St Leonard’s Holy Well at Dunnamaggin Co Kilkenny

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.

Pilgrim badge from the shrine of St Leonard at Saint-Leonard-de-Noblat, France dating to the 13th-14th century (https://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/28996.html)

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.

St Leonard’s Holy well Dunnamaggin Co Kilkenny surrounded by a circular hedge

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.

Medieval parish church of Dunnamaggin

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.

1st edition 6inch maps showing St Leonard’s holy well marked as St Rynagh holy well OSI 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.

St Leonard’s Holy well Dunnamaggin Co Kilkenny is surrounded by circular hedge

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.

ISt Leonard’s holy well Dunnamaggin

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.

Statue niche at St Leonard’s holy well.

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.

St Leonard’s holy well

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.

Biography

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.

Website

Schools Collections https://www.duchas.ie

https://kclr96fm.com/documentary/episode-7-st-leonards-well/embed/#?secret=uFn1FTo1Sl

https://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/28996.html

St David’s Holy Well, Woodhouse, Co. Waterford

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.

Grove of trees surrounding St David’s Holy Well at Woodhouse

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.

St David’s Holy Well in early March 2016

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

Large oak tree growing beside St David’s holy well at Woodhouse

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.

Statue of St David at St David’s Holy Well Woodhouse

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’.

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St David’s Holy Well Woodhouse

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.

Bibliography

An Eaglais, Ceapach Chuinn (roll number 1395) http://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428119

Mount Stewart, Ceapach Chuinn (roll number 0643) http://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428120

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.

http://irelandsholywells.blogspot.com/2013/03/saint-davids-holy-well-tinakilly-county.html

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Barrigone Holy Well and the Crimean War: An unlikely Connection

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.

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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.

Fig.1 View of Barrigone Holy Well

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 itto 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.

Fig. 2 Pilgrims performing the rounds at Barrigone holy well 15th August 2015

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,

The Statue Niches of Malta

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.

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.

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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).

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Lady lighting candle at statue of the Blessed Virgin at Triq il-kbira, L-Imdina, Malta.

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).

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Statue niche and plaque in Sliema, Malta

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.

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Image of the Blessed Virgin in niches in Valletta

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.

References

Camilleri. J. C. 2015. A taste of Maltese Folkore traditions and heritage. BDL Publishing.

Holy Cow. The miraculous animals of the Irish Saints: Part 7, St Ciarán of Saighir and his cow

This is part seven in my series of posts about the saints and their animals. This post features St Ciarán of Saighir, the founder of the great monastery of Seir Keiran in Co Offaly and his cow.

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St Ciaran of Saighir.

Like earlier posts about St Ciarán of  Clonmacnoise, St Manchan of Lemanaghan and St Patrick the theme of the story relates to the theft of the saints cow.

 

 

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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.

seir kieran

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).

irishmoiledcowcalf

 

Reference

Plummer, C. (ed.) 1922 reprint 1997 Bethada Náem nÉrenn. Vol.1, 2 Oxford.

 

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Holy Cows. The Miraculous Animals of the Irish Saints: Part 6, The Magical Cows of Kilmalkedar

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.

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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).

kilmalkedar

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.

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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.

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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

References

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

  Chorca Dhuibhne. Ballyferriter: Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne, 308

Dingle Survey Files.

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

New York: Prentice Hall Press.

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

Leadbeater Fisher, M. J in her book Letters from the Kingdom of Kerry: In the year 1845. pub 1847. Dublin: Webb and Chapman

http://www.voicesfromthedawn.com/gate-of-the-cow/

O’H

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An Irish St Stephen’s Day Tradition: Lá an Dreoilín/Wren Day

The 26th of December is the feast  day of St Stephen,often shorted to Stephens day or Stephens.. In  Britain the 26th of December is commonly referred to as Boxing Day , as this was the day servants and tradesmen would traditionally received gifts known as a “Christmas box” from their masters, employers or customers. In Ireland the day was also known as Wren Day, in Irish Lá an Dreoilín. Other variants include Day of the Wren, or Hunt the Wren Day. This name comes from a very old tradition focused around a tiny bird called the wren. 

Lá an Dreoilín/Wren Day

Lá an Dreoilín or Wren Day  is a very old tradition and was once practised throughout most of Ireland up to the middle of the last century, with the exception of northern Ulster. The word wren was pronounced ‘wran’. Traditionally on Wren Day,   groups of mostly boys and men  called ‘The Wren Boys’ would dress up in old clothes and paint their faces. They then travelled  from door to door singing, dancing and playing music demanding  money to “bury the wren”. This process was called going on the ‘wran’.

