Monday, September 29, 2014

Saint Maolcethair's Well, Kilmalkedar.

Kilmalkedar monastic site

Legend holds that this church and site was built by Saint Maolcethair (Maol Céadair or Maol Céaltair) and Saint Brendan some time in the mid to late 500's. It is a beautiful site that lies in peaceful repose at the foot of Mount Brandon on the Dingle peninsula not far from the Reasc settlement. In fact, this is where the newly signposted route for the turas, or pattern, begins which normally takes place on the 29th June. The feast day of Saint Maolcethair is 14th May. 

A Tau cross with an inscribed Latin cross

The site is littered with all manner of antiquities, including ancient crosses (including one that looks like it may be an unfinished decorated cross), ballaun stones, an old sun dial, some collapsed underground passages, a church and a number of grave slabs and ogham stones. The church itself is an ancient foundation with a twelfth century nave attached. The original church looks somewhat similar to the nearby Brendan's Oratory, but parallels have also been drawn with Cormac's Chapel in Cashel. 

The Alphabet Stone (Latin inscription on the left hand side)

The church houses a small cross and a large grave slab with a Latin inscription down the left hand side. It is thought that the first three letters represent the word 'Domini'. The ruins are an impressive size, but the original church would have been considerably smaller. The chancel and sanctuary were added in the twelfth century. The church is a good example of the Romanesque style, with an impressive doorway and a number of carved heads that have been reasonably well preserved.

The sun dial

Despite his lengthy and impressive genealogical lineage, very little is known of Maolcethair. He was originally from Ulster and the martyrology of Donegal lists his date of death as 636 AD and his lineage stemming from a previously unknown or unlisted Ulster King. Only one small fragment of story exists about his arrival in the area. On arrival from Ulster he undertook to settle the area and learnt of the ways and religious thoughts of the local people who believed in impersonal or ambivalent deities who inhabited the sea and the sky. His message of a single unified and personal  God was apparently well received! His name is slightly peculiar in that it is thought to be a pun relating to the cross of Christ. A legend tells of the cross of Jesus been hewn from a cedar tree and Maolcethair's name incorporates the Irish word for 'cedar'. It may -  at a stretch -  explain the preponderance of crosses on the site!

The well

The holy well is across the road, opposite the monastic site. In the middle ages this site was quite considerable, and wealthy too, being subject to the papal tax. A two-story stone late medieval dwelling was erected (possibly to house clergy and monks) and the well has been incorporated into the side wall at the very front of the house. It has a good flow and runs off through a stone carved channel into an underground culvert with worn stone steps leading down to it. It would appear that some of the original structure of the well has been preserved or re-used when the house was built.

The ogham stone

Almighty God, who in the passion of your blessed Son made an instrument of painful death to be for us the means of life and peace; grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ that we may gladly suffer for his sake; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Detail of the Romanesque doorway

How to find it: The site is very clearly signposted from the ring of Dingle around the peninsula. It lies at the foot of Mount Brandon and is the starting point for the trek up to the top of the mountain. The holy well is at the left hand corner of the ruined house across the road from the site.

A view out over the mountains in Dingle.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Saint Scire's Well, Kilskyre

The plaque at the holy well

Kilskyre is a sleepy little village in Meath close to the town of Kells whose history is anything but sleepy. The village grew up around a site settled by the female Saint Scire of the lineage of the Uí Choacháin and most notably the daughter of Saint Cuman. Cuman was the sister of Broicseach (the mother of Saint Brigid of Kildare). Saint Cuman's own church settlement was in County Kilkenny and the church was dedicated to Saint Brigid. There is an ancient story that tells of Cuman meeting Saint Patrick when she was pregnant with her first child. Patrick blessed Cuman with his crozier or tau, and the imprint of the cross was said to have remained forever emblazoned on her forehead. At the same time, Patrick prophesied that Cuman would give birth to forty-five saints, both male and female. Her first born child became the Bishop of Aghanagh and many of the subsequent children were associated with the  churches and religious settlements of north Cannacht. Saint Scire on the other hand is closely associated with this particular area of Meath and her settlement formed part of the extensive property linked to the monastic settlement at Kells. The parish revenue of rents and tithes and the crozier of Saint Scire are listed as the guarantors in the charter of the Book of Kells. There is a second church that was possibly part of the settlement of Saint Scire in Kilskeery glebe in County Tyrone, but her feast day is not observed in Tyrone. There is some evidence of a link to the north though, particularly in the documented Life of Forannán of Alternan, which tells of the gathering of Saint Cuman's children by Colum Cille for a special assembly (possibly close to Sligo). In Kilskyre, Saint Scire was locally remembered on 28th September, but her actual feast day as appointed in the ancient martyrologies is fixed on 24th March. A very early Irish litany invokes her name along with many other female saints of whom little is known.

