Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Holy Well At Reask, County Kerry

Gallus Oratory

The Dingle peninsula boasts a huge number of impressive archaeological sites. You can almost stand in one place and throw a stone to hit the next one. As you travel through them it is easy to become overwhelmed and unable to take it all in as you move from the Iron Age to very early Christianity to the Late Medieval period all in the space of about thirty minutes. It is part of the problem of trying to visit a place like the Dingle peninsula in a few short days. It rewards repeat visits and an opportunity to spend time lingering at sites, rather than rushing through them. I began my day at Gallus Oratory; a fine, stone-built church in the early Irish style and quite possibly Ireland’s most famous building. It is somewhat difficult to date for a number of reasons: excavation has uncovered no evidence regarding its possible use, mortar is entirely absent from the stones that form the building and nothing was found inside it, but estimates suggest that it was built at some point between the 6th and 9th century. The name is a little curious too -  ‘Gallus’ can be translated as ‘place for the foreigner’ – but it may have been a stop for pilgrims as they made their way to the famous route towards the top of Mount Brandon.

The monastic site wall

Not far from here, although further in from the coast but not out of sight of it, is the monastic site of Reask (Riasc). This site was carefully excavated by Tom Fanning between 1972 and 1975. The outer walls of the site are still marked very clearly and there are a number of remains of beehive huts (Clochans) and a church. It’s not a huge site, but it is not insignificant either. It dates to around the 6th century, but we know absolutely nothing of its founder or occupants, other than they were Christian.

The large cross

Reask’s walls housed three crosses. One cross is on a stone slab in the Latin style with two small crosses either side of it; likely a reference to the two thieves crucified either side of Jesus. The other cross is very small and now quite badly weathered. On the front it has the letters DNO and on the back it has the letters DNI. The third cross is by far the most impressive being just over one and a half metres tall with a Mediterranean style cross inscribed and ending terminals in the famous La Téne form of Celtic art. It is suffering a little from its exposure to the weather, but none the less imposing for it. Down it’s side are the barely legible letters DNE, thought to represent the simple plea, ‘O Lord’.

The holy well

The whole site is slightly raised from the surroundings, but the whole area is generally quite flat. The site was abandoned quite early on and turned into a graveyard for children, whose graves are marked with quartz stones. Towards the back of the site is the holy well. Sadly, we know no saint associated with this site - in fact there may never have been one – but this well would have been used by the community for many purposes, both ritual and practical. Today sadly, it is dry.

The view from the site to the Three Sisters headland

Although it may have been a small site, maybe housing around ten monks, it is clear that they were not without ability. The largest cross is finely carved and archaeological evidence points to trade with the Mediterranean an a number of other cross inscribed stones are on display in the Músaem Chorca Dhuibhiine in the nearby village. I was able to spend a little time here in the heat of the summer sun and I could see why the monks settled this site. It was sheltered and incredibly quiet, disturbed only by the occasional bee going about his work.

Full view of the large cross

You are the peace of all things calm
You are the place to hide from harm
You are the light that shines in the dark
You are the heart’s eternal spark
You are the door that’s open wide
You are the guest who waits inside
You are the stranger at the door
You are the calling to the poor
You are my Lord and with me still
You are my love, keep me from ill
You are the light, the truth, the way
You are my Saviour this very day.
Early Irish prayer (oral tradition)

How to find it:
From the town of Dingle make your way along the Ring of Dingle and the site is clearly marked. You will travel inland a little from the Three Sisters headland and travel up a narrow track road. The site is hidden just over the rise.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pinnacle Well, County Clare.

 The limestone of the Burren

The Pinnacle well in County Clare is situated in the Burren; a place of incredible natural beauty with a landscape that shifts and changes with every passing hour. The Burren is the largest karst landscape in all of Europe, with spectacular limestone pavements interrupted by long and sometimes very deep fissures. It’s geology is extreme and impressive. The soil rarely dips below 6 degrees centigrade and it is thought that the extensive amount of rock in the area retains the heat to create a kind of micro-climate that allows a flora and fauna to flourish that exists nowhere else in Ireland.

 Doolin cave stalactite
The Burren is rich in archaeological sites dating back to the very earliest period in Ireland’s history. It has over ninety portal tombs, numerous dolmens, many religious sites and holy wells. It is also an area rich in caves, very few of which have been fully explored, although two are open to the public, one of which has evidence of use by the now extinct Brown Bear. The Doolin Cave is particularly impressive, having one of the largest stalactites in the world.

