Category Archives: Pattern
The Holy Well, Cranfield Co Antrim
The Eye Well
St Brigid’s Well: Loch Dearg
The Abbey Well
Tobernalt in Co. Sligo
“Do not leave rags” notices, St Malachy’s Well
In early May I had the pleasure to present my interim findings of my study into votive offerings at holy and healing wells at the #rituallitter workshop at the University of Hertfordshire (more in a future post hopefully). My presentation particularly focused on rag wells, or as has erroneously been applied nationwide, clootie wells (see this post). This lend me to exploring the custom in the wider geographical context and as I am monthly recording holy and healing wells globally, this month I decided to detail three rag or loque wells (strictly sources a loque) in France. However, a map below will show the distribution of the wells across the county that I am aware of so far.
Research indicated as a custom this is just as vibrant as it is in Britain although in most cases the visitors adhere more often to rags, but as can be seen personal items can also be left
Interestingly the custom is most frequently encounter in the Nord Pas de Calais region and into Belgium. (It is also interesting to focus on holy wells not in Brittany as well) Furthermore, it is an activity associated not only with springs but calvaries, chapels and trees as well – none of which are associated with a springhead.
However typical site is that of St Latuin’s Well, at Clerey Belfonds near Seez. A site which is associated with an evangelizing saint, the envoy of Pope Boniface I who is said to have built an oratory at the spring. He was famed to for converting pagans by healing the death and blind. The curative reputation of the spring harks from curing the blindness of a local widow he stayed with when he arrived there.
At the well, pilgrims would pray first to the saint and then wash at the springhead, hoping to cure skin diseases, fevers, scabies and eye aches. Indeed even the plague was thought to be cured. The site was so popular in the nineteenth and twentieth century that it prompted the expansion of the town. The legend of how the spring, a red chalybeate spring arose is told in Charles Corlet’s Legendes de Basse-Normandie d’Edouard.
“Saint Latuin or Lin passes to be the first apostle of the Orne, It is attributed the foundation of the cathedral of Sees. Saint Latuin, on arriving at Sees, took refuge in a poor woman, a widow whose daughter had been blind for many years. The saint restored the sight to the unhappy woman, and then, preaching in public the word of God, performed many miracles of healing. Satan, annoyed at the beneficial action of the saint, aroused against him Fatisie, who wished to take revenge on the saint who had refused his advances. Fatisie intimated to Latuin, on penalty of death, to cease to preach in Christ’s favor. The saint paid no attention to these threats, but his disciples advised him to retire for some time. What he did in the forest of Clairay. There he set up his oratory near a fountain. His tranquility was short-lived, for Fatisie sent murderers to him with the mission of killing him and bringing back his tongue. At the approach of the saint, the murderers prostrated themselves and converted to the Christian faith. As they were to account for their mission, they consulted the saint in order to know the best way to deceive Fatisie. Latuin advised them to kill their dog, to take away their heart, and to defile their clothes with the blood of the animal. Fatia soon died of a fatal death. But the waters of the spring were tinged with blood. Latuin returned to Sées. He often went to his hermitage. It was in this place that death took him peacefully and he still worked miracles.””
Today the spring fills a large square stone basin beneath a statue of the saint dressed in Bishop robes holding a crozier and those coming to cure complaints have tied rags to the top of the metal fence surrounding it. The spring and its church are now the location for an annual pilgrimage. This year on http://www.ville-sees.fr/dimanche-24-juin-pelerinage-saint-latuin/ website it recorded:
“25 years ago, the association “Les amis de Saint Latuin” was created to offer the pilgrims of Saint Latuin the annual animation of the pilgrimage and to ensure the restoration and maintenance of the church of Cléray , Its cemetery and its fountain. On Sunday 24 June: 7.45 am: laudes at the cathedral, 8 am: departure of the march towards the church of Cléray (7.5 km), 10.45 am: gathering at the Cléray fountain, procession followed by the Mass chaired by Bishop Habert. “
In La Croupte, is a spring dedicated to St Martin, with its 15th century chapel. Near here is a statue of the saint festooned with ribbons and different socks, particularly baby socks, close to the springhead. Why are there socks? The spring is said to help children suffering from rickets and hence helping children to walk.
After praying and lighting a candle the clothes or socks are attached nearby. It is recorded that other saints are prayed to according to the healing required as it too cures skin and eye problems. The springhead fills a square basin surrounded by a metal fence upon which the votives are attached.
The final spring is that associated with a sacred landscape of Pre D’Auge, Calvados I Basse Normandie. Indeed it is unclear in this case whether the tree is more sacred than the spring head. Both are named after Saint Meen’s. This is a site which associates with a ragged oak which generations upon generations have attached rags to. The oak itself being called the Oak of Saint Meen, thought to be over a 1000 years old although it is now hollow and in the hollow is a small wooden statue of the saint (it is said that the original remains in a local castle). Indeed, there was concern about the condition of the oak and that in 2009 its final branch was removed and all that is left is the oak. However, the owners of the land concerned that the tradition would disappear ensured that two other oaks can replace it should the time come, one being planted in 1920 and the other in the 2000s. The hulk of the original tree has not prevented the pilgrims attaching rags which range from strips through to handkerchiefs to whole clothes. The spring is said to cure skin complaints and like at other springs, the cloth is first immersed into the spring and applied to the skin, before being left.
The rationale behind the springs use is related to the Saint, who was Breton monk who travelled these areas converting the pagans, who would appear to dislike rudeness and selfishness. It is reported that when on a journey to Rouen, thirsty he rested in the village. Seeing two young girls he asked them if he could drink, one said she would help but other complained about the scarcity of water and refused. As a result, he caused the spring to burst forth to thank the helpful one saying to the less than generous one:
“You will be covered with pustules and you will be obliged to come and wash yourself there praying to ask for your cure which will remind you of your lack of charity.”
