Last summer I spent a day exploring some of the archaeology sites in the parish of Kilmovee Co Mayo. Kilmovee is located a short distance from the town of Ballaghadreen in Co Roscommon. Local man, Tommy Horan was kind enough to act as my guide for the day.
The parish gets its name from St Mobhí. Kilmovee or Cill Mobhí in Irish, means the church of St Mobhí. It is said he came to the area as a missionary, continuing on the work of St Patrick.
The day began in the townland of Rusheens West with a visit to one of the largest bullaun stones I have ever seen. The stone is known as Na Trí Umar Bheannaithe/The Three Holy Water Fonts. The bullaun stone is a large boulder with three large depressions. It sits on a plinth against a wall at the side of a small byroad. Folklore tells that the stone was transported from Killericín and placed in its current position.
From the bullaun stone we travelled on to the site of a holy well called Tober na Bachaille/The Well of the Crozier. The holy well is located in marshy field. As the site is on a working farm so permission should be sought before gaining access.
Folklore tells that when St Mobhí came to the area as a missionary he needed somewhere to baptise new converts. Not having a suitable water source the saint struck the ground three times with his crozier and three wells sprung up on the spot.
It is thought there was originally three wells here but today only one well is visible. The well is very overgrown and a small blackthorn tree grows beside it. The well is a spring enclosed by a low stone wall. The location of single well is marked on the 1st ed. (1839) OS 6-inch maps which could suggest that the three springs are within the well enclosure. Unfortunately the Ordnance Survey Letters relating to Mayo fail to mention the well. The Folklore Commission National Schools Essays provides an origin tale for what it calls the three Blessed Wells in the parish.
St Movee’s sister was a nun and she lived in Sligo. One day she came to Kilmovee to see her brother and the church. She was passing down through Barralackey and there was a boy minding cows. He told her he would help her and he told her that the Ardeull people thought she was a witch and that they were to follow her. He said he would go with her to the church only he had a long way to bring water to his cows. She was very thankful to him and said he would never again be short of water and she — [can’t read the word] on a rock and water filled in it and is there still. In three long steps she reached the church and every step she gave a well sprang up three well in succession and these are called the ‘Blessed Wells’ (NFSC Cloonierin 114:52).
Tober na Bachaille is no longer visited by pilgrims and as a result it has become overgrown. Local knowledge may shed more light on the well(s) and traditions relating to pilgrimage.
To the north of the well is a large stone built penitential cairn or leacht. Sitting on top of the cairn is a stout Ogham Stone.
Macalister noted that the ogham stone, once acted as a ‘kneeling stone’ and sat on the low wall surrounding the holy well. The stone had moved to its current position by the 1940’s (Macalister 1945, 7-9). An ogham inscription is found along one of the edges of the stone. Macalister identified this inscription as AlATTOS MAQI BR…. He also suggests that the top of the stone was deliberately cut away by a mason during the building of the wall around the well (ibid).
From the holy well we traveled on to the ruins of a medieval parish church called An Teampall Nua also known as St Patrick’s church. Local folklore recalls that when the church was first built it was called the ‘New Temple’.
All that remains of the church are the chancel and parts of the nave walls. The walls of the church have been rebuilt and incorporated architectural fragments of windows and doors. A chancel arch still survives in relatively good condition and appears to have been remodelled in the past. The original arch was rounded and built of cut sandstone, it was later altered and filled with masonry and replaced with a smaller to a pointed arch defined by vousoirs. The exterior of the church is surrounded by rubble masonry that likely came from the church. In 1838 the Ordnance Survey Letters for Mayo described the church as on
on the East gable of which there is a window about 6 feet and 6 inches broad. Part of side walls remain, West gable is perfect (Herity 2009, 288).
The church is surrounded by a historic graveyard and mass is said here once a year.
Our day concluded with a visit to a large ringfort called An Caiseal located in the townland of Kilcashel/Coill an Chaisil, which means ‘the wood of the stone fort’.
The ringfort is very well-preserved and is on private land so permission must be obtained before entering. The fort measures 30m in diameter and is constructed of a single circular wall which is 5m thick and 3m high.
The fort is entered through a formal linteled entrance.
The interior contains the ruins of two house sites and a souterrain.
The top of the walls are accessed from the interior via four sets of V shaped stone steps.
Another interesting feature of the fort is a creep-way that links two internal wall-chamber within the walls.
The wall chambers appear to be aligned to the morning sun.
