Friday, July 27, 2012

Holy Wells around Valencia Island (Saint Brendan’s, Saint Fhonian’s and Tobairin)

A pub on the path to Saint Brendan's well

Valencia Island was once known as the Island of Oaks, where majestic trees formed a protective barrier from the relentless attack of the Atlantic storms. Today there are only a few young oak trees on the island. All the rest have been stripped and cut down to be used for timber. The deforestation of Ireland took place just before the Plantation era and is quite possibly one of the great ecological disasters of Europe. Once, Ireland was the most heavily forested land in all of Europe. Visitors noted that its forests were so dense that even a person on foot struggled to enter woods and forests within meters of the coast. Today Ireland’s deforestation is complete. Vast swaths of land are barren and empty - but this too has a solemn beauty, maybe less mystical, but certainly still spectacular. On Valencia Island in County Kerry my trip began on a misty day when low clouds stuck to the ridges in a solemn mourning for the trees that once were.

A view of the Skellig's from Valencia Island

The trip was essentially a bike run amidst impressive and truly breathtaking scenery, but I can’t resist stopping at every hole in the hedge just to see whats there. The whole area is quite literally littered with ancient monastic sites, very early Christian beehive huts, holy wells, dolmens and pagan burial sites and standing stones. There is a huge wealth of ancient rocks and sites that you could spend days chasing down and pondering. I have limited this entry to three wells, but in reality there are many more that I could have seen. The first well I visited was Saint Brendan’s well which seemed the most appropriate well to visit after a long motorbike journey through rain, mist and fog. I parked the bike, set up camp and walked to the well on the western tip of Valentia Island in County Kerry. At the opposite end of the island is a 385 million year old set of footprints in the rock from a tetrapod. It is one of only four places in the world to see such a trackway. The mist was starting to lift and I could see the Skelligs in the distance beginning to reveal themselves as a great, stunning gateway to the unknown. The craggy pinnacles silently attested to the ferocity of the Atlantic and the dangers for those who travelled by sea. I could easily imagine the resting monks rise at the end of time with scales in their hands ready to pass a judgement. During my trip I did make it out to Skellig Michael (dedicated to the Archangel Michael) where the earliest monastic settlement in all of Europe is to be found. It is both stunning and eerie; a mystical place full of the terrifying presence of the Almighty.

Saint Brendan's Holy Well

Saint Brendan is strongly associated with this whole area. Born in Carriage Luachra (Tralee) in 484 and baptized by Saint Erc at Tubrid near Ardfert (in what is now a holy well) he went on to study under the careful instruction of Saint Ita. After completing his studies he was ordained priest in 512 by Saint Erc. Between 512 and 530 Brendan lived an austere monastic life at the foot of Mount Brandon. Here he was given a vision of an island where the word of God had not yet reached and the people sat in darkness. The angel in the vision told him that this land could be a paradise and that he should set out on a journey to bring the Gospel to every last corner of the known world. Old Irish calendars marked the departure of Brendan with his company of monks with a feast day on 22nd March and the eighth century litany of Saint Aengus of Culdee invokes the intercession of “the sixty who accompanied Lord Brendini in his quest for the Land of Promise”. Latin and Irish versions of the Life of Brendan (known today as the Navagatio and dating to the eighth century) survive but the accounts were generally regarded as total fiction as it was believed that the vessel used by the monks would have ensured a swift death on the furious Atlantic and that the account of the journey is in fact an extended allegory. However, in 1976 the explorer Tim Severin sailed in a replica of the boat to the Aran Islands off Galway, then to the Hebrides and Faroes, onwards to Iceland and across to Canada, proving that the journey of Brendan could indeed have been an extensive reality. In a curiously prophetic sense many centuries later many thousands of Irish would pass through the gateway of the Skelligs to a land that was full of promise. As a result of his journeys Brendan has always been seen as the patron saint of sailors and those who travel.

An early Christian Cross at Saint Brendan's well

Saint Brendan’s well on Valencia island is situated close to the base of Bray head on the western side of the island, nestled on a flat plain that leads out to some spectacular cliffs. There are a total of three ancient Irish crosses and the tiny brown, peaty watered well has a new construction around it and a few offerings left which were some of the most interesting I’d seen at a well. It included notes of farewell from those who were leaving to go to the USA for work and had a certain sadness about it. Saint Brendan is said to have come and scaled the cliffs of the island and come up onto the land to meet with two people who were seriously ill. After instructing them in the faith they were both baptized at this well and became the two first Christian converts of the island. This is a local story tradition of Valencia that isn’t recorded in either the Life of Brendan or the Navagatio. Around the well lie large railway sleepers where people can sit, facing out to sea. It was easy to sit there and imagine the sense of distance and also loss at parents whose children had gone to far off places for work.

