St Mac Duagh’s Hermitage Co Clare


St Mac Duagh’s Hermitage is located in the townland of Keelhilla(Kinallia’Kinahulla) in the Burren Co Clare.  According to tradition, the site was chosen by St Colmán Mac Duagh as a hermitage because of its isolation and solitude. The saint lived  here as a hermit for seven years before leaving and setting up his great monastic foundation at Kilmacduagh.


‘What a dismal and gloomy spot!’  wrote Eugene Curry when speaking of St Mac Duagh’s Hermitage.  These remarks were recorded in the Ordnance Survey Letters of Co Clare in 1839. In my experenece this description could not be more further from the truth.   I consider  St Mac Duagh’s hermitage to be a very scenic, peaceful and beautiful place.

Curry visited  St Mac Duagh’s Hermitage on the 23rd October  1839 when carrying out his survey of the antiquities of  Co Clare.  He set off from Corofin and headed across the a karst limestone landscape of the Burren. The ground he travelled over was ‘uneven surface of limestone rock‘. The experience left Curry ‘fatigued‘ mentally and physically by the time he arrived at the ‘dismal valley‘.  The hermitage is located at the base of  Slieve Carrana cliff face in the townland of Keelhilla.  It is very clear from  his writing that his spirits were low by the time he arrived

What a dismal and gloomy spot! I walked thither on the 15th October from Corofin and I never felt so fatigued after having walked for miles across that country on the uneven surface of the limestone rocks. What an enthusiastic recluse St Colman, the son of Duach must have been to have retired from the busy scenes of life to contemplate eternity and uncertainty of human fate in the dismal valley then thickly wooded and haunted by wolves!


View of the  Burren Co Clare from the path leading to St MacDuagh’ s Hermitage

The site has little changed from the time of the Ordnance Survey with the exception of the growth of  scrub and trees surrounding  the site.






The archaeological features at the hermitage are  surrounded by a low wall composed of large moss-covered boulders.


View of enclousure surrounding church at St Mac Duagh’s Hermitage

The most imposing remains at the site are the remains of a small church or chapel, The Ordnance Survey Letters  described the structure as

The little oratory of Mich Duach in this wild valley  through much dilapidated is still easily recognised to be a church of his time. It was very small, and only one gable and one side wall remain.

Today the church is in poor condition only the east gable stands intact, the other  walls remain in a varying state of preservation. Ní Ghabhláin (1995, 73) dates the church to  late medieval period and there is no sign of later alterations.






Above the church  is a small cave found in the cliff face. The cave was  ‘called Mac Duach’s Bed or Leaba Mhic Duach‘ as the St Comán was ‘accustomed to sleep every night‘  (Ordnance Survey Letters).





I’m not sure  you could call St Colmán a true hermit as during his  retreat from the world he was accompanied by his servant. There is a lovely story about St Colmán’s servant.

One  day his servant  complained that he was hungry and St Mac Duagh replied that God would provide.  There was a banquet at the time King Guaire’s castle in Kinvarra and at that moment  the dishes of food suddenly rose and floated out  the window. The surprised king and his men followed the dishes and were led to St Mac Duagh and his servant. But when the king’s party arrived at the hermitage  their feet became rooted to the stone and they couldn’t move.  Luckily for the king and his men, St Mac Duagh was able to perform a miracle and free them, whereupon the king was so impressed with St Mac Duagh he asked him to found the monastery of Kilmacduagh on the lowlands near Gort. While this was taking place St Mac Duagh’s servant was eating King Guaire’s food with gusto but unfortunately had grown so accustomed to the meagre diet he received in the service of St Mac Duagh that the banquet food killed him. Theses traditions are preserved to this day in the name of the track that leads to the hermitage, Bóthar na méisel, or  ‘way of the dishes’, and the nearby  ‘Grave of the Saint’s Servant’ (Jones 2006, 93).

The road  Bóthar na Méisel is still pointed out in the landscape running towards the hermitage as is the site of the servant’s grave. The bóthar is not a made road rather a distinct weathering of the limestone and  the name may possibly remember an earlier pilgrim route from the west.

map of st mac duagh

1st edition Ordnance Survey map (1842) depicting the Boher na mias and the grave of St Mac Duagh’s Servant.

An early medieval bullaun stone  is one of the earliest features at the site.



Bullaun stone at St Mac Duagh’s hermitage


There are no historical records to suggest pilgrimage occured at the site during the early or late medieval period.   However pilgrim is seldom recorded during the early/late medieval period so the silence of the records cannot be seen as definitive evidence of pilgrim not taking place. St Colmán was a significant saint with a very strong cult in the region. Close to the church are two leachta (leacht singular), low,  rectangular, drystone-faced cairn.  This type of monument occurs at other early medieval ecclesiastical sites known to have been places of pilgrimage such as Innishmurray Co Sligo.  Leacht seem to have had a variety of  funtions  some may have marked a special grave, such as that of the site’s founder saint, and others may have served as a focal point for outdoor services and others were penitianal stations. We known that the leachta  at St Mac Duagh’s  were used during the 19th century  as penitiential stations. Ní Ghabhláin (1995, 73) notes that one of the leachta was built over the rubble on the medieval church suggesting that its construction may be post medieval. It could also represent the  rebuilding of an earlier structure during this period.





