St Patrick’s day at St Patricks well in Glassely, Co Kildare

Last week I visited St Patrick’s well at Glassely/Glashealy in  Co. Kildare   to record the annual St Patrick’s day  pilgrimage. Sharon Greene a local archeologist and good friend of mine was at hand to  helped me to find the site which is difficult for a non local like myself to find, being located off the road in private land.

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Statue of St Patrick at Glassely

Location

The townland of Glassealy about 5 miles from Athy.   St Patrick’s  well is located  in the corner of a field close to the site of an old  graveyard  also dedicated to St Patrick.  The graveyard is semi circular in shape and the outer wall seems to enclose a circular bank. The dedication to St Patrick and the shape of the enclosure may suggest and early medieval date. The church no longer survives,  there is an underground vault or crypt  slightly east of center of the enclosure  and  also present are fragments of a  seventeenth century  altar tomb of the Fitzgerald family. Other features of note are the two portions of the shaft of a memorial cross dated to 1615.

Map of the area  by FitzGerald  created in 1912.

Map of the area by Lord Walter FitzGerald created in 1912 (J.K.A.S, 82)

St Patrick’s graveyard is situated at the edge of the road.  An old pilgrim path runs along the  north side of the stream which runs past the graveyard. The path follows the stream until it reached the well. The path  was known as the glen. ‘Glen’ is a term  often used in Ireland to refer to a small stream.   Running parallel to the stream is an old millrace  now dry which in former times powered a corn mill located close to Glassely House . A large mill-pond was located above the well. The well sits  in the corner of the adjoining field and its waters flow into the stream. Today most pilgrim get to the well through the roadside gateway of the well field  and on the main pilgrim day the farmer opens the get so that people drive there cars into the field .

The Well

The earliest reference I found concerning the well is the OS name books of 1838 which state

a well called St Patrick’s Well about 300 yards S. E. of the grave yard.

The well  is a natural spring  that rising out of rock  and is now located in a very pretty landscaped garden close to the banks of the stream.  The site is extremely peaceful and the modern renovations are very tastefully done. The landscaping was done about 15-20 years ago. I especially  liked the statue of St Patrick  which sits above the well as it  depicts the saint  as  a friendly and approachable character.

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St Patrick’s well and garden

The well itself has not been changed although paving has been added around it to make access easier. Many coins have been left in the well and  the small tree over the well has some  ribbons and rosary beads tied to it, which show it is still visited  by pilgrims.

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St Patrick’s well

The well and surrounding  area looked  very different 50-60 years ago.  The image below shows the well in the early 1900’s when it was surrounded by bushes and  scrub.

Fitzgerald (1912-1913) writing in 1912 wrote

The well itself, near the smaller of the two mill-ponds: the water from it  flows into the stream…The numbers of rags, coloured glass beads, and religious medals fastened to the overhanging branches and briars, testify to the reputation the well has for cures.

Image of the well from 1912

Image of the well taken by Lord Walter FitzGerald in 1912 (J.K.A.S, 97)

An article written in 1899-1902 on folk traditions in County Kildare  notes a tradition the water from the well would  boil (Greene 1899-1902, 371).

Tradition  states the well was  created by the saint. A large boulder  close to the well  has  three small holes/depressions in its side which tradition holds were created by St Patrick toes and are known as St Patrick’s footprints.  It is very interesting that FitzGearald in 1912  records the a stone known was St Patrick’s foot marks a short   distance  to the northwest in the field beside St Patrick’s graveyard (see map above).

 About a quarter of a mile up “the Glen,” through which the little stream flows, above the churchyard, and close to a sheep-dipping pool, there are some large boulders of a course brown kind of granite, in the side of  one which there are two indentations, which from time immemorial have been attributed to the Saint, and are called St Patrick’s Foot-marks’. Fitzgerald goes on to say local people said Patrick   “threw a lep” from the Blessed Well to this boulder. A few perches further up “the Glen”.

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Image of St Patrick’s stone taken by Lord Walter FitzGerald. Note the X marks the spot of the foot prints. (J.K.A.S, 97).

Today a rock with St Patrick’s foot steps is located beside the well. During the landscaping this rock was exposed  as were several other similar boulders but there was no suggestion  that the boulder with the toe print’s  was moved to its present location. From talking to local people it was exposed but not moved. One of the boulders has a bowl-shaped depression, which looks like it was made by a chisel. It looks very similar to a bullaun stone but to me it looks quiet modern.   Some local people I spoke to  told a story  that St Patrick jumped from the rock and when he landed the holy well was created.

