Next Sunday is the feast day of St Brigit. On Friday 30th of January the Triskel Christchurch in Cork city will host Free Lunchtime Public outreach talks about different aspects of Brigit. I will be giving a talk about St Brigit and pilgrimage so if anyone is about call in.
Yesterday I attended a very unique pilgrimage at Esker, Co Galway. Each year on the 5th and 6th of January vast numbers of people from east County Galway attend the blessing of the waters at St Dominic’s holy well.
Unlike many other holy wells, St Dominic’s well is not associated with healing or penance. The pilgrims who come here do not come say prayers or to leave offerings they come to collect the holy water from the well to take home to bless their fields, farmyards, homes and animals. The water is taken because it is believed to have special powers of protection and healing through its connection with the saint.
St Dominic’s holy well is located beside the Redemptorist monastery in the townland of Esker a few miles east of the town of Athenry, Co Galway. The Redemptorist are very much involved with the pilgrimage and I have no doubt their interest and support over the years has done much to promote the continuation of this tradition.
History of the well and nearby monastery
Like many holy wells we know very little about the history of St Dominic’s holy well. The well is dedicated to St Dominic the founder and patron of the Dominican order. The Dominican’s first came to Ireland in 1224 initially they founded monasteries in Leinster and Munster and they establishment of their first house of the Order in Connacht at Athenry (dedicated to St Peter and Paul) in 1241 . The Athenry priory
… escaped suppression in the Dissolution of Henry VIII, thanks to the Intervention of Deputy Anthony Sentleger who in a letter dated the 7th of July 1541 stated that as it “is situated amongst the Irishry … our saide sovereign lord shoulde have lyttle or no profit”, despite which the custos of the friary Adam Copynger, and his fellow-friars had to agree to change “their habit and wedes of a ffriar into a secular habit”. In 1574, however, Queen Elizabeth 1 granted the friary buildings and lands to the provost and burgesses of Athenry for 26/6 (£1.35) yearly.
In 1627 Charles I granted the priory to four Galway merchants as assignees of Sir James Craig (a Scotsman associated with the Plantation of Ulster) to hold it for the king. These merchants, however, were well-disposed towards the friars and the Dominicans were therefore able to re-establish themselves in Athenry in 1638. There followed a brief period of restoration work, the sacristy and perhaps the hagioscope/’leper squint’/ penitent’s cell’ in the south wall of the nave apparently being additions dating from then. In 1644, during the period of the Confederation of Kilkenny, the priory of Athenry was erected into a University for the Dominican Order by the decree of a General Chapter held in Rome.
Disaster befell the monastery in 1652 when Cromwellian soldiers wrecked the buildings, a record of which is to be found on a carved stone plaque dated 1682, now mounted in the north wall of the church (Rynne 2000).
Following the destruction of the priory by Cromwell’s forces the surviving Dominicans left Athenry and came to Esker. While in hiding here they continued to minister to the local people of the area. Following the relaxing of the penal laws they built a monastery a short distance from the holy well. The monks were gifted land by local landlord Daly of Dunsandle of 150 acres to help support them and their charitable works.
Stratford Eyre, of Eyrecourt, wrote a letter dated 3rd March 1731-2, to Primate Boulter which stated
“The friars of Athenry live at Esker near two miles from the Abbey on the estate of Thomas Power Daly, a Papist… The Protestants of this County are in by means of the power, influence and strength, the number and intolerable insolence of Papists who possess entire parishes and not one Protestant family in some of them” (Anon. no date).
The Dominicans remained here at Esker until 1896 and the monastery passed to the Diocese.
The Dominican’s were only in the area for 300 years but the townland of Esker was often refereed to as Eiscir na mBrathar- Esker of the Friars and a hill overlooking St Dominic’s holy well and the monastery is known locally as Dominic’s Hill.
In 1903 monastery was granted to the Redemptorist and by this time the modern traditions of the well were firmly established. Through the years the Redemptorist have continued to support the well as the Dominicans did before them, and today they still providing blessings of the waters both the 5th and 6th of January.
The well is a small spring and surrounded by a circular stone wall. The interior is accessed by a number of steps and two walls extend beyond the entrance. In the 1930’s a doomed roof was added to the top of the earlier structure. A large stone trough sits in front of the well.
It is possible there may have always been a holy well at Esker and when the Dominicans arrived it was rededicated to St Dominic. It is also possible that the well may have only come into existence following the arrival of the Dominicans. While many wells have medieval and prehistoric origins this is not the case for all,for example Fr Moore well in Co Kildare came into existence in the 19th century. So could the well date to the time of the Dominicans or has it more ancient origins? We many never know the answer to this.