Saint Alphonsus' Church

In the period of Saint Scire the settlement seems to have enjoyed a time of relative peace and security and Scire herself was renowned as holy woman well practiced at fasting and penance. But part of this fame was due to Saint Scire's impressive lineage, not least the link to one of Saint Cuman's sons who later became High King at Tara, but the peace was not to last. Saint Scire's settlement seems to have later formed part of a union of three settlements of Diamor, Clonabraney and Kilskyre and was to become famous as a place of great learning and high scholarship. These were not the first settlements in the area though; Kilskyre itself has a rich heritage that predates its Christian occupation, having many passage tombs and standing stones which are indicators of a more ancient presence in the area. The Kilskyre site is opposite the present church and retains its round inner wall (none of the outer circular walls remain - if there were any). Inside there is a former Church of Ireland parish that restored the ruin of the original church, a base of a round tower and some ancient tombs with interesting carvings of figures with palms facing forwards. The peace and prosperity of the settlement was shattered by the Danes who plundered it in 949AD and then subsequently plundered it twice in quick succession. The King of Leinster sacked the settlement and another English invasion took place in 1170AD. Since that time the ownership of the area transferred through many hands and by the time the church on the settlement was restored by the Anglicans in the late 1500's it had already been lying in ruins for many years. It was not to flourish though, and gradually went into decline before finally closing.

Saint Alphonsus' Church was designed by J.J.McCarthy in 1870, restored extensively in 1999 at very considerable cost and a new window by a Dublin stained glass artist was installed more recently (2003) to commemorate the death of Patrick Aranyos in the Twin Towers in 1999. The stained glass window was funded by his mother. 

The stained glass window dedicated to Patrick Aranyos

The holy well at Kilskyre is one of three possible contenders. In the 1830's there is a listing of three wells surrounding the site of Saint Scire which were said to be able to cure any disease; one dedicated to the saint that lay south of the settlement, one called 'The Well Of The Miracles' and another called 'The Well Of The Heavenly Stone'. Dr P. Branagan tried to identify all three wells in 1970 in Riocht na Midhe, but one of the contenders to be Saint Scire's well had already dried up and been filled in before 1970. The other well that Dr Branagan identified was in Clonabraney, opposite the graveyard, but this today is dedicated to Saint Kevin. It is very likely that the current well dedicated to Saint Scire in Kiliskyre is in fact the correct one, also identified as such in John O'Donovan's mapping of the area in 1836. In 2008 the group 'Pride of Place' and a local historical society provided the funding to restore the well. It now has a large iron gate, a faux beehive structure with a gothic arch and a low perimeter wall. On the whole, it is a sympathetic restoration that will preserve the site for many years to come.

Saint Scire's Holy Well

My food, my ration,
my prayerful restraint
will not make me sinful
from eating.

A measure of dry bread,
head bowed in thanksgiving,
water from a pleasant slope
that is all one could ask.

A bitter, meagre diet,
thoughtful attention to one's book,
a hand stayed from quarrelling and visiting,
a calm easy conscience.

Blessed sight to see
the saints pure of soul,
thin emaciated cheeks,
skin weathered and lean.

Christ the Son of God, come to me,
my Creator my King,
my spirit seeks Him
in the kingdom where He is.

Let this place shelter me,
these holy walls,
a spot beautiful and sacred
and I there alone.

An eighth century Irish poem.

How to find it:
On entering the village of Kilskyre from the direction of Kells you will see the large church of St Alphonsus up ahead on the right hand side, but just before it is a turning to the left. Take this left and the holy well is only a short distance down this road on the right.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Saint Patrick's Well, Carlanstown, County Meath

The interior of the holy well

The sleepy village of Carlanstown is located in north-west County Meath, cut through by the Moynalty River and surrounded by farmland. The settlement of this town has a long history, but the main bulk of settlement came when a bridge was erected over the river in the early nineteenth century. However it is the presence of the holy well and its unusual housing that suggests settlement from a very early date. The holy well itself is dedicated to Saint Patrick and it has a beehive structure built over it, thought to date from as early as the fifth century. This structure has earth laid up all around except for the entrance to the well, but the roof of the structure is kept clear of earth and weeds. It is a very unusual structure that seems to incorporate gothic arches that wouldn't be out of place in church or abbey. It appears that these have been added at a later date, perhaps after a collapse of the structure. Nevertheless, it holds a certain air of mystery. If these pointed gothic arches did come from a church or abbey, where exactly did they come from? The archaeology of this area is is pretty much non-existent, and despite considerable development of the village in the last decade, nothing has been uncovered in the earth. The only remaining possibility is that an early settlement may have been on the far side of the river; an area that is now farmland.

