Barrigone Holy Well and the Crimean War: An unlikely Connection

This post  is a shortened version of an article that I wrote,  ‘Barrigone Holy Well and the Crimean War: An unlikely Connection’,   published back in 2016  in the North Munster Antiquarian Journal .

The article details a little known the story of the mother of a young man from West Limerick. who went to fight in the Crimean war and the rituals she carried out  at Barrigone Holy Well, in the townland of Craggs,  to petition God for his protection.

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The 8th Hussars, the ‘King’s Royal Irish’, circa 1855, during the Crimean War. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Crimean war took place between 1854-6  and was fought on the Crimean peninsula. It was fought  between Russia and an alliance of Britain, France and the Ottoman Turkish empire. Irish soldiers made up around 30–35 per cent of the British army in 1854, and it is estimated that over 30,000 Irish soldiers served in the Crimea War. Approximately 7,000 Irish men died  during the war. David Murphy has a very readable and interesting book called Ireland and the Crimean War which details the war and Irish involvement.

In 1855, at the height the Crimean war,  a letter entitled ‘The Way to Save Lives in the Crimea’ was sent to The Catholic Layman Magazine.  The letter was written by one Humphrey O’Leary  who recounts his interaction with the mother of the soldier fighting in Crimea mentioned above. The woman, who was illiterate,  wished Leary to write down her words in a letter to her son. She also wanted to provide instruction for the use of a small number of stones taken from the holy well at Barrigone, that were to be sent with   the letter. Unfortunately the names of the mother or son  are not mentioned and this was most likely deliberately done as Leary is sharing their stories in a very public venue. Its clear from his writing that Leary was a middle class Catholic and had advantages not available to the soldier woman including an education who is of a lower social standing.  Apart from detailing the story of the woman and her son, the letter also provides an insight in life in nineteenth century Ireland, changing attitudes to pilgrimage within the Catholic population and the poor levels of literary.

Leary tells us the woman’s son  was ‘fighting with the Rooshins in Sebastable [Sevastapol]’. He was part of the British forces who, along with their allies, laid siege to the main Russian naval base in the Black Sea at Sebastopol.  Its clear the man’s mother was concerned for his safety and anxious to keep him safe.

Fig.1 View of Barrigone Holy Well

Barrigone Holy Well


Leary agreeded to help the woman and he writes that he wanted to write the letter ‘as well as ever I could; for I thought it would look mighty disgraceful entirely to send a bad letter as far way’. When he had filled the first page he told the woman ‘I am going to put your name to it now’: To which she replied ‘Oh Humphrey, avourneen for the love of all the saints keep a little corner of it empty a while, for I am sending him something, and I want you to explain it to him.’

The woman then asked Leary to fill a second piece of paper containing instructions ‘for I want to send him a thing that will save his life.’ To Leary’s surprise the woman pulled out a small red silk purse ‘that was for all the world as big as a tailors thimble’ filled with some tiny stones. The woman went on to say:

I am sending him the blessed stones of Barrigowen [Barrigone] well inside this purse, and tell him, that if he’ll receive them, and wear them in this purse round his neck with the same faith that his own mother is sending him, please God; that he will come home safe and sound again; for any one that ever wore them blessed stones about his neck could not be harmed.

Leary was not too impressed by the woman’s plan and thought it ‘very quare entirely that a small little bit like that could save one’s life.’ He pressed her on the matter, asking ‘is it in earnest you are, or do you think them stones will save him?’ The woman was staunch in her beliefs as she replied ‘Oh I am sure if they overtake him alive that there will be no fear of him’. To persuade the woman to abandon what he thought was a superstitious act, Leary answered ‘I’ll bet my life, Father Mick won’t let you send the stones, nor go to the well at all at all’ to which the woman replied ‘deed then, Father Mick knows that I gave rounds at the well for him, and I sent him the lining of the well in a letter, and he did not say “ill you did itto me when I told him’. Determined to make the woman see the folly of this task Leary persisted:

I am thinking it might be better for you to pray to God to spare your son to you than to go sending these little stones; and perhaps, you or your son may lose your life by provoking him against you.

Fig. 2 Pilgrims performing the rounds at Barrigone holy well 15th August 2015

Modern pilgrims at Barrigone Holy Well West Limerick

Leary response is typical of a move away from, and change of attitude within, the Catholic Church from favouring devotion at holy wells to it becoming perceived as backward and superstitious. The soldier’s mother was certainly not of this opinion and according to Leary became cross and replied ‘I will send the stones at any rate, for I am sure they will do him good’. Leary, realising his arguments fell on deaf ears, and accepting her sincere conviction they would save her son ‘from Rosshen [Russian] bullets’, continued transcribing the woman’s instructions about the stones. Leary ends his letter to the Catholic Layman by noting that after sending the letter with the stones the woman also had a Mass said for her son. He seems to have more faith in the benefits of the  latter. We don’t know if this poor woman ever saw her son again but I like to think these stone at least provided some comfort for him.

