Its been a while since I added to my series of blog post on the Irish saints and their miraculous animals. This post tells the tale of St Sourney.
St Sourney (Sairnait in Irish), is the patron saint of the holy well and medieval church at Drumacoo, Co Galway. Sourney was a holy woman who lived in Ireland during the sixth century, little is known about her life. She is also the patron of the small early medieval church of Teampall Asurnaí (St Sourney’s Church) at the village of Eochaill on Inismore. Tradition recalls she also founded a monastery at Drumcoo during lifetime. Her feast day was celebrated on the 3rd May.
Folklore recorded in the 1930’s in the schools essays from Ballinderreen Co Galway tells the following tale relating to St Sourney and a pig. The tale showcases the saint’s ability to miraculously bring an animal in this case a pig back to life after the animal had been eaten. Regeneration of special animals, even after they had been butchered and eaten, through the prayers of a saint, is a common theme in the folklore connected to the Irish saints. In this case the saint hoped to collect all the bones from a pig that had been eaten and to put it back together again. The saint’s plan for the pig was foiled by a dog who ate one of the bones from the animal. In anger the saint cursed the people of Drumcoo so that pig or a hound would never live together in Drumacoo.
It seemed Saint Surney ran short of meat one day and she told the girl to kill a pig and so she did. When they had the pig eaten she told the girl to collect all the bones so that she would put the pig together again, she kept a hound and hound ate one of the joints of the tail and the people say that is why every pig has a curl in his tail. Saint Surney was vexed then and she said that a pig or a hound would never live together in Drumacoo and they say for a fact they would not live together either in Drumacoo.
St Sourney (Sairnait in Irish), is the patron saint of the holy well and medieval church at Drumacoo, Co Galway (Gwynn and Hadcock 1970, 34). Sourney was a holy woman who lived in Ireland during the sixth century, little is known about her life. She is also the patron of the small early medieval church of Teampall Asurnaí (St Sourney’s Church) at the village of Eochaill on Inismore. Tradition holds she also founded a monastery at Drumcoo during lifetime. Her feast day was celebrated on the 3rd May.
Saint Surney sent one of her servants to Island Eddy for a coal, the servant went and she got the coal from the woman of the house who put it into her pinafore and as she was coming home the coal burned ahole in her pinafore. The saint was vexed when she saw the hole and she cursed Island Eddy and she said that anyone would come from island Eddy to Arran with a dry feet and the sea came between Island Eddy and Arran and the people never come out without a boat. Saint Surney was a very holy woman and she never cursed until she cursed Island Eddy. A little girl always stayed with the saint till after her death. The saint used to pray for hours every day and every one knew she was a saint because she used to pray very often.
The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0033B, Page 03_004
The modern visitor to Drumcoo will find a multi-period church surrounded by a later historic graveyard.
The oldest part of Drumcoo church can be seen in the north wall and the west gable. The style of masonry and the flat lintel doorway (trabeate doorway) suggest the presence of a simple pre-Romanesque style stone church that was later modified.
The southern wall is later and dates to around the mid thirteenth century. This wall has a very fine pointed doorway with intricately carved features including the heads of a number of cats. The door is the work of a very skilled crafts person.
The beautiful S. door is one of the minor masterpieces of the Connacht Transitional style and seems, like the E. windows, to be the work of the Boyle-Cong-Knockmoy-Corcomroe school of masons.
(Killanin & Duigan 1967, 318).
The east gable of the church has two fine carved single-light windows, one of which was blocked up. On either side of the windows are finely carved pointed aumbry.
The holy well is located a short distance to the southwest of the medieval church. The well is enclosed by a circular stone wall.
A gap in the wall provided access into a circular area covered by gravel. The holy well sits at the centre, below ground level. Stone steps provide access to the stone lined interior of the well. When I visited the well it was dry.
Its was said that the wells water was an effective cure for a pain in the head. In the 1930’s those in search of healing would visit the holy well and devotions performed on two consecutive Mondays and the intervening Thursday.
If a person is subject to a constant headache he goes to this well for a cure. He goes to the well three times, on Monday,Thursday and the following Monday. Every time he visits the well he should leave something, if only a button, on a bank of earth which is raised beside the well. He says certain prayers at the well, then he brings a bottle of water from the well and washes his forehead with it every day.
The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0033B, Page 01_047
Fahey, J.A. 1893 (Reprint 1986) The history and antiquities of the diocese of Kilmacduagh. Galway. Kenny Gallery.
