Holy Cows. The Miraculous Animals of the Irish Saints: Part Five St Ita and the Beetle

St Ita and her donkey featured in my last post on The Miraculous Animals of the Irish Saints. There is another great story about St Ita  and a beetle which I really want to share with you.  As well as running a monastery for nuns Ita was also the foster mother to many Irish saints including St Brendan and St Mochaomhóg,  who was her nephew.  They along with other saints  came to study at the school attached to  Kileedy (Gwynn & Hadcock 1988, 392; Ó’Riain 2011, 377).

Ita followed a very strict and devote lifestyle  and the ninth century Martyrology of Oengus tells that Ita engaged in sever fasting and ‘she succoured great grievous disease’.

 

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Stain glass window by Harry Clarke of St Ita of Kileedy Honan Chapel UCC

The Martyrology also depicts  Ita as a very kind and caring person.  It was said she once let a stag beetle as ‘big as a lap-dog’ suckle at her side. The beetle caused much damage eating ‘the whole of one of her sides’ which the saint endured without letting anyone know (Stokes 1984, 44–45).

One day the nuns at Kileedy saw the beetle . You can only imagine the scene  of horror when the nuns were confronted with  this mutant beetle strolling the monastery and its not surprising they killed the creature.

Ita  soon missed the beetle and having searched in vain for it asked her nuns ‘Where has my fosterling gone?’ (Stokes 1984, 44–45). The nuns told Ita what they had done  but upon hearing the news of the beetle’s death the saint  became very sad.  According to the Martyrology of Oengus she then asked God to send her the Christ child to foster and he was sent to her as an infant and she composed a poem which begins ‘Jesus, who is nursed by me in my little hermitage’ (ibid).

References

Killanin , L. & Duignan, M. 1967. The Shell Guide to Ireland.  London: Ebury Press.

O’Riain, P. 2011. The dictionary of Early Irish Saints. Dublin : Four Courts Press.

Stokes, W. 1905. The Martrology of Oengus the Culdee. London: Printed for the Henry Bradshaw Society.

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Finalist in Littlewoods Ireland Blog Awards 2016

I’m delighted to have reached the finals of the Littlewood Ireland Blog Awards 2016 in both the  Education and Arts and Culture categories.  There are lots of amazing blogs in each category so its  fantastic to have gotten this far.

Blog finals

 

A big thank you to all who voted for my blog and for all your support and kindness.  Thanks also to Littlewoods Ireland for sponsoring this years blog awards.

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A Day Trip to the Parish of Kilmovee Co Mayo

Last summer I spent a day exploring some of the archaeology sites in the parish of Kilmovee Co Mayo. Kilmovee is located a short distance from the town of Ballaghadreen in  Co Roscommon.  Local man, Tommy Horan  was kind enough to act as my guide for the day.

The parish gets its name from St Mobhí. Kilmovee or Cill Mobhí in Irish, means the church of St Mobhí. It is said he  came to the area as a missionary, continuing on the work of St Patrick.

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Bullaun stone known as Na Trí Umar Bheannaith in townland of Rushes

The day began in the townland of Rusheens West with a visit to one of the largest bullaun stones I have ever seen. The stone is known as Na Trí Umar Bheannaithe/The Three Holy Water Fonts.  The  bullaun stone is a large boulder with three large depressions.  It sits on a plinth against a wall at the side of a small byroad. Folklore tells that the stone was transported from Killericín and placed in its current position.

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Bullaun stone known as Na Trí Umar Bheannaith in townland of Rusheens West

From the bullaun stone we travelled on to the site of a holy well called Tober na Bachaille/The Well of the Crozier. The holy well is located in marshy field. As the site is  on  a working farm so permission should be sought before gaining access.

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Field where Tober na Bachaille/ The Well of the Crozier is located.

Folklore tells that when St Mobhí came to the area as a missionary he needed somewhere to baptise new converts.  Not having a suitable water source the saint struck the ground three times with his crozier and three wells sprung up on the spot.