The granite dome over the well

Local folklore has it that this well was blessed by Saint Patrick as he was making his journey from Meath to Cavan. Inside the well basin there is a worn, red flagstone where Patrick is said to have stubbed his toe! As it bled, the stone stained red with his blood and has remained this way ever since. To one side another stone has two small holes; one where Patrick placed his thumb and the other said to be the place where he put his big toe. Of Saint Patrick's activity in this area we know nothing, not even if he actually ever passed through this way, although the OS maps from the early 1800's do mark this well as 'St Patrick's Well'. A local village tale tells of a Tipperary man who used to attend the Carlanstown fair every year to buy and sell cattle. After missing the fairs for a year he was contacted by a local who asked why he had not been attending. He explained that at the last fair he had made a considerable sum by selling all of his cattle for twenty sovereigns which he had hidden in the wall of the holy well. When he returned at the end of the fair to collect his money he could not find it and had left, returning home destitute. For the last year he had turned his hand to new trades in an attempt to make a new living. The local suggested that he pray at the well for the return of his money and as he did he noticed a small stack of twenty sovereigns just where he had left them!

Local villagers have prayed and held services at this well on Saint Patrick's Day for many years and it was believed that if you washed your eyes in its waters you could be cured of blindness and diseases of the eyes. Water was also taken from the well every Saint Patrick's Day to cook food, which was believed to be a cure for every ailment and would ward off ill health for the rest of your life. Today the well is badly neglected, even the approach to the holy well is problematic. You have to cross through two fields and over barbed wire fences to get to it. When I asked local people of its exact location, only one person out of about ten was able to tell me. The entrance to the well was badly overgrown with weeds; so much so that you could not see into it. Earth seems to have been further piled up around its sides, hiding much of its structure. The beehive well housing is actually surrounded by four granite walls in a square with a triangular terminating flagstone pointing east. Only the triangular flagstone is visible today.

The flagstone pointing east

This is a well in a very rural area in a pleasant village with a large open main street. It's something of a shame that the holy well is so neglected, but it is mentioned in the village development plan (2008-2015), although not as a protected structure. It seems strange that the only piece of ancient archaeology in the village has no protection, while even hedgerows and trees are listed later in the documents as being afforded protection under the development scheme. 

A cleft in the dome of the well

County Meath has many wells dedicated to Saint Patrick, and oddly enough they do arrange in a line that is said to plot the journey of the saint and his followers. Whether Patrick was truly at Carlanstown or not, his influence is still strongly felt and at some point in the ancient past of this town, someone (or possibly some community) felt it was necessary to cut granite and form a fairly significant structure around this well. As to who did it will likely remain a mystery for many years to come.

O well! which I have loved, which loved me;
Alas! My cry, O dear God!
That my drink is not from the pure well.

A verse from the Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick 
after Patrick blesses the well at Uaran-garad.

How to find it:
Carlanstown is a small village not far from Kells on the N52. If you enter the village from the far end over the bridge, pass down through the Main Street and instead of following the right hand bend, go straight on so that the school is on your right. Opposite the school is a field. cross this and into the next field, following the hedgerow by turning left. The well is straight ahead.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Saint Brigid’s Well, Liscannor, County Clare

The cliffs of Moher

There is a wildness in Clare like no other. It is not the bitter and majestic wildness of County Kerry; it is instead a contained wildness. Parts of it look relentlessly barren, but this Burren holds many surprises and many places of beauty both small and vast. Any visitor making their way up the winding roads towards the cliffs of Moher cannot fail to notice a holy well dedicated to Brigid, one of Ireland’s most loved and possibly most visited holy wells. This well has a long history and over time has developed a complicated set of rounds or turas’.  My journey began with a trip to the famous cliffs and I stumbled on this well by accident. I knew of its presence in the area, but my OS map, recently reprinted, oddly decided to leave out all holy well markings. I passed Brigid’s shrine at speed, but couldn’t help but notice her solemn form encased in glass keeping watch over a vista that looked down on small dotted cottages and a small town.

Saint Brigid

The cliffs of Moher reach a maximum of 702 feet above the roaring Atlantic, its name taken from a fort long gone. Twenty different species of birds occupy this fearsome bastion of rock and its views are certainly spectacular. Its wildness has been tamed by a somewhat ugly concrete and stone structure to contain tourists, but it is possible to make the journey along the cliffs where the structure dissolves into crumbling paths that give way to more spectacular views. Away from this exposed magnificence, just a short distance down the road is the little vale of trees that bow in solemn reverence to Brigid’s well.