A good reason to justify a rag well not doubt!
It is pleasing to say that this bi-monthly guest blog post is from Noel French, author of the Holy Wells of Meath, an excellent book on the county’s holy wells.
The introduction is from his book and attached are some very interesting notes of the wells dedicated to St. Patrick. Images copyright noël French
A holy well is a source of water where there is a tradition of veneration or has a religious dedication. They are sacred sites. There are many holy wells in Meath, a good number of them still having a regular pattern or pilgrimage. I have recorded more than one hundred and thirty holy wells and sacred places in the county. Many wells are located in secluded and beautiful areas, well away from the madding crowds of modern life.
Wells had both material and spiritual importance to our ancestors. Water is a basic necessity and while today water is on tap it was not so for our ancestors. My mother had to obtain water from a well for the first five years of her marriage until electricity arrived. Our ancestors made sources of good clean water holy and these wells had to be respected. If something untoward was done to the well it might move.
Holy wells acquire their spiritual importance not only from current and recent worship but also from the pilgrimages made to the wells year after year by generation after generation of ordinary people. These wells have a strong connection to our Faith. Pilgrimages, patterns and holy well are an important part of our heritage.
Holy wells are visited at special times of the year usually on the patron’s day but also on days connected to the major Celtic festivals, in particular the Lughnasa festival in August. This suggests the pre-Christian origin of many of these wells. With the arrival of Christianity the wells were re-dedicated and their water used for baptism and for curing people’s ills. Many Meath wells are dedicated to St. Patrick but many are also dedicated to the other two great Irish saints, Brigid and Colmcille. Many parochial saints had wells dedicated to their honour.
The holy wells were believed to be places of cures, with different wells having unique healing properties. Drinking from one well would restore sight to the blind or cure a headache or bathing in the stream of another would cure ague. In almost all cases, rituals were required in order for the healing to occur.
Visitors to the wells said certain prayers and followed a defined route at the well. The rounds were always made to the right, in a clockwise direction. Patterns involved saying the Stations at the well but there was also a social side of the celebrations and in many cases these non-religious aspects led to the festivities being prohibited by the Church. In the light of opposition by the government, the established church, the Catholic Church, it is somewhat surprising that so many wells have survived and are treasured by their adherents. Holy wells have endured because they were regarded as sacred places by the community.
The wells do not exist alone; they are often associated with a tree and or a stone. The most common trees are hawthorn, ash or oak. The tree may represent the timber of the Cross and the Crucifixion and trees were also worshipped by the Celts. The trees are usually festooned by offerings of rags or ribbons. Leaving votive offerings such as cloth or pins was a common custom and still survives at many of the wells today. This tradition is associated with wells in other countries throughout Europe and western Asia.
The stones at the wells often bear the mark of the patron saint’s knees, fingers, thumb or some other bodily part. Many wells are said to contain a sacred trout.
Many holy wells have slipped into obscurity, having been ploughed over, clogged with rubble, overgrown, or fallen victim to natural erosion. They continue to be lost to farming, drainage work, development or neglect.
The Meath Archaeological Survey does not mention holy wells. There are only three wells protected in the County Development Plan: St. Colmcille’s, Kells, St. Brigid’s, Ardsallagh and Tober Rua, Moymet. In recent years there has been a revival of interest in holy wells and a number have been restored.
The earliest reference to a holy well in Meath is that of St. Patrick’s nephew, Loman, baptising a chieftain’s son at Trim in the fifth century but the well tradition stretches further back to the story of the origin of the Boyne River at Trinity Well. The wells recorded in my Meath book are usually holy wells or have cures associated with them.
St. Patrick’s Wells
There are many wells dedicated to St. Patrick in Meath. The saint’s journey from the sea to Slane, from Slane to Tara and onto Trim may be traced through the occurrence of major and smaller wells. There are also wells dedicated to the saint dotted throughout the rest of the county, each recalling a similar story of how Patrick and his followers became thirsty and the saint struck a rock and fresh cool spring came forth. Many of the wells also have stones marked by the saint’s knees, fingers or handprint.
St. Patrick’s Well (above) is located on the Green at Carlanstown, opposite the National School. The well is recorded on the OS maps from the 1830s. The well is covered by chiselled blocks of granite, forming a dome, and the stones placed so as to form a cross at the centre. Cogan noted the well in the 1860s.
St. Patrick blessed the well at Carlanstown on his journey from Meath to Cavan. The water is cold in winter and in summer. There was a red coloured flagstone in the well and it is said that St. Patrick cut his foot on a stone and this is where the red colour comes from. On another stone there are two tiny holes, one is where the holy man stuck his thumb and the other is where he put his big toe.
There was a story relating to the well recorded in Jack Fitzsimon’s ‘The parish of Kilbeg.’ A Tipperary jobber attended Carlanstown fair, regularly buying and selling cattle. He missed the fairs for a year and was asked why when he returned. He explained he had lost a large amount of money at the previous fair. Having sold cattle he had the sum of 20 sovereigns and placed them on the wall near the well and forgot about them. When he tried to locate his money he could not. Not having the necessary finances to continue to trade he had to leave the profession for a year to raise funds. The jobber showed his audience where he had placed the money at the well. To his and their surprise there were the twenty sovereigns on the wall exactly where he had left them a year earlier.
The well at Shancor (below), Kilmainhamwood, has a number of names and dedications. The well is also known as Kilfannin Well. The well is situated in a beautiful valley on the side of a glen. A tiny waterfall runs near the well and is marked ‘St. Patrick’s Cascade’ on the OS maps. About one mile along the Glen Road on the Bailieborough road from Kilmainhamwood, the well was the scene of a pilgrimage and pattern each year on the first Sunday of August. There was an altar erected near the well. St. Patrick said Mass at the rock near the well. This was also described as a Mass Rock from the Penal Days. There was a prophecy “that the wagons of war would pass by within a pistol shot of the holy well.” This prophecy was deemed fulfilled when lorries of Black and Tans travelled on the nearby road night and day during the Troubles.