It is thought there was originally three wells  here but today only one well is visible.  The well is very overgrown  and a small blackthorn tree  grows beside it. The well is a spring  enclosed by a low stone wall.  The location of single well is marked on the 1st ed. (1839) OS 6-inch maps which could suggest that the three springs are within the well enclosure. Unfortunately the Ordnance Survey Letters  relating to Mayo fail to mention the well.  The Folklore Commission National Schools Essays provides an origin tale for what it calls the three Blessed Wells in the parish.

St Movee’s sister was a nun and she lived in Sligo. One day she came to Kilmovee to see her brother and the church. She was passing down through Barralackey and there was a boy minding cows. He told her he would help her and he told her that the Ardeull people thought she was a witch and that they were to follow her. He said he would go with her to the church only he had a long way to bring water to his cows. She was very thankful to him and said he would never again be short of water and she — [can’t read the word] on a rock and water filled in it and is there still. In three long steps she reached the church and every step she gave a well sprang up three well in succession and these are called the ‘Blessed Wells’ (NFSC  Cloonierin 114:52).

 

Tober na Bachaille is no longer visited by pilgrims and as a result it has become overgrown.  Local knowledge may shed more light on the well(s) and traditions relating to pilgrimage.

View Tobar na Bachaille.

View of Tobar na Bachaille

To the north of the well is a large stone built penitential cairn or leacht. Sitting on top of the cairn is a stout Ogham Stone.

View of penitental cairn with ogham stone beside Tobar na Bachaile

View of penitential cairn with ogham stone beside Tobar na Bachaile

Macalister noted that the ogham stone, once acted as a ‘kneeling stone’ and sat on the low wall surrounding the holy well. The stone had moved to its current position by the 1940’s (Macalister 1945, 7-9).  An ogham inscription is found along one of the edges of the stone. Macalister identified this inscription as AlATTOS MAQI BR…. He also suggests that the top of the stone was deliberately cut away by a mason during the building of the wall around the well (ibid).

Ogham stone beside Tobar na Bachaile

Ogham stone beside Tobar na Bachaile

From the holy well we  traveled on to  the ruins of a medieval parish church called An Teampall Nua also known as St Patrick’s church.  Local folklore recalls that  when the church was first built it was called the ‘New Temple’.

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All that remains of the church are the chancel and parts of the nave walls. The walls of the church have been rebuilt and incorporated architectural fragments of windows and doors.  A chancel arch still survives in relatively good condition and appears to have been remodelled in the past. The original arch was rounded and built of cut sandstone, it was later altered and filled with masonry and replaced with a smaller  to a pointed arch defined by vousoirs. The exterior of the church is surrounded by rubble masonry that likely came from the church. In 1838 the Ordnance Survey Letters for Mayo described the church as on

on the East gable of which there is a window about 6 feet and 6 inches broad. Part of side walls remain, West gable is perfect (Herity 2009, 288).

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The church is surrounded by a historic graveyard and mass is said here once a year.

Our day concluded with a visit to a large ringfort called  An Caiseal located in the townland of Kilcashel/Coill an Chaisil, which means ‘the wood of the stone fort’.

The ringfort is very well-preserved and is on private land so permission must be obtained before entering.  The fort   measures 30m in diameter and is constructed of a single circular wall which is 5m thick and 3m high.

View of exterior of Caiseal ringfort

View of exterior of Caiseal ringfort

The fort is entered through a formal linteled entrance.

Linteled entrance

Linteled entrance

The interior contains the ruins of two house sites and a souterrain.

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The top of the walls are accessed from the interior via four sets of V shaped stone steps.

Stone steps in interior walls of ringfort

Another interesting feature of the fort is  a creep-way that links two internal wall-chamber within the walls.

The wall  chambers appear to be aligned to the morning sun.