It is interesting that despite it dedication devotion at the well takes place not on the feast of Dominic the 8th of August but the feast of the epiphany. No one is sure why the devotion at the well takes place in January or when it first began but having spoken to a number of people in their 80’s on my visit here on the 6th of January of this year, they remember their parents and grandparents having come to the well at this time of year. This suggests the well and its current tradition was established at least the middle of the 19th century, if not well before (excuse the pun). One lady I spoke with told me that local folklore told to her as a child, stated that the famine had not been as bad in the area as elsewhere and that the people believed that the water from the well had kept them safe.
Modern Pilgrimage 6th of January
The traditional time for visiting St Dominic’s well is any time from 12 midday on the 5th of January until midnight on the 6th of January. Very few people venture here during the rest of the year.
On the morning of the 5th additional troughs are placed beside the well and along with the original stone trough they are filled with water from the well.
On both pilgrimage days a mass is held at the church in the Redemporist monastery at which many people attend. Following mass there is a procession from the monastery to the holy well.
The procession heads out of the monastery and along the main road for a couple of hundred metres. This year the procession was lead by Fr Michael O’Flynn.
The procession then turns in to a large field were the well is located and along a gravel path to the well.
Having arrived at the well the people wait until everyone has gathered. A number of short prayers are said and the well and its waters are blessed by the priest. This year the blessing was performed by Fr Seamus Devitt. As there were so many people present I was not able to get close enough to photograph the blessing of the well.All the pilgrims present brought plastic bottles and containers with them and following the blessing they filled these container with the blessed water from the well.
A number of people I spoke with told me they had brought extra bottles with them to distribute between friends and neighbours who could not come along on the day. Many pilgrims do not attend the masses or blessing of the waters and turn up in there own time during the day.
About half an hour after the blessing the crowd dispersed and the large stone trough in front of the well was all but empty.
This troughs and some of the others, had to be refilled several times during the day. This shows the volume of people and the amount of water taken throughout the day, luckily the monastery has organised the water levels to be monitored and refill the troughs as needed.
The 6th of January was an exciting day for this years pilgrimage as the television station TG4 attended and recorded the event which featured that night on Nuacht at 7pm.
It is difficult to know how many people came to the well over the two days but they must have been in their high hundreds. I noticed a constant stream of people come and go on the 6th. As soon as one car left another arrived.
Having collected the water many go straight home but a sizeable number of people drop into the church to say some prayers and visit the crib.
I was very luck to speak with a large number of people during the day and to discover how people use the water when they get home.
On returning home the water is sprinkled in the farmyard and fields, in cow sheds, much like Easter water is spread on the fields on May’s eve. The remainder of water is kept throughout the year and used for sick animals and for cows and sheep during calving and lambing. A number of people told me of what they believed were cures of animals due to the waters of the well. Others sprinkled the water during planting and harvesting of crops. Many people will use the water on farm machinery, cars, out buildings and homes. One elderly gentleman I spoke with told me when he was young he remembers people using the water to protect their farm/land and animal from curses.
I would just like to say a big thank you to everyone who took the time to share their stories of the well and to all in the Redemptorist monastery especially Fr Seamus Devitt and Patricia Wade for their kindness, generosity with information and very welcome cups of tea.
Anon. (no date) Esker http://ams2-aai-web-1.anu.net/reading-room/history-heritage/heritage-towns/athenry/esker/index.xml (accessed 7/01/2015).
Maguire, S. (no date) ‘Athenry’ http://places.galwaylibrary.ie/history/chapter10.html (accessed 7/01/2015).
Rynne, E. 2000. ‘Dominican Priory History’, http://www.athenryheritagecentre.com/index.php/athenry-history/dominican-priory-history (accessed 7/01/2015).
Redemptorist website http://www.redemptoristsesker.ie/
Link to the TG4 player containing film of the blessing of the waters Link will only be live for the next 30 days
Fancy a virtual walk along the Saint’s road to Clonmacnosie, Co Offaly ? Then follow route of the road on my new Storymap for the Saint’s road .
I normally write a post related to pilgrimage and Christmas this time of year. This year has been a very busy one keeping up with the blog, facebook page , work and everyday life so I decided instead of researching a new topic to share some of my favourite images of the Nativity as depicted in medieval and modern glass and stone sculpture from Ireland and the Continent.
This small ivory panel was carved around AD 1000-1050 in Germany and probably came from the area around Liège or Cologne. The upper section of the plaque depicts the Annunciation and the lower the Nativity. I really like the little details that the artist has carved in the Nativity scene such as Mary’s shoes sitting beside her on a stool (1).
Another great image of the Nativity is found carved on a column at the Soria Monastery of San Juan de Duero, Spain dating to the 12th -13th century. It seem the stable was very compact (2).