For three mornings, light goes into the back of the chambers which are two meters deep and joined at the back by a six meter passage way. Each morning the new sun has moved on half a meter on the back of the wall. There is about 20meters of the back wall (of the Caiseal) that is traversed by the sun. This means that the sun shines only for about 40 days on the back wall twice a year. This is between Winter solstice and both equinoxes… The first chamber was lit on the 5th of October, the Second was lit on or about the 21st of October, but due to the curvature of the wall it is still in the chamber on the 24th …
Two months later the sun will again be shining in the this chamber on the 20/21 February as the days lengthen (Mac Gabhann no date 10-11).
For a more detailed discussion of the archaeology of this site see the Kilcashel project website. My day in Kilmovee was a brilliant experience and it reminded me of the wealth of local archaeological and historical sites that are to be found within and around all Irish villages. So really you don’t need to travel very far to find wonderful historic and archaeological sites to visit.
As many of the sites we visited were on private land, permission was always obtained before going to the sites. If anyone is interested in visiting the area please contact the Kilmovee Community & Heritage Centre, the people who work here are so helpful and will be able to help you find out if access is possible. Contact details and opening hours can be found on the Kilmovee website and Facebook page (see links below). The community centre also houses a wonderful Heritage Centre called ‘Cois Tine’ (beside the fire). The centre is design is based on a traditional Irish cottage and holds lots of information, photographs about the parish history, archaeological sites and folklore connected to the area. I recommend a visit to the Heritage Centre before any exploring as it is a great way to begin a trip around the parish.
If you are in the area I would also highly recommend a visit to Urlaur Abbey located just a few miles from Kilmovee. Located on the edge of Urlaur lake the Friary built circa 1432 is one of Ireland’s best kept secrets. Its setting alone is worth a visit.
References and useful links
Herity, M. 2009 (ed) Ordnance Survey Letters of Mayo. Dublin: Fourmasters Press.
Macalister, R. A. S. 1945. Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum,Vol I. Dublin: Stationery Office.
Mac Gabhann, S. no date. Cill Mobhí. A handbook on local history and Folklore.
NFSC Cloonierin 114:52 after http://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4427915/4357560
I recently was reminded about a really interesting carving I noticed on my last visit to Kilmacduagh, Co Galway.
Kilmacduagh is an early medieval monastic site founded by St Colman son of Duagh in the seventh century. The site is located a short distance from the town of Gort Co Galway. Today the surviving ruins of the monastic settlement consist of a round tower, a cathedral, two smaller churches and a small Augustinian abbey. I am planning to do a much more detailed post on the site in the coming months.
The cathedral is the largest of the surviving buildings and also possibly the oldest structure at the site. It was probably originally built in the tenth or eleventh century it was extended in the twelfth century and remodelled again in the fifteenth century.
The church has many interesting features that are worth discussing in more detail but for the purpose of this post I will only highlight a very unusual carving.
The carving can be seen just inside the doorway of the north transept, on the right-hand side as you walk into the transept from the nave.
The carving consists of a large face cut into a sandstone block of stone. It is an oval shaped face, of a bald male, with two large ears, almond shaped eyes and a broad smiling mouth. All of his features combine to giving the figure a rather happy expression and when I first noticed the face I could not help but smile back.
The carving is most unusual and I have not seen anything comparable in all my travels. Are any of you aware of similar type carvings at other church sites in Ireland or Britain? If I find out anything else about the happy face I will let you all know.
Today is the 15th of August, the Feast of the Assumption. It is one of the busiest days in the Irish pilgrim calendar. One of the most spectacular pilgrimages to take place on this day occurs on Caher Island/Oileán na Cathrach off the coast of Mayo.
In 2014 I joined with pilgrims in the annual pilgrimage to the island. This pilgrimage is a bit of a journey if you don’t live in Mayo but worth any effort. Access to the island is also very much dependant on weather conditions so there is a risk of arriving and finding the boats are not going. I travelled from Cork to the town of Louisburg in Co Mayo before continuing onto Ronnagh Pier. I then got on a boat organised by O’Malley Ferries and with other pilgrims sailed out to Caher Island. Boats also go from Inishturk island.
Caher Island a small uninhabited Island around 128 acres in size. It lies halfway between Inishturk Island and Ronnagh Pier off the coast of Mayo. The island contains the ruins of a small early monastic site and has a very fine collected of early medieval cross slabs. I plan to write a more detailed post about the archaeology and history of pilgrimage on the island in the coming months.
The waters around the island are treacherous so only an experienced boatmen familiar with the area can land safely. The island has no pier so you have to climb up the rocks along the shore to get to land.
The island was also known as Oileáin na Cathrach, Cathair na Naomh and Cathair Pádraig. St Patrick is said to have spent time here following his 40 day and nights on Croagh Patrick. Folklore also says the island is the end of a mythical road called the Bóthair na Naomh/Saint’s Road, that ran across the sea up to the summit of Croagh Patrick.
