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!