Friday, September 28, 2012

St James' Well, Carlingford

The Proleek Dolmen

Saint James' well isn't actually in the town of Carlingford, but it is immediately before the turnoff from the Greenore Road into the town. Carlingford takes its name from the 'fjiord of Carlinn' and as the name suggests, it might have been at one time a base for raiding Vikings who made good use of its sheltered position. It remains one of Ireland's best preserved Medieval towns, founded by the Anglo-Normans in the twelfth century. Today in the town you can see the remains of a Friary, a mint dating from 1467, a castle dating from around 1200 in which it is said King John stayed in and the narrow and distinctive streets associated with Medieval towns in Ireland. Add to this a number of good eating houses, plenty of pubs and beautiful views out across the lough and you have a vibrant little town steeped in history. The surrounding area is no less exciting in terms of its history and monuments. I've documented some of them here before on this blog, including the areas link with the Knights Templar. (see Our Lady's Well, Templetown). 

The remains of John's Castle, Carlingford

The whole area of Carlingford and the Cooley Peninsula is strongly associated with the tale of the Táin Bó Cúailinge which tells the tale of the famous warrior Cúchulainn who becomes entangled in a story of lust, power, battles and intrigue. Part of the battle involves a great epic battle between the two bulls of the opposing armies and the brown bull impales the carcass of the white bull on his horns, casting his entrails throughout the Cooley peninsula, then breaking up his body and finally carving up great mounds of earth near Carlingford and into Ulster.  The nearby Black Mountain has a cairn on top and Barnavave Hill has the remains of an ancient church. In behind the Ballymascalon hotel and a short walk to the far end of the golf course you will find the Proleek Dolmen. It's an impressive structure of around thirteen feet. At one time these stones were thought to be grave markers, but today the general consensus is that they are doorways into much larger structures. Behind the dolmen doorway a  large mound of earth and stones would have formed a structure that people could walk into. It's not at all clear if it served as a place to put the dead or if it had some religious or ritual significance in some other way. Close by are the remains of a wedge cairn with a long tapering gallery and a slab door that also faces west. This is most definitely a burial site and cremated remains would have been brought here. With it's close association to the dolmen, it might be that the dolmen mound was a sacred place of religious ritual and the wedge cairn is the burial site; but we simply do not know. 

The wedge cairn

Local myth and saga record an interesting version of events surrounding the formation of the dolmen and the wedge cairn. It is said locally that the wedge cairn is known as the grave of Para Buí Mór Mhac Seódín who was a giant who came to do battle with another giant by the name of Fionn mac Cumhaill. In order to impress the futility of this struggle upon his opponent, Para Buí Mór Mhac Seódín is said to have carried the thirty ton cap-stone to the battle site on his back and laid it on the three stones as a sign of his superior strength. Hence the nick-name given to the dolmen; 'the giant's load'. Today you will likely see a number of stones sitting on top of the dolmen and legend has it that if you can get a pebble to remain on top you will be married within the year or have good luck for the year.

The site of St James' well

Very little is known about Saint James' holy well, but there is a local Roman Catholic parish that bears the same dedication and has done for the last two hundred and fifty years. The Dominicans and the Franciscans had settlements in this area, but neither of them really have any strong association to St James. I think instead it must be an association with the Knights Templar again. The Knights Templar were the protectors of Jerusalem and were deeply involved for many years in the crusades and they had a presence on the Cooley peninsula. Saint James was seen as a patron saint of a sort for many involved in the Knights Templars, named at one stage as the 'matamoros'; the Moor slayer. On a rather more enlightened note, James is also the patron saint of pilgrims and very often his symbol is the same as that of travelling pilgrims - a scallop shell. 

The well

The well today is full of water and beside it a culvert runs a stream out of the site and out underneath the road. It's a peculiar site, being exposed to the road, yet there is a sense of peace about this place. Above the well is a modern cross erected in 1932, which tells us the area was refurbished and which asks us to pray for the donor. Curiously, the donor is not named. Behind this, on the ground, lies a collection of large stones laid out in the form of a large cross. I don't think they were ever a cross originally, but rather they appear to be stones that might have at one time formed the original housing of the holy well. As far as I know, no pattern is held here, but the local parish of Saint James does come here to say the rosary - especially before a funeral mass.