The second saint is St Modomnoc a hermit who founded a monastery here in the sixth century. The former monastery is said to be located at the ruins of the medieval church of Tybroughney.
Tybroughney church is located close to the site of a medieval castle and the main Waterford-Clonmel railway line. You have to cross a field to get to the church and graveyard. A fine stone gateway into the field has a plaque on commemorating St Modomoc,
Tybroughney Graveyard and Church in Ruin. 6th century monastery of St Modomnoc who brought the first bees to Ireland.
Like St Gobnait,St Modomnochas a strong connection with bee keeping and bees.
The patron saint of Tybroughney is St Modhomhnoc. He is said to have been the first to introduce bees into Ireland. During his sojourn with St David, in Menevia, he had charge of the bees of the monastery, and attended them with the greatest care, so much that they were fruitful of honey in his hands. When he was returning thence to Ireland, and had biddin farewell to the holy abbot and monks, and had entered the coracle, to set sail, the bees, forming a large swarm came and settled in the boat along with him. Modhomhnoc, unwilling to the monastery of this treasure, brought them back to their hive. A second time, however, as he again entered the boat, they followed him, and, when he again brought them back, they repeated the same a third time. St David hearing this told him to bring the bees with him to Erin
The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0843, Page 345
The church is found beside railway gates. It is difficult to examine the church and surrounding graveyard as it is very overgrown. The 1st edition Ordnance Survey map dating to the 1840s, shows the church as a rectangular building while the later 25″map shows it as a nave and chancel church.
The Ordnance Survey Letters of Kilkenny 1839 described the church
The ruins of the church of Tiobtrait Fachtna (Note added: Tybroughney) stand in the Townland of that name and consist of Nave and Choir, the former 50 feet 8 inches by 30 feet 10 inches, the Choir 28 feet 9 inches by 18 feet 10 inches. The northern half of the west gable remains to about the height of 20 feet and half the north wall attached to it about 14 feet high, south wall and middle gable level with the ground…..The walls of the Nave are built of middle sized limestown and mortar, 2 1/2 feet think and not older I should think the 16th century, but the wall of the Choir are built of very large well formed, tho irregularly laid blocks of granite, and 3 feet 2 inches thick, very much resembling the wall of the Church of Kilcroney near Bray, in the County Wicklow.
(Herity 2003, 155).
Manning (2012, 154) describes the church as a medium-sized with antae. The west gable is still upstanding but it is very hard to say much else about the church.
Part of the graveyard that surrounds the church was destroyed in 1851 when the by railway line was built. This event was clearly remember decades later locally. The Schools Collection for Piltown School,
The railway line now runs through this old graveyard. It was constructed in 1851. When it was being made the workmen came upon a large number of human skeletons. The skeletons lay along under the surface in single file and were so close together that there were no coffins used in their interment. This shows there was an ancient monastery here or if not it was the resting place of warriors slain in some local battle.
The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0842, Page 288
The holy well which gives its name to the townland is located on the other side of the railroad tracks in scrub. I didn’t have time to search for the well on my visit here but will hopefull get back there soon. In the early nineteenth century a pattern day was held here on the13th February (Herity 2003, 157).
The Tybroughney pillar stone sits beside the church ruins, on a small patch of ground defined by low curbing. This area also contains a plain undercoated stone with an oval shaped hollow and seems to be font. There is also a rectangular stone covered in moss.
The pillar stone is decorated on all four sides with very elaborate and unusual carvings. The top of the stone appear to have been damaged in antiquity. Unfortunately my photos don’t do justice to the carving on the pillars but at different times of the day the light does brings out many of its details.
The east face face of the pillar decorated with an elaborate pattern of spirals. The pattern brings to mind spiral designs on one of the carpet pages in the beautiful Book of Durrow.
Similar spiral patterns also appear on the nearby early medieval high crosses at Ahenny Co Tipperary and Kilkieran Co Kilkenny.
The pillar was drawn in 1908 by Henry Crawford for his article ‘Description of a Carved Stone at Tybroughney, Co. Kilkenny.’ The pillar was also photographed by Helen Role for the book The High Crosses of Western Ossory.
The west face of the Tybroughney pillar has a large creature possible a centaur – a half man and half horse- holding an axe in both its hands. A centaur ‘ by his dual nature was held to symbolise the conflict between Good and Evil’ ( Roe 1962, 33).
Two smaller creatures stand above the main figure, one is a lion and the other is whippet like creature.
