Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Saint Manchán’s Well, County Offaly

Saint Manchán with his cow

The little town land of Lemanaghan hides number of wonderful treasures, a little well with a curious smell and a dilapidated shrine church that nestles in the middle of a farmer’s field. Saint Manchán is the patron saint of this area, and he, his family and their descendants have occupied this land for generations. Saint Manchán’s feast day is celebrated on the twenty-fourth of January and of the connection of the saint to the area and foundation of Lemanaghan there is little written evidence, but a strong tradition of his association with this area can be plotted back very far into early Christian Ireland. The town land name “Lemanaghan’ is derived from ‘Leth-Mancháin’, meaning ‘Manchán’s grey lands’.

Saint Manchán's Shrine

Saint Manchán in some accounts has a royal lineage with an ancestor three generations before him as one of the High King’s of Ireland with a family line thought to come from Ulster (a title that sounds a lot more grand than what the reality was). His mother Mella gave birth to him and two girls; Grealla and Greillseach. Rumours abounded shortly after the saint’s death that he was connected in some way to Saint Patrick, although even in terms of his dates this seems highly unlikely. In the Book of Fenagh, Manchán is associated with Saint Caillin as the executor of his will and as his successor in the abbacy of Fenagh.

 The Church at the Monastic Foundation

Manchán was said to be a very learned man, generous to a fault, well versed in scripture, a loyal monk and somewhat irritated by the local warrior chieftains who would use his patronage and prayers as a good luck charm for victory in warfare. Whereas in other places - such as Clonmacnoise – both saints and abbots appeared quite happy to offer patronage in exchange for wealth to help spread the Gospel and develop the religious foundation, Saint Manchán seems to have more moral quandaries about this type of activity even though it is believed that he may have come from Clonmacnoise. However, it is tales of the cow that produced an incredible amount of milk that prevailed. Like Kieran, Manchán is said to have had a beautiful cow that produced an endless supply of milk, and after feeding the members of the religious community the surplus was always given to the poor. Up until the 1950’s milk was given away free in this area. Thanksgiving for a saint with dairy products is quite common in Ireland, especially when the saint is directly associated with dairy produce in some way - a practice that today is very often seen as being ‘pagan’. On occasion you will see butter being thrown into wells, or milk being poured over the ground or a stone near a well and at many a pattern home-made cheeses will be shared.

 The Old Road to Saint Mella's Church

Manchán died suddenly in a time effected by a plague that was sweeping through parts of Ireland with great ferocity. He died either in 661 (according to the annals of Clonmacnoise) or 664AD (according to the annals of the Four Masters) on 24th January. His body was left to decay and then his bones were taken and placed in a wooden shrine of slatted wood in the shape of a church and the repository was left in a local church. Shortly after this a number of carved parts are recorded as being added to the shrine and then a bronze cover made to protect it. In 1130 seven enameled crosses were added to the shrine and later in the twelfth century some believe that the entire shrine was remade and figures of various abbots, bishops, clergy and saints were fixed to its outer casing. The shrine containing the bones of the saint are still visible today in the parish church of Boher. In 1860 the Buchail family (the name means ‘cow herder of the saint’) brought the shrine and Saint Manchán’s crosier to the church (the crosier is now in the Dublin museum). The shrine is quite a remarkable thing to behold and is still used today during the pattern for the saint when it is paraded throughout the area and said to be one of the greatest masterpieces of Romanesque metalwork to have ever been made.

Saint Mella's Church (also known locally as 'The Kell')

The churches and holy well that are linked to the site of Saint Manchán’s foundation are a little difficult to find. They aren’t wonderfully signposted and the once well used rag tree on a little island in the middle of the road with a badly eroded ballaun stone beside it, often stands bare for long periods. The rag tree in the road and an old Victorian National School are the best indicators that you have reached the site of the foundation. From the road you can see the first church which dates from around the thirteenth or fourteenth century. It is badly ruined, but some Romanesque features still survive and ancient graves are dotted around underneath the overgrowth. Some of the graves date to the early ninth and tenth century and as such are therefore the oldest surviving parts of the monastic foundation. Peat works uncovered an extensive network of wooden planks laid down as paths to help pilgrims come to this area. The church flourished into the fifteenth century, but was embroiled in the family politics of the Mac Coghlin’s who took ownership of it and was finally sacked in the rebellion in 1641. To the north of this church is said to be the remains of what was Saint Manchán’s house, or cell. From here you can pass through a small gate in the wall and you come to a long straight road with ancient stones laid into the ground to create a causeway through what was once treacherous bog.