 The Pinnacle Well (or Tobercornan)
The Pinnacle well is situated by the verge of the coast road near to Gleninagh Castle. It is a small spring that fills a stone basin and in 1860 a Gothic Revival style housing was built over it with a corbelled rubble-stone roof, dressed stone gable copings and corner pinnacles. It is a very decorative housing, with faux corner buttresses and an arched doorway into the well that give it the appearance of a small chapel or oratory. 

 The well basin
It is unclear if there was any particular saint associated with this well, but it has always been considered a holy well, and the fact that such an impressive (and faux religious) structure was built around it demonstrates just how important it was considered. The well is also known as Tobercornan, but there is no saint by the name of ‘Cornan’ in Ireland (at least not a recorded one), although it could be a mis-spelling of St Cronan who has a strong association with the area. However the site is still considered a holy place and there are items inside the well housing that sets it clearly within a religious context.

Offerings at the well

Despite ireland’s annual rainfall figures, the Burren can be a remarkably dry place and in the past drought was not unknown. The closeness of the bedrock to the surface and the network of caves mean that little water collects on the surface. There are very few rivers and lakes in the area, yet oddly enough Clare probably has the largest number of holy wells anywhere in Ireland. Although these wells may have had a religious function and significance, they were also essential for survival, and in this instance the people of Ballyvaughan relied upon water from this well during times of drought.

 A full view of the pinnacles, buttresses and arched doorway
God of hope, God of healing and blessing, God of refreshment and peace, shower down upon us with your infinite love and righteousness. Send your Holy Spirit to fill us with faith. Lead us to green pastures and make us to lie down by still waters, refreshing our souls and giving us peace; for you live and reign with your Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. 

 A donkey opposite the well


How to find it:
The well is right on the roadside of the R477 in the townland of Gleninagh North, before reaching Ballyvaughan.

 Poulnabrone Dolmen.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Tobar Nano, Díseart, Dingle.

Dingle Harbour

Díseart in Dingle sits in the centre of the town; a former Presentation Convent, now a centre of Celtic Studies to promote the Irish language, culture, archaeology and the arts. Dingle (or An Diangean Uí Cúis -  meaning town of the fort) was formed as a port town in the mid to late twelfth century during the Norman invasion of Ireland and by the thirteenth century was a thriving town with a huge amount of exports leaving through the port that rivaled other nearby cities. By 1569, Dingle was one of the fifteen or so towns given the monopoly on the importation of wine to Ireland. The town was also greatly helped in its development and wealth by the strong connections with Spain; this was considered to be the port to leave through if you were making the pilgrim journey to Santiago de Compostela. This link was further cemented by the local church being dedicated to Saint James. However, by the end of the sixteenth century, Dingle's fortunes began to turn. The town was sacked and burned a number of times and trade began to dry up. For a short period the linen industry looked like it might turn around the misfortunes of the town, but by the 1830's the industry that held so much hope for many simply ground to a halt. The famine years were most unkind to Dingle and were compounded by a terrible cholera outbreak which threatened to destroy the town completely. By the end of the nineteenth century its fortune revived as the fishing industry brought it new life and the birth of tourism in the mid twentieth century has ensured its survival and prosperity ever since.

Dingle is small and beautiful town with much to do and see. In the high season as many as twenty thousand people can pass through the town in any given week, taking boat trips in the hope of seeing Fungi the dolphin or to the Blasket Islands, or touring around the area to see the many archaeological sites, the beautiful scenery or to climb Mount Brandon. In the centre of the town sits a large Roman Catholic Church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, built in 1869. Beside it is the neo-Gothic structure Díseart.

A view of Díseart from the gardens

Díseart is a large and imposing building and a former Convent of the Presentation Sisters which includes a chapel dedicated to the Sacred Heart and surrounded by grounds which have been transformed into gardens representing the Tree of Life. The chapel is part of the main building on the second floor. Originally it was somewhat plain, but under the direction of Mother Ita Macken in the 1920's it was refurbished to create a truly wonderful space. At a cost of £1000, she commissioned Harry Clarke to produce a set of six windows depicting the life of Christ. Sadly, photographs are not permitted in the chapel (although I did sneak one!), but the Harry Clarke windows are truly very impressive. Like much of Clarke's glass it is very difficult to photograph because of the intensity of colour and changing light. It's always better to see them in person to truly appreciate their beauty and depth.