For three mornings, light goes into the back of the chambers which are two meters deep and joined at the back by a six meter passage way. Each morning the new sun has moved on half a meter on the back of the wall. There is about 20meters of the back wall (of the Caiseal) that is traversed by the sun. This means that the sun shines only for about  40 days  on the back wall twice a year. This is between Winter solstice and both equinoxes…  The first  chamber was lit on the 5th of October, the Second was lit on or about the 21st of October, but due to the curvature of the wall it is still in the chamber on the 24th …

Two months later the sun will again be shining in the this chamber on the 20/21 February as the days lengthen (Mac Gabhann no date 10-11).

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Image of the chamber being illuminated by light (Mac Gabhann no date 10-11)

For a more detailed discussion of the archaeology of this site see the Kilcashel project website. My day in Kilmovee was a brilliant experience and  it reminded me of the  wealth of local archaeological and historical sites that are to be found within and around all Irish villages. So really you don’t need to travel very far to find wonderful historic and archaeological sites to visit.

As many of the sites we visited were on private land, permission was always obtained before going to the sites.  If anyone is interested in visiting the area please contact the Kilmovee Community & Heritage Centre, the people who work here are so helpful and will be able to help you find out if  access is possible. Contact details and opening hours can be found on the Kilmovee website  and Facebook page (see links below). The community centre also houses a wonderful Heritage Centre called ‘Cois Tine’ (beside the fire). The  centre is design is based  on a traditional Irish cottage  and holds lots of information, photographs about the parish history, archaeological sites and folklore connected to the area. I recommend a visit to the Heritage Centre  before any exploring as it is a great way to begin a trip around the parish.

If you are in the area I would also highly recommend a visit to Urlaur Abbey located just a few miles from Kilmovee. Located on the edge of Urlaur lake the Friary built circa 1432 is one of Ireland’s best kept secrets.  Its setting alone is worth a visit.

References and useful links

Herity, M. 2009 (ed) Ordnance Survey Letters of Mayo. Dublin: Fourmasters Press.

Macalister, R. A. S. 1945. Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum,Vol I. Dublin: Stationery Office.

Mac Gabhann, S. no date. Cill Mobhí. A handbook on local history and Folklore.

NFSC  Cloonierin 114:52 after http://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4427915/4357560

http://www.kilcashel.com/archaeology.html

http://www.mayo-ireland.ie/en/about-mayo/archaeology/archaeology-overview.html

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Holy Cows. The Miraculous Animals of the Irish Saints: Part Four St Ita and her donkey

Continuing on with my series of posts on The Miraculous Animals of the Irish Saints ( St Ciaran and his cow, St Manchan and his cow and St Patrick and his cow) I thought it was about time to write a post about a female saint.

St Ita of Kileedy is on of my favourite Irish saints.  St Ita ( Íte/Íde ) was  born in Co Waterford in the sixth century she was also the founder of the a great church and school at Killeedy in West Limerick.

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Statue of St Ita at Kileedy

The place-name Killeedy or Cell Íde in Irish, translates as the church of Ita (www.logainm.ie/en/1564?s=Killeedy).

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The site of St Ita’s monastery at Kileedy

Like her male counterparts the saint is associated with an extraordinary animal. Ita was the proud owner of  a very special donkey.

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Donkeys at Clare Island Co Mayo

In folk tradition Ita’s church was associated with a ringfort located four miles south-west of Kileedy, on the northern slope of a hill called Seeconglass near Mount Collins. The ringfort was referred to as Boolaveeda or ‘Ita’s dairy; (Killanin & Duignan 1967, 389).  It was said that all the milk that was used in the convent was brought everyday from the dairy to the nuns at Kileedy by the little donkey.

One day, as the poor beast was passing through the town of Tournafulla with his accustomed burden, a cruel hearted native attacked him with dogs. The donkey, flying from his pursuers, jumped across the river that flows by the townland, leaving the impress of his hoofs on a ledge of rock which is still pointed out. When St. Ita saw the donkey on his arrival, all torn and bleeding, in her anger she cursed the place where the outrage was committed (Begley 1906, 55).

