St Leonard (St Léonard-de-Noblat) was a sixth century Frankish hermit. He went on to become a very popular medieval saint. The saint’s primary shrine was found at Noblat in France. Over the centuries vast numbers of people from all over Europe made pilgrimage here. Devotion to the saint was enhanced by his shrine’s location on the Via Vézelay – a well trodden pilgrimage route- to the St James in Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
St Leonard was the patron saint of imprisoned people and women in labour. Medieval descriptions of his shrine recall that it was adorned with offerings of iron chains and shackles left by pilgrims who believed they were released them from their captivity due to the saint’s intercession (Gerson et al 1998, 47).
St Leonards cult also came to Ireland but never achieve a widespread popularity. A holy well dedicated to St Leonard can be still be found in the village of Dunnamaggin Co Kilkenny.
I have come across only two other dedications to the saint. The first, St. Leonard’s Priory, a monastery of Fratres Cruciferi or Crutched Friars, was established in the medieval town of Dundalk in the twelfth century. The priory was, founded by Bertram or Nicholas de Verdun and was situated in the grounds of the present county library. The second dedication was located in the medieval town of Waterford where a chapel dedicated to St Leonard was located in the Benedictine priory. The saint’s feast day was also recorded in The Book of Obits and Martyrology of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin where the last entry for November 6th reads
Et sancti Leonardi abbatis et confessonCrosswaith 1844, 71
St Leonard’s cult probably arrived in Dunnamaggin area with the Anglo-Normans. The holy well is located a short distance from the ruins of the medieval parish church of Dunnamaggin, also dedicated to St Leonard.
The 1st edition ordnance survey 6 inch map for the area tentatively point to another cult associated with the well. The well is clearly marked as St Rynagh’s well on the map.
Rynagh is the anglicisation of Ríoghnach. The saint may be the early medieval female saint, Rioghnach of Kilrainy in Co Kildare. Interestingly the contemporary Ordnance Survey Letters of Kilkenny written in 1839 only associated the well with St Leonard and makes no mention of St Rioghnach at all. She is not mentioned in Carrigan’s The history and antiquities of the diocese of Ossory either or in any local folklore sources.
The well is located in a field beside the main road through Dunnamaggin village. The field can be easily accessed through a style in the boundary wall.
The well is enclosed by a circular hedge and a small metal gate provides access to the interior. The hedge respects the line of an earlier circular enclosure, which was ‘ almost levelled’ by the 1900’s (Carrigan 1905, 38).
The holy well is a natural spring. Its waters fill a circular stone lined hollow set flush to the ground. On one side there is a over flow which takes the water into a stone drain.
The well is over looked by a modern statue niche now filled by a metal cross bearing the saint’s name and a number of mature trees.
Some years ago the well was restored by the current land owner and a local committee. It is very clear that the well and surrounding area are maintained on a regularly basis, the day I visited the grass had been recently cut.
The schools collections, local folklore and antiquarian sources record a number of traditions associated with the well. Like many other Irish wells it was said the water would never boil.
Another tradition held that St Leonard provided protection to local people from lightening.
St. Leonard prayed that no one within three mile of Dunnamaggin would be struck by lightning. His prayer was granted.The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0853, Page 069
The well was once the focus of great devotion but was in decline by the mid-19th century. According the Ordnance Survey Letters 1839
There was a patron held here formerly, on Saint Leonard’s day, but what day that was nobody now remembers.Ordnance Survey Letters [92-93]
It is not entirely true that the saints feast day was forgotten the schools collection for Dunamaggin school from the 1930s mention that
until recent years a pattern used be held there annually on the 6th November.The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0853, Page 068
The 6th of November is the feast day of the saint. The schools essays for Newtown, Kells also note
The well was visited by people on the second or third Sunday in November and there are prayers said there by the people who visit it.The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0858B, Page 02
Pilgrimages were also made in the summer months
Kilmaggany people visited it (St Leonard’s Well) during the month of July and took a drink of the water & washed their feet in the stream which flows from the well. It was believed to cure pains in the limbs.The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0852, Page 294
Other cures are associated with the well’s waters include a cure for sore eyes.
The water would cure sore eyes when washed three times on different days. There is a big flag-stone at the side of the well.The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0852, Page 295
The pilgrim landscape extends beyond the well and includes a tree called St. Leonard’s Tree. I didn’t have time on my visit to find the tree. In times gone by pilgrims visited the tree as part of their pilgrimage rounds. Carrigan noted that mass used to be celebrated beneath it. Like a number of other holy trees it was believed to have protective properties
Until recent years natives of the place would never think of emigrating without bearing away with them a sprig or chip cut from Crownsanleeanarth [name for the tree], as a preservative against shipwreck on their voyage to foreign lands.Carrigan 1905, 38
During the cholera epidemic of 1832
people carried about with them little scraps from the bush to save themselves from the prevailing epidemic.Carrigan 1905, 38
In the past people often turned to holy wells in times of crisis and outbreaks of disease. The well house at Abbeys well, in the parish of Kilshannig in North Cork was built in the 1870’s to give thanks for the saint expelling disease from the parish. Over the door is a stone plaque that reads “St, Abigal Expelling The Plague A.D. 1872,”
Carrigan in 1905 notes the order of the former rounds undertaken by pilgrims.
The pilgrimage used to begin within the enclosure, at the well ; was continued thence to the road ; and then along the road, to the present chapel, where it ended.Carrigan 1905, 38
This is confirmed by the schools collections.
Rounds were made there long ago – people used go from the Well to the Church.The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0852, Page 293
An alabaster statue of the saint was discovered at well in the 1800s and was then given to the care of St. Kieran’s College but is now in possession of the current owner of well.
In 1800, Brennans found a stone statue, which they kept in Dunnamaggan, in the well. It is about one foot high & represents a bishop dressed in sacred vestments & holding a staff in his left hand. The head was broken off & lost. The statue is the same as that on the foot of the Dunamaggan Cross. In 1875, Mr James Brennan handed it over to St Kieran’s College Museum where it is still to be seenThe Schools’ Collection, Volume 0852, Page 293
Carrigan noted that after the statues discovered before it was given to St Kierans College it was used to swear upon. There are many medieval references to medieval statues and relics being used in oath taking.
… in cases of dispute among the neighbours, the contending parties were accustomed to make declarations with hand placed upon this statue, believing that testimony thus given had all the binding force of an oath.Carrigan 1905, 38
The radio station KCLR has a made a lovely radio documentary about the well which is worth taking a listen to.
Carrigan, W. 1905. The history and antiquities of the diocese of Ossory. Dublin : Sealy, Bryers & Walker.
Crosswaite, J. 1844. The Book of Obits and Martyrology of the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity: Commonly Called Christ Church. Dublin. For the Irish Archaeology Society.
Curran, A. 1971.“The Priory of St. Leonard, Dundalk.” Journal of the County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society, vol. 17, no. 3, 131–140.
Gearson, P., Krochalis, J., Shaver-Crandell, A. and Stones, A. 1998. The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela: A Critical Edition. London: Harvey Miller.
Hennig, J. 1944. “St. Leonard in Ireland.” Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society, vol. 10, no. 4, 297–301.
Herity, M. (ed) 2003, Ordnance Survey Letters Kilkenny. Dublin: Four Masters Press.
Schools Collections https://www.duchas.ie