Detail of the Adoration of the Magi

Díseart also houses a set of modern fresco's by Colorado born artist, Eleanor Yates. I can't say I'm a fan. Some find them inspiring and beautiful, but personally I found them gaudy and a bit overpowering. They depict the life of Nano Nagle, the founder of the Presentation Sisters in 1775. Nano Nagle was born in Cork and sent as a child to be educated in Paris. From a wealthy Catholic family she enjoyed the opportunities of a good education, but even while in Paris she noted the plight of the poor and their lack of education. On returning from Paris she lived with family for a while in Dublin, but after the death of her parents and her sister in quick succession she joined the Ursuline
Convent in Australia. Here she became convinced that her services would be better employed in the service of her own people in Ireland, where many suffered educational and financial poverty due to the enforced penal laws. On her return to Ireland she set up her first order dedicated to the Sacred Heart which later became known as the Order of the Presentation Sisters. Her first school for the poor was established in Cork city and soon she had a collection of seven schools throughout the city dedicated to the education of the poor. Nano was tireless in her efforts and was often criticised for neglecting her own needs and her own health. Finally, her over worked and stressed body gave up and she collapsed on Cross Street in Cork, dying soon after in 1784. Her life was to continue to inspire many people for decades. Her schools still exist and provide education for all and her order has spread throughout the world, still having a concern for, and working with the poor and needy.

The Presentation Sisters graveyard in Díseart grounds

The holy well in Díseart grounds was neglected for a long period of time and pretty much forgotten about. Some sources indicate that it was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary (which would make sense with a church of the same dedication and residing in a Presentation Sisters Convent grounds), while others suggest a dedication to Saint Peter, which would certainly be unusual in Ireland. Whatever the case, the true dedication of the holy well was forgotten. It was a very deep well and today, little or nothing of its original structure survives. In fact, it as only very recently rediscovered. In 2009 a celebration of Nano Nagle's life took place at Díseart, and the well was fully restored. After a mass in the chapel, and during a reception in the gardens, Monsignor Pádriag Ó Fiannachta blessed the newly restored well and dedicated it to Nano. The restoration has been done well, but access to the water is impossible.

Tobar Nano

The grounds around the former convent are beautiful and well worth a visit. There are places to sit and be quiet and still in lovely surroundings, along with groves of trees and winding paths away from all the hustle and bustle of the town. The large tree at the top of the gardens holds some clouties. The Catholic Church of Saint Mary next door to the convent is also worth a visit. It is quite plain inside by comparison, but presents a still and peaceful spot.

Interior of Saint Mary's Church

Loving God, you made us in your image. Forgive us when we we fail to see your image in each other, when we give in to greed and indifference to the world's poor and needy, when we do not question the systems that are life-denying. As we are made in your image, let us live in your image and be Christ-like, in service, endurance and love. 

The tree at the top of the gardens

How to find it:
Díseart itself is easily found in the town of Dingle. From the old convent, head up the left hand side of the gardens and the well is about half way up against the wall. It's hard to miss -  it has a large slate fixed above it which reads, 'Tobar Nano'.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Saint Columba’s Well, Kells, County Meath.

The Shrine of the Cathach of Saint Columba

Saint Columba (Colmcille) is a saint that is shrouded in mystery and legend, yet is counted as one of the twelve apostles of Ireland. Of his early life in Ireland we know very little, whereas his later life is documented by Adomnán. The only thing we can say for certain are that he was of a royal lineage, that he became a monk and cleric in Ireland and that the synod of Teltown declared him to be excommunicated. St Moilasse was employed by Saint Columba to intervene and make a case to the synod, who then withdrew the pronouncement of excommunication on the condition that Columba leave Ireland and never return. We can say little else for certain, and yet in Ireland stories abound about him. Ireland’s oral lore suggests that Columba was born at Gartan, established monasteries up and down the land, created the Book of Kells, was a man of peace and reconciliation and established his most important monastery at Kells in County Meath. None of it can be verified for certain, but some of it is most certainly not true. Firstly, Columba was no man of peace when he was in Ireland. There are records contemporaneous to him that describe him as man who was excited by warfare and whose temper was best not roused. During his time in Ireland an important battle was being fought regarding the succession to the throne and there have been suggestions that he was directly and personally involved, but again, we cannot be certain. Secondly, the Book of Kells was most certainly written after Columba’s death, so he could not have been personally responsible for it. Modern scholars suggest that it was a book created in his honour, possibly created specially for the two hundredth anniversary of his death. Whatever the case the book did have an association with Kells, but this was around the year 800AD, after the monks had more or less fled Iona with relics and books and distributed them between Ireland and Scotland -  some of the remains of the saint having been disinterred and divided between Ireland and Scotland. Thirdly, there is an issue with Gartan being the place of his birth. Gartan was not declared to be his place of birth until some time after his death, and some -  even at the time – have poured scorn on the idea, saying that it is a claim to fame rather than an attestation of truth. And lastly, Columba did not settle monasteries in Ireland. While he was on Iona he did use his monks for political means -  albeit for the furtherance of God’s kingdom rather than his own -  and he sent them to various places that required help in building, in mission and in copying the scriptures and farming. It is in this way that the sites have an association with Columba, but really nothing more.