 A Ballaun Stone at the entrance to the Holy Well

At the end of this pathway is Saint Mella’s Cell or church on a raised portion of land surrounded by trees. Although it is in bad repair, it was clearly at one time a beautiful church or oratory and from its elevated position was likely considered to be of great importance to the religious community. It seems likely that this is in fact a shrine church for Saint Mella or possibly for some other saint whose memory has long gone.

A statue of Jesus being assumed into the tree at the well

Half way down the same stony causeway is the well, surrounded by a stone wall with a number of ballaun stones nearby. It’s a very deep well and the water is pitch black because of the surrounding bog. The water also takes on some of the smell of the bog land and has a very curious whiff of creosote! The antiseptic qualities of this well are highly regarded and a visit to both the well and the shrine of Saint Manchán is said to grant healing to the prayerful pilgrim. The legend is that the well appeared when the praying monks left the church in great thirst on an unusually hot day only to discover that their water supplies had been allowed to run low. The saint responded by striking the rock nearby and fresh water gushed forth! Like other myths connected to Irish saints, this one also borrows from the Old Testament, in this instance Moses, while the monks are depicted as the children of Israel in a temporary Exodus before reaching the promised land. At the time such a myth would have undoubtedly have been of huge significance to the monks of this community and to the people who settled around it, as the entire area was an inhospitable bog that was also extremely dangerous - so the notion of being in a temporary wilderness while waiting for a promised land would have been somewhat poignant.

Saint Manchán's Well

Saint Manchán’s feast day is celebrated on 24th January - the day of his death. However, the pattern that still continues to this day and which includes the parading of the relics and shrine tends to take place on the evening of the 23rd January.

 Stone, Cross, Phone! Items left at the Holy Well


I wish, O Son of the living God, O ancient, eternal King,
For a hidden little hut in the wilderness that it may be my dwelling.
An all-grey lithe little lark to be by its side,

A clear pool to wash away sins through the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Quite near, a beautiful wood around it on every side,

To nurse many-voiced birds, hiding it with its shelter.
A southern aspect for warmth, a little brook across its floor,

A choice land with many gracious gifts such as be good for every plant.
A few men of sense we will tell their number 

Humble and obedient. to pray to the King :
Four times three, three times four, fit for every need, 

Twice six in the church, both north and south :
Six pairs besides myself
 Praying for ever the King who makes the sun shine.
A pleasant church and with the linen altar-cloth, a dwelling for God from Heaven;
Then, shining candles above the pure white Scriptures.
One house for all to go to for the care of the body, 

Without ribaldry, without boasting, without thought of evil.
This is the husbandry I would take, I would choose, and will not hide it:

Fragrant leek, hens, salmon, trout, bees.
Raiment and food enough for me from the King of fair fame,

And I to be sitting for a while praying God in every place.

A seventh century poem attributed to Saint Manchán

A detail of the shrine

O merciful Father, you led the people of Israel to the promised land that flowed with milk and honey; hear the prayers of those who are in want and turn their dearth and scarcity into plenty. We give you our humble thanks for our bounty and ask that you continue your loving kindness unto us, that our land may continually bear the fruit of our labours and yield its increase to your glory and our comfort; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Detail of one of the Harry Clarke windows in Boher Church

How to find it:
Boher church can be found on the main road our of Ballycumber towards Athlone. It's not a particularly old church, but flags and posters advertise the shrine. Saint Manchan's church and holy well is somewhat difficult to find. Travel to the village of Ferbane and from here travel east down small country roads (the Ballycumber Road) for about five miles. At a T-junction a small tree sits on an island in the middle of the road surrounded by a small stone wall and opposite is a Victorian National School. The church is on the other side of the road and the well is behind it over the wall and down the causeway. To reach St Mella's Church walk to the end of the causeway and cross into the farmers field to your left, but heading straight on. At the far end of the field you can see some trees surrounding the church.

The three sanctuary windows in Boher church

1 comment:

  1. An excellent article, enough to entice me to travel up there in the not too distant future to see Boher and the surrounding area! Only heard of the place an hour ago by phone from a Dublin friend!

    Seán (www.portlaw.info )