Today devotions on the island are focused around the small rectangular stone church.
Within the church is a small altar with a cursing stone known as the Leac na Naomh. The stone is a large conglomerate stone. In times past people would swear on the stone to prove they had told the truth or in more sinister cases to make curses or cause storms.
In times past a complex series of pilgrim stations existed on the island . The pilgrim landscape incorporated the church a large number leactha in the surrounding landscape and a holy well on the north side of the island. Leachta the plural for leacht is a type of dry-stone altar that predominantly dates to the early medieval period. The majority of the leachta at Caher Island are surmounted by decorated early medieval cross slabs.
Today pilgrimage rituals are focused around a mass held outside the church. A large leacht in front of the east gable is used as an altar.
Some pilgrims will also include a visit to Tobar Mhuire/ Mary’s well, a holy well located on the north side of the island. They will normally visit the well before the mass takes place.
For many people this pattern day or pilgrimage is an integral part of the annual pilgrimage to climb Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday in July with some feeling their pilgrimage is only complete once they have climbed the mountain and visited Caher Island some weeks later.
Following devotion pilgrims leave the island and travelled by boat to the nearby island of Inishturk for food and refreshments at the community centre before heading back to the mainland. There is a great atmosphere on Inishturk with plenty of good food and music and a visit here was a fantastic way to end such a great day.
Pilgrimage to Caher Island is one of the best pilgrimage experiences I have had. The island is a fascinating place and I cant wait to get back there again for a visit and to write more about the islands rich pilgrimage history.
Templecronan is one of my favourite pilgrim sites. The site is an early medieval monastic settlement dedicated to St Cronan. It is located on farmland in Co Clare near the village of Carran. To get to the ruins you need to cross through some fields but a number of signposts guide the way.
Very little is known about the history of Templecronan or the people who lived here and most of what we know about the site is gleamed from the archaeological record. The site is located in a townland called Termon/ An Tearmann which means church or glebe lands.
Today the most prominent feature at the site is a small rectangular shaped multi-period church. The fabric of the walls contain traces of cyclopean masonry, a common masonry style for churches in early medieval Ireland and a blocked up linteled west doorway with inclined jambs. These features, suggest an early stone church was at the site and was remodelled in during the Romanesque period (1020-1170 A.D).
Romanesque features within the church include a round-headed window in the east gable and corbels decorated with Hiberno-Romanesque animal heads in the west gable. There are also a number of Romanesque heads incorporated into the fabric of the walls.
Further remodelling was carried out in the fifteenth century with the addition of a pointed finely carved doorway in the north wall.
Traces on an ecclesiastical enclosure can still be found in the surrounding landscape.
Archaeological evidence for pilgrimage at Templecronan is represented by two outdoor reliquaries located close to the church. Outdoor reliquaries were built to house the relics of a saint or holy person who was normally the founder saint. Some may have been built over the original grave of the saint. At Templecronan the reliquaries/shrines are a type known as gable shrine. They are triangular-shaped structure made up of two long flat flag stones and two smaller triangular-shaped stones arranged like a tent and orientated east-west. The short length of the shrines suggests they were used to house disarticulated skeletons/corporeal remain (Edwards 2002, 240).
Most scholars agree that the gable shrines are among of the earliest types of outdoor reliquary and suggest a date of seventh or eighth century. However Carlton Jones (2006, 138-139) suggest that both the shrines at Templecronan were contemporary with Romanesque carving at oratory. Only targeted excavation would answer this question definitively although excavation of a gable shrine at Illaunloughlan Island, Co. Clare dated the shrine to second half of the eighth century .
The shrine located southeast of the church is known as St Cronan’s Bed and local tradition holds this was the burial -place of St Cronan. The second shrine is found northeast of the church in the adjacent field defined by modern field boundaries.
The presence of the gable shrines strongly suggests that pilgrimage was taking place here as early as the eight century and the construction of the shrines represents a period of great devotion to the saints associated with the site. The site appears to have fallen out of use in the late medieval period and devotion the the shrines gradually ceased.
Further evidence of pilgrimage is found at a holy well located a short distance from the church. The well is also dedicated to St Cronan and known as St Cronan’s holy well/Tobar Chronain.
The holy well is located at the base of a rock outcrop and defined by a dry-stone circular wall.
The holy well is a simple spring. A large penitential cairn of unknown date is found beside the well within the enclosure. It is not possible to know if the well was part of early medieval pilgrimage at Templecronan but it was a place of pilgrimage in the nineteenth century.
