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.
Ronnagh Pier Co Mayo
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.
Heading for Caher Island
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.
Pilgrims at Caher Island
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.
Arriving by boat at Caher Island
Today devotions on the island are focused around the small rectangular stone church.
Church at Caher Island
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.
Alter inside the ruined church at Caher Island
Conglomerate stone known as Leac na Naomh, used for rituals in times past
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.
Leachta at Caher Island
Decorated Early Medieval Cross Slab at Caher Island
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.
Priest saying mass at Caher Island
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.
Tobar Mhuire Caher Island
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.
Pilgrims on Caher Island 2014
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.
Carnavane/Crann a Bhán (white tree) holy well, is located near the village of Kildavin in Co Carlow a short distance from the Wexford/Carlow border.
View of Carnavane holy well
The well has no patron but it was likely at one time dedicated to St Finian who was born at nearby Myshall. A stone beside the lower holy well is said to bear the foot print of the saint. Local tradition also holds that the ruins of a nearby medieval church at Barragh mark the site of a monastery was founded by St Finian.
Stone said to bear the mark of St Finian’s foot.
Barragh church lies some 400 metres to the west of the holy well and is located beside an circular enclosed historic graveyard.
View of Barragh holy well
Only the north and east walls of the church survives to any great height.
Cranavane Holy Well (s)
There are two well at Carnavane. The larger of the two is covered by a rectangular shaped dry-stone well house.
A large stone lined a coffin-shaped trough is located in front of the entrance to the lower holy well. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was a custom of bath sick or weak children in waters of the trough. There was also a tradition of dipping coffins in the trough before taking for them for burial in Barragh graveyard.
Coffin shaped trough in front of Cranavane holywell.
The 1839 1st OS 6-inch’ map shows a building, farm-yard and gardens located beside the wells. The footprints of the building and associated garden walls and lane way still remain. The second holy well is located a few meters behind the lower well it is also covered with a dry stone well house of a simpler construction.
The second holy well behind the main holy well at Carnavane
O’Donovan in the Ordnance Survey Letters records that a ‘patron’ or pattern day was held here until the year 1798 , on the 3rd of May when it was then banned by the authorities (OSL 1839, 119). He noted that pilgrims continued to visit the well for cures of sore eyes and limbs in 1839. There seems to have been a revival of pattern in the early 1800’s but the event was banned again in the 1870’s by the parish priest due to faction fighting.
Pilgrimage continued at a local level to the well but over time the traditional prayers and rounds were forgotten. Up until the twentieth century many people from the townland would visit the well each Sunday during the month of May and the rosary was usually recited.
By the late 1990s the holy wells had become over grown and the local community cleaned away the scrub and landscaped the site. The wells were kept as they were and a stone cairn which may have been a pilgrim station, was rebuilt. In the early 2000’s a community mass began to be held at the well during the month of May. The mass is often held on the 3rd of May but this is date is not strictly adhered to.
Stone cairn rebuilt by local community during restoration works at Cranavane
People from the area surrounding the well still visit here during the month of May and it is also a popular tourist attraction throughout the rest of the year.
St David’s well is located a short distance from the village of Olygate in the townland of Ballynaslaney. The well is one of the most popular pilgrim sites in the Co Wexford. People come throughout the year to pray here with the main burst of devotions are carried out on the saints feast day the 1st of March.
St. David’s Well is a natural spring defined by a key hole shaped wall and a series of steps lead down to the well’s waters.
St David’s well Olygate
The stream from the well flows west into a small concrete bathhouse.
Bath house at St David’s well
The well and church are marked as St David’s well and church on the 1st edition Ordnance survey map (1840) . The church was the medieval parish church of Ballynaslaney parish, it was located to the east of the well within a modern raised rectangular graveyard defined by scarps. All traces of the building above ground are gone but the doorway from this church is said to have been built into the church at Suanderscourt (Lewis 1837, Vol. 2, 198).
