Monday, May 7, 2012

Saint Fintan’s Well, Sutton, County Dublin

The view across Dublin Bay from Sutton, to Begnet's Island

Now and again it is possible to come across places where the well has not only been allowed to go dry through bad planning and much ground disturbance, but also from what amounts to criminal destruction of archaeological sites. This is one such instance, where a well having run dry, dropped out of the consciousness of the local community, who were then so unaware of its presence that they permitted developers to order its complete destruction. On the face of it this might seem like a natural evolution of sorts. In a land of over 3000 holy wells, there is always going to be the strong possibility that a clash of worlds between those interested in preserving religious and archaeological heritage and those interested in development for an ever-increasing population end up clashing with the destruction of a well site. However much can be lost in this process. In the past silver and gold communion vessels, pilgrims crosses, travelling shrines and rings and late medieval pater nosters have all been found at holy well sites on the very few that have had archaeological exploration. In many cases the well itself can be housed in early Irish Christian architecture or have early medieval housing. In the boom years of the Celtic Tiger a number of wells were deliberately destroyed and covered over with concrete and metal manholes. In some instances early medieval structures were completely destroyed and all of it was overseen by government appointed archaeologists! Here the old adage rings true, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

The view from Saint Fintan's graveyard

Quite apart from the archaeological aspects, there is an important religious aspect. The vast majority of holy wells are connected to a particular saint who very often has had a strong association with the area and sometimes there are monastic sites very nearby. Most of the holy wells in Ireland come from the period of early Irish Christianity up until the early medieval period. This is a very significant period of history for Ireland and for the rest of Europe. While Europe went into a kind of cultural decay, it was Ireland through its industrious saints and religious who went about the work of preserving literacy and culture. The significance of this effect upon the rest of Europe is becoming more and more clear and the importance of it for European history is is beginning to be understood in a more significant way. The writings that these saints have left behind and even later accounts of their lives give us a totally unique insight into how early Christian Ireland understood and read the scriptures, what was important to them theologically and how they adapted Christianity to the local culture and to the inclusion of lore and legend. Holy well sites contain much information locked in a local consciousness. Ireland was an oral culture for a very long time and remnants of this culture still survive. There is still a tendency to rely on the oral transmission of information regarding the saints associated with holy well sites, on lore about the area, on accounts of healing or miraculous events and on legends and folk tales. In the past people like W B Yeats, Lady Gregory and even Harry Clarke have known only too well what Ireland stood to loose in a generation or two. Their work at collecting religious history and entangled lore and their unabashed enjoyment of the spurious, recorded in books and scribbles have left us in their debt - a debt we may not have fully realised yet. When a well runs dry or is destroyed or covered over, it is not only the well that ceases to exist. If a patern or procession was observed in the area on a saints day then this too is often neglected and forgotten - and it is amazing just how quickly it is forgotten. The local tales of the saint fall out of memory. Poems and songs are no longer sung or recited. Prayers of the saint and to the saint are no longer uttered - even though in some cases they may have been uttered by the faithful for over a thousand years.  The whole history of the area begins to disintegrate and the texts of the saints life become the sole concern of the academic celticist who dusts off that early Latin or Irish copy in a dark, atmospherically controlled library.

Into this frame steps the idiotic, like myself. Those who are considered as strange well hunters and superstitious by others who think that society should really move on from all this dross. Maybe I am the product of an age that has now gone and I’m trying to hold onto something that cannot be grasped any longer, but something in me thinks it might be worth it yet. Maybe one day people will begin to realise they have much to loose in the criminal neglect of what they once considered to be a superstitious old puddle that was considered a health and safety issue rather than a heritage site. Maybe part of the reason why this apathy regarding sites like this exists is because we simply have so many of them. In this instance, despite the fact that the well is dry and absolutely nothing of its original structure remains, this is a significant site because the presence of a graveyard has preserved the burial site of the saint and some remains of a monastic settlement.