At Mosney there is a well dedicated to St. Patrick, one kilometre north of Ben Head. A natural spring, St. Patrick’s Well, is just east of the railway embankment about one hundred metres south of Mosney railway station and on the foreshore of the sea.
In the 1830s John O’Donovan recorded that Julianstown had its pattern day each year on 8 September. The procession began at Moorechurch, passing through Keenogue Cross, Moymurthy and Sarsfield Cross to St. Patrick’s Well. The pattern was last held in 1912.
When St. Patrick was travelling from the mouth of the Delvin River to Tara he dispatched his boats by sea from the Delvin to the Boyne and he himself travelled overland. Between Laytown and Gormanston the saint met a young man named Benignus. The young man fell at the saint’s feet and begged Patrick for permission to be allowed to follow him. St. Patrick baptised Benignus at the well now known as St. Patrick’s Well. Ben Head between Laytown and Gormanston is said to be named after St. Benignus. St. Benignus was the son of the High King of Ireland and later became Archbishop of Armagh and Archbishop of all Ireland. St. Patrick is the patron saint of the parish of Stamullen. The railway bridge near the well is called Peterswell Bridge but there is no record of a well dedicated to St. Peter. St. Peter’s Chapel was in the nearby townland of Irishtown.
Oldcastle and surrounding area
Although the parish of Oldcastle is dedicated to St. Brigid, the main holy well in the parish is devoted to St. Patrick. The well is recorded as far back as the 1830s and was still being visited in the 1960s. St. Patrick’s Well is situated in a secluded valley in the townland of Boolies. A nearby house is named Patrickswell House and is marked on the Ordnance Survey maps. The field in which the well is to be found is called the ‘Door field’. The adjoining field was called Church field and there was a local tradition that there was a church there but no traces remain. Sir William Petty’s map of Meath in the 1660s shows the townland of Boolies and the neighbouring area is labelled Tibber Patrick with the well indicated..
It is said that one night Patrick slept close to this well. While he was sleeping a man came and stole his shoes. The man had no luck during the rest of his life. Another story provided by the School’s Folklore collection said that the day St. Patrick was passing this well on his horse, the horse got thirsty so Patrick brought him over to the well, and the horse knelt down on one of the stones to take a drink. The track of the horse’s knees is still to be seen in the stone. A toothache might be cured by rubbing the stone against your face. People suffering from stomach trouble or morning sickness drink water from St. Patrick’s Well and are cured.
The Hill of Slane is the traditional site for the lighting of the Pascal fire by St. Patrick. In the 1830s John O’Donovan recorded the presence of St. Patrick’s Well midway between the ruins of the seminary and the ruined church. This well had stonework as high as the surface of the ground and was called Tobar Patrick. Its waters ran dry every summer.
A stone covered well (above) stands by the roadside on the eastern slopes of Hill of Tara. This well is one of the sources for the Gabhra stream. The well recently named St. Patrick’s Well was originally a pagan well.
One of the earliest recorded wells in Meath is the one used by St. Loman to baptise Foirtchern at the Ford of Trim in the fifth century. According to the Book of Armagh, which was completed in the ninth century, a well opened in Trim so that St. Loman could baptise Foirtchern. This well was named after Loman’s uncle, St. Patrick.
Today there is a well dedicated to St. Patrick on the banks of the river Boyne upstream from the town of Trim. It is said that the well was originally in the middle of the large field on the Kildalkey Road but that soldier’s wives washed clothes in the waters and the well disappeared only to spring forth near the river. The well had the cure of the headache and pilgrims left behind a piece of cloth on the thorn bush over the well. Sr. Assumpta revived the pilgrimage to the well in 1995 and since that year an annual ecumenical pilgrimage takes place at 12 noon on St. Patrick’s Day.
Happy slightly belated St. Patrick’s Day to everyone – there are two type of people in the world on March 17th – those who are Irish and those who wish they were Irish!
More can be read in Meath Holy Wells by Noel French available from the author. A review is here https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.wordpress.com/book-reviews/
At many Irish holy wells particularly can be found stones typified with depressions within them, which are often water filled. These depressions often have round stones within them. What are they?
Wilde (1955) makes a mention in his book on Loch Corrib, a stone called Leac na bPoll:
“takes precedence of all other stones in Cong. It is a large triangular red grit flag, two feet thick and eight and a half feet long in its greatest diameter, from under which a never-failing limpid spring issues. Its upper surface is hollowed out into five basin like smooth excavations, averaging twelve inches wide and four and a half deep and usually known as Bullauns from the Latin bulla a bowl; and which from their being invariably found in immediate connection with the most ancient church and may have been regarded as primitive baptismal fonts.”
This description neatly sums up the use of bullaun stones. In some cases the water collected in the bullaun hollows was rain filled and in the main said to cure warts, although St Kieran’s Well, Kilkieran has one for headache.
Noted bullaun and holy wells
Glendalough has the greatest amount around 40 but many are disassociated with holy wells. However, bullauns are found across the Irish countryside from St Gobnait’s holy well, Cork to St. Machan’s Well, Lemanagham Offaly, from St Berrihert’s Kyle and Well, Glen of Aherlow, Co Tipperary to over the border to St. Patrick’s Well, Aughnacloy Ulster Tyrone as well as Ullard’s well, Leinster, Kilkenny and St Attracta’s Well, Ballaghdereen, Connacht, Roscommon, but of course this list is nowhere near exhaustive.
