Balla in Co Mayo has very ancient roots, and was once the site of a thriving pilgrimage. Balla was also located along the route of the well-known pilgrim road/route the TocharPhádraig. Tradition holds that Tóchar was a medieval road that linked Croagh Patrick to important settlements such as Aghagowel, Ballintubber and Balla and used by pilgrims up until the 19th century when travelling to Croagh Patrick.
Despite its connections with the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage, Balla was not founded by St Patrick but folklore tells that the saint rested here while travelling through Mayo. The modern village developed around the site of a seventh century monastery founded by St Crónán also known as a Mo-Chúa. The saint was educated by St Comghall of Bangor and he died in AD 637. Like St Laserian, Crónán choose to settle at Balla because of a divine sign. It was said that a cloud guided the saint to Balla and upon his arrival a spring burst from the ground. Such signs confirmed to the saint that this was where his church was meant to be. We know little of the early settlement established by Crónán. It was seldom mentioned in historical sources and all that survives of the early monastery are the partial remains of a round tower found within a historic graveyard.
Balla Round Tower
The tower survives to a height of circa 10m. During the nineteenth century it was used as a bell tower for the local catholic church. Lalor estimates it once stood at a height of 30m. The tower has two doors the lower of which appear to be a late medieval insertion. The lintel of this door re-used an early medieval cross slab. Today the slabs decoration is quite faded and difficult to see. The upper door has traces of Romanesque moulding on its lower course suggesting a 12th century date for the construction for the tower. The changes in masonry style and the stones size within the upper door and the surrounding masonry suggest this section was a later rebuild (O Keeffe 2004, 79-80). Apart from the re-used cross slab the fabric of the tower also incorporates two bullaun stone within the walls.
In the 1830s a church was recorded in the vicinity of the tower, the church has long since disappeared although a late medieval altar still survives to the north-east of the tower.
The site of the spring which burst forth from the ground on the arrival of Crónán also survives and is located to the west of the graveyard along a small lane that runs along the side of graveyard from the carpark in the community centre. The holy well which burst forth to welcome Crónán to Balla is today known as Tobair Mhuire (Lady Well). When I visited the site in 2014 the well was choked up with silt and the rest house was in a poor state of preservation.
Tobar Mhuire Holy Well at Balla
The ruins of a 17th century building that was built as a shelter for blind and lame pilgrims is located beside the well.
Bath House at Balla Holy Well
There are no historical accounts of pilgrimage during the medieval period but the well and monastery were the focus of a very popular post medieval pilgrimage. The post medieval pilgrimage likely developed from an older pilgrimage tradition. The construction of the rest house in the 17th century suggests a sizeable flow of pilgrims here at the time. The well was probably once dedicated to St Cronán/Mo Chúa but by the 17th century, if not long before, its was firmly associated with the Blessed Virgin and stations were performed here on the 15th of August. A pattern day festival was also held on this date. Lewis in 1837 noted the well
is attended by great numbers of the peasantry at patrons held on the 15th of August and 8th of September(Lewis 1837, 102).
The waters of the well were held to have healing properties and were especially good for sore eyes.
According to the Ordnance Survey Letters of Mayo of 1838
There are also two little pillars, of mason work , called by the people, Station monuments (Leachta), and used as such, on top of which, are two small stone crosses, one on each, and in which are fixed (in the work of which are placed) two stones, one in each, with inscriptions on them, dated 1733; both are written in English, and under one of them are the words ‘Sun tuum praesidium fugimus, sancta Dei genitrix’. that is – Under your protection, we fly, Holy Mother of God.
These pillars and crosses appear to have acted as pilgrim stations but are no longer present at the site. The pillars may have been replaced two cairns of stones which also acted as pilgrim stations. The cairns were recorded by The Schools Manuscripts Essays for Balla (roll no. 1146, 178 ) in 1937 beside the well but are no longer present at the site
are two heaps of stones with a cross on each lying down. Beneath those heaps two priests are supposed to be buried. St Cronan himself is said to be buried somewhere near the spot (Balla B roll no. 1146, p 178).