Westopp in the early 1900’s  recorded a number of round stone on top of one of the leachta.

we find several of these stones and a flat slab with two parallel shallow flutings (each with one end rounded), lying on the altar.



Image of stones formerly located on on the leacht at St Mac Duagh Hermitage (Westropp 2000, 36).


Unfortunately the whereabouts of the stones are at present unknown but  they may have functioned in the pilgrim rituals of post medieval pilgrims. Westropp noted

St. John’s altar at Killone ‘Abbey,’ and those at Kinallia and Ross, appear to be used only as a rude rosary to keep count of the prayers and ‘rounds’ offered at these shrines.

Another focus for pilgrims to the site, at least in the 19th century if not  long before,  was  the holy well dedicated to St Colmán Mac Duagh, known  as Tobermacduagh. The well is still an active place of pilgrimage and the water is believed to cure back ache and sore eyes.

The well is a natural spring encloused by a circular wall with a gap allowing access to the water. The  gap/entrance to the well interior is covered by a large flat stone which acts as a lintel.  The well is over shadowed by a tree covered in an eclectic mix of votive offerings.





The Ordnance Survey Letter’s for Clare (1839) state

Immediately to the east of Templemacduagh at Kinallia is Tobermacduagh, at which Stations are performed and a “Pattern” held on St. Mac Duagh’s Day, said to be last day of summer, but this must be an error, as St. Colman Mac Duagh’s Day is the 3rd of February.

and that

There are also here two altars or penitential Stations at which pilgrims perform their turrises or rounds on the “Pattern Day” or on any day they wish.

This short decription suggest pilgrims circled the leachta in prayer as part of the pilgrim rituals.

Westropp (2000, 36) writing in the early  1900’s  recorded that

on the last day of summer rounds are performed at the two altars of the oratory of St Colman Mac Duagh at Kinallia.

Both  reference to pilgrimage taking place on the last day of summer may impy that it was once a Lughnasa site.

Frost (1893) in The history and topography of the county of Clare, from the earliest times to the beginning of the 18th century  records pilgrimage taking place  on the 3rd  of February.

The place is still visited by pilgrims on the Saint’s day, February 3rd.

This date coincides with the begining of Spring and the festival of Beltane. It is possible that the times of the pilgrimage changed from the site the Summer to Spring or that Frost was taking on board what the Ordnance Survey Letters had said  and changing the date to correspond their thinking.

I’ve been told  a communtiy  pilgrimage still takes place here   on the feast day of the saint 29th of October. I’m hoping to investigate this further.

The holy well is visted throughout the year. The tradition of tieing rags and other items  to the tree beside the well is pretty recent. The practice also has a destructive effect on the holy well as  people climb on the wall enclosing the well and loosen stones damaging the walls. Tony Kirby has written a very interesting report on the practive of votive offerings at the site  and you can read this report by following the links embedded here and in reference section.  The report notes other damage at the site such as graffiti carved on the church walls and on the rag tree caused by a minority of pilgrims and tourists.

As pilgrims and visitors to holy places like St Mac Duagh Hermitage we need to consider how our visits can impact the site and others like it. We should all avoid damaging walls by climbing on them, resist the urge to carve out names on stones and trees and if attaching offerings to  trees use biodegradable materials  and avoid plastic, wire etc items which could in the long-term damage the tree.






Frost, J. 1893.  The history and topography of the county of Clare, from the earliest times tot he beginning of the 18th century. Dublin, Printed for the author by Sealy, Bryers & Walker.

Jones, C. 2006. The Burren and The Aran Islands. Exploring the Archaeology. Cork. The Collins Press.


Ní Ghabhláin, S. 1995. Church and Community in Medieval Ireland: The Diocese of Kilfenora. The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 125, 61-84.
O’Donovan, J. &  Curry, E. 1939. The Ordnance Survey Letters of Co Clare.

Westropp, T. 188-1901. The Churches of County Clare, and the Origin of the Ecclesiastical Divisions in That County. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (1889-1901), 6, 100-180. Retrieved from

Westropp, T. reprint 2000. Folklore of Clare: a folklore survey of County Clare and County Clare folk-tales and myth. Clasp Press.

Click to access rian-na-manach-a-guided-tour-of-ecclesiastical-treasures-in-co-clare-8938.pdf









Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland at Montserrat in Spain

Recently I paid a visit to the medieval pilgrim shrine of the  holy statue of the Blessed Virgin of Monserrat in Spain.


View of the monastery of Montserrat

The shrine is located at a Benedictine abbey at Montserrat, around  40 miles from Barcelona in the province of Catalonia. The abbey is a working monastery and home to  80 monks. The monastery is overshadowed by majestic  mountains. The name Montserrat is derived from Catalan and means ” serrated mountain”.  When you stand back and look at this jagged and rocky mountain you can see why the name was chosen.

Religious activity in the area can be traced back to early medieval times. It is said that a hermitage dedicated to  the Blessed Virgin, was constructed here some time between the sixth-ninth centuries. According to legend  the statue which is the focus of the pilgrimage was carved by St Luke and brought to Spain and hidden in cave at Monserrat. In the year 880 some shepherds were grazing  sheep in the mountains when they saw a light and heard otherworldly singing. When the shepherds when to investigate  they found the statue in a cave.