Origins of bullauns?
The origin of these impressions is debatable. Folklorically, reasons have been given. A story is given of the 6th century Bishop St Aid who at birth is said to have hit a stone making a hole whose rainwater cured all illnesses. Realistically, they may have been natural features exacerbated by rain or in some cases the action of those stone within it. One idea was that they were primitive baptism fonts as suggested by Colby (1837) in Ordnance survey of the county of Londonderry:
“that stones of this description are found in the vicinity of most of the Irish churches, and usually bear the name of the founder, or patron saint: they are always held sacred, and the rain-water, deposited in their hollows, is believed to possess a miraculous power in curing various diseases.”
However, this must be discounted as there are around 40 in the area of Glendalough, Wicklow, alone. Certainly there associations date back to the 11th century and appear associated with the recanting of saint’s lives as above. Another theory is that they begun as corn grinding basins or more likely herbs whose healing properties may compliment the spring water.
It appears that the main theory is that they may be cup and ring marks which are found throughout northern Europe, but bar some found in Scotland, Sweden, Lithuania and France, they are lacking in much of the area where cup and ring stones are found..so why bullauns are found in some areas and not others we may never know.
Every month this year I am covering the veneration of water in a different item, 12 in all. This month it will be the clootie or rag. As the title suggests.
Many years ago when my interest in the subject was first piqued I visited the famous Madron Well. To be honest I was not very impressed with the well; a square concreted hole in the ground, if I remember devoid of any atmosphere. No what impressed me was what was attached to the trees; hundred and thousands of bits of cloth. I had no idea why they were there but clearly there was significance to them. Soon after I purchased the Bord’s influential Sacred Waters and all was explained.
Basically, the custom would involve the piece of rag, traditionally although rarely now, a piece of clothing, being dipped upon the well’s water rubbed on the afflicted area and then hung on the tree. As this cloth rooted, so it was thought the ailment would disappear. A word on nomenclature the word clootie commonly used for the rags is a recent spread it is originally limited to Scotland.
As far as I am aware no countrywide study has been made of the distribution of the custom, but it appears largely to divided into two blocks in the British Isles. From my research, I have found no evidence of the custom in the south –east. It is traditionally absent from all the counties south of the Thames i.e Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire. Similarly there appears no record in the home countries of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire or Hertfordshire, although only two of these counties have been fully studied. As we travel westward it is encountered in Somerset with Compton Martin’s Rag Well and Cornwall as well as parts of Wales, although Devon is lacking any evidence and that for Dorset appears modern (see below).
It is absent from East Anglia, which is interesting because in Lincolnshire, a county boarding Norfolk it is frequently read about. Here there are eight seven such sites and one is simply called the Ragged Springs. For example at Utterby the:
“Holy Well, on the east side of the parish, is in repute for medicinal virtues, among the vulgar, who, after using it, tie rags on the surrounding bushes, to propitiate the genius of the spring”.
Of the traditional pre-20th century sites none continue the tradition and ironically another, probably non-holy well, the Ludwell has become the focus of a modern rag leaving tradition. Interestingly, it is recorded in Nottingham, but absent from the rest of the county. Do is there any record in Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Staffordshire.
The record in Nottingham is interesting as there is confusion between the sites of the famed St. Ann’s Well and that known as the spring is called the Rag Well. To the west only Cheshire has a record. Hole (1937) noted that at Audley End a holy tree:
“those who came to the well hung rags or other offerings upon.”
Yorkshire has a number of sites, as noted above. St. Helen’s Well, Great Hatfield near Hull has a plaque reading:
“Before the sunrise, dear Helen, I stand by this spring and intreat thee, sweat saint, good health to me bring, for with eyes firmly fixed on this ancient hawthorn, see I place thee a rag from my dress today”
An early reference of one is for one is in 1600 work of A Description of Cleveland in a Letter Addressed by H. Tr. to Sir Thomas Chaloner which describes St. Oswald’s Well, Great Ayton that
“they teare of a ragge of the shirte, and hange yt on the bryers thereabouts”.
Most famed Yorkshire rag well was that almost lost at Thorpe Arch, where photos from the turn of the 19th century show it festooned with torn strips. Haigh (1875) says that:
“twenty years ago the Rev E. Peacopp, curate of Healaugh, informed me that shreds of linen were to be seen attached to the bushes which overhang this well”.
Bogg (1892) refers to it as:
“St Helen’s or the Wishing Well, which is often visited by young men and maidens… In a clump of trees near the river, hanging on the roots of the trees, are some scores of gewgaws left by anxious lovers, who suppose the well holds some subtle efficacy or charm”.
The ritual was described as having to be done before sunrise where the cloth would be dipped in the well and then tied to the tree whilst making a wish. Of St Swithin’s Well Stanley, in his Ancient Wells of Wakefield, 1822:
“when the well was open it was near the hedge on which used to be hung bits of rag with which people had washed. These were left hanging under the delusive idea that as the rags wasted away so would the part affected, which had been washed, therewith proceed to mend and become sound”.
In Durham Jarrow’s Bede Well and in Northumberland the Lady Well, Cheswick were both rag wells. However, Scotland has three of the most famous rag or cloottie wells. The most famed is that which despite the given name of St. Curidan is better known as the Clouttie well and is the one which has attracted the greatest controversy. Found in Munlochy on the A832, here rags festoon every mm of the surrounding trees and became so unsightly that the decision was taken to remove many of them and surf the bad luck! The well is particularly visited on Beltaine, the day before the 1st of May and traditionally children were left over night to cure them much like Madron’s Well.
This distribution would suggest an association with our Celtic heritage, although that perhaps is not strengthened by the Lincolnshire sites. Another theory is that it may have been a tradition associated with the Gypsy community and certainly Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and the West Country are certainly traditional grounds. However, this does not explain the absence from areas such as the New Forest in Hampshire.