Saint Fintan's Shrine Church (the 'bell tower' is a later addition)

Saint Fintan was born in Leinster of ‘good lineage’. Many Irish saints appear to have important lineage, but it is generally regarded that these dynastic lines are of later invention. It’s hard to say for sure, but generally speaking most of them are attempts later on to justify diocesan boundaries and other issues relating to ground and property. This Saint Fintan is not to be confused with the Saint Fintan of Wexford (sometimes called Munnu) who had hoped to be the successor of Saint Columba on Iona. This Saint Fintan is more closely associated with the monastic site at Clonenagh. A number of accounts of his life survive in the Codex-Kilkenniensis, in a Bollandist collection (under the heading ‘Saint Fintan’s Prophecy and Life’) and the later transcriptions of his life by various Bishops of the church. The lineage of Saint Fintan hints that there may have been a family connection to Saint Lugedius and Saint Brigid, so religious life was already a significant aspect of the family history. The tale is told that his mother, Findath, while pregnant, is visited by an angel and told to refrain from sexual intercourse. The parallel with the annunciation is clear. This is a very common literary tool in early Irish saintly hagiography. Although to our modern religious mindset it might appear crude and maybe even verging on the heretical to place oneself in the role of a great religious person, for the early Irish Christians this was the norm. The desire to see yourself in the text you read and to mirror the lives of the great religious and the saints in your own life was seen as the very goal of Christian living. It is a very mystical understanding of the text and they reference it in such an unembarrassed way. The very same literary device can be seen at work in many other lives of the saints. To have the life of Jesus mirrored closely in your own life was part of the very tenet of Christian living.

 Ancient grave markers interspersed with sparse remains of the monastic settlement.

After his birth Fintan was taken to Clonkeen in Clonenagh to be baptised by a holy man who resided there. We are told that he remained there throughout his childhood to take instruction under this same holy man. Later in life Fintan made his way to a famous school that was established by Saint Columba on the upper portion of the river Shannon near Lough Derg. Here Fintan was greatly influenced by the severe practice of penitence, which was to become a significant mark of belief for him and his future religious establishments. At this school, Fintan banded together with two or three other disciples and set out to Clonenagh to create a religious settlement consisting of seven churches (today only the ruins of one remain). In this area it is said that the saint and his companions found no peace from the local people and eventually had to retire to the slopes of Slieve Bloom where they encountered the cowherd Sedna. Sedna becomes a convert to Christianity through the miraculous regaining of his speech when he is blessed by Saint Columba (who is passing through the area), and he too becomes a local saint. It is at this point that Fintan is essentially scolded by Saint Columba for a neglect of his duty to the area of Clonenagh. He tells the young saint that he can see angels processing through Clonenagh with downcast faces because the one who was to bring the good news to the people has abandoned his duty. After this solemn scolding, Fintan resolves to return to Clonenagh.

At Clonenagh Fintan set to work at gathering a large collection of monks around him under a very strict rule which demanded very long hours in prayer and an absolute minimum, vegan diet. As word of the foundation spread other saints and abbots in the area became concerned that the rule was too severe and that Fintan and his followers were veering dangerously close to a religious fanaticism and therefore making the Christian faith a subject of scorn to the local people. At the request of Saint Canice and a number of other visitors, Fintan relaxed the rule and turned away from the dangers of his increasing religious fundamentalism. This delegation didn’t simply take Fintan’s word, they remained at the site until he changed the rule, watching to see if the brothers would eat meat and if they would spend less time in intense prayer and more time in compassion for their neighbours in the community. From this point on Fintan is described as being more passionately concerned for the welfare of all people. He is said to have been given a prophetic gift and there are tales of him weeping over those who will die in Irish wars and of the fate of those who do not show concern for their neighbours. His acts of charity and compassion are recorded in great detail. One tale tells of how a war broke out in a nearby area and how the fighting was truly brutal and vicious. The local army brought back the heads of the defeated and left them in a field near the monastery. Fintan, having compassion for those who had died, collected all the heads and gave them a Christian burial and continued to pray for those who had died such a violent death. When asked by a local why he was praying for former enemies, Fintan is said to have responded, “Because the Lord is full of mercy and so those who have been buried here among the other saints of God might know the mercy in the hereafter that they were not afforded here”. Such tales are told as a demonstration of how great a conversion Fintan had from his early days of religious extremism.

 A blocked up window on the Shrine Church

By the twelfth century all seven churches at Clonenagh had essentially ceased to function. It is not clear exactly what happened, but the area was subject to much warfare and raiding, so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the churches were sacked, destroyed and the monks all slaughtered. Local lore in the area of Clonenagh tells of an important religious school thriving under the auspices of Fintan in later life and shortly after his death it produced a series of very fine scholars. The lost book of Cluain Eidhneach is said to have been a product of this religious school (only later copied fragments survive). A number of relics, books and the crosier of Saint Fintan is said to have resided at Ballyfin house until it burnt down during the reign of Elizabeth I and its contents were lost.