Following the discovery of a statue of  the Blessed Virgin and Christ Child, the site gradually evolved and by the eleventh century abbot Oliba of the Monastery of Ripoll established a small monastery here beside the chapel of Santa María. A small Romanesque church was built beside the monastery and the image of the Virgin placed inside.


View of the  valley below the monastery at Monserrat

My pilgrimage to Monserrat began in Barcelona when I boarded a coach at 6.45am. I arrived at the monastery at 8am. Monserrat is a very important tourist destination and attracts vast numbers of tourist each year so  the site is always busy throughout the year. My early morning start meant that  I  and my fellow travelers were able to arrive  just as the shrine opened  and  experience the place without the  bustle of crowds, who arrived later in the morning.

The Vewpoint of the Apostles is the first  monument that tourists who arrive by car or coach see. It is named after the Chapel of the Apostles which was demolished in the  early twentieth century.  It offers spectacular views of the valley below.  It is located beside a piece of sculpture known as   The Stairway to Understanding . The Stairway  is a concrete monument 8.7m high created in 1976 by Josep Maria Subirachs. The sculpture consist of  nine blocks  placed one on top of the other that represent the different beings of creation from the more material to the most spiritual.

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From this point you walk  along an avenue known as Passeig de l’Escolania or the Choir Walk, passing the buildings where the  which houses the choristers.


As you approaching of basilica of Montserrat you are at all times aware of the mountains that tower of the monastery.

The monastery also houses the Publicacions de l’Abadia de Montserrat, a publishing house that is the oldest printing press in the world, still in operation. Its first book was printed in 1499 and you can buy many of its modern publications in the monastery gift shop.


Approaching Plaça de la Crue (Square of the Cross)

As you approach the basilica  and the Plaça de la Crue you pass by a wonderful sculpture of Saint George carved by Josep Maria Subirachs, an identical statue of the saint carved in a different darker type of stone is found in the La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. St George along with Our Lady of Monserrat is a patron saint of Catalonia.


St George by Josep Subirach.

The monastery buildings are constructed from polished stones quarried from the mountain. When the sun shines on the stone it gives it a lovely warm golden colour which blends into the surrounding mountains. From the  Plaça de la Crue  you enter into the atrium in front of the basilica.


From the Plaça de la Crue you enter into the atrium

The atrium of the basilica is surrounded by buildings constructed in the eighteenth century. The mosaic floor is particularly impressive and was designed by Fr Benet Martinez (1918-1988).


Mosaic floor in the atrium at Monserrat

The floor is a reproduction of a design by  Michelangelo for the Campidoglio in Rome.



Facade of the bascilia  at Monserrat

The current facade of the basilica was created in 1901, above the door are  sculptures of Christ and the twelve apostles.

The statue of Our Lady of Monserrat  is located in the basilica above the high altar.


High altar within the basilica church.



Stairs leading to the shrine of the statue of Our Lady of Monserrat.

The shrine is very elaborate and  its walls are covered in gold mosaic and marble. The ceiling depicts the four archangels.



View statue from top of stairs

The statue  of Our Lady of Monserrat is  Romanesque, polychrome statue  95cm (38inch) in height. The statue depicts Our Lady in Majesty. Mary is in a seated position with the Christ Child seated on her lap. In her hand she holds a sphere  which symbolized the universe. Her left hand is placed on the Christ Child’s shoulder and is symbolic of his omnipresence. The Christ Child holds a pineapple in his hand  the symbol of  eternal life, with his other hand he offers a blessing. The image is popularly known as La Moreneta (the Dark One), due to the dark colour of the Blessed Virgins skin, a result of age and  centuries of candle smoke. Pope Leo XIII proclaimed Our Lady of Montserrat Patron Saint of Catalonia in 1881.


The statue in turn sits within a silver shrine. According to the Monserrat website

In 1947, the image was enthroned in a silver altarpiece, paid for by popular subscription and installed in the upper section of the basilica apse.


Our Lady of Monserat behing glass

Today the statue is  protected behind glass. There is an opening for the globe held in Mary’s hand.  This opening allows the globe to be accessible to devotees. Modern pilgrims will often touch, kiss, rub rosary beads and cloth against  he globe it as they pray before the statue.


The statue of Our Lady of Monserrat  holds a globe symbolizing the cosmos in her hand.

The statue looks out  the basilica church.  It must be quiet a sight  to see the church full with pilgrims.


View of the basilica church from Shrine of the Lady of Monserrat from above the altar

Monserrat has been a pilgrim destination from at least the twelfth century when the current statue was created. Many miracles  were recorded in medieval times and Alfonso X el Sabio in the thirteenth century  recorded some in Cantiagas de Nuestra Señora (Talbot 2010, 454). Throughout the late medieval period the statues was visited by countless pilgrims including St Ignatius Loyola.

In recent centuries the shrine has had a more turbulent history. The monastery was sacked by Napoleon in the early nineteenth century destroying much of the medieval fabric luckily the statue survived after being hidden by the monks. In the twentieth century 23 custodian monks were shot during the Spanish Civil war. Today the site continues to attract pilgrims and it is also one of the most popular tourist destination in Catalonia.

The side chapels and the grounds of the monastery are filled with wonderful sculpture by Spanish artist. If you follow this link it will you can experience a virtual tour of Monserrat Cathedral and shrine.