This account provides  a unique insight into folk tradition, beliefs and devotional practice in the mid-nineteenth century Ireland. It also highlights the changing attitudes of the middle classes who following the famine and renewed efforts to implementation of Tridentine values in the church, came to see holy wells and their ritual practices as superstitious. The full article which includes a discussion of the wells history and similar practices of taking stone can be found in the North Munster Antiquarian Journal

Nugent, L. 2016. ‘Barrigone Holy Well and the Crimean War: An unlikely Connection’,   North Munster Antiquarian Journal Vol. 56,

St Flannan’s Holy Well, Errislannan Co Galway

Just before Christmas I  spent some time at St Flannan’s Holy Well at Errislannan in the company of archaeologist Will Anderson.
Errislannan is a small peninsula, on the west coast of Co Galway, in the Connemara region, a few miles from the town of Clifden.  Errislannan or Iorras Fhlannáin in Irish, means “Flannan’s Peninsula”. The area gets its name from the seventh century St Flannan who according to local folklore spent some time in the area before settling in Killaloe. The saint is also the patron of a ruined the medieval church and  holy well.
The church and holy well are located on the shores of Lough Nakilla in the townland of Kill. Today the church  and surrounding graveyard are overgrown with briars and dense vegetation. We managed to get into the interior of the church which appears to be a rectangular structure, without any  internal division. It was impossible to examine the fabric of the building in any detail but a  number of gravestones were visible at the eastern end of the church.

View of the interior of the St Flannan’s church at Errislannan.

 The Archaeological Inventory of County Galway Vol. I – West Galway, describes the church as follows
Small poorly preserved medieval church (E-W; L 10.3m, Wth 4.5m) dedicated to St Flannan of Killaloe. The only surviving features are a plain doorway in N wall and the Morris family tomb in interior. The oldest part of graveyard, oval in plan, surrounds the church. To S of church is a leacht consisting of a drystone wall (L 2.5m, H 0.5m) with a niche, set into the natural slope. A natural boulder, known as St Flannan’s Bed, lies c. 100m E of the graveyard and there is a holy well (GA035-048003-) to E.
According to the  seventheenth century Chorographical description of West or H-Iar Connaught by O’Flaherty, Roderic, 1629-1718,the church has no burials within the walls‘ due to a belief that the body would not stay buried and would be found on the ground the next say.  During the ensuing centuries this belief changed and today there are a number of grave markers in the interior of the church including the Morris family tomb. The heavy growth of vegetation made it impossible to examine these stones. The Morris family were landed gentry who had inherited part of the estate of the Frenchs of Errislannan and they had a house in Ballinaboy.  The surrounding graveyard was also very overgrown and I couldn’t find the leacht.

Terrain on the southern side of St Flannan’s church Errislannan

On the west side of the medieval church and historic graveyard, is a modern walled cemetery filled predominantly with modern marble and granite gravestones.  St Flannan’s holy well is located close to the gate leading into the modern burial ground.

Modern burial ground attached to St Flannan’s Medieval parish church Errislannan

The holy well  was once a place of pilgrimage on the 18th of December and we came here on this day to see if people from the area still visit.  Unfortunately I didn’t see anyone  here but some pilgrims could have visited before or after my visits.  It was a very wet day which could have been a factor in the lack of activity but I was told by some people in Clifden that the tradition of visiting the well on the feast day has all but died out here.


St Flannan’s Holy Well

The well itself is  a rectangular stone lined  feature with steps down into the interior. It is in turn surrounded by a low dry stone wall.


The well has the most charming appearance which is enhanced by its lakeside location. Evidence of  recent visits by pilgrims to the holy well are represented by a broken saddle quern on the external wall of the well, filled with votive offerings of coins (mostly euro currency) and the odd religious medals.


I must come back here again during the summer or on a nice sunny day as the location of the well is stunning and there is a real sence of peace and calm.


View of the Lough Nakilla from the holy well


The Statue Niches of Malta

I recently spent some time  Malta. A unique feature of the Maltese architecture is the   tradition of statute niches found on the exteiror walls and corners of buildings.

Some of the niches are covered  while others are free-standing. The statues that they contain also come in a variety of sizes and generally depict Christ, the Blessed Virgin or the saints, while some show the souls of purgatory.


Valletta the capital city of Malta has a large number of corner niches, many of which were built in the 16th century during the rebuilding of the capital by the Order of the Knights of Saint John.




Statue Niches in Valletta

Niches serve several functions. Firstly, they offer the opportunity for faithful to express their beliefs in public. The locals decorate these niches with flowers and lit candles (Camilleri 2015, 24).


Lady lighting candle at statue of the Blessed Virgin at Triq il-kbira, L-Imdina, Malta.

According to  A Taste of Maltese Folklore

Another function is that of providing a familiar landmark to locals. Whenever someone wishes to meet another person, they would often decide on a particular niche as a meeting place, as this would be well known by  the locals (Camilleri 2015, 24).

Many of the statues are  associated with a plaque that details the

… number of days’ indulgence granted to those who stop for a while to offer a prayer (Camilleri 2015, 24).


Statue niche and plaque in Sliema, Malta

I also noticed a number of niches that contained  paintings or religious images.  Below is an elaborate wall plaque from a street in Valletta.  I forgot to make note of the street name.  Above the plaque is the date 1752.


Image of the Blessed Virgin in niches in Valletta

I came across another at Lvant in Valletta, with a   a plaque and small altar filled with   fresh flowers underneath.


I noticed a similar  one at Sliema with three alters filled with fresh flowers beneath the image of the Blessed Virgin at Sqaq Guaz Fava.