The southern side of the pillar closest to the railway tracks, his two mythical creatures. The lower figure is a manticora – the body of a lion and the head of a man- above the manticore is a ‘whippet-like creature’ ( Roe 1962, 33).
This may possibly be the Hyaena of the Bestiary, which scavenges in burial places and consequently was taken as a symbol of the Devil who battens the flesh of sinners.
(Roe 1962, 33)
The north face of the pillar has two figures, a stag and a lion. The stag ‘has various association, chief of which is as a symbol of Christ and his victory over Satan’ (Roe 1962, 33).
I really think this pillar would be a great candidate for photogrammetry. I hope to pay another visit here again soon to see the holy well so will keep you posted.
Crawford, H. (1908). Description of a Carved Stone at Tybroughney, Co. Kilkenny. The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland,38(3), fifth series, 270-277.
I have always had a great interest in folklore and folk customs, so I was delighted to get a copy of the newly published Irish Customs and Rituals published by Orpen Press for my Christmas reading.
This is a wonderful book that details the rituals and customs carried out by past generations living in Ireland. Its a perfect book to dip in and out of or read cover to cover as I did with a pot of tea in front of the fire. I’m delighted that the book’s author Marion McGarry has agreed to share her knowledge relating to Irish Christmas traditions and has kindly answered a series of questions about how our ancestors in past generations celebrated Christmas. I hope you find this interview as interesting and informative as I do.
Marion, many congratulations on this wonderful book. How did you first become interested in Irish customs and traditions?
Thanks Louise. I grew up with some of these customs and rituals, and was aware of many more of them. But I became really interested in them when I was writing the book The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design. In parts of that book I discussed the house as a space to be safeguarded from supernatural activity and where rituals were performed at specific times of the year. The research for Irish Customs and Rituals really expands that and looks at common calendar customs, rituals of daily life and beliefs of important life occasions such as births, marriages and deaths, all from the 19th to mid twentieth century.
What also drove me on was the realisation that many people are not aware of these customs, but there is a huge interest there. And I thought that a well-researched but readable book would inform and entertain people.
As Christmas is almost upon can you tell us what a typical Irish Christmas was like? How did people in the past prepared for and celebrate Christmas?
Advent was a time of great preparation for Christmas in Ireland. First of all, people would go and do a massive spring clean of their house, and any outhouses, barns and so on. Inside and out would be pulled apart, tidied and given a fresh coat of whitewash. WE see this big spring clean is a feature of many Irish festivals, people cleaned their homes in advance of St Brigid’s day, and Halloween, too. Fuel was stockpiled. Decorations of holly and ivy were foraged and brought back home and used to decorate the house (and even the animals barns). This was the children’s’ job, and supplemented with their own handmade decorations. The Christmas tree usually comprised of a branch from a Christmas tree potted up, so that it was considerably smaller than what were used to today. This approach to decorating is much more sustainable, too. So was the approach to food – most things on the Christmas dinner menu in rural Ireland was grown or raised by the person eating it, and if not it came from the local community, goose, bacon, potatoes, winter vegetables.
Like all Irish festivals the big celebration started on sunset on the eve of the festival day, so on Christmas Eve in Ireland past candles were lit in windows (in a ritual manner, either by the youngest child or the mother of the house). This was to be a sign to show the Holy Family they were welcome to the house, as they sought an inn. Also, on Christmas Eve night, the door was left unlocked so the dead could return to the household, this custom was practised by many on Halloween for example. Greenery was placed on graves, too, over Christmas to remember the dead.
What are the main changes in how we celebrate Christmas today from how out grandparents would have celebrated it?
When I was growing up, I would hear my grandparents and people of their generation saying ‘sure its Christmas every day now’ as if to say that people had it good all the time. Christmas was a time for a bit of indulgence for people who had otherwise frugal lives. Decent food, sweet cake, a bottle or two of porter, a respite from work and a chance to wear the good clothes were all welcome diversions of a festival celebrated at a dark and cold time of the year. Today we can do these things any evening of the week. To people of my grandparent’s generation, luxuries, even small ones, were a huge novelty and you can imagine that Christmas was keenly anticipated. And they had a much humbler Christmas than we do today.
Nollaig na mBan or women’s Christmas is a very Irish tradition that has been embraced by Irish women in recent years, can you tell me us more about this tradition?