Montserrat is also famous for the boy’s choir called  L’Escolania who trace their history back to 1223 .  The Boy’s Choir performs at least two times a day for most of the year at the Montserrat Basilica they also give concerts around the  world . They specialize in a type of singing known as Gregorian chanting.


Useful Links & Sources

Virtual tour of Monserrat Bascilica

Esteve Serra i Pérez, 2016, Monserrat. Geocolor.

Talbot, L. 2010. ‘Monserrat’ In Taylor, L. et al. Enclyopedia of Medieval Pilgrimage. Boston: Brill  p453-454.

Catalan Caminos


Medieval Pilgrimage to the Relics of the Nativity

Being Christmas week this  post has a Christmas theme and provides a  brief overview of the relics of the nativity venerated by medieval pilgrims.

Nativity by Cypriot folk painter Parthenios  (image(1790(?)-1848(?)(image taken

Nativity scene  by Cypriot folk painter Parthenios (image(1790(?)-1848(?)(image taken

The Holy Land

The Holy Land was the ultimate destination for medieval pilgrims, it was here that Jesus Christ  was born, lived, died and was resurrected.   So you could say, the  pilgrims who came here were spoilt for choice,  having access to wide range of sites associated with the New and Old Testament and the life of Christ.

Bethlehem,  the birthplace of Jesus,  was a must see for medieval pilgrims and many would have timed there visit to coincide with Christmas.

Pilgrims coming to Bethelehm at Christmas time (circa 1875) by photographer Félix Bonfils (Library of Congress)

Pilgrims coming to Bethlehem at Christmas time (circa 1875) by photographer Félix Bonfils (Library of Congress)


Within the town of Bethlehem, the traditional site of the  birth of Christ was marked by the Church of the Nativity.

Interior of the Church of the Nativity 1930's  (Library of Congress)

Interior of the Church of the Nativity 1930’s (Library of Congress)

The church was built over a cave that was believed to be the manger where Christ was born.

Grotto of the Nativity under the Church of the Nativity takenca. 1890 and ca. 1900 (Library of Congress)

Grotto of the Nativity in  the cave  under the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem. Image  taken ca. 1890 and ca. 1900 (Library of Congress)

Pilgrims were flocking to Bethlehem from the 2nd century AD.  The  Church of the Nativity was commissioned in 327 AD by the Emperor Constantine and his mother St Helena.  This first church was not completed  until 339 AD and  it was later destroyed during the Samaritan  revolts in the 6th century.  The current church was built on top of the aforementioned  one in 565 AD by the Emperor Justinian.  This link will take you to a  3D virtual tour to the current   Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.


View of Church of the Nativity in 1833 by Maxium Vorobiev (from

 Today the church is a UNESCO Heritage Site.

Since early medieval times the Church has been increasingly incorporated into a complex of other ecclesiastical buildings, mainly monastic. As a result, today it is embedded in an extraordinary architectural ensemble, overseen by members of the Greek Orthodox Church, the Custody of the Holy Land and the Armenian Church, under the provisions of the Status Quo of the Holy Places established by the Treaty of Berlin (1878). (UNESCO Website)

In modern times Christmas services for Roman Catholics and Protestants are celebrated on Christmas eve and Christmas day, the 25th of December. The orthodox Churches ( Coptic, Greek, etc) celebrate on the 6th of January and the Armenian Orthodox on the 19th of January.

One of the early pilgrims to Bethlehem was St Jerome who visited here while on a pilgrimage around the Holy Land,  before taking up permanent residence  in 386 AD. While living in Bethlehem he  set up a monastery and pilgrim hostel to help provide hospitality to the pilgrims who were visiting here.

The main street leading from the Church of Nativity, Bethlehem. It was created in 1880 (

The main street leading from the Church of Nativity, Bethlehem circa  1880 (

Bethlehem was a  small quiet place and was described  circa 1231 AD as having only one street.  This must  have provided pilgrims with a nice change from the hustle and bustle of  Jerusalem. The pilgrims who travelled here often  came on donkeys  as did the English pilgrim Margery Kempe in 1413 AD ( Chareyron 2005, 102). In the late medieval period pilgrims entered the church in a processional order signing hymns and carrying a lighted candle (ibid).  The pilgrim Jean Thenaud arrived here bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and was greeted outside the shrine by candle-sellers . He describes his visit as follows

Pilgrims entered “a small room with a vault of fine marble and mosaic”. There beneath the rock, was the place where the Lord was laid, the crib for the ox and the ass, and the rock itself the place for the nails that held the rings for tethering the animals and the hole through which the star that guided the Magi was said to have  disappeared and the place where they worshipped Him (Chareyron 2005, 103).

Irish evidence for pilgrimage to Bethlehem

Time does not allow for a full discussion of Irish pilgrimage to the Holy Land  and I do intend to come back to the topic  in another post.  So very briefly it is hard to gage how many Irish  pilgrims  visited the  Holy Land. The Irish annals record 6 pilgrimages  to Jerusalem between the years 1060 to 1231 AD and the Chartularies of St Mary’s Abbey in Dublin record the pilgrimage of  Richard and Helen de Trum (Trim in Co Meath) in the year 1230 AD.   The most detailed account of an Irish pilgrimage  to the Holy Land is that of the  Irish Friar Symon Semeonis who set forth from Clonmel in 1323 AD with his companion Hugh the Illuminator and who on his return he complied  an account of his travels. These records represent only a fraction  of Irish pilgrimages to the Holy Land and tell us little about how the Irish pilgrims experienced the Holy Land.