So if you ever make it to Malta make sure you keep your eyes pealed for these wonderful statue niches.


Camilleri. J. C. 2015. A taste of Maltese Folkore tradtions and heritage. BDL Publishing.


Re-discovering St. Willibrord, Patron Saint of Luxembourg and his County Carlow Connection

I’m delighted to introduce  a new guest post by  Dermot Mulligan, Museum Curator, Carlow County Museum on St Willibrord.  The Feast of St. Willibrord, Patron Saint of Luxembourg, will be celebrated with an ecumenical service in the Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow Town at 7.30pm on Tuesday November 7t.  In June of this year a  ‘Relic of St Willibrord’  now on displayed in the Cathedral was presented by the people of Luxembourg to Carlow to say ‘thank you’ for training and ordaining him in the 7th century. Dermot’s post explains Willibrords ‘connections with Carlow,  how and why his relics is now in Carlow. He also tells us about  Carlow Museum’s new yearlong exhibition on St. Willibrord, his time in Carlow, his mission etc.

Re-discovering St. Willibrord, Patron Saint of Luxembourg and his County Carlow Connection by  Dermot Mulligan, Museum Curator, Carlow County Museum

On Monday June 5th,, 2017 in the Basilica of St. Willibrord, Echternach, Luxembourg the Most Reverend Jean-Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg presented a specially commissioned ‘Relic of St. Willibrord’, Patron Saint of Luxembourg, to the Most Reverend Denis Nulty, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin. St. Willibrord is one of the most important Saints in Europe spending twelve years in county Carlow before he led a mission to the continent in AD 6901. The Relic is a gift from the people of the town of Echternach, Luxembourg to honour the near 1,330-year link between both areas and to say, ‘thank you’ to county Carlow for training and ordaining Willibrord in the 7th century.

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St. Willibrord as featured in a stain glass window in the Basilica of Echternach, Luxembourg. Photo Carlow County Museum.

Both Bishop Nulty and the Right Reverend Michael Burrows, Bishop of Cashel, Waterford, Lismore, Ferns, Ossory and Leighlin led a joint ecumenical diocesan pilgrimage of nearly sixty people from Carlow to Echternach not only to accept the relic but to also partake in the UNESCO World Heritage Status annual ‘hopping procession’ in honour of St. Willibrord in Echternach. The Carlow pilgrims are the first known Irish group to partake in this centuries old procession2. The procession is the culmination of three days’ celebrations that begin on Pentecost/ Whitsun Sunday every year in honour of St. Willibrord.





The first known written reference to the hopping procession in Echternach appears in a collection of legal texts dated AD 1497. This reference gives the impression that this particular custom originated much earlier. The exact origins of the hopping procession are unknown. The saga of Veit the Tall, an Echternach fiddler, suggests that the custom originated around the time of St. Willibrord. The hopping custom almost certainly arose in connection with the tithe processions which occurred directly after Pentecost Sunday when people from all the parishes under the abbey’s authority were required to walk to Echternach in a procession. However, there are those who say that it is a vestige of a pagan ritual which has been absorbed into the Christian tradition3.

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Hopping Procession in honour of St. Willibrord, over nine thousand people hop a two kilometer route from the monastery to the Basilica and past St. Willibrord’s tomb. Photo Carlow County Museum.

The Relic is a piece of his bone, and is contained within the rose window of a scale model of the Basilica of St. Willibrord, which a bronze statue of a young missionary St. Willibrord is holding in his right hand. He holds his crozier in his left hand. Willibrord is standing on a piece of sandstone taken from the remains of his original abbey, which is in the crypt of the Basilica. The Echternach based Willibrordus Bauverein (Willibrord Foundation) commissioned German artist Mr. Bernd Cassau to make the beautiful statue.







Through the mists of time his Carlow connection, for the most part, had been forgotten. Pierre Kauthen, former President of the Willibrordus Bauverein, speaking in Carlow, stated “our historians long thought that Willibrord’s monastery was situated at Mellifont or Clonmacnoise. It was your historian, Prof. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín who located it on the site of Killogan/ Clonmelsh, Co Carlow” 4. Professor Ó Cróinín, based in the Department of History, NUI Galway, first wrote about Willibrord in 1982 and has published many papers on Rath Melsigi, Willibrord and his contemporaries since then5 + 6.

Over the course of the following thirty-five years this historical connection between both areas has been re-established. During April 2000, the Willibrordus Bauverein visited Carlow for the first time7. In 2002 His Excellency, Henri, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, paid a state to Ireland, and in 2009, Her Excellency, Mary McAleese, President of Ireland, as part of her state visit to Luxembourg, visited Echternach.