In modern Ireland the tradition has faded out in most parts of the county but it is still carried on in pockets of the country especially in Co Kerry, in the Dingle peninsula and in parts of Co Limerick and Galway with people going from house to house.

Angela Gallagher of the Slivervoice blog provides the following description of the process

Heralding their arrival by loudly playing the bodhran (an Irish drum) as they make their way towards the door, and with barely enough time to shut the startled dogs away, the door is opened wide and the musicians stream in. Dressed in old clothing, mostly in white, with assorted bits of tinsel, straw and holly attached to hats of all descriptions, they file in and proceed to entertain us with a few songs, some traditional airs expertly played on fiddles, bodhrans, accordions, tin whistles and flutes, and Irish dancing. The entire performance lasts less than 10 minutes, and they play themselves out again, back into the night!

The modern wren tradition now also  incorporates street parades.  The straw boys often take part in the parades and other organised  Wren Day events.

In Dingle the wren tradition also incorporates

A pantomime-type horse with a wooden head, snapping jaws and a body made from cloth stretched across a timber frame, it is worn on the shoulders of one of the members of the Wren – who whirls and capers at the head of the parade (Woods 1997).

wrentop

Wren Hunt in Dingle Photos by Chrisity Mc Namara ( taken from https://www.dingle-peninsula.ie/home/culture-and-language/wren-s-day.html)

The role of the Wren in Wren Day Traditions

Originally the ‘Wren boys’ carried a dead wren or wrens with them on their escapades. The wren is no longer part of modern celebrations which are a much more animal friendly affair.

Catching a wren was not an easy task. The wren was obtained the days or the day before  the 26th. The wren boys would go out into the woods and bogs or search the thatched roofs of houses and any other places this poor little bird would live. They would hunt for and if found they would then kill the little bird. The following day the bird was  paraded  through the town or rural areas on top of a decorated pole or holly branch coloured in ribbons and coloured paper. What follows is a description of the wren hunt from Cork in 1840

For some weeks preceding Christmas, crowds of village boys may be seen peering into the hedges, in search of the “tiny wren”; and when one  is discovered the whole assemble and give eager chase to, until they have slain, the little bird. In the hunt, the utmost excitement prevails; shouting, screeching, and rushing; all sorts of missiles are flung at the puny mark; and not unfrequently, they light upon the head of some less innocent being. From bush to bush, from hedge to hedge, is the wren pursued until bagged with as much pride and pleasure, as the cock of the woods by the more ambitious sportsman (Hall, 1841 23).

Wren_boys_in_Cork_hall

Ireland: its scenery, character etc.(Volume I) by Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall. London: Hall, Virtue & Co., 1843. Drawn by D. Maclise, engraved by Landells. (http://www.corkpastandpresent.ie)

The killing the bird has long died out and any reference to  the killing of this tiny bird in a modern context is symbolic. Catching the wren was not easy task and if a wren could not be found  people would improvise and there are 20th century  accounts of toy birds and props being  used instead of the live bird (Danaher 1972, 246).

The Schools  Folklore Essays from  Clogher in Co Mayo  recorded in the 1930s,  recalls a piece of turf dressed up with feathers being used as a substitute for the poor little wren

Going out in the Wren” is still practised: only young boys now go out in the wren but formerly grown men did the same.
Now the boys go in batches or singly. If they can manage to catch a wren they dress him up in ribbons, put him into a small box also arrayed in ribbons and bring him round with them. But if they can’t get a wren they stick feathers in a small ciarán of turf and this does instead. They disguise themselves -thats an essential part of the game. There is no particular sort of disguise. They go from house to house getting money in each house. Sometimes batches of boys from 16 to 20 years do the rounds. These have often tin whistles or sometimes melodeons or mouth organs (NFCS Clogher 0095: 80).

1024px-zaunkoenig_alleinerziehend

Wren at its nest by Sonja Kübelbeck (own picture –Kuebi 16:31, 5 May 2007 (UTC)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In another account from Co Wexford  dating to 1867 the bird was tied to the bush alive.  This was no less cruel the killing the bird, as the little wren was brought from house to house tided to the bush which was shook vigorously as described below  in an excerpt from  The banks of the Boro: A Chronicle of the County of Wexford by Patrick Kennedy 

The professional artist used by some means to secure a live wren, and fasten it by a string to the twig of an ivy or holly bush, and enlivened by  the strains of an ear-piercing fife, invade the quiet of strong farmer’s houses and dance and shout, and sing the well known legend…..Then hands were taken, and steps performed round the bouchal na druleen[wren boys], who capered away in his best style, shaking the bush ans the poor prisoner in unison. They generally succeeded in extracting drink or money.. In most buys under the age of 15 pity for the sufferings of the small animal is the exception (Kennedy  1867, 233-234).