Nativity Relics in Europe

Pilgrims did not have to  travel  as far as the Holy Land  to venerate the birth of Christ,  as relics of the nativity, ranging from hay from the manger to the shift the Blessed Virgin gave birth in,  were to be found at shrines across European. The following   is a snapshot of some of these relics.

The Relics of the Magi at Cologne

The cathedral church of Cologne in  Germany held the  relics of the Three Magi  and was a major centre of pilgrimage in the late medieval period. Located on a number of important trade route including the River Rhine the city attracted vast numbers of pilgrims each year.

The reliquary of the Three Magi at Cologne Cathedral (image taken

The reliquary of the Three Magi at Cologne Cathedral (image taken

According to the Gospel of Mathew the ‘Magi’ were three Kings from the east who journeyed to Bethlehem following as star to pay homage to the ‘one who has been born king of the Jews’. The Magi were also the first Christian pilgrims.

So how did the  Three Magi end up in Germany? According to legend the corporeal relics of the Magi were discovered by St Helena (mentioned above), the relics were translated to the church of Saint Sophia at Constantinople and at a later date were brought to Milan. In 1160 AD following the sack of Milan, Frederick Barbarossa brought the relics  from the Basilica de Sant’ Eustorigo to Cologne.  Later an elaborate reliquary of gold silver and enamels and precious stone was  constructed to hold the holy relics. The reliquary was commissioned by Philip von Heinarch Archbishop of Cologne (1167-1191)  and made by Nicholas of Verdun.   Pope Innocent IV granted a plenary indulgence to Cologne in 1394 AD which was an additional attraction for pilgrims to visit here.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales  tells that the wife of Bath  had travelled  thrice to Jerusalem and once to Cologne implying the shrine was well-known to English  pilgrims.

Irish devotion to the Thee Magi  is represented in Irish medieval sculpture for example the  east face of Muiredach’s High Cross at Monisterboise,  has a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi.

The Adoration of the Magi on the east face of Muiredach's High Cross (image taken

The Adoration of the Magi on the east face of Muiredach’s High Cross (image taken

The Adoration of the  Magi is also represented  on the gable  of Ardmore Cathedral church.  Also one of the alters at the Franciscan Friary in Waterford city was dedicated to the Three Magi.

Three Magi at Ardmore Cathedral

Three Magi at Ardmore Cathedral

The fifteenth century tomb  at Strade abbey in  Co Mayo depicts the Three Magi, St Thomas á Beckett, SS Peter and Paul and the figure of pilgrim  kneeling. It is very likely that the iconography of the tomb  indicates the deceased had been on pilgrimage to Cologne, Canterbury and Rome.

Tomb depicting the three magi at Strade

Tomb depicting the three magi at Strade Abbey (image taken

Relics of the Nativity at Aachen

Approximately 61km from Cologne is the shrine of Aachen, another very popular European pilgrim shrine.  Aachen  had a miraculous image of the Virgin Mary along with a number of relics of the nativity. The relics included the nightgown worn by the Blessed Virgin, the swaddling clothes of the Christ Child, the loin cloth of Christ and  a cloth that the decapitated head of St John the Baptist was laid on.  It was also the burial-place of the Emperor Charlemagne who was canonised in 1165 AD and the cathedral also possessed the relics of St Ursula.

 Marienschrein (1238)/The shrine of Mary, contains the relics , shift of lessed Virgin, the swaddling-clothes of the Infant Jesus, the loin-cloth worn by Christ on the Cross, and the cloth on which lay the head (image taken from

Marienschrein (1238)/The shrine of Mary, contains the relics , shift of the Blessed Virgin, the swaddling-clothes of the Infant Jesus, the loin-cloth worn by Christ on the Cross, and the cloth on which lay the head (image taken from

Many high status pilgrims travelled here and the Queen of Hungary came to Aachen in 1337 AD, with an escort of 700 knights.

Aachen  became an immensely popular pilgrim site and attracted so many pilgrims  it became tradition  to display the relic  every seven years for 15 days,  between the 10-24th of July, on  the Aachener Heiligtumsfahrt.  This is a tradition which continues to  present time. The first  “Heiligtumsfahrt” (pilgrimage) took place in 1349 and 2014 will be the date for the next. To give you some idea of the shrines popularity, in 1496 AD the gatekeepers counted  147000 pilgrims  entering Aachen during the 15 days the relics were on display. It was said the pilgrims left 85000 gulden at the shrine (Chunko 2009, 1-2). The shrine also offered a plenary indulgence to pilgrims.

The well known  English pilgrim Margery Kempe made pilgrimage to here in 1433 AD  when she travelled  on pilgrimage from Danzig to Wilsnack and on to  Aachen,  where she saw the ‘virgin’s smock’.

Late 15th century pilgrim badge from Aachen at Museumof London (

Late 15th century pilgrim badge from Aachen at Museum of London (

The shrine also sold pilgrim badges  depicting the relic of the Virgins nightgown/shift. These badge began to be made from the 1320s  and some of these badges have turned up in archaeological excavations in London.

