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.
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.
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 it” to 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.
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,