St Willibrord is the Patron Saint of Luxembourg and is buried in the Basilica of Echternach, which is the centre of his monastic foundation. Located near Milford, Co Carlow, is the archaeological site Rath Melsigi8. During the seventh and eighth centuries, this site was the most important Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical settlement in Ireland9. It was here from AD 678 to c. AD 720 that Willibrord and many other Englishmen were trained for the continental mission. In AD 690 Willibrord led a successful mission from Carlow, made up of Irishmen and Englishmen. As part of his abbey in Echternach, he established a very important scriptorium and for a considerable period the abbey produced many of the bibles, psalms and prayer books that are to be found today in the great libraries of Europe. It is likely that the first generation of these scribes were from Co. Carlow or had trained here. Many of the earliest Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were written in Irish script by Irish monks based either in Britain or by Anglo-Saxons who were trained by the Irish.10

From Echternach Willibrord continued to co-ordinate missions to the surrounding countries until AD 739, when he died aged 81. He is buried in Echternach, and he is said to be the only saint buried in Luxembourg. St. Willibrord’s signature is the oldest datable signature of an English person and oldest datable use of Anno Domini (A.D.) dating. Both are contained in a book most likely written in Co. Carlow in advance of his mission. Today the book is known as the ‘Calendar of Willibrord’ and is housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris. The Calendar is a listing of saints’ feast days that were being honoured during Willibrord’s lifetime11.

Willibrord is relatively unknown in Ireland, but much devotion and religious festivals are held to this day in his honour in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. The most famous is the annual hopping procession, a dance that dates back to, if not predates St. Willibrord’s lifetime. The hopping procession takes place annually on the Tuesday after Pentecost Sunday and sees thousands of people descending on Echternach to partake along with dozens of Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops from across Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland and Germany.


On Tuesday, June 6th, after 8am Mass, the assembled clergy lead the Relic of St. Willibrord out from the Basilica of St. Willibrord into the adjoining square of the secondary school where thousands have gathered. The procession is led by a large group singing the ‘Litany of St. Willibrord’ who are then followed by local firemen carrying the Relic along the approximately 1.5km route. They in turn are followed by between 10,000 and 13,000 people hopping from their left to right foot in his honour. Participants wear white shirts/ blouses with black trousers/ skirts and hop in rows of five joined together by holding white handkerchiefs. Each of the thirty-nine hopping groups participating in the 2017 procession were led by a marching band all playing the exact same tune. The procession is a physical pilgrimage, and those who participate are known as the ‘people who pray with their feet’12.

The Carlow hopping pilgrims were wonderfully led by members of the Presentation School Band from Carlow town under the baton of Edwina Hayden, Music Teacher. The Carlow pilgrims, group number 29 of 39, received a warm welcome from the many thousands who lined the streets to watch the procession. The group was joined by several people, also hopping for the first time, who had heard of an open invitation to join with the Carlow pilgrims. The group hopped through the medieval streets of Echternach before entering the Basilica, hopping down the side aisle, down into the crypt located under the altar and past St. Willibrord’s remains.


Arriving on Thursday 22nd June, twenty-nine visitors travelled from Echternach to Carlow and spent four days here. The highlight was the ‘Walk with Willibrord’ which took place on Saturday June 24th. The Relic was walked over 13km from St Laserian’s Cathedral, Old Leighlin to the Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow via the beautiful Barrow Way, a National Waymarked Trail, along the banks of the river Barrow. The walk was make up of nearly two hundred people from Ireland and Luxembourg and led by Bishops Burrows and Nulty. Earlier that same morning the visitors from Echternach had a special visit to Rath Melsigi. As a group, with a number of Carlow chaperones and permission from the landowners, they held a short reflection and all joined hands in a circle around the 7th century cross hopping on the spot while humming the hopping tune.



Members of the Willibrordus Bauverein (Willibrord Foundation) visiting Rath Melsigi in advance of the ‘Walk with Willibrord’ on Saturday June 24th last. They are gathered around the granite cross which dates from the time when St. Willibrord and his colleagues were in the area undertaking their studies. Photo: Carlow County Museum.


The ‘Walk with Willibrord’ began at the Holy Well in Old Leighlin at 10am on the morning of Saturday 24th. The ‘Eucharist of the Saints’ service continued in the nearby St. Laserian’s Cathedral, Carlow’s oldest working building.





At the end of the service, shortly after 11am, the relic with music from three pipers from the Killeshin Pipe Band the two hundred people, led by Bishops Burrows and Nulty, began the walk to Carlow Cathedral.



A view of the ‘Walk with Willibrord’, entering the Barrow Way on the Banks of the River Barrow at Leighlinbridge. Photo: Sean McDonnell.




In Carlow town the Relic was walked in procession from St. Clare’s Church to St. Mary’s Church and then onto the Cathedral of the Assumption. Members of the Carlow Fire Service carried the Relic through the streets of the town, mirroring the tradition in Echternach where their Fire Service carry the Relic at the head of their annual hopping procession. The procession in Carlow was led by the Presentation Band who had led the Carlow pilgrims in Echternach. They played the hopping tune as they approached the Cathedral and the visitors from Echternach hopped to the front door of the Cathedral, the first known occasion that hopping in procession has been undertaken in county Carlow13. The Relic was blessed by Bishop Nulty with Holy Water taken from both Old Leighlin and Echternach holy wells.



Members of the Willibrordus Bauverein and people from Carlow hopped in procession for the last kilometer of the ‘Walk with Willibrord’ to Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow town. Photo: Grzegorz Kaczorek.


Carlow County Museum, who coordinated the project from the Carlow side, has opened a free yearlong exhibition about St. Willibrord, his time in Carlow, his mission, his present-day impact and the UNESCO World Heritage Status ‘hopping procession’. A copy of Willibrord’s own hand writing, the oldest datable signature of an English person, is on display along with samples of the beautiful manuscripts that were produced in Echternach. It is clear that several of them are influenced by the Irish manuscripts that these islands are famous for. The method of making a manuscript is shown in detail, from producing the inks and the vellum to how the letters and designs were laid out.