Chartres in France

The cathedral church at Chartres in France possessed the Sancta Camisa the shift worn by the Blessed Virgin when she gave birth to the Christ child. The relic was given to the church in 876 AD by Charles the Bald, who had brought it here from Constantinople.  It was enclosed in a reliquary shrine called the Sainte-Chasse and many miracles are associated with this relic.  Most pilgrims came here for the Marian feast of the Presentation, Annunciation and Assumption and the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin.  As at Aachen pilgrim badges depicting the holy garment were sold to pilgrims in  the later medieval period.

The relic of the Virgins nightgown at Chatres Cathredral (image taken

The relic of the Virgins nightgown at Chartres cathedral (image taken

Other Relics of the Christ Child

From the 11th and 12th century  devotion to the Christ Child increased in Europe with SS Bernard of  Clairvaux and Francis of Assisi  actively promoting devotion to the Christ Child, and  relics of the umbilical cord, foreskin, fingernails and milk teeth of Christ were  to be found across Europe.

Rome with its vast collections of relics also had relics of the Nativity. The church of St Maria Maggiore possessed part of the crib in the form of boards from the manager. The board  are believed to have supported the crib used by Christ and  were brought here by Pope Theodore (640-649)  from the Holy Land.

Relic of the Holy Manger (Image taken

Relic of the Holy Manger (Image taken

Another Nativity relic was found at the Archbascilica of St John Lateran where a section of the ‘Holy Umbilical Cord’ of Christ was kept. The last milk tooth of the Christ Child was housed at  the abbey of Saint Médard at Soisson  in France. Finally up to 8- 14 churches claimed to possess the Holy Prepuce/ Foreskin of Christ .  These churches include Antwerp, Coulombs, Chartres, Charroux, Metz, Conques, Langres, Anvers, Fécamp, Puy-en-Velay, Auvergne, Hildesheim, Santiago de Compostela and Calcata.

Closer to home  Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin  had in its  relic collection  a fragment of the crib while  Reading Abbey in England had another  a relic of the umbilical cord and Our Lady’s Shrine at  Walsingham, also in England attracted pilgrims to visit relics of Mary’s milk.


The birth of Christ  was one of the most important feasts in the Christian calendar and each year it was celebrated  by  Christians with special liturgy and nativity plays.  There was great devotion to the Christ Child and the Blessed Virgin in the Medieval world.   Christmas time would have  inspired  some to take their devotion further by embarking on a pilgrimage to either the Holy Land or one of the many relics of the nativity which were scattered across Europe.  As most people preferred not to travel in Wintertime most would have stayed at home for Christmas and planned their pilgrimages for Spring or Winter.


Bugslag, J. 2009. ‘Chartreuse de Champol’ In Encyclopaedia of Medieval Pilgrimage. Boston: Brill, 96-99.

Chareyron, N.  2005. Pilgrims to Jerusalem in the Middle Ages.. Translated by W. Donald Wilson. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chunko, B. 2009. ‘Aachen’, Encyclopaedia of Medieval Pilgrimage. Boston: Brill, 1-2.

Donovan, S. 1908. Crib. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 22, 2013 from New Advent:

Lins, J. 1907. Aachen. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 20, 2013 from New Advent:

Lutz, G. 2009. ‘Cologne Cathedral’  In Encyclopaedia of Medieval Pilgrimage. Boston: Brill, 114-115

MacLehose, W. 2009. Relics of the Christ Child’ In Encyclopaedia of Medieval Pilgrimage. Boston: Brill, 601-603.

Mulcahy, E. 2012. ‘Symon Semonis The Franciscan Pilgrim.’

Aachen Cathedral .

Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity.

Marian Relics 20011.

he Aachen Cathedral is a major pilgrimage church and the burial place of Charlemagne and Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. The shrine to St. Mary holds the four great Aachen relics: St. Mary’s cloak, Christ’s swaddling clothes, St. John the Baptist’s beheading cloth and Christ’s loincloth. Following a custom begun in 1349, every seven years the relics are taken out of the shrine and put on display during the Great Aachen Pilgrimage. This pilgrimage most recently took place during June 2007. – See more at:
he Aachen Cathedral is a major pilgrimage church and the burial place of Charlemagne and Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. The shrine to St. Mary holds the four great Aachen relics: St. Mary’s cloak, Christ’s swaddling clothes, St. John the Baptist’s beheading cloth and Christ’s loincloth. Following a custom begun in 1349, every seven years the relics are taken out of the shrine and put on display during the Great Aachen Pilgrimage. This pilgrimage most recently took place during June 2007. – See more at:

An unfortunate pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick on St Patrick’s day in 1113

Today is the eve of the feast of St Patrick. As the country gets ready to celebrate our national saint with street parades, parties,  turning buildings green and the odd pilgrimage, people are carrying on  a tradition of  venerating St Patrick that dates back to  the 6th-7th century, if not before.  Although many modern celebration of the saint are  secular in nature the  relics of medieval  devotion  to Patrick are to be found  across the Irish  countryside, where  rocks, stones, holy wells, mountains,  islands and roads are dedicated to the saint.  Many of these holy places  are still visited today on the saints feast day  and at other times during the year.

Pl. 9 The Casán Phádgaig as it approaches the summit of Croagh Patrick (13)

Cone of Croagh Patrick

One of the earliest medieval accounts of pilgrimage in honor of  St Patrick  concerns pilgrimage to the holy mountain of Croagh Patrick,  in Co Mayo. Legend had it the saint fasted here for 40 days and nights and  banished all the snakes and demons from Ireland.  We are told that in 1113  a  group of unfortunate  pilgrims  suffered a terrible misfortune, when they were struck by lightning while praying on the summit.