 The unfinished cross and the round tower

The town of Kells claims that Columba settled it as a monastic site, but this is highly unlikely. Columba doesn’t appear to have been considered a great man while in Ireland (at least in religious terms), so it is unlikely that he would be put in charge of of a significant monastic settlement. It isn't really until he is exiled that he becomes the man God meant him to be. There have been many debates as to why Columba left Ireland and why the Teltown synod declared him excommunicated, but his past and his royal lineage might hold the clue. It appears that the battle of Cúl Dreimhne in 561AD concerned the right of two rival kings to the accession of the throne, and Columba appears to have used his influence as a monk and cleric to further the cause of his own favoured royal to be. The synod of Teltown talks of him abusing his position and influence, and it might be that this is what they are referring to. In any case the final result is that the excommunication is lifted, but he must leave Ireland for good. He remains a little while and then finally sails to the small island of Iona; south of the famous Fingal’s cave and north of the great whisky giants of Jura and Islay. Here he establishes his monastic settlement that was to take on primary importance in Scotland, and have an influence too on Ireland. Columba and his monks said the daily offices of the church, farmed the land, copied the scriptures and received penitents on the island. But Columba also journeyed throughout much of Scotland, giving encouragement to other religious settlements and acting as a kind of diplomat between them and the leaders of the Picts, who were not always greatly welcoming to monks. Over time, and shortly after his death, he became known as a man of reconciliation and peace. He appears to have wrestled with his demons and won, and whether they knew it or not, the decision of the monks at the synod of Teltown was maybe a wake up call to Columba as well as the beginning of the creation of a saint.

The market cross

The original name of kells was Ceanannas Mór, meaning the Great Fort and being an important royal seat. But by 804AD it was to become a significant monastic centre. We don’t know exactly when the monastic site was established at Kells or by whom, but we do not that it grew significantly when the monks from Iona arrived after their great flight from the island some time just before 804AD. It is an impressive site, even in its ruined condition today. It was originally a site composed a double circle with the inner circle having the church (which no longer survives), a small stone roofed oratory and the round tower and five impressive carved crosses. The round tower dates to the tenth century and today it is missing it’s conical roof. It had six floors with access probably by ladders, impressive inner carvings and a window for each floor, except for the sixth floor which have five windows. It is thought that these five upper windows represent the five main access roads into the town.

The South Cross

The stone roofed survives, and today it is called Saint Columba’s house. It may have been used by the monks to say their offices or possibly be an old shrine church and burial place for the founding abbot. It is well preserved, although availability of access varies depending on when you go. It was known at one time to have housed a large flat stone called Saint Columba’s bed, reputedly brought by the fleeing monks from Iona by currach. It may not have been his bed at all, but simply a suitable grave slab from Iona that the monks had fashioned in preparation for the interring of his divided remains in Kells. As it happened, his partial remains were placed in a highly decorated shrine and later transferred to the shrine of Patrick to rest alongside Saint Brigid’s remains in Downpatrick. The Annals of the Four Masters and also some old ordinance survey maps refer to a secret tunnel running from this oratory to the old church, but today it has yet to be found.

Saint Columba's House

The present church on the site is a Church of Ireland parish and is somewhat uninspired. Beside it sits a old church tower, rebuilt many times and having broken carvings, cross slabs and carved heads incorporated into its walls. Close by , the old font sits under a yew tree and the foot of a high cross is the only remaining part of one of the five great crosses. One of the crosses has been moved from the site altogether. When the new church walls were built for the Church of Ireland parish, it split the original design of the site to accommodate new roads through the town which left one impressive cross in a precarious spot beside traffic. It has recently been moved down to the front of the town and is protected slightly from the elements with a plastic canopy. The market cross is made from sandstone and has a fluidity of carving that is astonishing. Its base has a hunting scene and two centaurs. Many have said that it is merely a playful scene and nothing more, but it could be a representation of the death of paganism. On top of the broad base sits the cross with carved panels on all four sides. One side of the cross has the usual new testament scenes you expect to see on this type of cross, with a scene of the crucifixion at its centre. But the other side of the cross hold a bit of a surprise. It begins with the soldiers guarding the tomb and rises to what you would expect to be a scene of the resurrection of Christ, but what we get instead is Daniel in the lion’s den. This is an enormous cross, but sadly it has been broken. Like many other crosses of this type, it would once have been highly coloured.