An ancient tradition?
The placing of clooties is linked to Patronal days or the Christianised pagan Gaelic-Celtic feast days: Imbolc (1st February), Beltane (1st May), Lughnasadh (1st August) and Samhain (1st November). It is possibly that the clootie was an offering to a deity at the spring.
A modern tradition
Visiting holy wells across the country one is struck by the presence of rags on a wide range of sites, many of which would not have had them before I assume. I would imagine that few of the people attaching the rags or more often ribbons are doing it for memento reasons rather than healing ones, to leave something there as a token. Yet by doing so they are continuing an ancient tradition…only spoilt by the use of modern non biodegradable fabrics. This is clearly what is going on at St. Kenelm’s Well where there are clothes on a nearby bush and similarly at St. Augustine’s Well, at Cerne which according to Thompson & Thompson (2004) book on Wells of the Mainland had:
“a few coloured ribbons hang from neighbouring trees – evidently an attempt to perpetuate its memory as a rag-well”.
And so it continues. Many wells and springs beyond the natural range appear to be growing in their clottie collections. A quick look on the internet even shows a few which I have done and I can still see the ribbon, sadly it wasn’t as biodegradable as I thought! How to confuse the researcher!!
Although January 1st, Imbolc and May 1st (or its first sunday) are associated with veneration of wells and springs and their increase in proficiency, Midsummer (Eve or Day) was a date often associated with visiting wells. Often the wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton or St John’s Well, Shenstone whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day. This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes that:
“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”
Now a lost site, it is possible that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.
Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:
“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day,
By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well;
The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”
In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.
These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:
“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”
Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire
“a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”
Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:
“People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”
When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6) in an article called Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:
“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”
Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.
The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo. This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.
Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:
“‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”
Tait (1884–5) suggests that the building was:
“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”
This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. You decide.
When as lads in our clogs and our smocks we did go,
When the bright month of May did appear;
With bottles and Spanish, over Heathershelf Scout…
Then we’ve raced down the wood to the mineral spring,
Filled our bottles, and then felt as proud as a king.”
As quoted in Three Lovely Vales, in Biographies, Sketches & Rhymes by the Calder Valley Poets, ed. Sam Mellor Halifax, 1916 May Day or more precisely May Eve was often when the waters of local holy wells and springs were seen as particularly powerful in their properties. A custom linked to this was Spaw Sunday, the first Sunday in May, which was clearly a clever way to both legitimise a ‘pagan’ tradition by placing it on a Sunday and allow people not to miss work! The tradition appears to be a wholly northern custom restricted and mainly Yorkshire and Lancashire. I have found no record of it being undertaken in any counties abutting although similar customs such as sugar cupping occur in Derbyshire and far away in Oxfordshire. In Yorkshire, it now as far as I am aware only undertaken in three locations, two of which is in the Calder Vale and the other at Gunthwaite near Penistone. All the wells often appear to have one thing in common, sulphur waters, as noted in an account in a newspaper describing Gunthwaite Spa:
“Most of the pilgrims brought bottles or cups with them. They ‘supped’ the water, made faces, and filled with their bottles for friends. One old lady, after handing a cope to her daughters, asked what they thought of it. One expressively described the water as muck; and another said it tasted of rotten eggs.”
The smell of sulphur is most notable at perhaps the most famous of the three is that of Cragg Vale, which had a history at least 300 years old. The earliest reference dates from 1789 in Watson’s History of Halifax Parish, and even then the custom was to adorn the wells with boughs and flowers. According to an excellent article in the Northern Earth Journal by John Billingsley the custom is recorded from the late 19th and early 20th century in the Hebden Bridge Times. In particular he notes an account which recorded that 500 visited on May 6, 1906 and went to hear the Hebden Bridge Band playing at the White House Inn a few miles away. In the Telegraph and Argus of 7th May 1909 there was the following report on Spa Sunday:
“’Spa’ Sunday, specially favoured in point of weather, was as popular as ever on the hills surrounding the town. The Hebden Bridge Brass Band were out early, and discoursed music on the Erringden hillside. Blackstone Edge and Cragg Vale were as usual visited by hundreds of people.”
Sam Hellowell’s History of Cragg Vale (1959) records in 1913:
“It being a nice day the crowd during the afternoon was a very large one, being many hundreds in excess of last year’s and the scene was of an animated character. Testing the pungent water was much more generally observed than formerly. The scene, however, contrasted very favourably compared with the very rough and rowdy conduct of generations gone by. The local branch of the Independent Labour Party was represented with speakers. The Hebden Bridge Brass Band was also present, as was the Steep Lane Mission Band.”
The Cragg Vale Spaw Sunday died out in the 1940s probably during the War. A revival in 1987 was short lived. In the book, Martyrs, maypoles and Mayhem Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan (1994) report:
“the celebrations were revived briefly in 1987, and the well in Cragg Vale near Hebden Bridge was decorated with flowers and branches. Several Morris teams turned up, everyone took a gulp of the liquorice infused water, and a great time was had by all. In 1988 however, the first Sunday in May suffered appalling weather: the booked Morris teams cried off, and the tradition was dead before the morning was out. It remained dormant ever since.”
Consequently, the Spa spring itself became effectively lost falling like many sites in ruin and becoming forgotten out of site and mind. This was until 2009 when the site was cleared, cleaned and new steps provided with a landscaped surrounding. Then on the first May in Sunday, 1st May 2010, it was again revived. Fortunately, nothing appears to have affected the custom since its revival in 2011. The present revival consists of a procession to the spring from presently the Hinchcliffe Arms Inn with the Rippondale sword dancers and resident clergy. The spa is then blessed and water sprinkled and drunk with liquorice and cakes served.