Pl.3 Modern church on summit of Croagh Patrick

Modern Church on Summit of Croagh Patrick Taken by Helen Duff

The  annals for the year AD 1113 (AU, AFM, ALC) recount

A ball of fire came on the night of the feast of Patrick 17 March on Cruchain Aighle (Croagh Patrick), and destroyed thirty of those fasting (AU). (see Pilgrims being stuck by lightning at Croagh Patrick by Sarah MacDowell)

Unfortunately we are told no more details and we can only imagine  how the events unfolded.  Croagh Patrick is a 764 meters (2,507 ft) above sea level and its very exposed spot.  It is a very dangerous place in  bad weather. Each year  people fall and injure themselves.  There are also recorded incidents of people getting hypothermia.

According to the annals the pilgrims were fasting and performing a night vigil on the summit of the mountain. Archaeological evidence suggest there was  a small church similar to Gallarus on the summit as early as the 8th century ( to small to hold a large number of people). Most of the pilgrims were probably outside praying when a lightning storm came upon them. Humans or animals struck by lighting may be killed or suffer sever injury due to electrical burns.We do not know how many people were present that night but  the weather conditions must have been extreme  to result in the death of 30 people (although it is possible these figures are exaggerated).   There may also have been many more injured. To get help  those who were not injured would have had to climb down the mountain a good 2 hours walk from the summit of the mountain to the base.


Pilgrims climbing Croagh Patrick on a wet day in Summer

This tragic event did not deter further pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick  and  Jocelyn’s twelfth century Life of St Patrick which records ‘That many are accustomed to spend the night awake and fasting on the mount’.

In the centuries that follow there was a marked shift in recorded dates of  pilgrimages away from St Patrick’s day to the summer months when the weather was better. Today  very few people  climb the holy Mountain on St Patrick’s day  and modern pilgrimage to the Mountain focuses on the summer months, last Friday of July, last Sunday of July, the 15th of August when the weather conditions are more favorable.

© Louise Nugent 2013

Medieval Pilgrimage at Lemanaghan, Co Offaly

The ecclesiastical settlement of Lemanaghan is one of Co. Offaly’s hidden treasures. There  is so much to say about the architectural remains and the history of the site  and of course its founding saint, Manchan.   I am going to  focus on the evidence for medieval pilgrimage at the site .

In early medieval times  Lemanaghan was  located  in the territory of the Delhna Ehtra tribe close to the border of the territory of the Delbna Ethra  and the Ferceall.   For the modern traveler it is located along the R436   to the east of the town of Ferbane.

Map of Lemanghan showing  the monastic remains from Bing maps

Map of the ecclesiastical remains a t Lemanghan from Bing maps (

Lemanaghan was founded in the 7th century after King Diarmaid   son of Aedh Sláine, granted the land of the territory of Tuaim-nEirc (Doimerc) to Clonmacnoise following his victory at the battle against Guaire King of Connaught in 645/646.  It appears  that Manchan a monk of Clonmacnoise, founded a sister monastery  here  at Liath-Manchain  ” the grey place of Manchan” (Lemanaghan is the anglicized version ). There are a number of traditions  concerning the geneology St Manchan.  One tradition  suggests he was a member of the Ulaidh of Ulster while another suggest he a was a member of the Eoghanachta of Munster and another that he  was from Wales.  The saint was credited with writing many poems during his lifetime .  Manchan is also associated with the Mohill in Co Leitrim where local tradition holds he  founded a monastery here before heading to Lemanaghan. Manchan died in 664/665  having caught the yellow plague that raged through the country. This is the same plague which killed St Féichín of Fore.


St Manchan’s church at Lemanaghan

The modern landscape of green fields that surround Lemanaghan  would not  have been the lanscape encountered by  early and later medieval travelers & pilgrim’s.  The modern landscape surrounding Lemanaghan  is  a product of  modern intensive peat cutting.   Originally the monastery  was  founded on a  natural island of dry ground surrounded by  raised bogs. Monahan writing in 1863 describes the site as follows;

Standing on a low swell, an armlet of well-reclaimed bog, it gently rises above the extensive moors with which it is almost surrounded.

This doesn’t mean the Lemanaghan was isolated  from the rest of the world. It was linked  to other settlements in the area in particular Clonmacnoise , and the wider world  through a series of bog roads and tracks . Excavations carried out in the surrounding landscape have identified several roads and tracks many  dating to the 6th and 7th centuries when the monastery was founded.  The excavations also show that roads and tracks were being built and repaired around Lemanaghan up to the 17th century, suggesting it was a focal point in the landscape throughout the medieval period.  Thus its location was not a barrier to pilgrims and visitors.

Little physical evidence remains of the early monastery with the exception of a number of early medieval cross slabs ( two of which are found with St Manchan’s church and ten others housed in national school), a large  bullaun stone (beside the holy well) and a holy well dedicated to St Manchan.  The   annals  list the names of several abbots of the monastery ( in the years  717, 767, 792, 853, 893, 1205). The fortunes of the monastery declined in the later medieval period.  By 1302-6  Lemanaghan became a parochial church.  The papal taxation records,  record that there were no returns from the vicarage of Lemanaghan as it had been ‘laid to waste by the ravages of war’.  St Manchan’s Church  continued in use probably until 17th century and  by 1682-5, the church was recorded as being in a ruinous condition, with church services being held in a nearby house.