The Ordnance Survey Letters for Clare 1839 state that ‘stations are performed but no distinct patron day is remembered‘. A quick search of nineteenth century sources has failed to turn up any further information about the well. Today the well and its surrounding are well cared and I noticed some coins left beside a small modern religious statue which suggests it may be still visited.
Templecronan is one of many wonderful site in Co Clare and is certainly worth spending some time exploring.
Edwards, N. 1999. The Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland. London: Routledge.
Jones, C. 2004. The Burren and The Aran Islands. Exploring The Archaeology. Cork: The Collins Press.
Marshall, J. & Walsh, C. 2005. Illaunloughan Island: An Early Medieval Monastery
in County Kerry. Bray: Wordwell.
Tradition holds St Colmcille was born at Gartan in Co Donegal. The exact location of the saints birthplace is open to discussion. One tradition says the saint was born on a stone called the Leac na Cumha in the townland of Lacknacoo.
Leac na Cumha or the Stone of Sorrow is stone set into a large oval-shaped mound with a U-shaped setting of stones that opens to the north.
The Leac na Cumha is located along th south-eastern edge of the mound. It is a flat slab of stone and its surface is covered in prehistoric rock art. The art consists of cup-marks c. 0.1m in diameter.
It is here on this stone that the saint is said to have been born. The site was marked on the 1st ed. (1836) OS 6-inch map as St Colmcille’s stones. Close to the mound is an enormous stone cross erected by Cornelia Adair in 1911.
In the nineteenth century
it became commonplace for emigrants to spend their last night here on the Leac na Cumhadh – the Stone of Sorrows. As Colmcille had decided to exile himself to Scotland, they thought that sleeping here – where he was born – would make their sadness easier to bear (http://www.colmcille.org/gartan)
A short distance away are the ruins of an early medieval ecclesiastical site at Churchtown – Ráth Cnó . Tradition holds this was the place where St Colmcille’s family lived. It was said his family gave this land to the church so that a monastic settlement could be built here. The site over looks Lough Akibbon and Lough Gartan.
The site is still used as a turas by pilgrims who walk barefoot between the five marked stations. Believers follow the turas between Colmcille’s feast day on 9th June and the end of the turas season on 15th August, performing a series of prayers and actions at each stop (http://www.colmcille.org/gartan/3-03).
The most prominent features on the site is a small church marked as St Colmcille’s chapel on the 1st ed (1836) OS 6-inch map.
According to the Donegal Archaeological Inventory this is probably the chapel described in 1622 as being in repair and having a thatched roof.
To the north of the church is a graveyard, at the centre of which are the foundations of a building said to be a monastic building.
Two stone crosses also survive at the site and are part of the pilgrim stations.
Below the site is a holy well dedicated to the saint.
Both of these sites are part of the Slí Cholmcille and directions can be found on this website.
Last year I was delighted to write a guest blog post about of the pilgrim site of Kilgeever in Co Mayo. This post was a guest blog for the very informative heritage blog The Standing Stone.ie. This is a great blog and worth checking out as it has lots of varied and interesting content. At the moment I am working on some research concerning this area of Mayo and as the site is fresh in my mind I have decided to repost my guest post.
Pilgrimage at Kilgeever Co Mayo. Originally posted on the Standing Stone Blog
Kilgeever/Cill Ghaobhair is located in the most scenic of setting on the slopes of Kinknock around 3km outside of Louisburg in Co Mayo. The site is part of the Clew Bay Archaeological Trail.
Local folklore holds that St Patrick came to Kilgeever having completed his fast of forty days and nights on the summit of Croagh Patrick. It is said that Patrick decided to build a church here and that he later sent St Iomhair one of his disciples completed the task. Some traditions would suggest that “Kilgeever” is the anglicised version of “Cill Iomhair” or the church of Iomhair. The Ordnance Survey Letters of 1838 translates the name as St. Geever’s Church. Curiously neither variants of the saint’s name are found in Ó’Riain’s Dictionary of Irish Saints.
Alternatively the name may derive from Cill gaobhar, ‘the near Church’ (Corlett 2001, 130) or as the Schools’ Manuscripts Essays for Louisburg(1937/38) state
Kilgeever- according to the interpretation of most people means “the windy church”.
Almost nothing is known about the history of the site but it appears to have functioned as a parish church in the late medieval period. Today the site consists of the ruins of a multi-period medieval church surrounded by a historic graveyard, a holy well and penitential stations. At least three early medieval cross slabs are associated with the site suggesting some sort of early medieval activity. If there was an early medieval monastic settlement here as the name ‘abbey’ would imply no physical remains survive above ground.