View of the ‘St. Willibrord, Patron Saint of Luxembourg and his County Carlow Connection’ exhibition in Carlow County Museum. Photo: Carlow County Museum.


The project has been shortlisted in the Chambers Ireland ‘Excellence in Local Government Awards 2017’.



  1. ‘Calendar of Willibrord’, MS. Lat. 10837, fol. 39v, Bibliothèque National de France, Paris. Translation from Latin to English provided by Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Department of History, NUI Galway.
  2. According to the Willibrordus Bauverein, who organise the procession, they have no records of any Irish groups participating. The first known Irish participaticants in the hopping procession was in 2010 and the second known was in 2015. Although, a few Irish people have participated in the past but their participation would not have been officially recorded.
  3. Emile Seiler, ‘The Echternach Hopping Procession’, Carloviana, 2000 edition, p. 55
  4. Speech by Pierre Kauthen, former President of the Willibrordus Bauverein (Willibrord Foundation) on Friday June 23rd, 2017 at 8.30pm at the Carlow County Council reception in the Seven Oaks Hotel, Carlow for the Willibrordus Bauverein.
  5. Prof. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Department of History, NUI Galway, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Peritia Vol.1 (1982) pp. 352-62.
  6. Prof. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Department of History, NUI Galway, ‘Rath Melsigi, Willibrord and the Earliest Echternach Manuscripts’, Peritia, Vol. 3 (1984) pp. 17-49.See also footnote 30 which in abbreviation states “Mr Kenneth Nicholls of University College, Cork, has proposed that the site which occurs in some early charters as Cluain Melsige (now Clonmelsh, Co. Carlow) is identical with the Rath Melsigi of Bede’s account. The identification of Cluain Melsige with Rath Melsigi had been made independently by the late Éamon de hÓir, Irish place names Commission … Fr Columcille Conway had suggested the same identification (see Aubrey Gwynn and R.N Hadcock, Medieval religious houses: Ireland (London 1970) 402”.
  7. Emile Seiler, ‘St. Willibrord’, Carloviana, 2000 edition, p. 55
  8. Record of Monuments and Places, CW012-025 Garryhundon.
  9. Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Department of History, NUI Galway.
  10. Prof. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Department of History, NUI Galway, ‘Rath Melsigi, Willibrord and the Earliest Echternach Manuscripts, Peritia, Vol. 3 (1984) pp. 17-49.
  11. Calendar of Willibrord’, MS. Lat. 10837, fol. 39v, Bibliothèque National de France, Paris.
  12. Emile Seiler, ‘The Echternach Hopping Procession’, Carloviana, 2000 edition, p. 55
  13. There are three known occasions when hopping has taken place in county Carlow. In April 2000 and June 2017, the Willibrordus Bauverein, along with their Irish chaperones, hopped in a circle around the 7th century cross at Rath Melsigi. The conclusion of the ‘Walk with Willibrord’ in Carlow town, June 24th, 2017, is the first known hopping procession in county Carlow in the manner that takes places in Echternach, ie, people in rows of five, holding handkerchiefs and with a marching band playing the hopping tune.



Participants needed for Ireland’s Holy Wells County-by-County Project

Ireland’s Holy Wells County-by-County  is a very exciting project set up and run by Dr. Celeste Ray  Professor of Anthropology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.  Celeste has been carrying out research on Irish holy wells since 2000 and has spent a lot of time researching Ireland wells.  The project came about thanks to National Geographic Funding  and Celeste is currently in Ireland carrying out  fieldwork and research and promoting the National Database to be given to the National Folklore Collection.


Holy well at Ahadagh Co Cork photo by Amanda Clarke


What is Ireland’s Holy Wells County-by-County  Project?

Ireland’s Holy Wells County-by-County  is a community-sourced survey of Ireland’s holy wells and their associated traditions. This citizen-research initiative encourages young people to interview their older neighbors and relatives and add their knowledge of well lore to a national database that will be given to the National Folklore Collection.
This freely-accessible and searchable resource will be an invaluable document of holy well sites, beliefs, and stories for generations to come.


Brochure of Ireland’s Holy Wells County-by-County

Holy Wells County-by-County Project Flyer 2017

What can you do to participate in the project?

As this is a is a community-sourced project so volunteers are need to populate the site with information about holy wells from their locality or region in Ireland.

So how can you help?

Do you know of a holy well which should be included in this project?  Then go to the project website at



The website allows you to easily  uploads information on holy well(s) such as location,  accounts of traditional prayers or rounds, folklore about the well, along with photographs and video.  I uploaded  information on a holy well and its very straight forward process.  If you find the holy well you want to up load is already populated but you have additional information, stories or  photos  you can contact the project directly and they can up date the entry.

To learn more about the County-by-County survey, contact Dr. Celeste Ray at  or 087 091 7817 (Irish number valid through November 5th) or have a read Holy Wells County-by-County Project Flyer 2017

Celeste Ray is also  author of a wonderful book on the origins and history of holy wells called The Origins of Ireland’s Holy Wells. 

hW book


The Sam Maguire Cup and the Ardagh Chalice

Today is the All Ireland Senior Football championship where Mayo will play against Dublin for the title of All Ireland Champions and trophy know as the Sam Maguire.  You might be thinking what connection has this event to do with archaeology but  the trophy presented to the winners of todays match was  inspired by one of Ireland’s most  treasured artefacts the Ardagh Chalice.