At the same time a revival of Spaw Sunday has occurred in Midgley, the other side of Mytholmroyd. The origins of this custom is unclear, one of the organisers suggested an observance of it occurred in the 1970s and possibly 80s, but they were unaware whether this was a survival or revival. This custom consists of the dressing of the well and springheads of the small hamlet with banners and a wide range of flowers, objects and artwork. In the morning there was a perambulation around there were poems and recitations are consisted. At the end the assembled mass visit the community centre to partake in local delicacy dock pudding is served.
Also in the Calder Valley was Luddenham Dean Spa. This became a very popular event attracting brass bands, the temperance society, preachers and the speeches from the Independent Labour Party, it appeared to have declined at the second world war. Another well, was at Horley Green, Halifax, which according to Heginbottom (1988) in an article called Early Christian Sites in Calderdale, in Halifax Antiquarian Society Transactions notes that thousands people would visit it in the mid-19th century. The other side of the valley at Haworth, local people from that town, Oxenhope, Stanbury and other locales attended near Leeshaw Reservoir where a Spa Beak. According to a work by Martha Heaton’s (2006) quoted by Paul Bennett on Northern Antiquarian, the day consisted of:
“..sitting round the well, they sang songs, some bringing their musical instruments to accompany the singing. Children brought bottles with hard spanish in the bottom filling the bottle with water from the well, shaking it until all the spanish or liquorice had been dissolved. This mixture was known as ‘Poppa Lol’ and would be kept for weeks after a little sugar had been added, then it was used sparingly as medicine. The custom seems to have died out when Bradford Corporation took over the water and made Leeshaw Compensation Reservoir in 1875….It was a great day for many people, the Keighley News of May 1867 mentioned it, the report of local news reads thus: ‘A large assembly met on Spa Sunday on the moors about two miles from Haworth, and a party of musicians from Denholme performed sacred music.”
As far as I can ascertain, the furthest north Spaw Sunday site, but called Spo Sunday, was that of that of Spo well near Rochdale, Lancashire according to Taylor (2005) was also drunk with liquorice and shaken. Although, according Rowling (1976) in her Folklore of Lake District, the custom was undertaken during the first Sunday of May but appears never to have been called Spaw Sunday, being called ‘Shaking Bottle Sunday’ this may be due to the distribution of the term spa as term. Rowling records that liquorice was drunk with the water at Tolly or Keld Well, Greystoke up and until 1903. It was undertaken until the First World War, with water at Eden Lady Caves, near Great Salkeld. Indeed, a song was sung ‘The first is may is shaking day’ was sung with games undertaken on the day. Other ‘Shaking Sundays were on other days in May or Palm Sunday. It appears that the name Spaw or Spa Sunday was largely restricted to Yorkshire’s west Riding. The oldest surviving event is that of Gunthwaite in Yorkshire in the Pennines. Here the main part of the event is the attendance of the Thurstone Brass Band, who has played since the 1970s at the event. A newspaper report from 1904 recorded by Rob Wilson (1990) in his Holy Wells and Spas of South Yorkshire notes:
“It has a spring of water in which people of the district have wonderful faith. They look upon it as a sort of cure-all. But if you are to be cured you must drink of the waters on one special day in the year-the first Sunday in May. On other days the spring is just water. But on the first Sunday in May it becomes miraculously charged with all kinds of powers and properties, and people flock to it from far and near. The spa consisted of a little recess in a wall came a common rusty iron pipe, out of which the mysterious fluid was gently trickling. Below the pipe the little pool, in which pilgrims had to stand and stoop to get the precious First-of-May flavour, was muddy and objectionable looking. There was nothing tempting about the appearance of the place. But the worse the look, possibly the better the result. The cup, provided by a thoughtful Rural District Council, was chained to the wall, but was all battered and worn, dirty and shorn of everything that makes a drinking vessel attractive. All the pilgrims except myself, seemed to know the cup, and came prepared with drinking vessels of their own..the wall and pipe had not been there long. Formerly the water was obtained from the spring as it came out of the ground by the little stream among the rushes and rough undergrowth bordering the road. But the first of May water got mixed with the other water in the stream and lost its value. So it had been piped to the wall. An old gentleman did not approve of such radical changes; and did not think the water so good now that it came through a pipe as it was formerly.”
The account suggests that the attendees could get rowdy, returning to his old gentlemen the author writes:
“Then his mind carried him back long years to the time when there used to be great rejoicing on the first Sunday of May. ‘There used to be a band out here, and brave going-on, sure enough’ said the old gentleman, with a faraway look, as though he could see before him the crowd and dancing and the revels that disturbed the quietude of Gunthwaite Spa on the first Sunday in May years ago. The band was done away with a good many years ago, he said regrettably, because the people began to get too rowdy…
The spectre of alcohol, the opposite of the temperance movement’s stance at Cragg, was raised:
“Some of the young men however gulped the water down in big quantities. But they highly diluted it. They had come out armed with flasks of spirit, and horns, in which they mixed whisky and water. The two together seemed to make a highly attractive beverage; but such proceeding spoilt the charm of the mystery of the place. They degraded the water to a very commonplace level. Having partaken of the water, people sat about the banks to watch the other tasters, and to enjoy the faces they made. I was assured that some people were at the water early in the morning; long before breakfast.”
Rob Wilson (1990), notes that the band had returned and ‘little had changed in the 90 years or so since the account was written’. Today, the band plays from 2 onwards at the reservoir whilst refreshments of another kind, cakes, are available nearby. Hopefully these surviving traditions will continue and blossom and others will be resurrected.
An account of Spaw Sunday 2013 posted on traditionalcustomsandceremonies.wordpress.com at the end of the month.