Traditionally pilgrims visited here on the 15th of July the Feast of the Apostles and on Sundays. The Ordnance Survey Letters of 1838 refer to a pattern formerly held on the 15th of July. There was also a tradition of visiting the site on the last Sunday of July. For some pilgrims it is a key component of their pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick and having completed their pilgrimage on the summit of Croagh Patrick they descend the mountain and end their pilgrimage at Kilgeever. The ITA Files 1944 also makes reference to pilgrims visiting here from the 15th of August to the 8th of September with the annual pilgrimage day being the 15th of August.
The main focus of devotion at Kilgeever is a small holy well located in the northwest corner of the historic graveyard that surrounds the medieval church.
The Ordnance Survey Letters of 1838 state
It is a good spring and much frequented by pilgrims especially for Sundays and on the 15th of July when a pattern is held, now at Louis Borough but which was formally held at the this well.
The traditional pilgrim stations begin at this holy well, located just inside the entrance to the historic graveyard. The well is known locally as “Tobar Rí an Dhomhnaigh” or “Our Lord’s Well of the Sabbath” and the 1st ed. (1839) Ordnance Survey Map record the name of the well as Toberreendoney (Anglicisation of the former).
The Pilgrim Rounds
The pilgrimage begins with the pilgrim walking clockwise around the well forming his/her intentions. The pilgrim then kneels at the well and recites 7 Our Fathers (Paters) & 7 Hail Mary’s (Aves) and the Creed.
The pilgrim stands and circles the well 7 times while reciting 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Marys and the Creed. Once the perambulation is completed, the pilgrim kneels again at the well and recites 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Marys and the Creed. It was not uncommon for pilgrims to pick up 7 stones from the well as an aid to counting the rounds dropping one stone as each circuit of the well was completed. The use of stones to count prayers is a common practice at Irish many Irish pilgrim sites especially those with complex prayer rituals.
The pilgrim then walks to the three flagstones located to the south of the well where he/she recites 5 Our Fathers, 5 Hail Marys and the creed while kneeling.
The pilgrim then proceeds to a small rock outcrop known as St Patrick’s rock where he/she kneels and rites 3 Our Fathers, 3 Hail Marys and the Creed. This stone is reputed to bear the tracks of St Patrick’s Knees (ITA Files). In modern times some pilgrims have inscribed crosses on this rocks and others around where the stations are performed.
The pilgrim then walks to and enters the medieval church at the centre of the graveyard.
Within the interior of the church the pilgrim kneels and again recites 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Marys and the creed and pray for the souls of the dead. In the 1940s it was common for pilgrims to leaving the church following along the west wall (ITA Files).
Some pilgrims continue a modern practice of scratching a cross into a late 19th century graveslab belonging to the Mac Evilly family. When I visited the site in 2014, a number of tiny stones were left on the edge of the slab. Other accounts suggest that in the mid-twentieth century pilgrims were in the habit of leaving votive offering in the aumbry within the church. This tradition was not noticed on my visit but a number of religious objects were left at the well.
Having left the church the pilgrim walks back to the well via a stream that runs the length of the western side of the graveyard. If the pilgrim’s stations are being performed on behalf of a living person the pilgrim is to walk in the waters of the stream to the well. If the pilgrimage is being performed for the dead, the pilgrim walks along the edge of the stream.
The pilgrimage is completed when the pilgrim circles the well a further 3 times prayer in honour of the Blessed Trinity. Before leaving the Holy Well pilgrims are invited to pray for Henry Murphy of Castlebar who had the cross erected over the well (as indicated by an inscription on the cross).
A photo dating to the 1890s and part to the Wynne Collection at Mayo County Library shows pilgrims kneeling in prayer at the holy well in bare feet. This photo confirms what was a common practice at the time for people to complete such pilgrimages barefoot and even today at a small number of pilgrim sites pilgrims continue this practice. The photo also shows that the well has changed little over the years with the exception of the addition of the cross which now surmounts it.
Kilgeever is one of the most peaceful and tranquil places to visit and it is just one of many interesting sites around Clew Bay area.
Corlett, C. 2001. Antiquities of west Mayo: The Archaeology of the Baronies of Burrishoole and Murrish. Bray: Wordwell.
Higgins & Gibbons 1993: J.G. Higgins & Michael Gibbons. ‘Early Christian monuments at Kilgeever, Co Mayo’. Cathair na Mart, 13, 32–44.
Irish Tourist Association Files for Mayo 1944.
The Schools Collection, Louisburgh (roll number 5128/9), Volume 0137, Page 005, 006, 026, 027 (http://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428011/4368055)