This must have been very traumatic for the little bird. Thankfully the practice of using  live or dead wrens has long died out.

So why did the poor little wren receive such harsh treatment? According to folklore the  Wren  was blamed for betraying the Christian martyr St. Stephen when he was in hiding by making noises, hence the reason for hunting the Wren on St. Stephen’s Day.

Wren Boys Athea Limerick 1946 National Museum of Irelandhttp://www.communityarchives.org.uk/content/organisation/our-irish-heritage

When the groups of wren boys travelled around from house to house, a poem was recited  and a number of songs grew up around the tradition. In Halls account from Cork in 1840 (Ireland: its scenery, character etc.) the poem recited was as follows

The wran, the wran, the King of all birds,

St Stephen’s day was cot in the furze

Although he is little his family’s grate,

Put yer hand in yer pocket and give us a trate.

Sing holly, sing ivy- sing ivy, sing holly,

A drop just to drink it would drown melancholy

And if you dhraw it ov the best,

I hope in heaven yee sowl will rest,

But if you dhraw it ov the small

It won’t agree wid de wran boys at all

A similar poem was recorded  in Drogheda Co Louth in the 1930’s. This poem was recited throughout the country in the 20th century with slight variations and is still recited today.

The wran the wran the King of all birds, St Stephen’s day was caught in the furzse.

Although he was small his family was great. Rise up landlady and give us a trate.

Up with the ketel and down with the pan.

A penny on a halfpenny to bury the Wran

(NFCS, Naomh Muire, Droichead Átha 0680: 219)

Image result for wren boys

Dublin Wrenboys 1933 National Museum of Ireland photo taken from http://www.sligoheritage.com

In all the poems  the wren is called the King of all birds. A lovely Irish folk tale recalls how the wren became king of all birds

Many years ago all the birds gathered together and wanted to have a king. The birds were satisfied that the bird that would fly the highest was to be their king. All the birds flew up into the air and the eagle far above them looked down and shouted, “I am the king of all birds.” But the wren hopping out from beneath the eagle’s wing shouted “You are not the king yet” and he flew still higher. The eagle was too tired to follow him and the wren was the king. When the wren came down out of the air the birds said he was too small and they proposed to drown him. But no water was to be found so all the birds began to cry into a bowl. When the bowl was filled with tears the clumsy owl tripped over the bowl and spilt it. They had all their tears shed and had nothing to drown him and he is still the king of all birds (NFSC Raheenagh (B.),  Volume 0493: 025).

Music was  and still is a very important part of the wren tradition. The Wren Boys usually carried some musical instruments with them such as a  tin whistles or “sometimes melodeons or mouth organs”. They would play music and  often dance and amuse their audience ‘by quips, pranks and buffoonery’ (Danaher 1972, 249). I have included an RTE documentary on the  Wren  tradition in  Mountcollins West Limerick  which provides further insight into the process.

At the end of the day the wren was normally buried  when all housed were visited. In Mountcollins Co Limerick  it was lucky for the wren to be buried opposite a  house.  In other cases the wren was buried opposite a house that refused to give any food, drink or money to the wren boys, it was said no luck would enter the house for the next 12 months (Danaher 1972, 249).

The money that had been collected was either on the “wren” divided up between the group, this was the norm for groups of  children. Adults would often  use the money to  buy food and drink to be consumed later at a  ‘Wren Party’ or spent that night in a public house (Danaher 1972, 248, 250). In modern Ireland the money is often given to charity.

When night falls they go (the ) to a public house and spend the money (NFCS Denmore,  Volume 0977: 135).

27145_ca_object_representations_media_11452_mediumlarge

Wren boys from Limerick. Image from Limerick Museum Identifier: 1996.1314.190

The tradition of hunting the wren seems to be  very ancient and  very similar traditions  was also carried out in parts of Britain and France.