Many thanks to John Billingsley of Northern Earth for his help and the warm welcome of the people of Cragg Vale and Midgley and http://megalithix.wordpress.com/2009/02/24/haworth-moor-spas
There were present at Ardmore several thousand of as fine people as exist. I have no hesitation in saying that the peasantry of the Counties of Cork and Waterford, surpass any people I have seen in Ireland, Scotland, or England.”
A recent visit to Ireland allowed me to visit a fair number of the country’s evocative Holy wells and investigate a Pattern day. Pattern days are when the town or village celebrate a local saint and their sites and often pilgrims do ‘the rounds’ a special ritual associated with the site. With this in mind I was very interested to visit the town on its Pattern day. Ardmore Pattern day is one of the country’s most famed. As the festival website notes, for many generations, this was looked forward to the day, people would tidy up and whitewashed there houses and children would get presents and enjoy the stalls and rides which would line the streets. The Pattern Day has now become a festival and I was interested to see how a village celebrated its special day and whether any traditions continued.
A strange and eerie mist surrounded all roads to Ardmore, a small seaside town in County Waterford. As the road dived down to the coast, the mists slowly lifted and the town revealed itself, a few shops, restaurants and a large Victorian Catholic church. Despite this being its big day, its Pattern or Patronal Day, the town appeared rather empty and quiet. There was no sign that anything different was happening today; but this was the 24th July, St. Declan’s Day, and the day when traditionally large numbers of pilgrims descending on the town.
As noted Ardmore’s Pattern is perhaps one of the most detailed of all Irish events and many accounts have been given. Over the centuries, it has waxed and waned, even the stations have changed with pilgrims no longer going to see St Declan’s crozier or skull, but still the Rock, Grave, Round tower and well. Hardy-Dixon (1836) noted in his Holy Wells of Ireland:
“This annual scene of disgusting superstition is exhibited at Ardmore, in the County of Waterford, on the 24th of July, in each year. Several thousand persons, of all ages and sexes, assemble upon this occasion. The greater part of the extensive strand, Which forms the western part of Ardmore Bay, is literally covered by a dense mass of people. Tents and stands for the sale of whiskey are placed along the shore. Each tent has its green ensign waving on high.”
The surviving stations are the Stone, Well, Round tower, St Declan’s Bed. I did not see any evidence of devotion at the Tower or Bed, eerily as they were wrapped in a misting hiding any signs of modernism.
“The Stone, is on the sea shore, is of the same quality as the neighbouring rocks, and weighs, perhaps about two or three tons; it is said to have floated on the sea from Italy, crowned with nine bells, which came most opportunely, as at the period of its arrival the Prst, being about to celebrate Mass, was in want of a bell, upon which he sent some of the people to the spot in question, who, to their astonishment, found the stone and bells as already stated, since which time the stone has been highly venerated for the performance of miraculous cures, &c.”
The only sign that this was a special day was encountered on the beach, where I encountered St. Declan’s Stone, a large and immovable rock set upon others like a natural dolmen. Here was the clear sign it was Pattern Day, for the stone was wrapped in a blue and white blanket (blue and white being the flag of County Waterford). Hardy-Dixon (1836) described the devotion at the stone as:
“At an early hour in the day, says a correspondent of the Roman Catholic Expositor, those whom a religious feeling had drawn to the spot, commence their devotional exerciser in a state of half nudity, by passing under the holy rock of St. Declan. Stretched at full length on the ground on the face and stomach, each devotee moved forward, as if in the act of swimming, and thus squeezed or dragged themselves through. Both sexes were obliged to submit to this humiliating mode of proceeding. Upwards of Eleven hundred persons were observed to go through this ceremony in the course of the day. A reverend gentleman who stood by part of the time exclaimed, ‘0 great is their faith.’ This object of so great veneration, is believed to be holy, and to be endued with miraculous powers. It is said to have been wafted from Rome, upon the surface of the ocean, at the period of St. Declaims founding his Church at Ardmore, and to have borne on its top a large bell for the church tower, and also vestments for the saint himself.”
A correspondent to the author noted:
“Devotions had commenced at the stone previous to my arrival. But it is only at low water that people can go under the stone, and perform their devotion there; they must always take advantage of the tide. On the Saint’s day, it is always necessary to remove some of the sand which accumulates under the stone to make a sufficient passage for a large man or woman–as the little rocks on which the stone rests form irregular pillars, it is necessary to have the surface under the stone lower than the front or rere. In order to begin here, the men take off hats, coats, shoes, and stockings, and if very large, waistcoats – they turn up their breeches, above the knee, then lying flat on the ground, put in hands, arms, and head, one shoulder more forward than the other in order to work their way through the more easily, and coming out from under the stone at the other end, (from front to rere perhaps is four feet,) they rise on their knees and strike their backs three times against the stone, remove beads, repeat aves, &c. They then proceed on bare knees over a number of little rocks to the place where they enter again under the stone, and thus proceed three times, which done, they wash their knees, &c. &c. dress, and proceed to the well. The women take off bonnets, shoes, stockings, and turn their petticoats up above the knee, so that they may go on their bare knees. I saw but one woman who put her petticoats under her knees – a little boy took off his breeches; the women proceed in the same manner as the men, excepting indeed that they appeared less careful of saving their knees from being hurt by the rocks than the men. The knees of one man bled, others were bruised, and all were red. I need scarcely notice the indelicacy connected with such scenes as those described..”
Despite Hardy-Dixon’s disparaging remarks, the veneration of the rock continued unchanged until the 1940s notes:
“It laid on its side on two protruding rocks and the mark of the bell is still on it. People who are ill in any way have great faith it. At 12.00 on the morning of St Declan’s feast day is the best time to do it and I can remember myself twenty cars and more from Ring, one after another going west along the road from about six or seven o clock the previous afternoon to reach the strand at Ardmore before 12.00 O’clock on the day…”
Indeed a report of an aged lady probably recalling this period amusingly notes:
“We watched from our drawing room window thinking someone very fat might try, and get stuck.”