This is a more modern depiction and is one of my favourite stained glass windows. Created by Harry Clarke in 1918 for the St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland church at Castletownshend, Co Cork it depicts the Nativity and Adoration. My photo does not do justice to the fantastic colours of the glass (3).
Following the birth of Christ the three Magi follow the star to Bethlehem, brining with them gifts for the Christ child.
This scene from one of the columns at the Cathedral of St. Lazare, built between 1120 and 1146, depicts an angel coming to wake up the three magi so they can follow the star to Bethlehem (4) . This carving along with many others from St Lazare were carved by a man called Gislebertus who was one the greatest sculptor of his time.
The Adoration of the Magi was also recorded on a number of early medieval Irish High Crosses. Below is an image that depicts the Adoration of the Magi on the east face of Muiredach’s High Cross at Monasterboise Co Louth, carved in the 9th/10th century.
The Magi are also depicted coming with gifts in a carving in the west gable of the 12th century cathedral church at Ardmore Co Waterford. The three Magi are the lower figures under the scene depicting the Judgement of Solomon.
Following the epiphany the next big event in the life of Christ was the “Flight into Egypt”.
I love this image of the Flight into Egypt also carved by Gislebertu, Mary is depicted with a ball in her hand which the Christ child is also touching maybe its a toy ? Poor Joseph looks like he is about to fall over. The carving is found in the Cathedral of St Lazare, Autun, France at the top of a capital in the nave and dates to circa. 1125 (5).
I also love this very different depiction of the Flight into Egypt found on the Moone High Cross. The cross which was made around the 9th century, it was carved from granite, a very difficult stone to work. Whoever carved this possessed great skill as a stone mason and his simple design has a unique charm.
There are many more images I could share but I think these are some of the nicest. So a very Happy Christmas to everyone and thank you all for your support for this blog.
3. Many thanks to Finola and Richard of the Roaring Water Journal for taking me to see this amazing window in November.
Recently I was in Carrick-on-Shannon and stumbled across the most amazing little building. The building in question is a small memorial chapel located at the top of Bridge Street sandwiched between two shop fronts.
The chapel, a single room building is tiny, measuring circa 4.8m x 3.6m. The chapel, built on the site of a former Methodist chapel, was commissioned in 1877 by a Carrick-on Shannon merchant called Edward Costello as a memorial to his wife Mary Josephine. The building was completed in 1879.
The chapel was built of cut limestone with a steep pitched stone roof with two Celtic cross finials at each gable. On the left hand side of the door is a carved stone depicting the Costello coat of arms and Latin motto ‘Ne te quaesiveris extra‘ which means ‘Seek not thyself outside thyself’.
The chapel is entered through two doors of simple design, made of wrought galvanised iron.
Within the church is a small marble altar and tabernacle. Mass was celebrated here from the time of Mary’s interment in 1879, on the first Friday of every month until Edwards death in 1891.
Mary Costello had died in 1877 and her remains were embalmed. When the chapel was completed she was buried within the chapel on the right hand side of the building in a rectangular sunken grave. Following Edward’s death he was also buried in the chapel and placed on the left hand side of the chapel. Both graves were sealed by a thick clear glass and when you enter the chapel today the coffins are visible. The floor of the chapel was tiled with tiles depicting symbols of the crucifixion.
Another lovely feature of the chapel is beautiful stain glass window which the information plaque at the site notes was designed by Mayer of Munich.
The chapel is a beautiful structure and testament to Edward’s devotion to his wife. If you are passing through Carrick-on-Shannon do seek it out and see for yourself.
Notice board at the site.
The names and stories of the vast majority of medieval pilgrims have gone unrecorded in the Irish historical sources but thankfully there are some exceptions to this rule. During the 15th century, two pilgrimages of a Waterford man called James Rice to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostella were recorded in contemporary sources.
Who was James Rice?
James Rice was born into a wealthy Anglo-Irish merchant family in the port town of Waterford in 15th century. The exact date of his birth is known but the name chosen by his parents suggests they had a devotion to St James whose cult from the 12th century onwards enjoyed great popularity across Europe.
We know also that James’s father Peter Rice held the office of Mayor of Waterford on two occasions the first in 1426-27 and the second in 1427. Following in the footsteps of his father, James also became a politician and held the office of Mayor of Waterford a staggering eleven times.
Like the majority of people living in medieval Ireland, James would have performed many pilgrimages throughout his lifetime. He would have visited local and regional pilgrim sites perhaps heading to Ardmore, Co Waterford or to Lady’s Island in Co Wexford. Unfortunately local and regional pilgrimages tend not to be recorded in contemporary sources as they were seen as everyday occurrences.