Offerings left at the well

Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home?
Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face towards the sea?
Shall I put myself wholly at your mercy, without silver, without a horse, without fame, without honour?
Shall I throw myself wholly upon you, without sword and shield, without food and drink, without a bed to lie on?
Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under your yoke?
Shall I pour out my heart to you, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness, tears streaming down my cheeks?
Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach, a record of my final prayer in my native land?
Shall I then suffer the kind of wound that only the sea can inflict?
Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide, sparkling ocean?
O King of the glorious heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea?
O Christ, will you help me on the wild waves?
The prayer of Saint Brendan after receiving the vision (from the Navagatio)

The 'Safe Forest' in Glanleam Gardens

At the other end of the island, not far from the pretty little village of Knightstown is a private garden which sits in a protected cove that offers an unusual amount of protection from the worst of the elements and allows the owners to grow all manner of sub-tropical species. For a modest sum you can spend an afternoon there exploring the gardens and admiring the plants. There are a whole cluster of different walks, but up through the bamboo and a brisk walk through a very dense patch of forest that is almost pitch black at its heart, lies a path leading up a slight slope to the left. You can’t see the well until you are right up at it, but it is at the very end of the path. This well is dedicated to Saint Finian.

Saint Fhonian's Holy Well

There are a number of Saint Finian’s in Ireland, but the Finian described as Fhonian/Fionnán is a saint who is local to the Kerry region. He is said to have established a number of monastic settlements and churches, but none of the churches survive today – not even in the form of rubble remains. There are a few ogham stones which mention him and some ancient crosses, or the remains of ancient crosses and almost all of the holy wells dedicated to him are of simple character, having only a few stones and sometimes a cross. Little is actually known about Saint Fhonian at all, but he has schools, hospitals, bays and houses all named after him in this area. Legend has it that he was converted and educated on Skellig Michael, before returning to the area to begin his mission. He lived and died in the area and his grave is at Kilfountain on the Dingle peninsula with a cross pillar stone marked in ogham with his name.

 The holy well

This holy well was restored in 2009 after having been forgotten for a long period. It was badly overgrown and the well housing had been filled with rubble and gravel and the well water had begun to rise elsewhere. After the rubble and gravel was removed, the water returned to the rough hewn and simple form well housing. Some sources indicate that the well had twelve stones nearby to represent the twelve apostles, but there is no indication of how these stones were arranged. At other wells this can also be seen, but it is normally a simple pile of stones, possibly a nod to the piles left during the Exodus to form the altar or to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. Today, the restorers have re-set eleven of the stones (I’m not sure if they are the original stones or stones they have brought in) and arranged them in a stone circle around the well. It’s very effective, but the high grass hid most of them on the day I paid a visit. The well was shallow, but still there, with a handy ladle to gather some water and a very simple stone cross in keeping with other Saint Fhonian holy wells.

Fountain pools in the sub-tropical gardens

This garden has more peace than I think Gethsemane did on that fateful night, but maybe we can join in a prayer of submission to God’s will even in a place that is so peaceful and still.

The view from the end of the garden

Lord, if what I seek be according to your will, then let it come to pass and let success attend the outcome. But if not, my God, let it not come to pass. Do not leave me to my own devices, for your know how unwise I can be. Keep me safe under your protection Lord, and in your own gentle way, guide me as only you know best. 

The Ring of Skelligs Road

In County Kerry the famous road is known as the Ring of Kerry, renowned for its spectacular views, high mountain passes and many picturesque villages and towns - at least, so long as the sun shines! A less well known route is the Ring of Skelligs (from the N70) that is like a miniature version of the Ring of Kerry, but more unspoiled and with much less traffic. It’s roads are narrow and its hairpin bends are treacherous, but the panic of trying to manoeuvre a heavy bike around a three hundred and forty degree corner on a gradient no road builder would dream of constructing a road on today was definitely worth it all the same. The views out over the bays are beautiful and the mountain passes are spectacular.