Stones laid out in the shape of a cross

To one side, under the shade of a large tree a headstone from 1998 sits in memory of all who were buried on this site. Apparently the site is an old burial ground for babies and very young children. There is a peculiar sadness to the absence of names and the missing tokens of those who were the parents who at one time grieved their significant loss. Thankfully the memorial stone erected in 1998 goes some of the way to reversing that sense of sadness, but it will forever be compounded by the dedication of this well site to the patron saint of pilgrims in a place where so many are buried who had barely begun their pilgrimage through this life before they were taken.

The stream and culvert at the well

If you get the chance, it's well worth travelling in the exact opposite direction, crossing the motorway and making your way out towards Louth village. Here you will find a little stone church dedicated to St Mochta. It sits in the middle of a field just outside the village and it has a very large Medieval Cathedral in front of it. Sadly, you cannot gain access to either now, but it is still worth seeing. 

Saint Mochta's House

This building is part of a monastic settlement on this site that dates back to the sixth century. Legend has it that St Patrick actually came here and founded the monastery in order to look after twelve lepers in the area who pleaded for his help. Patrick is said to have had great pity for them and then left them in the care of his most trusted and well-loved disciple, Saint Mochta. The site was raided by Vikings three times from 900-1100AD and these raids were so swift and brutal that very little was left. Saint Mochta's house dates form around the twelfth century and may be the shrine church where his relics and remains were kept, but it's proximity and positioning in relation to the large cathedral may also mean that the 'house' is a Baptistry. The Catholic parish church on its elevated position back in the town of Louth is also worth a visit to see the impressive Harry Clarke windows and the altar friezes detailing the life of Saint Mochta.

Saint Patrick by Harry Clarke

Mindful of the fact that the well site is also a graveyard for babies and children I thought it best to include a prayer here that acknowledges their presence.

O Lord, in every age you reveal yourself to the childlike and lowly of heart, and from every race you write names in your book of life; grant us the simplicity and faith of your saints, that loving you above all things, we may be what you would have us be and do what you would have us do. So may we be numbered with your saints in glory everlasting; through Jesus Christ, our Saviour.

Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid honouring the Christ child

How to find it:
Saint James's well is very easy to find as you can see it very easily from the road thanks to a large arched black metal sign at the site entrance. It is literally opposite the turn off towards the town of Carlingford, off the Greenore Road as you travel down the Cooley peninsula.

The well basin

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Saint Moling’s Well, County Carlow

Saint Moling's Holy Well

Saint Moling’s well in the parish of County Carlow in St Mullins, is a famous well that to this day still has a significant pattern observed there. The pattern takes place on the feast day of the saint on the last Sunday before the 25th July and it normally involves marching bands, food stalls, a mass (and sometimes an ecumenical service), school children singing and lots of pilgrims come to bathe their feet. The pattern makes a procession from the holy well itself, up the hill towards the graveyard - the site of Moling’s monastery and possibly the site of his burial.

The stream by the turas

St Mullins is a very beautiful place with the remains of an old motte and bailey perched at the top of a hill alongside a collection of ruined churches, remains of a round tower and even fragments of a high cross. To the left lies the holy well and to the right lies the slow and winding River Barrow shrouded in leafy trees. It has a small café down by the riverbank and is the perfect spot to wile away a sunny afternoon. This is an incredibly pretty spot and a great hidden little gem in the county.

The bathing house below the well

The well is said to have a curious beginning. Saint Moling was said to have been interested in acquiring the wood from one of the five trees of Ireland to build a church on the land that had been granted him by Fingin (of Cashel fame). Saint Laserian had also expressed a great interest in having some of the wood from the Yew of Rossa (which had recently fallen), but Moling - who was very close to Laserian - convinced the saint to part with the precious wood. When the wood arrived on the site, Moling had been working the wood and a small shaving entered his eye causing him great discomfort. One day as a cleric walked past he noted Moling sitting idly by the roadside and he asked him what the matter was. Moling explained that his felt the talons of an eagle, a branch of holly and the scratch of a griffin in his eyelid each time his eye moved, causing him much pain and discomfort. The cleric took pity on Moling and blessed a local well of water and told him to bathe his eye in it until it got better. The Brussels manuscript of the 'Birth and Life of Saint Moling' makes reference to the healing well with many rather obscure allusions to Tobit, but from this passage it seems clear that the well was considered as being a holy well of general healing rather than for anything specific. Today, however, the well’s healing properties are considered to be somewhat specific. It is said to heal ulcers on the feet (which Moling suffered from later in life), eye ailments, a trinitarian visit to cure warts and a cure for flu (whereby the person must duck their head into the freezing cold water three times!). In 1349 visits to the well reached fever pitch from a desperate people living in mortal fear of the plague that was sweeping Ireland at the time. Since then there has been a steady flow of pilgrims - some who come for healing, some for prayer and others just to enjoy the peace and the beauty of the area.

