Cadfan, but we do know that he was originally from Brittany and went on a missionary journey to Wales where he established two important important religious settlements. One was Tywyn and the other was Bardsey Island which he established in 516 and remained there as Abbot until 542. Bardsey Island settlement was to become one of the most important Medieval pilgrimage sites in all of Wales. It is a small island of three square miles, which offered some protection for the wars that raged on the mainland at the time. There are no records of Saint Cadfan ever travelling to Ireland, and certainly the religious site at Annatrim was only established about ten years after his death, so it would have been impossible for him to have had a hand in its construction and settlement.

The ruined church

Bardsey Island is still considered to be a holy place of pilgrimage today and the  place of the burial of Saint Cadfan. Sadly in the nineteenth century the grave marker – which is an ancient stone with the earliest known written form of Welsh – was moved into a newly built church and those who moved it did not mark the place from whence it came! There are no records in Wales of Cadfan ever leaving Bardsey Island so there is a certain mystery as to why this Welsh saint would be commemorated in Annatrim – if that who is being commemorated there!. We know that there have been Welsh connections with Ireland and her saints before - such as the Welsh connection to Saint Aidan in Ferns diocese and the connection with Saint David in County Wexford, but this one is a bit of a mystery. It is possible that Saint Mochaemhog trained in Wales and was influenced by Saint Cadfan, but we cannot be sure and any suggestion of this kind can only ever be pure conjecture. It’s made more curious still by the pattern day that used to be celebrated at the holy well. On Bardsey Island there is also a holy well dedicated to Saint Cadfan and the day of pilgrimage to it takes place on the 1st November, but in Ireland the pattern to this well takes place on 3rd November, however this could be a transference from celebrating the day on either All Saints or All Souls Day – but there may be yet another explanation.

Looking up the road from the holy well

There is one other possibility, which is a bit of a shot in the dark, but it may shed some light on the mystery of the holy well. In a book entitled ‘Insula Sanctorum et Doctorum’, John Healy records a story of Saint Columba of Terryglass travelling with Saint Fintan, Saint Mocumin and Saint Caemhen of Annatrim.  There is an ancient legend that claims that Fintan was born in Annatrim, but there are little records of who Saint Caehmen of Annatrim was, as mentioned by Healy. In the tale the four travelers are searching for a place to establish a religious settlement. As they walk across the top of the Slieve Bloom Mountains they come across a boy who is herding sheep who has been dumb since birth. Saint Columba of Terryglass has pity on the child and making the sign of the cross over his mouth, the boy begins to speak and tells the travelers that it is near here that they will experience their resurrection, for it is here that they will remain until death. Saint Columba of Terryglass looks down from the mountainside and sees a great company of angels in the area of Clonenagh moving backwards and forwards preparing the ground for the great harvest that will take place as a result of their settlement. Saint Columba of Terryglass, echoing the words of one of the disciples at the event of the transfiguration, proclaims, ‘It is good for us to be here.’ It’s tempting to think that this long forgotten Saint Caemhen of Annatrim is in fact Saint Kavan, but again it may only be part conjecture. The annals of the original settlement are curiously silent and John Healy does not document the source of this tale of Saint Caemhen whose feast day is recorded in the nineteenth century as the 12th June by Colgan, but it is likely that it is a variant on a form that can be found in the Life of Fintan of Clonenagh. In that Saint’s Life, Fintan is said to journey with Saint Coeman of Annatrim. Variations of spelling are common in Ireland, and I’m not well versed enough in Irish names to know if Caemhen and Coeman might be easily interchangeable, but it all adds layers to the mystery of this area and it’s well’s dedication. It may be that the names of Saint Caemhen and Saint Kavan have become confused in a process of anglicisation and that the similarities between the name of Kavan and Cadfan are merely chance. In the Martyrology of Donegal Saint Coeman’s feast day is listed as 3rd November with the following entry; ‘Coeman of Eanach Truim, in Laoighis, in the west of Leinster. He was of the race of Labhraidh Lorc, monarch of Erin, and brother of Caoimhghin [Kevin] of Gleann-da-locha.’ It's hard to know why Coeman would become Kavan, but it's a intriguing possibility and probably the most likely possibility in light of the scant evidence.