If you set out from Portmagee and track through the village towards the coast and cliffs a road takes you straight up over a beautiful mountain pass. The cliffs can’t be seen from this angle, but the steep rise up to them looks as if someone has literally torn away the landscape as if it were a sheet of paper. Halfway up the mountain slope sits a little shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary and beneath it a little well known as Tobairin. The shrine is dedicated to Our Lady of Grace, Coomanspig, and was opened in 1994 by Bishop Bill Murphy at a Mass with five hundred people present. It’s a slightly gaudy shrine, but it sort of works with the landscape. You certainly can’t miss it, which no doubt was the intention, but a mawkish, overly sentimental prayer of the Virgin doesn’t help it. Around it are flat stones that have rubbed crosses in them made by passing pilgrims which moved me far more than the garden gnome statue of Our Lady and the blubbing prayer.

 A rubbed stone at the well

It’s not clear what the history of this well is or who it was originally dedicated to. The dedication to the Blessed Virgin Mary is a relatively new thing. There are a number of early Christian sites in the vicinity though, a beehive cluster and the remains of an oratory. It might be that the original dedication has been lost, but its new dedication probably holds a poignancy for the many mothers who have watched their children grow up and leave this area, some destined for further shores in search of work or a new life and maybe that mawkish prayer hides a much more deeply felt sentiment that is still a little raw for some. Like Saint Brendan’s well then, this too is a well of travelers and here, as I prepared to set off home again, it seemed as good a place as any to pause and pray for safety on the road. Little did I know that those horrific hairpin bends were just over the ridge!

The view from the well

Be with us on our travels, Lord, and grant us a careful and watchful eye for both young and old. Keep us from a needless speeding, passing earth’s beauties heedlessly and grant us attentiveness at all times and the sense to stop and rest when tired. Keep danger from our paths and a preparedness for what we cannot see, that we may travel through this life in safety and come to peace at last in our eternal home at your appointed time.

The Skelligs

How to find it:
Saint Brendan’s well is clearly signposted on Valentia Island. After crossing the bridge turn left at the top of the road and follow the signs. It is difficult to see this well until you are very close to it.
Saint Fhonian’s well is also clearly marked on a map which will be given to you when you enter Glanleam sub-tropical gardens. The gardens can be found up the hill from Knightstown on the eastern coast of Valentia Island.
Tobairin is on the Ring of Skelligs route, halfway up the road towards the first mountain pass outside Portmagee.


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Saint Fiacre’s Well, Kilkenny.

The stone gate to the old church

Saint Fiacre is a man shrouded in myth and legend, yet the very fact of the huge measure of devotion to him down through the centuries speaks clearly of his well-won reputation as a holy man. We know with some certainty a few facts of his life from the ‘Matryology of Donegal’, but there are many stories connected with him which are often tales only told to try and explain some of the seeming contradictions of his life. During his life Fiacre attracted many followers and those who would either try to emulate him or who felt that living close to him would inspire and encourage them also in their pilgrimage through life. One such example was Saint John of Valois, whose devotion to Fiacre led him to build a great hermitage close to the dwelling of the Saint at Breuil in France. Saint Vincent de Paul, the Apostle of France, made a regular pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Fiacre. Devotion to the Saint continues to this day in France. Archaeological finds attest to his significance for French pilgrims who at one time attached small metalwork badges of the shrine of Saint Fiacre to their clothes. Fiacre is also depicted in many illuminated Breviary’s, most often with a spade in place of a staff.

Old Saint Fiacre's Church

In Ireland Fiacre began his life as a seventh century hermit or anchorite and is also said to have served as a priest for some time. His Irish lineage was impressive, stemming as it did from Conn, King of Ireland from 523-577. Fiacre is believed to have been born around 590. Even in early youth he was noted for his generosity towards the poor and less fortunate and later he was to become famous for his wisdom and judgement in all matters and for his skill in working with the land - hence his association as the patron saint of gardeners. Although he served the people dutifully, his true desire was for solitude and prayer and he retired to a small patch of sheltered woodland on the banks of the river Nore where there was a fertile plain and a deep well with fresh, safe water known today as Kilfera (Cill-Fiacre). Here he could live out his days in peace…or so he thought.