The Shrine of Saint Columba's partial remains (now empty)
In the monastic settlement there is an imposing, but unfinished cross with a crucified Christ at its centre. The West cross has been broken, supposedly by Cromwell, and has some very fine carvings. The base shows the baptism of Christ and the wedding feast at Cana and on the opposite side are Adam and Eve and Noah’s ark. There are a few other panels, but they are now too worn to decipher. The cross is of a much less fluid type of carving, but it it does have some very beautiful spiral and knot work to the side panels.

Detail of the baptism of Christ from the West cross (broken)

The South Cross is the only reasonably intact and finished cross on the site and despite being very deeply incised it is still badly weathered. The person who carved this cross had a real mastery of their art. The panels are like snapshots, having a sense of movement and life. It is thought that this cross may have been carved during the ninth century to mark the safe arrival of the monks from Iona and the inscription on it’s base dedicates the cross to Saint Patrick and Saint Columba. The cross is eleven feet high, but missing its top cap stone and it is carved from one piece of stone. The east side has Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the fiery furnace and Daniel in the lion’s den, topped by the raven bringing food to Saint Anthony in the desert, the sacrifice of Isaac and the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The opposite side has Sampson and the lion, David and the bear, topped by the crucifixion and then Christ in triumph surrounded by the four evangelists. It appears that the cross has an obsession with animals and beasts, but it may be that it is depicting the triumph of the human spirit over animal passions – a suitable theme for Saint Columba.

 Carved faces on the old church tower

As I said, the north cross is completely destroyed, and all that remains of it are a weathered stump. The reason why there were five crosses is not really known, but it is likely that they represent the five wounds of Christ. Many of the scenes on the crosses have striking similarities to images within the Book of Kells which almost disappeared for good while at this site. In 1007AD the book was stolen and later found, but its gold cover had been removed and has never been recovered. The site also held other significant relics, one being the Cathach of Saint Columba and it’s shrine. This was a Psalter copied by Columba near the time of his death. Adomnán tells us that the night Saint Columba died, the last verse he translated in the Psalter was from Psalm 34: Come my children, listen to me and I will teach you the fear of the Lord. The Psalter was completed by the monks on Iona and is now preserved in the Irish Royal Academy. 

 A page from the Cathach of Saint Columba

The well of Saint Columba is a little way out of the town. From the monastic site, head up the hill on the southern side, cross the road and walk a little further until you come to an iron gate between two houses with a narrow country lane leading down to the well. It is clearly signposted from the road and the entrance bears a stone plaque. The lane winds on a little way before opening up into a small enclosed area that has been well tended and carefully looked after. The day I visited, someone had been planting flowers in the bank on the far side of the well. The well housing is crude and simple, but the area is private and peaceful. The water is clear and cool and flows steadily down a culvert into a stream in a neighbouring field.

 The lane to the well

Patterns have been observed at this well for a long time. When you visit the town and it’s various tourist centres you will see old Victorian photographs of people praying at the well. Today the pattern is a great event, with the rosary said on the evening of the 7th June and the Kells Silver Band playing. A mass is then said at the well on 9th June; a tradition that has been observed in this way since 1843. Concerns for the condition of the well grew around 2000 and in 2010 the Kells Archaeological and Historical Society was granted aid from the Town Council and the goodwill of the landowner to restore it fully - a task that was completed in 2011.

 The holy well of Saint Columba

Antiphon: Let the summits of heaven praise you with roaming lightning; O most loving Jesus, O righteous King of kings

Father keep us safe under
The tempests and the thunder,
Lest we should be shattered
By your lightning shafts so scattered.
Your terrors while hearing,
We listen still God fearing
To the resonant song
Of the bright angel throng.
As they wander and praise you,
Shouts of honour still raise to you.
To the King ruling right,
Jesus Christ, all love and light.
Filled with God’s grace indeed,
Not with wine or a clear mead.
The precursor; John the Baptist’s word,
Told of the coming of the Lord,
Who blesséd for evermore
All mankind should bow before,
Of this saint begotten from Elizabeth and Zacharia.
May the fire of your love live within my heart,
As a jewel of gold in a silver kept vase
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be for ever.

Antiphon: Let the summits of heaven praise you with roaming lightning; O most loving Jesus, O righteous King of kings.

Nolie Pater (a canticle composed by Saint Columba)

 Detail of the hunting scene from the market cross

How to find it:
In the town of Kells the monastic site is easily found. From here, head up the hill on the south side of the site, cross the road and a little way along you will find the entrance to the well. It is clearly marked and signposted.

 Carved knot work on the West cross