The Ordnance Survey Letters of Co Wexford tell us that by the 1840’s the well had been stopped up by the farmer who owned the land it was on. The Letter’s described the well as ‘…enclosed by a turry and its door locked’. They go on to say in the past the water was ‘sold for a cure of disease’ until around 1810 when it was stopped up by the aforementioned farmer. The Letter’s also record that the well was formerly associated with ‘a pattern day held annually in honour of the saint on the last day of March which is still a holiday in the parish’. This would mean the pattern was held on the 31st of March but it is likely this mistake on the part of the writer and 1st of March was the true date.
At some point the well was opened again and by 1910 Grattan Flooded noted the old pilgrimage had been revived and the current wall surrounding the well was erected. The popularity of the pilgrimage is indicated by an add in the Irish Independent September 19th 1910 that noted a car service will to ferry pilgrims from Enniscorthy railway station to the well and back for a fee of 1s. 6d.
The pilgrimage was again in decline by 1916 but it managed to weather the storm and devotion has continued and grown over the years. The 1st of March is by far the busiest time of the year for pilgrims in modern times. Many people still have great faith in the healing qualities of the water.
Flood, W. H. G. 1916. The History of the Diocese of Ferns. Waterford: Downey and Co.
O’Flannagan, M. 1933. Letters containing information relative to the antiquities ofCounty of Wexford :collected during the progress of the Ordnance Survey in 1840. Typescript.
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.
Leac na Cumha in Lacknacoo
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.
Leac na Cumha is covered in rock art
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.
Stone cross at Leac na Cumha in Lacknacoo
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.
View of Lough Akibbon
View of Lough Akibbon and Lough Gartan from the site
View of Lough Akibbon
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.
Medieval church at Gartan
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.
Possible foundations of a monastic building
Two stone crosses also survive at the site and are part of the pilgrim stations.
Remains of stone cross at Churchtown
Stone cross at Churchtown
Below the site is a holy well dedicated to the saint.
St Colmcille’s holy well at Gartan
Both of these sites are part of the Slí Cholmcille and directions can be found on this website.
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.
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
Holy wells were often and some continue to be the focus of large gatherings of pilgrims, especially on special days of devotion such as the saints feast day/pattern day. In the 19th century and early 20th century some holy wells could attract hundreds even thousands of pilgrims, large gatherings could provide politicians/political groups with a captive audience and occasionally political meetings and rallies were organised to coincide with pilgrimages.
In the aftermath of the 1916 rebellion a number of pilgrimages at holy wells coincided with political meetings and anti-conscription rallies. In August 1917 the Irish Times ( 7th Aug 1917) tells that the Meath Sinn Fein Clubs held a public meeting on the pattern day of St Ciaran’s Holy Well (on the 1st Sunday of August), Caranross, Kells. Co Meath. Its was said upward of 8000 people were present and following prayers at the oratory beside the holy well, the Sinn Fein meeting was held in a field close by. The meeting was addressed by Countess Markievicz and Seam Milroy and ‘a large number of priests were present on the platform’.
Paddy Healy in his book Knocklyon Past and Present noted that at St Colmcille’s holy well at Knocklyon, Co Dublin was also the scene of a political rally, with a special pilgrimage organised to beg the saint’s intercession to avert conscription in Ireland.
In August 1918 the Derry Journal (19th August 1918) recorded the arrests of a number of Sinn Féin member’s for speaking at holy wells.
Thomas Murphy the Secretary of the Bray Sinn Fein Club was arrested in connection to speeches allegedly delivered at St Patrick’s Holy Well, Ballina, Co Mayo. John Moylett President of the the North Mayo Sinn Fein and Patrick Melvin of Ballina were also arrested in connection with this event.
A large number of police had been drafted into Ballina in anticipation of a meeting but political speeches were delivered at the Holy Well to which a procession, said to be a pilgrimage, took place.
This statement indicates Sinn Fein either instigated a pilgrimage to the well or took advantage of an already organised religious gathering, to continue with the planned meeting.
The same article also mentions that John Curran secretary of the Letterkenny Sinn Fein club was arrested due to the reading of the Sinn Fein Executive proclamation at a meeting held at Conwal Holy Well a few miles outside of Letterkenny. The well is dedicated to St Catherine and was an active pilgrim site at the time of the meeting.
This is a topic I will return to again it is very interesting see these places of prayer becoming places where political messages could be communicated to a large audience and the act of pilgrimage used to mask a political agenda. I am sure there are other examples of this type of activity from elsewhere in the country and from earlier times , so I will keep you all posted on what I find out.