There are a number of variations on this tale, in one account the saint was visiting Tournafulla and left her donkey unattended when some local boys frightened  the donkey causing it to run away.  Ita became very angry and when she retrieved her donkey she cursed the boys and their locality.  Tournafulla/Toornafulla   or Tuar na Fola in Irish  , tuar  means paddock, (cultivated) field, pasture Fola means blood (http://www.logainm.ie/en/1414152?s=Toornafulla)

According to Begley this tale may have very old origins as the taxation rolls of 1306, record the presence of  a chapel called De Monte Maledictionis, or the ” Chapel of the Mountain of the Curse,” mentioned as belonging to the church of Killeedy.  Begley recalled that in the townland of Tournafulla, the site of an old church was still pointed out in 1905, evidently the place where the above chapel was built, as there is no other locality in that part of the country having such a tradition (Begley 1906, 55).

In another story the donkey’s  caused a miraculous alteration to a plant. In the story Ita was out riding her donkey when it’s leg became lame. The saint then removed a thorn from the donkey’s hoof. The thorn grew into a tree whose thorns turned downwards and were therefore innocuous (Ó hÓgáin 1991, 259).

One day she was riding  on her donkey and he  was lame. When she looked at his  she found a thorn. She pulled it out and stuck it in the ground, and a bush grew up and all its thorns grew down (NFCS Dromcollagher, 497:051).

 

References

Begley, The Diocese of Limerick, Ancient and Mediaeval, 55.

Killanin ,L. & Duignan, M. 1967. The Shell Guide to Ireland.  London: Ebury Press.

Ni Riain, I. 1982. Saint Ita of Killeedy. Dublin: Irish Messenger Publications.

NFCS Dromcollagher, 497:051. online at :http://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4921994/4916337/4947288

Ó hÓgáin, D. 1991. Myth, legend & romance an encyclopaedia of the Irish folk tradition

New York: Prentice Hall Press.

Ó hÓgáin, D. 2006. The lore of Ireland :an encyclopaedia of myth, legend and romance /

Doughcloyne, Cork : Collins Press.

http://www.limerickdioceseheritage.org/Tournafulla/pplTournafulla.htm

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A Smiling Face at Kilmacduagh Co Galway

I recently was reminded about a really interesting carving I noticed on my last visit to Kilmacduagh, Co Galway.

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View of the monastic ruins of Kilmacduagh

Kilmacduagh is an early medieval monastic site founded by St Colman son of Duagh in the seventh century. The site is located a short distance from the town of Gort Co Galway. Today the surviving ruins of the monastic settlement consist of a round tower, a cathedral, two smaller churches and a small Augustinian abbey. I am planning to do a much more detailed post on the site in the coming months.

The cathedral is the largest of the  surviving buildings and also possibly the oldest structure at the site.  It was probably  originally built in the tenth or eleventh century it was extended in the twelfth century and remodelled  again in the fifteenth century.

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The church has many interesting features that are worth discussing in more detail  but for the purpose of this post I will  only highlight a very unusual carving.

The carving can be seen just inside the doorway of  the north transept, on the  right-hand side as you walk into the transept from the nave.

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View of the doorway of the north transept

The carving consists of  a large  face cut into a sandstone block of stone. It is an  oval shaped face, of a bald male, with two large ears, almond shaped eyes and a broad smiling mouth. All of his features combine to  giving the figure a rather happy expression and when  I first noticed the face I could not help but smile back.

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Smiling face carved into the entrance of the north transept at Kilmacduagh

The carving is  most unusual and I have not seen anything comparable in all my travels.  Are any of you aware of similar type carvings at other church sites in Ireland or Britain?  If I find out anything else about the happy face I will let you all know.