The holy well, barely visible beneath the brambles

A pattern day is supposed to be held at the holy well on the 3rd November, but it appears that this has not taken place since around 1830. The well is also said to have had a special stone, known as Saint Kavan’s stone, but it is in fact a large millstone, possibly from the old ruined mills that once dominated the village of Coolrain. The stone is a large flat flagstone with an incised circle, having two circular recesses cut into it on top and two rectangular recesses underneath. On the day I was there it was impossible to see anything. The well itself was barely visible through the mounds of weeds and brambles (a somewhat ironic symbol of it tangled history), and it was impossible to say if the millstone was still present. Despite it’s shabby appearance, the well is still marked and local people know of its existence, but with much mystery surrounding its dedication, it is likely that a pattern around it will never revive and sadly this well will probably only remain a curiosity. If on the other hand it were possible to untangle the Kavan’s the Coeman’s and and the Caemhen’s and finally settle on the listing in the Martyrology of Donegal, then a revival of the pattern and a remembrance of a forgotten Irish saint might just be possible -  but I fear that we might have to wait until something else is uncovered in terms of documentation to clear the entanglements up!

A picture of Saint Kavan's stone from days when the well was less neglected
Photograph courtesy of

Be each saint in heaven,
Each sainted woman in heaven,
Each angel in heaven
Stretching their arms for you,
Smoothing the way for you,
When you go thither
Over the river hard to see;
Oh when you go thither home
Over the river hard to see.

A Welsh blessing from a collection by Alexander Carmichael.

How to find it:
From the Church of Ireland parish Annatrim, walk down the hill away from the church and the church ruins and not far down you will see a large metal sign indicating the presence of the well.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Saint Lachtain’s Holy Well, Freshford

A zoomorphic image in the arch of St Lachtain's church

In the picturesque little village of Freshford in County Kilkenny lies a deep holy well dedicated to Saint Lachtain. The village is settled on a small park square with the remnants of an Irish high cross, but sadly all that is to be seen is a lump of worn stone. A little way down from the village square is the church of Saint Lachtain, built in 1731 and incorporating an ancient doorway portal from 1110. Although the actual church building is of a relatively late date, the site is of great historical significance in Ireland as a site of almost continuous use since its early foundation.

 The ancient archway of St Lachtain's church

The original foundation at Freshford was settled some time in the seventh century before the death of Saint Lachtain in 672AD (some annals record the earlier date of 622AD, but this may be a confusion with the date of the foundation of the first church at Freshford) and very early historical records make many references to the existence of the site. It is mentioned later in various Annals dating from the twelfth and thirteenth century, where an attempt is clearly being made to have the site recognized as the Episcopal centre of the newly established diocese of Ossory. The mission met with failure with the site being recognized only a part of the temporalities of the See of Ossory in 1218. However, Bishop Hugh Mapleton held it in high esteem and built his Episcopal palace close by called Uppercourt. Uppercourt was to remain the favoured residence of the Bishop’s of Ossory until the 1550’s when Bishop John Bale was resident. This Bishop had a voracious reforming zeal which enraged the local population and in a single night they murdered five of his servants, forcing him to flee for his life. Since then, the building of Uppercourt has been in secular ownership.

The village of Freshford

Today the church of Saint Lachtain is still in regular use and the nave of the church is thought to be built on the same foundation outline as the tenth century cell church (the second church to built on the site) which was built to house the relic of Saint Lachtain’s arm; a magnificent silver and gold reliquary which housed the saints forearm bones and which can be seen in the National Museum in Dublin. It’s nothing short of a miracle that the relic survived at all as the site was plundered numerous times by the Vikings and casual robbers, who repeatedly burned its books and plundered its silver and gold. The Franciscan’s moved the reliquary to County Kerry in the mid 1600’s where it was to stay for some time before being transferred into the care of the Museum in Dublin. The doorway to the church is the oldest surviving part of it, dating to 1110 and incorporating some zoomorphic figures, a rider on horseback and two ecclesiastical figures (both unidentified). The arch carries a prayer inscribed in Irish script: Pray for Niamh, daughter of Corc, and for Mathgamhan O Clearmaic for whom this church was made. Pray for Gille Mocholmoc for whom this church was made. Pray for Gille Mocholmoc O Ceannucain who made it.