Original Sam Maguire (1928_Sam_Maguire_cup,_GAA_museum.jpg ‎(369 × 316 pixels, file size: 93 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg)

Most Irish people know a little or have at least heard of the Ardagh Chalice. For those of you who havent it is a stunning two-handled chalice discovered in the nineteenth century near the village of Ardagh Co Limerick. The chalice is  what is known as a calyx ministerialis and was used to  dispense Eucharistic wine to the congregation during the mass.

The chalice is small, only 17.8 cm in height and  19.5cm in diameter, excluding the handles.  It has a complex design made up of 50 different parts.



The National Museum website has a detailed description of how the chalice was made.

The bowl and foot are made of beaten, lathe-polished silver, the stem is cast gilt-copper alloy. It is decorated with gold filigree, granulation, multi-coloured enamels, a large rock-crystal, amber, malachite, knitted cast, stamped and openwork metal objects.

A girdle of ten filigree panels of animal ornament and interlace encircles the bowl between the elaborate handles. Below it, incised on a dotted background are the names of the apostles in an elegant script familiar from contemporary manuscripts. Animals and a design of human heads, lightly engraved, spring from the lower border of the inscription below the handles and medallions. The medallions, one on each side, in the centre of the bowl, are cast bronze frames in the form of a cross of arcs within a circle, embellished with gold filigree scrolls, simple coiled serpents in beaded wire on gold foil and enamels. The stem is elaborately decorated with La Tène designs, animal ornament, fret patterns and a honeycomb-like interlace in cast gilt-copper alloy. The foot of the chalice is large and is decorated on both the under and the upper surfaces. A great roundel of cast ornament, filigree beasts and a rock crystal with a surround of amber glued with a malachite paste, decorate the interior of the foot and conceal the end of the large pin which holds bowl, stem and foot together.

Where did the Ardagh Chalice come from and how was it found?

The story of how the chalice was discovered is as fascinating as how it was made. The Ardagh Chalice was found as part of a hoard of artefacts that included  a bronze chalice and four gilt-silver brooches ranging in date from the eight to the tenth century A.D.


Ardagh Chalice and bronze chalice and four gilt-silver brooches ranging in date from the eight to the tenth century A.D  image taken

The hoard, was discovered in 1868 in a ringfort ( an enclosed early medieval settlement) at Reerasta Rath near the village of  Ardagh, Co. Limerick. Its thought by some that the hoard was  concealed here during the tenth century A.D.



Looking north from the interior of Reerasta Ringfort, with the ‘Black Hill’ Hillfort in the background. The hoard is thought to have been discovered in the western part of the fort taken Know Thy Place website..


The story of the hoard’s discovery is very dramatic  one, according  to the Limerick Diocesan website

It was discovered in September 1868 by two men digging potatoes in a ring fort at Reerasta, Ardagh. They were Jimmy Quin and Paddy Flanagan….. The Sisters of Mercy owned the land and Mrs. Quin rented about 15 – 20 acres from the nuns. Jimmy was her son and Mr Flanagan was a workman employed at the time by the Quin family. It has been suggested that it was he who actually found the chalice but that Quin took all the glory. He felt aggrieved by the situation and felt obliged to leave the employment of the Quin’s. On his death he was buried in the Paupers’ graveyard in Newcastlewest.

The other man, Quin, later emigrated to Australia where he died. Mrs Quin sold the items to the Bishop of Limerick, Dr. Butler, at the time for £50.00. Dr. Butler in turn sold the chalice to the Royal Irish Academy for £500….. The chalice itself was one of a number of objects found at the time. There was also a smaller bronze chalice as well as four ornate brooches, which collectively became known as the ‘Ardagh Hoard’.

There is a note in “Treasures of Thomond” by Bishop Jeremiah Newman, regarding the Ardagh chalice. Bishop Newman found an interesting entry in the Earl of Dunraven’s papers on the chalice. Mrs. Quin had about twenty years previously to the 1868 discovery found a gold chalice fifty yards west of the fort. This chalice was lost when “…One day her children took it out of the house to play with and … she never saw it again.”

One of the items found was a wooden cross, which came into the possession of a Curate, Fr O’Connor. He kept the cross, which he thought to be relatively valueless. Later he passed it on to a young man with whom he was very close. This man died at a young age and his mother kept the cross. Begley later came across this artefact in the mother’s house. She explained the story to him. According to Begley:

“The image of our saviour is carved on one side, and has an antique appearance. On the other side the emblems of the Passion are cut by a later and ruder artist, beneath which are the figures 727, evidently intended for 1727, the date of the year”

Begley believes that this date helps to pinpoint the year of concealment of the chalice. He believes that this year could have been around 1740 as at that time the penal laws were being rigorously enforced. Another factor which would tend to point to the validity of this theory is the fact that according to local tradition mass used to be said in the Rath near the site of discovery during penal times……



The description of the wooden cross sounds very much like a penal cross a type of wooden cross manufactured  and sold to pilgrims visiting Lough Derg in the eighteenth century. Im working on a post about these crosses so  wont go into too much detail here.The Limerick Diocesan website also states

According to tradition, mass used to be said in the Rath where the discovery was made, in the penal times. The chalice may have been used on these occasions to distribute communion to the multitude that assembled there. Perhaps when the alarm was raised to signify the approach of soldiers, and in the hurry of the moment, the chalice was hidden to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. This would be supported by the condition in which the items were found, with neither case nor covering to protect them, suggesting that they were buried in a hurry. The person who placed them in the earth (Begley hinted that it might have been a Fr Bermingham, as he had to leave the area in a rush due to an alleged assault) may never have had an opportunity of returning to the place to retrieve them.