The The Schools Manuscripts Essays state to obtain a cure
sight has been restored to some people who perform the stations. Several Our Fathers and Hail Marys have to be repeated at each heap of stones and at the well (Balla B roll no. 1146, p 178)
As devotion to the well ceased the cairns of stones were removed in the ensuing years.
The 19th century devotional rituals engaged in by pilgrims were quiet complex and know as the Long Station. It was said that 15,000-20,000 people would attend the main days of pilgrimage arriving on the eve of the feast during this period (Rynne 1998 183).
Charles Green, An Irish ‘Patern’ at Balla County Mayo – The ‘Long station’, engraved by Eugène Froment, in The Graphic 11 (23 January 1875), between pp. 96 and 97. Ill. 899 . Green himself described the churchyard scene on p. 78. (Image taken http://www.maggieblanck.com/Mayopages/Irishancestors.html)
Prayers began in the graveyard among the tombstones the bare foot pilgrims would kneel and say a Pater, Ave and Gloria ( Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory be to the Father) seven times, they then crawled on their kneels to what was known as the high altar (the altar from the medieval church) within the graveyard , one Pater and fifteen Aves were recited as they made their way to the altar. At the altar they said the litany of the Blessed Virgin, seven Aves and seven Glories. The pilgrims then walked around the graveyard seven times saying fifteen decades of the rosary. Returning to the altar they said the Pater, Ave and Goria five times. From here they continued to the well and at each cairn(mound) near the well they said five Pater Ave and Gloria. The pilgrims then entered the rest house and said a Pater Aves and Gloria five times, after which they turned three times around. The pilgrim rest house was described as unroofed in the Ordnance Survey Letters in 1838. Leaving the rest house pilgrims then went to the well and made the sign of the cross with its waters saying one ave each time. This completed the stations (Rynne 1998, 183).
The Schools Manuscripts Essays for Balla also recount a version of the Long Station and it appears by the early 20th centurythe penitential aspect of the pilgrimage had lessened slightly with people now wearing shoes for most of the station.
The rounds are done by the people on the knees from a particular slab to the altar on the opposite side of the graveyard saying while doing seven Our Father, seven Hail Marys and seven Glories. Them the people walk around the graveyard even times and they repeat the same prayers. When the people reach the graveyard gate they go on their knees to the altar again and they go down to the Blessed well and take off their shoes and stockings and walk around the well three times and then drink the water. After that they make the sign of the cross on a stone nearby so that the station would be blessed (Balla C roll no. 1146, p 34-35.)
Relevant to the decade of commemorations and showing how in times of crisis holy wells and local saints were turned to for help and protection
During the Black and Tan regime people from Balla did the stations for the protection of Cronan for Balla (Balla B roll. no. 1146) p179
This reaction of the people of Balla to seek protection from their saint is not surprising when one considers in June 20th 1921 the Black and Tans burned the town of Knockcroghery in Co Roscommon.
The rise of pilgrim sites like Knock in the later 1800’s sent the pilgrimage at Balla into a steady decline and today the pilgrimage that took place here is a distant memory.
If you visit Balla be sure to go to the local community centre where there is a great display dedicated to the history of the site and the area.
The Schools Manuscripts Essays, Ball Áluinn (Balla) (roll number 1146) http://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4427833
Green, C. 1875. ‘An Irish ‘Patern’ at Balla County Mayo – The ‘Long station’’, engraved by Eugène Froment, The Graphic 11 (23 January 1875), between pp. 96 and 97. Ill. 899 .
Herity, M. 2009. (eds.) Ordnance Survey Letters Mayo. Fourmasters Press.
Lalor, B. 1999. The Irish Round Tower. The Collins Press.
O’Keeffe, T. 2004. Ireland Round Towers. Tempus Press.
Rynne, E. 1998. ‘The Round Tower, Evil ye, and Holy Well at Balla Co Mayo’s’ in C Manning (ed) Dublin and Beyond the Pale. Studies in honour of Paddy Healy. Bray: Wordwell in association with Rathmichael Historical Society pages 177-184