Occurring on 6th January (the Epiphany), there is an old tradition in certain parts of the country (mainly Munster) that it’s a day off for women. Roles are meant to be reversed, so the men have to do the housework while the women get a chance to socialise with their female friends, usually to have tea and cake. Death divination customs were practised on this day, where candles are lit and named for family members – the idea is that the candles burning out indicated the order in which death will occur.
Many people in modern Ireland will travel to ancient sites aligned with the winter sun for the solstice such as Knockroe and Newgrange passage tombs. Have you come across any customs relating to the winter solstice in the course of your research?
Not specifically. As most Irish calendar customs were appropriated by the Christian religion (a good example is Imbolc which became St Brigid’s day) one can imagine that whatever midwinter celebrations on 21st that occurred migrated across to December 25th. What’s interesting is that there are older non Christian (perhaps even ancient) customssurviving in there, the celebrations starting on the eve before, the spring clean, the death divination rituals, the appearance of wren boys on Stephen’s Day, the remembrance of the dead.
Marion this is a wonderful read and would make a great Christmas gift for anyone interested in Irish folklore and traditions.
Delighted you liked it Louise, it would make a great birthday gift too! The e-book is coming out soon which will make it even more accessible for readers and researchers.
Both The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design and The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design can both be purchased from Orpen Press and Irish bookshops
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 confesson
Crosswaith 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 seen
The 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.
St David’s holy well -Tobar Chinnín Dháithí – is one of my favourite holy wells in the whole country. This isnt a statement I make likely.
The main thing I love about the well is that it is very fortunate to have escaped the over use of cement that many Irish holy wells experienced in the 1950’s or some of the bad “restoration” work of the 1980’s-2000’s – the holy well at Brulee, Co Limerick immediately springs to mind. The charm of St David’s holy well is its simplicity. When you stand at the waters edge there is a real connection with the past and you can imagine your experience is very similar to pilgrims 100 or 200 years ago. The trees, flowers and bush that surround the well also help to connect the visitor to the natural world of which holy well are very much rooted.
St David’s well is situated in an out of the way grove of trees on private land. In appearance it is very like the holy well at St Berriherts Kyle but more compact.
The well itself is a large spring that fills a circular pool defined by a low stone wall, set flush with the ground. The water bubbles up through white sands on the base, before escaping into an over flow channel that takes it the water from the pool into a nearby stream.
It is said “The well never dried even in the warmest summer” (The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0643, Page 155).
The bubbling waters are magical and I have sat for long stretches of time here just watching the water and listening to the rustle of leaves and chatter of birds. The wells beauty is enhanced by a large oak tree that cast shadows over the water. When I last visited here in March 2016, it was surrounded by a thick carpet of yellow daffodils.
It is a round well and there are trees growing all around it. The people hang the tokens on the trees. The statue of St David is erected there. There is a lovely sand bubbling up out of the well. It is so clear you would imagine it was silver.
The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0643, Page 167
Unusually the well is dedicated to St David the patron saint of Wales whose feast day is the 1st of March. The south-east of Ireland has long established connections with Wales. St David and his monastery (at St Davids in Wales) are mentioned in several Lives of Irish saints. St Finbarr of Cork is said to have visited St David on his return from Rome, while SS Aidan of Ferns, Finnian of Clonard, along with Scothin and Senanus, are all said to have studied at the monastic school at St David’s.
St David’s holy well at Woodhouse is located in the Diocese of Waterford and Lismore. The patron of the diocese is St Declan of Ardmore who also spent time in Wales in the company of St David.
On one of these occasions Declan paid a visit to the holy bishop of the Britons whose name was David at the church which is called Killmuine where the bishop dwelt beside the shore of the sea which divides Ireland from Britain. The bishop received Declan with honour and he remained there forty days, in affection and joy, and they sang Mass each day and they entered into a bond of charity which continued between themselves and their successors for ever afterwards. On the expiration of the forty days Declan took leave of David giving him a kiss in token of peace and set out himself and his followers to the shore of the sea to take ship for Ireland.
Power, Rev. P. 1914. Life of St. Declan of Ardmore, 25
A large statue of a very serious St David, dressed as a bishop, sits a plinth of concrete overlooking the holy well. The date 1923 is carved into the base.
This statue was a gift, donated by Br Benigus Tracy in this year having experieneced a cure (NFSC, An Eaglais, Ceapach Chuinn (roll number 1395).
The wells waters are said to have healing properties. The waters are especially beneficial to those suffering from headaches or migraines. The connection with healing of complaints the head is reflected in the Irish name for the well, “Tobar Chinnín Dháithí” translates roughly as the ‘Well of David’s Little Head’.