Two ecclesiastical figures in the arch

Saint Lachtain’s day is celebrated on 19th March. A native of Muskerry in County Cork and born into an illustrious family, Saint Lachtain’s arrival was shrouded in mystery in a vision given to Saint Molua while under the oversight of Saint Comgall of Bangor. It was said that Saint Molua was so disturbed by this vision, and in fear that it he had fantasised the whole thing himself, he never broke a smile until he heard of the child’s birth! Lachtains genealogy is confused, but it is generally regarded that he was of royal lineage. The earliest life of the saint (which only records his early years) is now lost, but various writers such as Colgan records a story from it regarding how the child in the womb appeared in a vision to a blind man by the name of Mohemeth to give him his sight. Other stories relating to Lachtain’s childhood portray him in the same vein as Jacob, Jeremiah and John the Baptist, sanctified before their birth - a common device used in early Irish Saint’s Life’s. Other miracles from his childhood relate how he healed himself of food poisoning, how he healed his mother of a terminal tumor and how he saved the cattle of the area from a terrible plague.

The shrine reliquary of Saint Lachtain's arm

In later Life accounts of the saint we are told how he journeyed northward and went to study under the direction of Saint Comgall in Bangor, who placed him in the care of Saint Molua as his guardian and teacher. He remained here until the age of thirty, studying diligently and being highly proficient in his knowledge of the scriptures. After this period in Bangor, Lachtain set out to establish a number of religious foundations both in County Kilkenny and in County Cork.

 The much neglected holy well

The saint’s holy well is a short walk from the ecclesiastical site, set off slightly from the main road into the village. O’Hanlon records it as being in great disrepair and utterly neglected by the local people, but the same well is mentioned in the ancient Life of Saint Mochoemoc (an Abbott in the time of Saint Lachtain’s later years and patron saint of LIsmore) as being a place ‘sacred to the memory of Saint Lachtain’. Saint Lachtain died on the 19th March in 672AD and within a very short period of his death he was being venerated as a saint, recorded in the martyrology of AEngus of Culdee, the Martyrology of Tallaght, of Marianus O’Gorman, of Maguire, O’Clery’s, in the Calendar of Cashel, and more curiously the saint appears in the sanctorale of the Carthusian Order throughout Europe on the same date. There are a number of Holy Wells dedicated to Saint Lachtain throughout Ireland and all of them hold in common a belief that they cure paralytics and those ‘possessed by a diabolical agency’. The waters in the holy well at Freshford are considered beneficial for the blessing of cattle; possibly relating to an account in one of the Life’s which tells of the Saint’s gift of cattle to the people and of his love of dairy food. Saint Lachtain was also highly regarded as a broker of peace between warring factions and tribal scuffles, and was said to have been a keen defender of the interests of the people of Munster. In later martyrologies he is recorded as being a Bishop, but despite the record, it is a claim that is difficult to ascertain in truth. Overall, Lachtain’s life is one that tells of supreme sacrifice, leaving behind his royal rights to enter a life of self-giving and risking his life in peacemaking for the people he loved. A healer, a teacher and a man of prayer who travelled by faith the length and breath of Ireland, Saint Lachtain’s memory is firmly fixed in Freshford; a sleepy, peaceful little village in County Kilkenny.