 The fertile banks by the river

Over time the people learned of his small hideaway and they began to pester the Saint, looking for advice and his blessing. Seeking solace in Ireland was going to prove impossible and so the saint made an appeal to Bishop Faro in France for a small portion of land for him to live on. The Bishop granted this request and Fiacre moved to the area, close to the town Saint-Fiacre in Saint-et-Marne as it is today. Oddly enough, within a relatively short time Fiacre seems to abandon his anchorite calling and instead he begins to adapt the land given him by Bishop Faro for passing pilgrims and seekers. On the land he creates an oratory for prayer, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, a garden for reflection and quiet and a hospice where passing pilgrims could stay. There are various legends that attempt to explain why Fiacre abandons his desire for solitude, but none are very satisfactory.

The crucifix and stone altar

Over time the hospice for pilgrims attracted many thousands of people each year who were seeking a place of prayer and intercession and peace. Fiacre encouraged them to live meager and self-sufficient lifestyles and taught skills of gardening and land management. In 670 Saint Fiacre died at the site in France and his remains were moved to Meaux. In Ireland Saint Fiacre is best known for his interventions during the Tithe War when many farming families were left with no means of income and no food. Fiacre is said to have brokered a deal on behalf of the locals which resulted in the return of their cattle. One story tells of this in typical Irish fashion: the people of the area gather at the site of Saint Fiacre’s well and implore him to help them after their cattle have been raided. Before the cattle can even make it as far as Ballytiglea bridge near Borris, Fiacre prays for their safe return and a swarm of bees appear and drive back the cattle to the area at such speed that the cattle raiders are unable to stop them. A song regarding this miracle is still sung in the area to this day (St Fiacre and the Bees, written by J.Norris). Despite the typical ‘tongue in cheek’ story, there may yet be some truth in it. Nobody knows exactly what deal Fiacre brokered that was satisfactory during the Tithe War, but maybe it involved honey or bees from a hive?

The holy well

Saint Fiacre’s well is today at the base of a large set of semi-circular steps that has a small stone altar and large crucifix at the top. It looks over a large flat plain and is surrounded by a wooden fence. On the day I visited the local people hadn’t started clearing the area in preparation for the pattern so it was a little overgrown after a long wet summer. The well water was also full of a slimy weed that made it look fairly unappealing. Nevertheless, I could see the ancient stone structure of the well and I could see that it was also extremely deep.  The entire setting of the well and shrine is very beautiful. It is amazingly difficult to find, hidden in a dip and behind a bank of trees.

The deep well with stone surround

The pattern in honour of Saint Fiacre lasts rather a long time; from 15th August until 8th September. On 15th August, pilgrims gather on the banks of the River Nore and walk to Saint Fiacre’s ‘bed’. The present construction around the site with the steps, altar and crucifix was completed in 1930/31. The pattern began to be less and less observed until it had almost completely died out in the 1950’s and 60’s, but a few loyal local people kept the faith and devotion to the local saint and today the pattern has revived again. In 1992 a new parish church was opened in the area by Bishop Forristal and the dedication was to Saint Fiacre. There is a church ruin near to the site of the Saint’s retreat on the banks of the river which also bore his name. Today it appears to be a ruin that may have dated to the early Georgian period, but it is difficult to be sure. It replaces an old Medieval site and the graveyard houses a stump of stone said to have been a tall stone carving of Saint Fiacre that was destroyed by Cromwell’s men. I searched for the stump, but the graveyard was badly overgrown and there were many stone stumps!

A stone arch at the church

The well water is holy by association to the saint. There are no records of anyone being baptized in it - although it is surely deep enough – and no accounts of it being blessed by the saint or having anyone experience healing of any kind. Local people had a curious tradition of bringing small bottles of the water from the well onto ships as a kind of talisman for protection. In the past, those who left Ireland to make the journey into Europe or to the America’s often travelled with a bottle of water from a holy well near their home, possibly as a reminder of where they had come from. There is however a story of Captain James Casey who was a native of Graignamangh, who on a boat journey home in 1775 hit a terrible storm and began to fear for his life and that of his crew. In a panic he invoked the saints help and the storm subsided enough to allow them a safe journey home. As an act of thanksgiving he presented a large processional cross to the church in Graignamanagh which you can see to this day, and this tale may explain why some travelling by sea took a small bottle of water with them from Saint Fiacre’s well. 

 The view from the well over the plain

Hear us O Lord as we visit this retreat of your confessor Saint Fiacre, that inspired by his work and witness we may express a hospitality and peace that befits our faith; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. 

A cross in the graveyard

How to find it:
From Kilkenny city take the N77 and from this road take a right turn onto a narrow boreen which goes in a loop around an old estate. In sight of the church ruins, cross two fields and down into the small hidden dip where the well is.