 

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Votes Needed. Made the shortlist for Littlewoods Ireland Blog Awards 2016

I am very excited to announce that Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland has been short listed  for the Littlewoods Ireland Blog Awards 2016. My blog is nominate in two categories Education & Science and Arts & Culture

There is some great blogs in both categories . Id be delighted if you can vote for my blog by clicking on the image   below

 

Littlewoods-Blog-Awards-2016-Website-MPU_Vote-For-Us

Votes needed for Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland

or this link how to vote  for Pilgrimage in Medieval  Ireland.

 

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Photo Essay of Pilgrimage to Caher Island Co Mayo

Today is the 15th of August, the Feast of the Assumption. It is one of the busiest days in the Irish pilgrim calendar. One of the most spectacular pilgrimages to take place on this day occurs on Caher Island/Oileán na Cathrach off the coast of Mayo.

In 2014 I joined  with pilgrims in the annual pilgrimage to the island. This pilgrimage is a bit of a  journey if you don’t live in Mayo but worth any effort. Access to the island is also very much dependant on weather conditions so there is a risk of arriving and finding the boats are not going. I travelled from Cork to the town of  Louisburg in Co Mayo before continuing onto Ronnagh Pier. I then got on a boat organised by O’Malley Ferries  and  with other pilgrims sailed out to Caher Island. Boats also go from Inishturk island.

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Ronnagh Pier Co Mayo

Caher Island a small uninhabited Island around 128 acres in size. It lies halfway between Inishturk Island and Ronnagh Pier off the coast of Mayo. The island contains the ruins of a small early monastic site and has a very fine collected of early medieval cross slabs. I plan to write a more detailed post about the archaeology and history of pilgrimage on the island in the coming months.

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Heading for Caher Island

The waters around the island are treacherous so only an experienced boatmen familiar with the area can land safely.  The island has no pier so you have to climb up the rocks along the shore to get  to land.

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Pilgrims at Caher Island

The island was also known as Oileáin na Cathrach, Cathair na Naomh and Cathair Pádraig.  St Patrick is said to have spent time here following his 40 day and nights on Croagh Patrick.  Folklore also  says the island is the  end of a mythical road called the  Bóthair na Naomh/Saint’s Road, that ran across the sea  up to the summit of Croagh Patrick.

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Arriving by boat at Caher Island

Today devotions on the island are focused around the small rectangular stone church.

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Church at Caher Island

Within the church is a small altar with  a cursing stone known as the Leac na Naomh. The stone is a large conglomerate stone.  In times past people would swear on the stone to prove they had told the truth or in more sinister cases to make curses or cause storms.

 

In times past a complex series of pilgrim stations existed on the island . The pilgrim landscape  incorporated the church a large number   leactha  in the surrounding  landscape and a holy well on the north side of the island. Leachta  the plural for leacht  is a type of dry-stone altar that predominantly dates to the early medieval period.  The majority of the leachta at Caher Island are surmounted by decorated early medieval cross slabs.

Today pilgrimage rituals are focused around a mass held outside the church. A large leacht in front of the east gable is used as an altar.

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Priest saying mass at Caher Island

Some pilgrims will also include a visit to Tobar Mhuire/ Mary’s well, a holy well  located on the north side of the island. They will normally visit the well before the mass takes place.

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Tobar Mhuire Caher Island

For many people  this pattern day or pilgrimage is an integral part of the annual pilgrimage to climb Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday in July with some feeling their pilgrimage is only complete once they have climbed the mountain and visited  Caher Island some weeks later.

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Pilgrims on Caher Island 2014

Following devotion pilgrims leave the island and travelled by boat to the nearby island of Inishturk for food and refreshments  at the community centre before heading back to the mainland. There is a great atmosphere on Inishturk with plenty of good food  and music and a visit here was a fantastic way to end such a great day.

Pilgrimage to Caher Island is one of the best pilgrimage experiences  I have had. The island is a fascinating place and I cant wait to get back there again  for a visit and to write more about the islands rich pilgrimage history.

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Useful Links

http://www.inishturkisland.com/?pagid=caher-island

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/environment/archaeological-find-shines-light-on-ancient-religious-rituals-1.1636852

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