One of the stone basins full of well water

The well is slightly above the lay of the land, which seems a little curious, and it is said to be seven springs rising into a large basin with rocks and lumps of quartz. The waters flow from this through two narrow channels, down into stone basins, which in turn overflow into a trough that winds its way down to the river. The trough in the grass is known as the turas, or the pilgrim’s way. Tales are sometimes told of the bush that grows at the well being from Saint Moling’s original walking stick that he planted there to bathe his eyes, and in the time it took for him to complete this act the dead stick had come to life and sprouted and rooted itself to the spot. However, there are other wells dedicated to Saint Moling which also make this bold claim!

The Motte and Bailey

Up the hill from the well is the seventh century monastic settlement, known in Irish as Tighe Moling (House of Moling). The monastery was built on land gifted by Fingin under the instruction and careful spiritual direction of Saint Aidan from Ferns. It is said that Moling dug out the mile long watercourse to power his mill on the site – a task which took nearly seven years. Today none of the original monastery buildings survive, but you can see the remains of a round tower and a badly weathered fragment of a high cross. Worship continued on the site up to more recent times in the Church of Ireland parish church built on the site in 1811. There are three other church remains on the site, the great church (Tempall Mor) said to be the burial site of the saint. There is another little shrine church that caught my eye. Right at the very back of the settlement a small ruined shrine church perches close to the edge of the hill. It bears a sign that says it was ‘Saint James’ Cell’. Ordinance Field Books from 1839 record two pattern days held here in times past. The first was held on 17th June in honour of Saint Moling (to commemorate his death in 696) and another on the 25th July in honour of Saint James. On this day people visited Saint Moling’s well and the Ordinance Field Books describe it exactly as it appears today. As to what the cell of Saint James is, is not very clear at all and much digging in books and papers has not revealed an answer I’m afraid. It is entirely possible that at one time it held a relic of Saint James, brought by a visitor to the site or by one of the monks. Could it be that this cell is the rough granite rubble shrine church of Moling? All other six Medieval church ruins are clustered around it on what is otherwise a substantial and open, flat site.

The St Mullins Site

The High Cross towards the back of the site is now sadly very badly eroded and almost impossible to decipher. The base of the cross was a highly decorated, squat cylinder with carved interlinking spirals in a Celtic design. The mains shaft of the cross is broken and missing and the right arm is also broken.  The central figure in the cross is of a crucified Christ flanked by two other unidentified figures. The cross is thought to date from the ninth century. The Book of Moling (preserved in Trinity College Dublin) is a small Gospel book with some notes on Moling’s life and monastery. The book proclaims him as its scribe, but it is generally believed to have been created at least a century after his death. In it a simplified plan of the monastery can be seen with a plan for the erection of no less than sixteen high crosses: eight dedicated to the prophets, four dedicated to the four evangelists, one to the Holy Spirit and three of uncertain dedication (they may be scriptural crosses). The site was envisaged as a double circle with crosses inside and out of the circular enclosures.

The remains of the High Cross

There is no doubt about it, this is a beautiful spot and on a sunny afternoon it is very easy to soak up its peace. On the far side of the hill the River Barrow winds its way gracefully past the lines of trees while people sip hot drinks and chatter alongside the birdsong. It is a hidden gem and a very beautiful well, truly worth the journey.

Down by the River Barrow

O Lord, lead me in your river of life. Teach me to trust in your stream of grace. May I never fight your current of love, but come instead into the steady flow of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ who with you and the Holy Spirit, live and reign now and for ever.

How to find it:
The site is very clearly signposted in St Mullins in County Carlow. The holy well is in the valley where the car park is. Across the road you can see a stream and a small, narrow path. Following this path you come to a small stone building with no roof, and directly above this up on the bank is the holy well. The rest of the St Mullins site is on the top of the hill and the River Barrow is down the other side.

Saint James' Cell