According to the Schools essays to obtain relief from sickness pilgrims had to walked three times around the well saying whatever prayer they wished (An Eaglais, Ceapach Chuinn (roll number 1395). Other accounts tell us that the pilgrim were to drink water from the well and rub it to their forehead to obtain the cure.
three sups of the water is taken. People leave a medal or a bead or string, there as a token of getting cured.
Mount Stewart, Ceapach Chuinn (roll number 0643)
In the past the well was visited throughout the year but a special pilgrimage was made on the 1st of March the feast day of St David. Pilgrims in the 19th century were said to ‘hang tokens on the trees’ around the well ( Mount Stewart, Ceapach Chuinn (roll number 0643). The tradition of leaving offerings has died out some local people still visit the well on the 1st of March.
Like many other Irish holy wells, folklore relating to St David’s well suggests it is now in a secondary location.
People say that the well was further up the field. One day Major Fitzgeralds washed his face in the well, and from that second onwards it started, to dry until it was dry as the field. Then it sprang up in the field further down, and it is there to this day.
An Eaglais, Ceapach Chuinn (roll number 1395)
This is not the only holy well dedicated to St David in the south-east. Another more well known well one can be found at St David’s holy well at Olygate in Wexford. These two wells are reminders of the long established l links between the south-east of Ireland and Wales and the spread of the cult of medieval saints.
Thanks to Dr Ann Buckley for translating Irish language material in Schools Folklore Essays relating to the well.
Moore M. 1999. Archaeological Inventory of County Waterford. Dublin: Stationery Office, 203. ITA. (Irish Tourist Authority Survey )[1941-45] Topographical and General Survey, 122. Power, Rev P. 1907. ‘Place-Names of the Decies’, JWSEIAS Vol. 10, 193. Power, Rev P. 1914. Life of St. Declan of Ardmore, and Life of St. Mochuda of Lismore, (edited from ms. in Library of Royal Irish Academy). London : Irish Texts Society.
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 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.
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 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.
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,
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.
Malta, Valletta, Triq ir-Repubblika, Republic Street, religious sculpture
Statue of St.Francis, Valletta Malta
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.
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).
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).
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.
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 traditions and heritage. BDL Publishing.
Site of St Ciaran’s monastery Seir Keiran Co Offaly
This story was recorded in the Irish Life of St Ciarán of Saighir, compiled in the seventeenth century. The text recalls
a thief came westward over the Slieve Bloom, and stole a cow from Ciarán.
Below is a location map showing the location of Slieve Bloom Mountains and the monastic settlement of Seir Keiran.
After Google Earth location map of Seir Kieran monastic settlement and the Slieve Bloom Mountain range.
There is no mention of the cow having any miraculous abilities like the cows of the other saints, however, divine intervention stops the progress of the thief allowing the cow to escape and return to her rightful owner. As the thief is crossing a river the waters rose and drowned him and the cow to the saint.
Mist and unspeakable darkness rose against him, and a river so strong in flood, so that he was drowned, and the cow returned to Ciarán again (BNÉ, Vol. II, 105).
Last year I began a series of post on the saints and their animals. Continuing with this theme this post will look at the folklore and legends of cows associated with the great ecclesiastical complex of Kilmalkedar /Cill Maoilchéadair in the Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry.
Kilmalkedar medieval church part of the the Kilmalkedar Ecclesiastical Complex
The site of Kilmalkedar consists of a large ecclesiastical complex with archaeological remains dating from the early medieval to late medieval period. It is dedicated to a little known saint called Maolcethair, whose death was recorded in the martyrology of Donegal (Cuppage 1986, 308). The site was also linked to St Brendan and was part of the pilgrim landscape of the Mount Brandon. Unlike the previous tales about the saints and their animals ( Ita and her donkey, Patrick and his cow, Ciaran and his cow, Manchan and his cow), St Maolcethair is not directly associated with any animal but ecclesiastical complex has two interesting folk tales that relate to miraculous events associated with cows. These stories are embedded in the physical landscape.
The Cow and Thief’s Stone
One of the stories concerns the theft of a cow, a familiar theme from the earlier posts in this series. The story goes that a thief tried to steal a cow from the community at Kilmalkedar. The cow bellowed, which woke up one of the monks. One of the monks
‘caused the thief to stick in the stone which he was climbing and the hoof of the cow to get embedded in the stone on which she had alighted from the fence. The thief set up a howling form pain and fright and prayed humbly for mercy and forgiveness. The holy man released him and warned him to sin no more. The imprints of the thief’s knees are to be seen to the present day and the impress of the cow’s hoof is also discernible’ ( Dingle Survey Files after mss of John Curran, unpublished OPW file).