Urlaur Friary, a Dominican foundation, on the shores of Urlaur Lake in Co Mayo is one of Ireland’s best kept secrets.
Urlaur Friary Co Mayo
The friary was founded around the year 1430 and was dedicated to St. Thomas. The friary survived the Reformation and in the early 17th century, the property was confiscated and handed to Viscount Dillon, a local loyal landlord. The community continued to reside here and the last friar of Urlaur, Patrick Sharkey, died in 1846. He lived in a cottage beside the ruins of friary and he sometimes said mass within the church.
The church is entered through the west gable via a pointed doorway with hooded moulding. A carved head in poor condition sits above its apex.
West gable of Urlaur Church
Above the door is a small elaborate triple light window with hooded moulding.
Window in west gable of Urlaur church
Door in west gable of Urlaur Church
The interior of the church is quiet plain and the floor is covered with gravel.
View of interior of Urlaur church facing the east gable.
The north side of the nave of the church appears to have been extended to accommodate an aisle. The remains of an arch on the north side of the west gable wall suggests the aisle may have been divided from the nave by arches and columns.
View of north side of Urlaur church showing addition the nave
Remains of aisle on the north side of the nave
Spring of arch surviving in the west wall
Spring of arch surviving in the west wall.
The east gable is also well preserved and has the remains of an elaborate tracery window.
East gable of the church at Urlaur
Tracery window in the east gable of Urlaur Church
The domestic buildings for the friary also survive and abutts the east end of the south wall of the church.
The east gable of Urlaur Church and domestic buildings for friary.
A pointed doorway in the south wall of the church leads into a vaulted room (part of the domestic building) abutting the exterior south wall of the church.
Piscina and door way at the east end of the south wall
Vauted room attached to the east end of the south wall
A second door in the middle of the south wall provides access to the exterior of the church and the domestic buildings.
View of doorway in the south wall of the church.
The remains of the domestic building consist of a north-south aligned two storey building. The ground floor has a number of vaulted rooms.
Vaulted room at Urlaur Friary
Vaulted room at Urlaur Friary
Door leading into vaulted room at Urlaur friary
Access to the second floor of the building is provided by a stone stairs.
Stone stairs leading to the upper floor of the domestic buildings
The upper floor is unroofed and may have been the dormitory for the friars.
A square tower for want of a better word is built against the south wall. This is probably the garderobe.
Tower attached to east wall of domestic buildings at Urlaur
Tower attached to the east wall of the domestic buildings at Urlaur.
Interior of tower at Urlaur
During the 19th century Urlaur was the scene of a pattern day held the on 4th of August, the feast of St Dominic. A field beside the church was marked as the pattern field on the 1839 1st ed OS 6-inch maps for Co Mayo.
1st ed. OS 6-inch map of 1838 depicts a field known as the Pattern field beside the abbey.
The pattern despite some ups and downs has continued to the present day and an annual mass reintroduced in 1914 is still held here each year on the 4th of August.
St Colmán’s well/ Tobar Cholmáin is part of the monastic landscape of Oughtmama a small but significant monastic site located in a valley above Turlough Hill in the Burren in Co Clare.
View of Oughtmama churches from pathway leading to Tobar Cholmán.
Oughtmama was associated with three different St Colmán’s one of which was St Colmán Mac Duagh the patron saint of the dioceses of Kilmacduagh and it is this Colmán who is the patron of the nearby holy well. According to folklore it was said the saint came to the site in his retirement seeking a life of solitude. He later died here and was brought back to Kilmacduagh for burial.
St Colmán’s well/ Tobar Cholmáin at Oughtmama
The well is located on a steep northeastern slope of the valley above the monastic site. It consists of a rectangular stone walled enclosure with steps leading down to the water in the well.
A tree growing out of a loose pile of stones and a leacht (a small stone built cairn of stones), are found on either side of the well.