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Boulder at St Patrick’s well with depression known as St Patrick’s footprints

It is not unusual for there to be several version of the an origin tale for a holy well . I also came across another version in the article on Holy wells of County Kildare.  The author Patricia Jackson records a version by Mr John O’Brien in 1979

Tradition has it at on St Patrick’s way to Tara after landing in Co. Wicklow he camped at the foot of Mullaghmast. Some of the local chieftains were converted to Christianity and asked St. Patrick to bless the nearest well as was the custom – this  being Glashealy well.

St Patrick’s Day Pilgrimage

People visit St Patrick’s well throughout the year but the main  day of devotion for pilgrims is the feast of St Patrick.   The Patrick’s day pilgrimage attracts a large crowd. According to local man Tommy Hurley in the 1950’s on St Patrick’s day  a band made up of local people would gather at Grange crossroad and march in a procession  (followed by other  local people)  to the well . Then a football match used to be  played in the field beside the well but  over the years the tradition died  out.

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Pilgrims at St Patrick’s well

In recent years a man named Jack O’Connor who is since deceased would play some hymns on the  pipes before the annual service began.

This years pilgrimage was on a very wet and cold day. Despite the weather  well over 60 people turned out to honor St Patrick. I was told that in fine weather crowds of over 100-200 people could be expected. Many of those who arrive were wearing the traditional shamrock.

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Pilgrim wearing the shamrock

Shamrock is worn on St Patrick’s day all over Ireland as  tradition holds that when converting the Irish to Christianity Patrick explained the mystery of the Holy Trinity to the people using the shamrock plant whose leaves are clustered in threes. So much as St Brigit’s cross is a symbol of Brigit , the shamrock represents St Patrick.

The people of the area celebrate St Patrick’s day with an  Ecumenical Service at the well and people from all denominations attend and pray together. The service  began at 3 o clock and was led by Rev Isaac Delamere and Fr Tim Hannan.

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Fr Tim and Rev Isaac shelter under an umbrella during the service

Despite the sporadic heavy showers and occasional hail stones everyone was in good spirits. Prayers and hymns were sung.  The prayer St Patrick’s Breast Plate  was recited in Irish by Tommy Hurley.  A poem was recited by  Louise Plewman the daughter of T.P. Plewman  the farmer who owns the land the well is on. This poem was written by her grand-uncle Tom Plewman.  It is a tradition that each year a member of the Plewman family recite this  poem each year.

Your St Patrick is a holy man

With Churches and Cathedrals,

Catholic and Protestant;

Your St Patrick is a learned man

With colleges and schools,

Green and red;

Your St Patrick is a healing man

With hospitals and homes

For sick and dying;

Your St Patrick is a pilgrim

Claiming his own Purgatory

May God and Mary and St Patrick be with you.

My St Patrick is a gentle man

Scarcely four foot tall,

Carved in stone, flat faced,

In simple Celtic style;

He stands alone.

His church is but a few square yards

Of grass rock and shrubs,

With healing water from his well

Offering peace to all without.

May God and Mary be with him.

There are no set rounds at the well. Before and after the service people went to the well and drank  its waters. Being a spring the water is crystal clear and is said to have curative powers.

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Pilgrims getting water from the well

Conclusion

Despite the harsh  weather this was one of the nicest and intimate pilgrimages I have attended. On this special day St Patrick brings all the local communities  together and there is a real sense of pride in the well and St Patrick’s connection with the area. The local area is steeped in history  and I hope people continue to use and take care of this very special well.

© Louise Nugent 2013

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Tommy Hurley, John O’Donovan and T.P Plewman for  information on the well. Also Sharon Greene for all her help and for having the foresight to  bring a large umbrella.

References

Greene, Miss,  1899-1902. ‘County Kildare Folk-tales. Collected from the narration of Tom Daly.’ Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society, Vol. III, 368-71

FitzGerald, W. 1912-1914. ‘Glassealy and its tenants. With the career of Walter “Reagh” FitzGerald.” Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society, Vol. VII, 83-108.

Jackson, P.  1980. ‘ The Holy Wells of County Kildare’  ,Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society   Vol. XVI, 133-61.

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