Reerasta Rath near the village of  Ardagh, Co. Limerick image taken Silvervoice Blog

Today the chalice is on display in the National Museum of Ireland Kildare Street but signage which bears its image and a memorial in stone in the village, show how it is still connected to the local memory in Ardagh.

The Sam Maguire Cup

As noted at the start of this post, the Sam Maguire cup, the much coveted prize for the winners of the G.A.A. All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, is  modelled on the Ardagh Chalice.

The cup was commissioned in the 1920s to commemorate Sam Maguire  a Cork man who captained the hugely successful London Hibernian team to many All-Ireland finals in the early 1900’s. According to wikipedia the  commission to make the cup was given to

….. Hopkins and Hopkins, a jewellers and watchmakers of O’Connell Bridge, Dublin. The silver cup was crafted, on behalf of Hopkins and Hopkins, by the silversmith Matthew J. Staunton of D’Olier Street, Dublin……..

Kildare was the first county to win the “Sam Maguire Cup” in 1928 after defeating Cavan 2-6 to 2-5. The original trophy was retired in 1988 as it had received some damage over the years. The GAA commissioned a replica from Kilkenny-based silversmith Desmond A. Byrne and the replica is the trophy that has been used ever since.

Fionn Fitzgerald and Kieran O'Leary lift the Sam Maguire.

Kerry players Fionn Fitzgerald and Kieran O’Leary lift the Sam Maguire.Image: ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan taken

The best of luck to both teams today and the next time  you are in Dublin pop into the National Museum and pay a visit to the Ardagh Chalice.



Holy Wells of Cork. Tobar Mhuire, Lady’s Well, Titeskin

I so delighted that Amanda Clarke of  Holy Wells of Cork, has agreed to write a guest post. Amanda has been doing wonderful work recording the holy wells of Cork.  I will let Amanda tell you about her project and all about the wonderful Tobar Mhuire in Titeskin.

Tobar Mhuire, Lady’s Well, Titeskin by Amanda Clarke

Background to Holy Wells of Cork

A year and a half ago, on St Bridget’s Day, I started a new project with an intention to visit and record all the holy wells in County Cork. Alarmed by how many wells seemed to be disappearing, both physically and from folk memory, this seemed to be a necessary and interesting, if possibly foolhardy, venture! So far I have visited just over 200 wells (there are 356 recorded in the National Monuments’ Archaeological Inventory) and have discovered an astonishing variety. Some have vanished, some are flourishing and most are somewhere in between. Sometimes, though, you find a holy well that remains with you, one that seems to have just about everything: a long history, is fairly well documented, still contains all its sacred signifiers, has cures and miracles associated with it and is still thriving and revered in the 21st century.

Lady’s Well, Tobar Mhuire, Titeskin

Tobar Mhuire, or Lady’s Well, is to be found in the townland of Titeskin in East Cork, not far from Cloyne. The well is approached down a trackway and stands alone in a green field, instantly evocative and attractive. The first thing you notice (after the huge and insensitively placed pylon) is the tall and impressive ash tree and the little whitewashed wall curling around it – the well was once known as Whitewell.



Tobar Mhuire, or Lady’s Well, is to be found in the townland of Titeskin in East Cork, not far from Cloyne.


Coming closer you can see that see that the wall is literally embraced by the tree, its roots sweeping out like tentacles over the masonry. The tree is considered to be several hundred years old but the wall must be even older, standing when the tree was but a sapling.


The well, elm tree & whitewashed wall at Tobar Mhuire

The wall is stone built and gleamingly whitewashed, neatly circular and undulating, a small opening with rough steps leading down into its centre. Overlooking the whole thing is a whitewashed niche containing a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM), a cross on the top.


Steps lead down to the well  at Tobar Mhuire

Inside a rather unsympathetic metal lid protects the well, but lift it up and the water is abundant and cold, a bit plant-strewn but still clear. Like other holy wells, the water is considered special: it is said to remain warm in winter and cold in summer and to never run dry. Cups are available should you wish to sample the water.




A wonderful source for investigating holy wells is the Schools’ Folklore Collection. In 1937 all National Schools in the country were asked to take part in a folklore survey. 5,000 schools took part and 50,000 children were asked to interview older members of the community for their memories and to record their answers. One of the questions specifically referred to holy wells. The whole thing is now online and can be found at: . There are several entries referring to Lady’s Well and this one shows how little the physical features of the well have changed over the years and gives some information about the special properties of the water:

There is a holy well situated on our lands at Kilteskan in the parish. It is enclosed by a circular wall in fairly good repair. A very large ash tree is growing on the western side. The tree appears to be very old. There is an outlet from the well on the northern side to carry away the surplus or overflow of water which is fairly large and which never seems to vary in quantity in any weather. Even in the very driest of weather the quantity from the well seems the same as in the wettest winter. A curious fact about the water is that it seems warm in winter and very cold in summer (School’s Folklore Collection 223-227:0395).