The modern, small cross at the well

At some point the holy well at Freshford has gone through very significant alteration, with a boundary wall now built to separate it from the surrounding farmer’s fields, and an iron gate encompassing a cross erected at its entrance. A Conservation Plan from 2004, typically makes no mention of the well at all. The holy well itself is very deep, but badly neglected. Its culverts have become blocked, so the water fills up over the top of the circular well housing and because of the lack of flow, much green algae has grown on the surface of the water. The rest of the well housing is in good condition, with a tiny stone cross in one corner. It is a simple layout and easy to make rounds, but the waters are far from inviting! Despite being on a main road into the village, it is a peaceful place with its own peculiar charm and sleepy nature. A much overlooked site that’s well worth the visit.

The iron gate at the entrance to the well

Lachtain, the Champion, loved
Humility, perfect and pure,
Stand through perpetual time
Did he in defence of the men of Munster.
Cumineus of Connor.

O thou who art heroic love, keep alive in our hearts that adventurous spirit which makes men scorn the way of safety, so that thy will be done. For so only, O Lord, shall we be worthy of those courageous souls who in every age have ventured all in obedience to thy call, and for whom the trumpets have sounded on the other side; through Jesus Christ our Lord. 
John H. Oldham

The stump of the high cross

How to find it:
From Kilkenny heading out to the village of Freshford, the holy well is located around 200 metres before the village on the right hand side of the road. As you enter the village, the church is located down a road to the right off the main village green.

A cross inscribed in the doorway of the church

Monday, October 22, 2012

Saint Kieran’s Holy Well, Seir Kieran

The sign on the gate

Seir Kieran is a small hamlet in County Offaly where Saint Kieran’s well can be found and his ‘holy bush’. Close by are the ruins of an ancient monastic complex and round tower, where a high King of Ireland is said to have been buried and where you can see the foot of what must have been a truly huge high cross.

The church

Legend has it that Saint Kieran the Elder settled in this area and founded a monastery here. The exact date of the foundation is unknown, but patching together the archaeological clues and the hagiographical ones would lead you to pinpoint the foundation to somewhere before 490AD. For many years this was the seat of the Bishop of this area, and the stone seat – which now resides in Kilkenny Cathedral – is said to have been the Bishop’s throne. This was to remain the ‘official’ seat of the Bishop of Ossory until the standardization of monastic and church practice with the arrival of the Augustinian Canons in 1200AD who were keen to remove the ‘wayward’ Celtic practices of the Irish monastic system and to keep the church in line with what was happening in the rest of Europe.

The stump of the high cross

The monastic site is now a collection of crumbling ruins. A few small chapel ruins can be viewed and clearly plotted and the remains of a round tower (thought to have been constructed in the tenth century) are still visible, but on the whole the site has been greatly tampered with due to its continued use as a graveyard and the fact that the ground has become very uneven. A few interesting gravestones are scattered around - both ancient and modern -  a very ancient one bearing the inscription ‘ Ordo Cherball’ (pray for Cherball). In the 1930’s a large base for an ancient high cross dating to the early ninth century was unearthed. The base of this cross is both significantly larger and taller than either of the two very large high crosses at Monasterboice, which would lead you to think that it was a very significant cross. Sadly, no other pieces have been unearthed, but the on the base you could at one time see the image of Adam and Eve being cast out of the garden of Eden and a curious battle scene of men marching with spears behind a large horse. Today the base of the cross is so badly weathered that you cannot make out any of the figures at all. Locals say that the water that gathers in the cross stump has curative properties, especially for warts!

Saint Kieran's Holy Bush

There is a rather fine little Church of Ireland chapel on the site which is still used for services. It is of far more modern construction than anything else on the site, but incorporates stonework from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, and its tracery window dates from the thirteenth century. At one time a Sheela-na-Gig sat over the main door of the church; but this was removed and taken to the Dublin Museum some time ago.

The holy stone

Saint Kieran the Elder was said to have been trained and instructed by Saint Patrick. He was then sent out into Ossory to found a monastery and Saint Patrick had given him a bell to travel with. These bells seem to have been very significant for these early Irish monastic settlements and their saints. They acted as a call to prayer, as a way of possibly getting peoples attention in the local area, but they were also symbols of the presence of God and became valuable relics associated with many saints. There were undoubtedly other symbolic associations with these bells because their structure and sound was really very distinctive. In this instance, the story is told that the bell given to Saint Kieran rang out of its own accord to indicate when the saint had arrived at a suitable location for his monastery.