Tree growing beside Tobar Cholmán
Leacht beside Tobar Cholmáin
According the Ordnance Survey Letters of 1839 the well had
migrated from its original position and broke out a short distance lower on the slope of the hill, where it is now known by the new name of Sruthan na Naomh, the Rivulet of the Saints; but its original locality which is still called Tobar Cholmain has a square enclosure of stones, in the centre of which grows a small, stunted, white thorn bush, exhibiting votive rags of various colours.
Like many other Irish holy wells it was held to have curative powers and was especially good for the eyes. It was said that the water could cure cataracts. The Ordnance Survey Letters ( 1839) state
This well is inbued with extraordinary naturally medicinal, or supernaturally miraculous virtues, for people have often washed their eyes in it, which were veiled with thick pearls, and ere they had completed the third washing these pearls (films) fell off leaving the eyes perfectly bright and clear-sighted .
In the late 1830s when he Ordnance Survey Letters were written a pattern was still held here annually on the 15th November in honor of St. Colmán feast day. Elsewhere St Colmán’s feast was celebrated on the 29th of October especially in the diocese of Kilmacduagh but at Oughtmama the feast was celebrated on the 15th of November.
The pattern day, was a day when people came together to perform pilgrimage at a holy well or saints grave, usually on the saints feast day. Such gatherings were very popular during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Secular celebration such as dancing, drinking and stalls selling food and trinkets more often than not took place along side religious devotion during this period. Alcohol seems to have been a key component in secular aspect of the celebrations on the day and pattern day could be rowdy affairs and a large number became the scene of faction fighting and violence and disorderly behavior (Nugent & Scriven 2015, 18). The unsocial behavior lead to much disapproval from the state and both the established Church as well as the Catholic church and attempts, many of which were successful, were undertaken to suppress the pattern day celebrations. By the end of the 19th century many had died out. It is not clear when exactly the pattern day at Oughtmama died out but it is no longer part of of the modern pilgrim traditions.
Image of pilgrims from the Lawrence Collection entitled ‘View of two men at St Coleman’s Well in Oughtmama, known as Tobercolman.’ from Clare County Library collection.
Today the well is visited by tourists and pilgrims although the numbers of the latter have steadily declined. The votive offerings and rags tied to the tree beside the well show the continuation of pilgrims to the well.
Piece of cord tied to tree at St Colmán well Oughtmama.
A few months ago I came across some wonderful images of pilgrims climbing Croagh Patrick. These images were taken some time in the first decade of the 20th century. The photographs were assembled by Fr. Angelus Healy OFM Cap. (1873-1953) a Capuchin friar known as the ‘Guardian of the Reek’, in honour of his long association with the pilgrimage. The images have recently been digitised from a collection of glass plate negatives held in the Irish Capuchin Provincial Archives, and the archives have kindly given me permission to reproduce the images for this blog post. I recommend a visit to the Irish Capuchin Archives Facebook page were you will find wonderful images and documents associated with early 20th century Irish history.
The photos reminded me of a contemporary account I had read some years ago of a pilgrimage to the summit of Croagh Patrick undertaken in 1910, on the main pilgrimage day to the mountain, the last Sunday of July often called Reek Sunday. The story of the pilgrimage was recounted in the article entitled ‘A Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick’ and was written by a cleric who gives his name as E.O’L and was published in the Irish Monthly magazine. The article recounts the priests ascent of the mountain, the weather conditions and encounters with pilgrims. I have climbed Croagh Patrick a number of times most recently on Reek Sunday in 2014 and it struck me that the 1910 account has a number of parallels to the modern pilgrimage in particular the physicality of journey to the summit, the dangers faced by pilgrims and weather conditions.
I found it very interesting that the article advises against wearing poor footwear when climbing this holy mountain and over a hundred years later this advise is still sound. I have often seen pilgrims and tourist attempt to climb Croagh Patrick in flipflops or other inappropriate footwear or clothing. Mayo Mountain rescue advises those planning to climb Croagh Patrick and other mountains in the area to wear appropriate clothing and footwear and to be aware that temperatures at the top of the mountain can be up to 10 degrees colder than at sea level.
