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.