Hunting the Wren was also a central part of Christmas traditions on the Isle of Man. The following is an article by Howard Caine describes the traditions

This ritual hunting of the hapless bird would seem to have originally taken place on Christmas Day, when folk would head out in the early hours to hunt down and kill their prey, before bringing it back to the local church. It would then be plucked and buried with much ceremony and singing in Manx.

The feathers of the dead bird were considered lucky and were believed to have the power to protect fishermen from shipwreck, to say nothing of a more general protection against witchcraft.

Later, the custom seemed to migrate, (something the wrens no doubt wished they had picked up on) to St Stephen’s Day on 26 December. Young men would chase down the birds, beating them from bushes with long sticks and general carousing.

They would suspend their dead quarry on top of a pole decorated with ribbons and evergreen leaves – which would then be paraded around the houses where dancing and singing would take place – before the feathers were distributed and hopefully some form of financial contribution would be made to the performers.

In Wales the hunting of the wren occurred on the Twelfth Night of Christmas. Groups of men would go out Hunting the Wrenhe tiny bird would be caged in a wooden box and carried from door to door. Householders would pay for the privilege of peeping at the poor wren in the box. Songs about the wren were also sung below is a song from Pembrokshire

Joy, health, love and peace be all here in this place
By your leave we will sing concerning our King
Our King is well dressed in the silks of the best
In ribbons so rare no king can compare
We have travelled many miles over hedges and stiles
In search of our King unto you we bring…
Old Christmas is past Twelfth-tide is the last
And we bid you adieu – Great joy to the new

Below is a youtube video of a Welsh song  about hunting the wren.

 

St Stephens Day in Wales was associated with  Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare / Holy Mary) a horse skull covered in ribbons. The horse-figure  was carried from door to door by wassail-singing groups during the Christmas season. The Welsh Museum blog provides the following description below. The Mari Lywd custom  reminds me of the horse used by the wren boys in the Dingle area which I mentioned above.

This figure (which is, of course, represented in other countries) seems to have been once known all over southern Wales but during the present century relatively little has been seen of it outside of Glamorgan, where it is not yet completely extinct.

The attendant ritual began with the singing of traditional stanzas by the Mari Lwyd group at the door, soliciting both permission to sing and entry into the house, and issuing a challenge to a versifying contest.

Next followed the pwnco, the debate conducted to the same music in a combination of traditional and impromptu stanzas) between a member of the group and an opponent within the house.  This usually amounted to heavy leg-pulling in which the contestants mocked each other’s singing, drunkenness, etc.

Victory in the debate would ensure admission into the house for the Mari Lwyd group, to partake of cakes and ale and perhaps collect a money gift as well.  In at least some cases, after the end of the debate, the group would sing additional stanzas introducing its individual members and finally, after entertaining the occupants of the house, it would deliver a farewell song (https://museum.wales/articles/2014-06-14/Christmas-customs-The-Mari-Lwyd/).

 

 

I really enjoyed researching the Irish Wren tradition,  and id love to find out more about the tradition outside of Ireland. Im  also glad the little wrens of Ireland can sleep safely now.

References

Caine, H. 2005, ‘Hunting the Wren’,http://www.bbc.co.uk/isleofman/content/articles/2005/12/07/hunting_the_wren_feature.shtml

Danaher, K. 1972. The Year in Ireland. Irish Calendar Customs. Cork: Mercier Press.

Hall,C.S. & Hall,  Mrs 1841. Ireland: its scenery, character.London : How and Parsons.

Kennedy, P. 1867. The banks of the Boro: A Chronicle of the County of Wexford. Dublin: M’Glashen & Gill.

Woods, P. 1997. ‘Hunting the Wren’https://www.dingle-peninsula.ie/home/culture-and-language/wren-s-day.html

NFCS Clogher 0095: 80.

NFCS Denmore,  Volume 0977:135.

NFSC Raheenagh (B.), Ráthluirc (roll number 10814).

https://museum.wales/articles/2014-06-14/Christmas-customs-The-Mari-Lwyd/

Other Wren Day related resources

http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/drama.htm#wren
http://www.ouririshheritage.org/page_id__70_path__0p4p.aspx

http://blog.goireland.com/…/christmas-in-ireland-the-wren…/

https://www.trac-cymru.org/en/traditions/hunting-the-wren

http://www.carrigalinecelticband.com/?p=913

https://thefadingyear.wordpress.com/2015/12/26/st-stephens-day-and-the-wren-boys/

http://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4427832/4348838

http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/christmas/sites/content/pages/customs.shtml

http://resources.trac.wales/traditions/hunting-the-wren/

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