In 1910 the author of the article advise pilgrims to avoid poor footwear stating
Low, thin-soled shoes are not the thing where one frequently sinks above the ankles in wet, boggy turf loam, and ladies’ fashionable high-heeled boots are, to say the very least of them, quiet at a discount where loose, sharp rocks and stones, and heaps of them, covering long and steep stretches of the ” Pilgrim’s Path,” have to be got over somehow (E. O’L 1910, 539)
The article advises gentlemen in 1910 to wear
…good, thick-soled boots (not shoes), with a few spikes or nails to prevent slipping, leggings of some sort, a light, rainproof cape, and a good, long, reliable walking-stick or pilgrim’s staff (E. O’L 1910, 539).
With regard to a suitable dress or outfit for ladies, we shall attempt to give only very little and very negative advice, namely, in the first place, not to wear light-soled, high-heeled shoes or boots; and, in the second place, not to wear over-long skirts, which cling about the feet, and, when the mountain is wet under foot or when there is rain and mist (which seems to be oftener the case than not), soon become very bedraggled and uncomfortable (E. O’L 1910, 539).
The author of the article undertook his pilgrimage on the last Sunday of July and tells us that
morning broke dull and grey, and heavy rain clouds and mist and fog enveloped and concealed the upper heights of the holy mountain almost all day long (E.O’L 1910, 587).
View of Croagh Patrick from base of the mountain covered in cloud and mist.
Traveling with companions, he left Westport by car and traveled on to Murrisk. En-route the group passed
group after group of young and old, boys and girls, men and women, on foot, all walking with zealous haste towards the holy mountain ; great numbers of cyclists also were to be seen, and a long line of brakes and cars of every description. Still everything was quiet and orderly, and the demeanour of the people was simply admirable (E.O’L 1910, 390).
Upon arrival at Murrisk the group immediately began their ascent of the mountain along the pilgrim path known as the Casán Phádraig/St Patrick’s path.
Pilgrims beginning their ascent of Croagh Patrick circa 1910. Image courtesy of the Irish Capuchin Provincial Archives.
Large numbers of pilgrims were already climbing the mountain and the scene described below is very similar to that of the modern pilgrimage on Reek Sunday.
Lifting up our eyes we saw before and above us an irregular and unbroken line of pilgrims winding, in long curves, up the mountain slopes, and higher up still, on an elevated ridge of the mountain leading to the cone proper, we could clearly see the unbroken line of pilgrims slowly advancing and silhouetted sharply against the sky-line; and higher and higher up still they could be seen, until they passed on into the heavy clouds, which hid them and all the upper reaches of the holy mountain from our sight (E. O’L 1910, 591).
Pilgrims climbing Croagh Patrick circa 1910. Note the ladies in their long skirts in the foreground. The image is courtesy of the Irish Capuchin Provincial Archives.
The modern pilgrimage as we know it derives from efforts made by the Archbishop of Tuam Dr. Healy in 1903 to revive the pilgrimage which was at the time in sharp decline. Dr Healy was also responsible for building the oratory on the summit of the mountain. The numbers of pilgrims have steadily increased in the last hundred years but in 1910 the pilgrimage was popular enough to attract pilgrims in their thousands.
Pilgrims taking a brake while climbing Croagh Patrick circa 1910. Image is courtesy of the Irish Capuchin Provincial Archives.
Until the 1970’s it the was the norm for a large portion of pilgrims on Reek Sunday to climb Croagh Patrick by torch-light the night before or in the hours before dawn.
An hour into the climb E. O’L and his companions
began to meet many of those who had already been to the summit and were now returning. Some of the older people had gone up the evening before, and had spent the night on the mountain side, or praying around the Oratory on the summit, and indeed they must have suffered greatly throughout that wet and dreary night, and no wonder they should look weary and faint and worn after having been ” buffeted at will by rain and storm ” all night long during their vigil on such a wild and shelterless mountain.
As they made their way up the mountain pilgrims descending greeted them with
Bravo ! you’re getting on grand, you have only a few hundred yards more to climb,” or, ” Take your time, alanna, and you’ll soon be at the top,” etc.
Modern pilgrims to Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday will often give words of encouragement to those ascending the mountain.