Although I did not witness the crawling under, I found a small group of children with their parents beside the stone. One of the boys noticing my interest stated that he had climbed under it ‘three times I did it for good luck’….I asked whether he got wet to which he relayed he had removed all his clothes!! So presumably at some point some people may have more seriously entertained the custom.
The well or Tubber Deglane
Highest upon the sites of veneration was the well, and this is delightful site. The approach to the well up a lane and past the rather grand Cliff Hotel above the village and is well signed. This is a classic Irish holy well, despite the proximity of modern urbanisation, is remains a quiet oasis in a stone enclosure with the ruins of a chapel probably built upon the Saint’s hermitage. It remains much of its ancient fabric, two old crosses are cemented above the well a third one shown in old photos has gone and probably date back to Celtic times. Close by the well is the ruined church of St Declan, said to be built upon his original hermitage.
Fitzgerald (1856) in jottings in Journal of the Royal society of Antiquaries describes it as:
“The most celebrated well in this province for ‘rounds’ and miraculous cures. Its powers of healing are still frequently put to the test with all sorts of sprains and mutilations of the human body, especially on the patron day, which is held on the 24th July. There are also said to be three holy wells on the strand at Ardmore, which were formed by a miracle of st Declan, but these cannot be seen except at extreme low tides, and at low water mark; they are noted for curing inward complaints in those who are fortunate to glimpse of them at the propitious moment. At each of the wells mentioned here, except those on the strand, the visitor will find numerous coloured objects tied to the trees and briars in the neighbourhood.”
Ian Lee in Ar mo thiasteal dom, a radio show aired in 1949 described the devotion at the well stating that the first thing on entering the gate is that people go on their knees in front of the well, then a number of prayers would be said, such as the Rosary, seven Our Fathers and seven Hail Mary and then one could ask Holy Declan through the power of God any wish you might have for the good of your soul or body. He states:
“Then the Our father is begun around the well three times and on the third round saying the Rosary; people enter through the door in the southern end, go down on their knees and on completing the Rosary they take a stone and cut the sign of the cross on the eastern end-that was the custom but it is said that it’s a pagan custom. They come out then to the well after finishing the three rounds and say seven Our Fathers and seven Hail Marys and some other Prayers
The cures were varied from a deranged but beautiful young women being cured at the well having spent some time screaming at it. Bretnach (1998) Ar bother dom reports:
“A crippled man went to Ardmore on two crutches. When he had the rounds done he washed his feet and hands with the water of the well. He saw a fish in it that snapped at his hand when he put it in the water. He thought this strange. When he was leaving the well he began to feel better and he no longer felt any pain in his hands and legs. He took his crutches and threw them over the cliff and went home sound and healthy.”
The well still attracts its pilgrims. On the night before the church organised a candlelit procession to the well. Whilst I was there I encountered an elderly lady deep in contemplation with her rosary who asked me why the round was round, her answer being so that there were seasons at different points to provide year around food. An interesting consideration perhaps.
More significantly was an elderly women and her husband who was clearly doing ‘the rounds’ as it is called. I kept my distance watching from afar as she undertook three clockwise circumferences of the well and ruined chapel. Half way through she climbed with the help of her husband a stone at the ruined altar end and with a stone made a cross incision in the fabric of the building adding to the large number of crosses, many of them fresh and probably done early in the morning. At the end of the circuit she took her drink from a metal mug provided at the well.
The Pattern in modern times and now
By the 1960s the pattern was an unofficial Bank holiday and the day had tournaments such as the Murphy Cup by this point a correspondent reported that:
“all approach roads to the village would be packed with cars, with crowds from near and far. In that era could there be greater event that the Pattern Day in Ardmore”
By the 1990s the hawkers, fun fairs and numbers had dropped and the Pattern was a more solemn event with a candle light. Insurance apparently prevented some events from continuing but the town would not let the pattern die as it had in other places. Indeed, the town is to be commended for its enthusiasm in reviving the pattern in a modern style and still retaining its raison d’etre- devotion to the saint. The pattern has been extended to a longer Festival, 3 days to incorporate the saint’s day and the weekend, with concerts and theatre productions. One notable drama being a pageant detailing the life of the saint enacted on the beach. Before this was a walk from the Grange Church (or Old Parish) down to the said beach.
This walk was a strange event, I had thought that it may have been religious in nature, but no, it was simply a walk. A large number of people, more than last year I was told boarded to the coach. Being a ‘foreigner’ I asked if I could join them and there was a resounding and enthusiastic yes! The coach drove up from Ardmore to the church car park where we assembled and took off. The walk took us along the main road, and down some quiet lanes and back towards the town at some considerable pace-this was a power walk. Despite being bereft of any real religious significance it, there still sometime poignant and perhaps cleansing about the walk and although the people I spoke to really could not explain their presence, there was a clean spiritual element to it.
By the time I reached the beach, with biscuits and orange juice awaiting, I was greeted by the pageant. The sound of a flute echoed along the beach with children dressed in rags surrounding flickering fires dug into the dirt. All eyes were focussed on a rock with a bell on it and further out a shape on the horizon. This shape quickly became recognisable as a rowing boat and soon a figure in a green Bishop’s robe and mitre, that of St. Declan. The children and assembled adults dressed as peasants congregated at the foreshore awaiting the saint’s arrival, and being interviewed by the crowd made their way to the church for mass.
Such was my brief experience of Ardmore where one can still see the relics of a Catholic past mixed with the modern twists of bands and plays. Long may it continue.