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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.