Long distance pilgrimages were very expensive and would have been beyond the finances of most ordinary of people. Therefore to embark on a long distance pilgrimage was a rare and significant occurrence and when undertaken successful brought prestige to the pilgrim. Being a man of means James Rice was able to go on at least two long distance pilgrimages that we know of to the shrine of St James at Santiago do Compostella in Spain. To give you some idea of the expense of such a journey, Irish pilgrims making the return journey from Spain to Ireland on-board the ill-fated ship the La Mary London in the 15th century paid seven shillings and six pence per head just for the return leg of the journey (1400 miles sea voyage). This was the equivalent of several weeks wages for an average working man.
So why go all the way to Santiago when there were many pilgrim sites closer to home? At a basic level James Rice probably had a great devotion to his namesake St James who was one of the most popular saints in Ireland. Santiago was also a high status pilgrim site, one of the most popular pilgrim destinations in the medieval world, attracting vast numbers of pilgrims from across Europe. It was also associated with miracles and it was a place where indulgences could be obtained.
Pilgrimages to Santiago
In 1473 James made his first pilgrimage to Santiago. At the time he held the position of Mayor of Waterford. His pilgrimage was recorded as he was vacating his office for the duration of the pilgrimage and protocol required that he applied for permission to parliament to appoint a deputy mayor in his absence. His request was granted and he embarked on pilgrimage.
As Waterford was a port town with trade links with France and Spain its likely James travelled by boat to the port of Corunna and then headed on foot to Santiago. Having arrived at his destination he would have found somewhere to stay. Most pilgrims spent the night in a vigil within the cathedral in front of the high altar. The next day pilgrims attended mass and during the ceremony they presented their offerings. Pilgrims would also have made confession and obtained certificates of pilgrimage in the Capilla del Rey de Francia. There are no records detailing James experiences but he must have visited the relics of the saint and perhaps even purchased some souvenirs. From the 12th century scallop shells were sold to pilgrims in the cathedral square and a small number have been found in Irish medieval burials.
Ten years later Rice decided to go on a second pilgrimage to Santiago in the year 1483. 1483 was the Jubilee year at Santiago. In 1181 Pope Alexander III granted jubilee years to the shrine, whenever the feast of St James fell on a Sunday. Pilgrims who came at this time received a plenary indulgence (a remission from all sin) once they made their confession, attended Mass, gave a donation for the upkeep of the shrine, and undertook to perform good works.
Rice was again in public office as the Mayor of Waterford. The Statue Rolls of the Irish Parliament record that prior to his departure on pilgrimage, Rice’s made a formal requested to take up the pilgrim staff. Permission was granted to embark on his second pilgrimage under the proviso that the mayor and the two bailiffs who accompanied him were to appoint replacement deputies acceptable to Waterford city council for the duration of their absence ). The names of his bailiffs were Patrick Mulligan and Philip Bryan.
Prior to departure on this second pilgrimage Rice commissioned a chapel dedicated to St James and St Catherine connected to Christ Church Cathedral in Waterford. The chapel was consecrated in 1482 (Bradley & Halpin 1992, 119). Following the completion of his pilgrimage James returned to Waterford where he lived out the rest of his days. He was eventually laid to rest with the chapel in an elaborate tomb. The chapel was later taken to extend the cathedral yard and moved into the nave of the Cathedral church.
The tomb consist of a chest with images of saints carved on all sides. The apostles are found on the north side; James the minor, Thomas, John, James the Major, Andrew and Peter and on the south side: Matthias Jude, Simeon, Matthew, Bartholomew and Philip.
The west end of the tomb bears the images of St Margaret of Antioch, the Virgin and Child and St Catherine of Alexandria. The east end depicts St Edmund the Confessor, the Holy Trinity and St Patrick. An elaborately carved cadaver lies on top the tomb. It is wrapped in a shroud knotted at the head and feet which has fallen open.
Frogs and toads are emerging from the body which is surrounded by a Latin inscription that translates as
Here lies ‘James Rice,one time citizen of this city,founder of this chapel,and Catherine Broun, his wife.
Whoever you may be, passerby, Stop, weep as you read. I am what you are going to be, and I was what you are.
I beg of you, pray for me ! It is our lot to pass through the jaws of death.
Lord Christ, we beg of thee, we implore thee, be merciful to us!
Thou who has come to redeem the lost condemn not the redeemed.
James Rice is just one of many Irish people who went on pilgrimage to Santiago its likely if he had not been in office at the time of his pilgrimages they would have gone unrecorded.
Connolly, P. (ed.) 2002. Statue Rolls of the Irish Parliament, Richard III-Henry VIII. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
McEneaney, E. 1995. A History of Waterford and its Mayors, from the 12th century to the 20th century. Waterford: Waterford Corporation.