In 603 on 17th February, Saint Fintan collapsed while pronouncing the blessing at the end of communion. The brothers rushed to his aid and with his last breath he had the presence of mind to announce his successor and then he died. For some time after his death an office of Nine Leesons of Saint Fintan, Bishop and Confessor, was observed in Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. This practice was again revived by Bishop de Burgo, who decreed that all clergy, monks and nuns, should observe the office of Nine Lessons in honour of Saint Fintan on 17th February each year.

Interior of the Shrine Church

Sutton in County Dublin comprises of one side of Dublin Bay leading up to Howth Head. It is an area of beautiful views, a privately owned Martello Tower (previous residence of the Jameson Whiskey family) and burial place of Charles Haughey and Phil Lynott. Approaching Sutton on the coast road from the city of Dublin is the relatively newly built parish of Saint Fintan, completed in 1973 to a design by Andy Devane. The exterior is clad in concrete with a curious effect intended to look like fishing ropes - an idea that doubtless looked great on paper, but is perfectly dreadful in execution. The interior of the building, accessed through a somewhat dull and shadowy atrium, is somewhat impressive with its wooden fan shaped knave and open sanctuary. It is a kind of 70’s modernism, reflective of an open-planned living space, but it does convey a sense of peace in what is an otherwise busy area.

The concrete atrium at the entrance of St Fintan's parish church

Travelling up the hill on the Carrickbrack Road on the right you will find Saint Fintan’s cemetery. Here various ‘important’ people have been buried and an impressive memorial to Whitley Stokes - one of Ireland’s greatest Celtic scholars – stands with its inscription and impressive stone cross that reads, ‘The Truth lies with God; for us remains Research’. Up from the cemetery is a waste ground area that has had much infill with a very stony topsoil and gavel. It is now badly overgrown with much building rubble and high grass with tangled briar's. The spot where the holy well used to be has been much disturbed and covered with stony rubble and poor topsoil. Nothing of the well remains.

 Interior of Saint Fintan's parish church

Below the well, towards the top end of the graveyard is the ninth century shrine church of Saint Fintain. It isn’t certain whether this is the burial site of Saint Fintan, but local custom insists that it is and the building is certainly small enough to be an Irish shrine church. Little is known of any association of Saint Fintan with this area and so it leaves us with a curious mystery. We know that by the end of the twelfth century the establishment at Clonenagh had ceased to exist, but this church seems a little too old to be a site for the relocation of his remains from a resultant collapse of the religious foundation there. However, even the name of the area gives us enticing glimpses into a lost past. The name ‘Sutton’ is derived from the Irish, ‘Suí Fhiontáin’ which means the seat of Saint Fintan and there are records that this name was used as far back as the ninth century, which indicates that the saint was commemorated in some way in the area at around that time and possibly even slightly before.  Today there is a local parish church named after the saint, an ancient graveyard that bears his name and a number of schools also dedicated to his honour. Only up the road is Howth with its beautiful coastline walks and Ireland’s Eye resting just off the coast, which is home to a bird sanctuary and the remains of Saint Nessan’s eighth century church.

The land where the holy well used to be

Father, whose mind is beyond our comprehending, whose merciful goodness towards humankind is limitless, grant that the humble mind of Christ may be in all his followers; show us that religious controversy is the offspring of our arrogance and folly; that true piety is most laudably expressed in silent understanding and in the activity of showing mercy; that human beings, ignorant of their own nature, should not presume to scrutinize the mind God; and that it is sufficient for us to know that power and benevolence are the perfect attributes of the Deity; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Adapted from Procopius of Caesarea

Ireland's Eye off Howth Head
How to find it:
From the city of Dublin travel out the Howth Road, connecting to the Dublin Road and follow the signs for Sutton up the Greenfield Road into Carrickbrack Road. On the right is a graveyard in which the shrine church of Saint Fintan sits, and up from this an area of waste ground, where the holy well used to be.

Part of the Walk around Howth coast


  1. Hello Adomnan,
    An excellent article, but on the core point, no need for despair - the well, while no longer accessible to the public, is still there. It lies a bit further uphill than you thought, and for years the property owners tolerated people coming on to their lands to visit. But sometime in the last 3-4 years, access was closed off. However, it is still there, in the garden of the house opposite Howth Golf Club entrance.

    1. Yes, I had heard this from a number of people in the area, but I think I was give poor directions! It is good to know that it is still there, even if dry.

    2. The well is not closed off to the public but has recently run dry 😡


  3. Was at the well today. It is still open to the public but dry since development across the road in 2001. The lady of the house on which front garden is sited said she'd had a dowser in and the watercourse still goes as far as the trees at front