An old church ruin on the monastic site (with a cow in it)

Very close to the church and to the side of the road is what is known as Kieran’s holy bush which has become a cloutie tree, holding all manner of objects. Beneath this tree is a small rock in the ground said to hold the imprints of the knees of the saint where he knelt to pray. This is in fact incorrect; the stone, which is now under great clumps of grass and moss – was once said to have been the hand print of the saint. In 1838 Thomas O’Connor wrote a letter to those involved in mapping the area and in the letter he records much interesting detail, including the presence of a white thorn bush by the side of the road said to be the saints bush. Beneath the bush he describes the presence of a small stone with the very clear imprint of a hand on it. Today, the hand is no longer visible as the stone is greatly worn, but a deep cross has also been incised into it, so any ‘imprint’ would be difficult to make out. Thomas O’Connor writes that promises or vows are made at this stone and the intercession of the saint is sought here also.

The site of the holy well

Across the road from the bush and stone is Saint Kieran’s well. Saint Kieran’s feast day is the 5th March and an ecumenical service is normally held at the bush and the well. The well itself is of a large square construction, and despite the fact that it has been ‘beautified’ with more more concrete than a nearby motorway and hedging that protects you from the elements but removes the beautiful view, it still retains the ancient stones of the well housing intact. It appears to all intents and purposes to be an immersion pool, with steps leading down into it. The water is murky and full of algae, but it is cleaned out for the feast day. It has plenty of space to do the traditional ‘rounds’ and the surrounding countryside is certainly beautiful and peaceful.

Saint Kieran's Holy Well

Like many places in Ireland, this is a site and holy well that has been much neglected and really only held interest for a few faithful locals. But times are changing and there is a revival of interest in these sites and in holy wells. In many ways I think part of it is linked to peoples’ sense of devotion to God and the activity of gathering as a community to share in a pilgrimage to a site – no matter how short that pilgrimage is! Patterns are becoming increasingly popular again after a long period of neglect and even attempts to stop them altogether. The pattern here at Saint Keiran’s holy well, bush, stone and monastic site is experiencing a little revival of a sort and there is now even a Facebook page devoted to the pattern.

Cobwebs in the morning dew

Saint Kieran arrived in Offaly at a time when great superstitions were destroying the minds and the peace of the people. His influence in that early period was great, and his Rule for his monks was simple and short. It inspired others in the local area to join his monastery and to try and rid themselves of the shackles of tributes to be constantly paid to unjust and greedy chieftains in the area.  This was essentially much of Kieran’s work in the area and it is both ironic and sad that by 1200AD the same crippling tributes were enforced through the Augustinian Canons who essentially courted the rich as patrons and spelt the end of the simple Irish monastic Rule. Much of what we know of Kieran’s life comes from two sources: the ancient source of the Life of Keiran as recorded in the Codex Kilkenniensis and a small document held in the Marsh’s Library in Dublin, thought to be the work of Saint Evan (who also collected stories of the life of Saint Patrick), but the actual document dates to the fourteenth century. Both documents record the point where the bell rang out as being beside the holy well which sprang from a great rock deep in the earth and where the saint first stopped to bathe himself and make a small hut as a dwelling.

The monastic site

May the blessing of rain fall on us - the soft sweet rain.
May it fall upon our spirit so that all the little flowers may spring up, and spread their sweetness on the air. May the blessing of the great rains be upon us, that they may beat upon our spirits and wash them fair and clean, and leave there many a shining pool where the blue of heaven shines – and sometimes, a star.

A cross in the graveyard

How to find it:
As you enter Seir Kieran, the holy well is very clearly signposted down a small lane to the right and the holy bush is up on the left hand side of the road. A five minute walk up the road and you can see the monastic side down to the right.

A cure for warts!