Water from a holy well should only be used for healing purpose and not for domestic usage. One woman took some water home for her kettle and was astounded to find a trout in it and the water resolutely refusing to boil:

… There is a trout in the well and I was told my grandmother brought a jug of water from the well to make tea. But though she did her utmost to boil the water she could not do so. She then took the water back to the well, and in pouring out the water she saw the trout coming out of the kettle. She again filled the kettle and had no trouble boiling it. It is said that anyone who sees this trout is instantly cured of any disease.

The trout is an interesting reference. Many holy wells are said to contain blessed fish, usually eels, trout or salmon. Seeing one was considered extremely fortunate and a sign that your prayers would be answered.

Like many other wells, the water at this Lady’s Well contained a cure, particularly effective it seems for blindness and lameness. The same young writer from the 1930s describes some of the cures attributed to this well:

 A man came to visit the well. He was crippled and had two crutches. When he had the rounds finished he went to a pool formed by the overflow of the well. and washed his legs in it. He was instantly cured. It is said he left his crutches under the tree. Another cure is that of a little boy of seven years old who was unable to walk. He was brought in a perambulator to the well by his parent who washed him in the water outside the well. He was instantly cured, His father in thanksgiving put a statue of the blessed Virgin in the tree over the well. This boy’s father also in thanksgiving promised to visit the well every pattern day for as long as he lived. He has not come now for three years. Another lady was cured of deafness. She also in thanksgiving had erected a beautiful statue of Our Lady. This statue is about three feet high and last year was covered with a concrete shelter at the order of the cured lady.

The overflow pool is still there and this is where limbs and other afflicted parts would have been washed, the water from the holy well itself being used for drinking.



Overflow well, for bathing limbs


The statue and concrete shelter once given in thanks, remain too, now dateable to the early 1930s thanks to the entry in the Folklore Collection. The statue is rather beautiful;  Our Lady has a wistful expression, her hands in prayer, now adorned with rosaries.

Another statue, also enclosed in a niche, hangs in the tree; could this be the one given by the grateful father? Other offerings of rosaries and cards are still evident and it is clear that the well is active and much revered.

The well, like many others is dedicated to Our Lady or the Blessed Virgin Mary (so far 31 out of 200 wells I have visited have been dedicated to the BVM). It is even said that she appeared here. The annual pattern day or pilgrimage to this well is the 15th August, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, and a Mass is still conducted here on that date. Traditionally devout pilgrims were expected to visit eight days before and eight days after this date. Rounds were paid whereby a prescribed route was followed going clockwise around the well, prayers being said at certain stations or stopping points.

LW 10

Pilgrims, early twentieth century, from Cork Past & Present website

This photograph shows pilgrims paying the rounds sometime in the early twentieth century. The statue in the tree is there but the larger statue and its niche built into the wall have yet to arrive. The tree is still just outside the wall but getting closer.

One stopping place or station still  remains: a remarkable carved stone.


On one side there is a depiction of Christ crucified, arms aloft and the letters INRI still discernible above his head. On the other side is a head in profile, usually interpreted as the BVM with a halo. Look carefully and you can still see a faint inscription which reads: Seven Pater Nosters and Seven Ave Marias. The Honour 1731. Both sides of the stone bear inscribed crosses, marked by hundreds of pilgrims over the years – another feature of paying the rounds.

After the rounds were completed it was common to leave offerings, followed by drinking water from the well. For those people too sick to travel to the well, a bottle could be taken home. Sometimes rags were also left in trees. These are usually known as known as rag trees. In Scotland rag tress are known as clootie trees. They could either be left as an offering or the rag could be applied to a diseased area, then hung on the tree – as the rag deteriorated so did the disease of the sufferer. The rag tree is still flourishing today.



Rags Tree at  Tobair Muire

Its seems it was once a well of importance and some controversy, judging by another entry in the Schools’ Collection:

As regards Tobair Muire, so famous was the Well even as recent as the seventies that a special Correspondent was sent by the “Irish Times” or “Cork Constitution” to investigate and report on the Pattern there. It need scarcely be said, have regard to the intensity bitter religious and political prejudices of the “Ascendancy Party” of those distant days that the writer was anything but sympathetic respectful or even truthful. He was replied to by the then Parish Priest Canon Smiddy the eminent Irish Scholar and Archaeologist. The reply was published in pamphlet form and had an immense sale. The Well had a great vogue up to about the middle of the last century; pilgrims coming not alone from remote parts of the County but from various part of the country at large … Many remarkable cures are said to have occurred in the last century, but the cult has fallen away and badly needs reviving. (0393:004/005)

I wish I could find a copy of the phamphlet but Canon Smiddy would be reassured to see that the well continues to assert a quiet presence and  relevance into the 21st century. A very special place.

Many thanks to Louise for inviting me to contribute a guest blog on her wonderful and informative site.

For more information about my project please visit:

If anyone has any information about holy wells in Cork I would be delighted to hear from you.