1st ed OS map of Kilmalkedar (1842) showing the site of the Cow stone and Theifs stone.
Until 1967 two stones known as the cow and thief stone were located on either side of the road close to the church and graveyard at Kilmalkedar, they were set 150m south of the graveyard and some 350 yards northeast of (KE042-028). Both were recorded on the 1st edition OS map of 1842. Unfortunately the cow stone has now disappeared, both stones were set on either side of the roadway until at least 1967. The cow stone (KE042-02701) was located on the west side of the road and the thief stone (KE042-027) on the east. Killanin & Michael (1967, 96) described the two stones as standing stones and the Dingle Survey notes that the theif stone ‘stood 0.81m high at the base’ (Cuppage 1986, 323). However descriptions in the Dingle Survey Files suggest that the cow stone was a flat stone.
View of the road outside if Kilmalkedar Graveyard the Cow and Thiefs Stones were located 150m to the south.
A story recounted by Mary Jane Leadbeater Fisher in her book Letters from the Kingdom of Kerry: In the year 1845 also records the tale but in her account the story is linked to another archaeological feature of the landscape, a large multi basin bullaun stone know as the Keelers or na Beirtí (Milk Coolers).
A cow is the subject of this legend—a cow of size and breed suited to provide milk for the giant race of those days. We saw the milk vessels, and if she filled them morning and evening, she was indeed a marvellous cow. In a huge flat rock were these milk pans; six large round holes, regular in their distances from each other, and nearly of equal size; they could each contain some gallons of liquid. This said cow gave sufficient milk for one whole parish; and was the property of a widow—her only wealth. Another parish and another clan desired to be possessed of this prize; so a marauder, endued with superior strength and courage, drove her off one moonlight night. The widow followed wailing, and he jeered her and cursed her as he proceeded. The cow suddenly stopped; in vain the thief strove to drive her on; she could neither go on, nor yet return; she stuck fast. At length, aroused by the widow’s cries, her neighbours arrived, and the delinquent endeavoured to escape. In vain—for he too stuck fast in the opposite rock; he was taken and killed. The cow then returned to her own home, and continued to contribute her share towards making the parish like Canaan, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” The prints of her hoofs, where the bees made their nests, are still to be seen in one rock ; and those of the marauder’s foot and hand in another, where he was held fast by a stronger bond than that of conscience (Leadbeater Fisher 1847, 48).
The ‘huge flat rock’ she refers to seems to be a large stone known as the Keelers or ‘Beirti’. This is a large irregular, shaped bullaun stone (KE042-026007) located 50-60m northwest of the Romanesque church at Kilmalkedar. The stone has seven depressions of oval and circular shape with depths of 0.04-0.25 diameters 0.22-0.42m diameter. This stone is associated with a magical cow known who is known in folklore form other parts of the country.
The legendary cow was the Glas Ghoibhneach, she was said to a have been a marvellous milker. The Glas Ghoibhneach translates as ‘the grey of Goibhniu’. Goibhniu was a mythical smith who likely derived from a god of the same name. The legend of the cow is very old and widespread across Ireland. According to O’hOgain
legend told of her all over Ireland describes how she filled with milk every pail put under her by her unnamed owner. However, a jealous woman claimed that she had a vessel which the Glas could not fill, and accordingly she brought a sieve and began to milk the great cow. The Glas yielded a continuous stream of milk, enough to fill a lake, but it all ran through the sieve. Eventually, she became exhausted by the effort and died.
The tradition from Kilmalkedar tells that the glas was milked into the basins of the rock by the monk from the monastery (An Seabhac 1939, 117). Interestingly additional stones associated with the magical cow are found a few miles to the southwest, the stones are a pair of standing stones known as ‘Geata an Glas Ghaibhleann’ or the gate of Glas Ghaibhleann.
I would like to thank the wonderful archaeologist Isabel Bennett for all her help with pointing out sources for these stones
An Seabhac. 1939. Triocha-Chéad Chorca Dhuibhne. Cuid IV. Dublin: An Cumann
le Béaloideas Éireann, 117.
Cuppage, J. 1986. Archaeological Survey of the Dingel peninsula. A description of
the field antiquities from the Mesolithic Period to the 17th century A.D. Oidhrecht