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Guest blog post: Meath Holy Wells an overview and focus on St. Patrick by Noel French

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, Carlanstown

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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.

St. Patrick's Cascade, Kilmainhmawood

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.

St. Patrick's Well, Tara

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.

Pilgrimage to St. Patrick's Well, Trim

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

Veneration of water in 12 objects…..number 11 the Bullaun

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. C Michael Hogan - From 1024px-St_Johns_(07),_October_2009 Ardfern - Own work

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 why bullauns are found in some areas and not others we may never know.


Ardmore’s St Declan’s Well and its Pattern day

St Declan's Well Ardmore PatternThere 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.

The village

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.

Historical accounts

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

The stone dressed for the day

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.”
St Declan's Well Ardmore Pattern Dat 247 doing the rounds 2St Declan's Well Ardmore Pattern Dat 247 doing the rounds
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.