Croagh Patrick can be a dangerous mountain much of the route, in particular the latter stages along the conical top of the mountain, is covered by loose shale which moves under foot and can be very slippery in wet weather. The terrain is difficult especially in the final stages. Each year people fall, sprain and brake limbs while ascending and descending the mountain. So it’s not surprising that in 1910 the group also met a man ‘with a handkerchief tied around his head and blood oozing from underneath it‘, who had slipped and fell among the rocks while descending the mountain. The video below shows the pilgrimage on Reek Sunday on a day with similar weather conditions to those described in 1910 and it highlights how dangerous the climb can be and the amazing work that Mayo Mountain Rescue and the Order of Malta do to help pilgrims on this day.
The author and his companion reached the summit
clothes drenched with rain, our feet wet, our boots and lower garments covered with clammy turf-mould.
Pilgrims descending Croagh Patrick is wet and overcast conditions, similar to those described in the article.
As is the case with Reek Sunday today mass in St Patrick’s Oratory and confession was a big part of the pilgrimage rituals in 1910.
The priests who said their Masses early heard a good many of the pilgrims’ confessions afterwards, and at the time we entered the little Oratory of Templepatrick, rows of pious pilgrims were receiving Holy Communion, and there were pilgrims for Communion at Masses until mid-day (E. O’L 1910, 593).
The evening before a rota was organised to ensure that masses were completed in an orderly fashion
the priests who wished to say Mass on the summit entered their names in a register kept at the presbytery, Westport, and both the hour and the altar at which each priest was to say Mass in the Oratory were appointed (E. O’L 1910, 585).
Pilgrims on the summit of Croagh Patrick circa 1910. Courtesy of the Irish Capuchin Provincial Archives.
After their masses the group enjoyed
some sandwiches and a warm cup of tea nicely prepared… by two or three young ladies from the Technical School, Westport (E.O’L 1910, 593).
On my pilgrimage in 2014 I noticed many pilgrims bought a packed lunch and others bought refreshments and tea from the stalls on the periphery of the summit.
Courtesy of the Irish Capuchin Provincial Archives.
Having enjoyed the refreshments and
listened to the excellent sermon of the Very Rev. Father M’Grath for the occasion, and having received the special Papal Benediction at its close, and after hearing the Acts devoutly read in Irish before the twelve o’clock Mass, we began our laborious descent, in fog and rain, over loose rough stones and through boggy turf-mould and slush, and our heads were moved with compassion especially for the poor weary pilgrims struggling up against us, and we consoled and cheered them as best we could…. (E. O’L 1910 594).
As they descended the cone
the clouds and mist all cleared away quite suddenly, or rather we had left them behind or above us. The sun shone out brilliantly, and land and sea and sky all seemed to rejoice with and for us on our happy and safe return from the Holy Summit. And looking down upon the pleasant land of promise that lay basking in the sunlight far below us, the hardships of the mountain and the wilderness were very soon forgotten (EO’L 1910 594).
View of the summit of Croagh Patrick covered in cloud and fog. Image taken from the Tóchar Phádraig pilgrim path in 2008.
I hope this post by combining early 20th century and modern images with an early account of pilgrimage gives you a sense of what it was like to be part of the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick in 1910. It is also interesting to compare the dress of the pilgrims, the ladies in long skirts and fancy hats, the men dressed in suits some even wear top hats, it’s a far cry from waterproof jackets and hiking boots worn by the majority of modern pilgrims. We also see that then as now some pilgrims performed their pilgrimage barefoot. Yet we are also reminded while clothing has changed the modern pilgrim walks along the same path and endures the same physical hardships and weather conditions as those who have gone before.
Pilgrims on the summit of Croagh Patrick circa 1910. Image courtesy of the Irish Capuchin Provincial Archives.
Pilgrims on the summit of Croagh Patrick 2014
Images from the photographic collection of Fr. Angelus Healy OFM Cap. (1873-1953), now part of the Capuchin Archives collection. Reproduced in this blog courtesy of the Irish Capuchin Provincial Archives.
E. O’L. 1910. ‘A Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick: July 31, 1910’, The Irish Monthly, Vol. 38, No. 448 (Oct., 1910), pp. 585-596.
In June I attended the pattern day at Durrow Co Offaly and I wrote a post about it. I have been trying out some new social media platforms and here is the story of the pattern day at Durrow adapted and re told through photos and maps using StoryMap