The holy well entrance

Brigid’s shrine is divided into two sections; the upper sanctuary (Ula Uachtarach) and the lower sanctuary (Ula íochtarach). From the road I pass through a small gap in the low wall into a courtyard area with a large mound in the centre topped with a statue of Saint Brigid encased in glass that sits like a great lantern in the centre with Brigid as its only flame. Various pools are exposed in the circular round, indicating the presence of the well and a white painted lintel brightly exposes the way.  It has a mysterious atmosphere as the sun begins to fall low in the sky and the great cleft in the rock feels curiously daunting. As I enter it is dark and uninviting and the smell of dampness and its embracing coldness has a penitential feel. The walls are dripping with prayer; the petitions for the sick, with expressions of thanksgiving, wails of sorrow and grief and moments of hope. Planted at their centre is a crucifix that looks hewn in hawthorn, worn down by burden and incarnationally present amidst this mass of prayer and devotion. Passing down this rock of ages a few small candles flicker towards the light rattle of water into a trough. Here is the well, said to visited by a fish – an indication that this well is truly ancient in its Christian tradition – the fish being a symbol of Christianity that predates the cross. Passing down this cleft in rock is a little like passing through time to a more ancient faith, to a purity of prayerful expression. This vale of solace is a far cry from the exposure of the cliffs.

Offerings at the well

Pattern days are still observed at this well. There are four in all: the eve of the feast of Saint Brigid, Garland Saturday and Sunday, the last Sunday of July (and its Vigil – a harvest festival to ask blessings on the crops and animals) and the feast of the Assumption in August. In the past great gatherings of many hundreds of people took place here with people from all over County Clare and the Aran Islands who covered the site in small flickering candles as they prayed. The Rite of Saint Brigid at the well is still said today, although in a slightly less demanding format. The pilgrim makes a salutation to Christ, then Brigid and Mary (this is known as a ‘rann’, or ritual verse), reciting numerous ‘Hail Mary’s’ and ‘Our Father’s’ and ‘Creed’s’ before reciting the same at various points along the path through the lower sanctuary and up into the upper sanctuary before finally entering the well.

The cross in the upper sanctuary

The upper sanctuary is accessed by a small winding path that makes its way up through the trees to a stone cross that stands at the entrance to an ancient cemetery, said to be the burial grounds of the Kings of Dái gCais and containing the mausoleum of Cornelius O’Brien. Cornelius O’Brien was an interesting local character who was highly regarded in his day.  He was a solicitor for Ireland from 1811 and became magistrate for Clare. Despite being a Protestant landlord, local Roman Catholics held him in high esteem for his political stance in relation to Ireland and for his care of tenants. He took great care of his tenants houses, ensuring they were always in habitable condition and well maintained and clearly had a great love of the area. He ensured there was ease of access to the cliffs of Moher and paid for pathways to be maintained and the erection of seating, a viewing tower and a structure known as ‘the Round Table’.  In 1840 Cornelius fell seriously ill while in England and sent for water from Liscannor holy well which he promptly drank. Attributing his recovery to the healing waters he endeavoured to restore Saint Brigid’s holy well, which was in a state of considerable disrepair at the time, and he paid for its restoration and greatly encouraged devotion at the site. He returned to Ireland during the famine years and is said to have done all he could to provide food to the starving and later he established a national school for the area. However, like many landlords of the time he was not without a sense of self importance, ensuring that a prominent O’Brien monument would be permanently present at the well after his death and that locals would also remember his presence in connection to the well with his imposing mausoleum overlooking the entire cemetery. A short distance from the well there is another well by the road. This is not a holy well, but one that locals used for washing and gathering water for cooking and cleaning. Cornelius O’Brien created a stone housing for the well, topped by his crest. History was to be unkind to Cornelius as Ireland’s political landscape shifted in a way in which he might have approved of, yet set him squarely on the wrong side of the fence. Despite his own actions and political sentiment, his denomination and his national allegiance was to unfortunately tarnish his record in an area where dreadful atrocities were committed and whose people were unable to distinguish him any longer from the newly deposed ruling elite.

Saint Anthony, to help you find what you lost

It is not difficult to understand why this holy well is so popular, quite apart from the fact that it is on a very popular tourist route. It’s sheltered spot gives a sense of relief to the pilgrim and tourist alike with a feeling of shrouded mystery to its dark cleft leading to the well and its rambling graveyard. This is a place that undoubtedly rewards return visits, yet is best frequented early in the morning or a little later in the evening to avoid the throngs.

The holy well

Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless, look to thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyes are closed in death,
When I soar through tracts unknown,
See thee on thy judgement throne;
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee.

Augustus Toplady (1740-78)

Looking out from the well

How to find it:
The well is impossible to miss! One mile down the hill from the car park at the cliffs of Moher on the right hand side you will see the statue of Brigid in her glass case surrounded by a low stone wall.

The Stack at the cliffs of Moher