Early medieval cross slab within St Manchan’s church

The main monastic complex  was located at the site of   the modern graveyard. All that  remains  today of this once vibrant monastery  are  two structures called St Manchan’s church and St Manchan’s house.

St Manchan’s church  was built-in  two phases, the  west end dates to the 12th century.  Further building work was carried out in the 15th century at the eastern end .  The  western end of the building  is the oldest with  traces large limestone blocks in its  lower walls and a large Romanesque doorway of 12th century date marks the  entrance in west gable.  A  round-headed Romanesque window also survives.


Romanesque doorway at St Manchan’s church

Little remains of the second structure called St Manchan’ house, with  only the foot prints of the foundations   visible, the Archaeological Inventory of County Offaly suggest that it is  likely contemporary with the 15th century section of St Manchan’s church.

St Manchan's house

A third church  known as St Mella’s cell,  is located  approximately 350m to the  east.  The site is connected to the main monastic centre  by a narrow paved causeway. Local folklore recounts  that  depressions visible   in the surface of the paving stones of the causeway were  caused by  the saints cow.  St Mella was Manchan’s mother and  tradition suggest she  live here as an anchorite. The present church may have been built on the original cell.


Causeway leading to St Mella’s Cell

St Mella’s cell  is quiet small measuring  5.5m x 3.1m internally. The walls are  0.8m thick  and constructed  of large  what look like really large cut stones.  These stones are in fact thin slabs set on edge  in the manner of facing stones and the core of the wall is filled with stone rubble. This type of building technique is common in pre-Norman Irish church building.  The church is surrounded by  its original rectangular-shaped enclosure (43m E-W by 35.5m north-south).


Evidence for Pilgrimage

So what can we say about pilgrimage at Lemanaghan in medieval times?  Pilgrims came here to venerate St Manchan and the anniversary of  the saints  death on the 24th of January would have had a special appeal for pilgrims.  Pilgrims  probably  first began coming here following Manchan’s death.  Given Lemanaghan   proximity and close connections to Clonmacnoise,  the site likely attracted pilgrims heading to Clonmacnoise and to other sites such as Durrow and Rahan, acting as a secondary shrine.  Manchan was probably buried here we have no way of knowing if the saints grave had an appeal for pilgrims.  From the 12th century  onwards  a reliquary known as St Manchan shrine   would also have attracted pilgrims.

The shrine was   commissioned by High King of Ireland, Turlough O’ Connor and  was reputed to house the bones of St Manchan  and manufactured at Clonmacnoise. The annals for 1166 state

The shrine of Manchan, of Maethail (Mohill), was covered by Ruaidhri Ua Conchobhair , and an embroidering of gold was carried over it by him, in as good a style as a relic was ever covered.

This reference likely refers to the Lemanaghan shrine  although it is possible it may refer to second shrine now lost, that existed at Mohill.  Fragments of bone possibly from the saint were found within the shrine.  From the sparse references that exist the shrine appears to have  been  housed near the high alter of St Manchan’s church untill  as late as  the 17th century. It was later moved to the parish church at Boher where it remained until it was stolen last year. Thankfully the shrine was recovered the next day. St Manchan’s shrine is one of the finest  medieval reliquaries to survive in Ireland and its loss would have been significant.

St Manchan’s shrine is what is known as a   house- shaped shrine and resembles the pitched roof of  church or oratory. The shrine  is made of yew wood ( 48cm tall by 40 cm wide by 61cm long) and decorated with highly decorated bronze figures and bosses and  sits on four feet. The shrine was portable  which meant it could be  carried in processions. Four metal loops are found at each corner which allowed wooden poles to be treaded through.  A reliquary procession may have formed part for the pilgrim rituals on  the more important days in the pilgrim calendar such as the saints feast day. It likely that the date of the translation of the saints relics to the shrine would also have been a special day in the pilgrim calendar.

In modern times a piscina   (a shallow basin placed near the altar  of the church  used for washing the communion vessels), at the east end of the south wall of St Manchan’s church   became  a point of modern devotion. Votive offerings such as  coins, pins  and a small plastic statue of Christ are left  behind by modern pilgrims.

Piscina fille with votive offerings

Piscina with votive offerings

Apart from the  aforementioned reliquary, pilgrims would also have visited St Manchan’s holy well.  According to  Monahan writing in 1886  there were  three wells at the site

to which the blind, lame and persons afflicted with other chronic diseases, come on the anniversary of the patrons saint’s death.

Today only one well holy well  remains, it is located close to  the main monastery beside the paved causeway  that connects the main monastic site with  St Mella’s church.  A large bullaun stone and rag tree are also associated with the well.


Bullaun stone at St Manchan’s holy well

The wells at Lemanaghan may have been a focus of pre-Christian devotion and were christianised when the monastery was founded. The origin  legend for the well tells that  St Manchan struck a rock with his staff and water poured forth.  Another version of the tale states that an existing  well  was blessed by him.  Today people  visit the well throughout the year but the 24th of January the saint’s feast day still has a special appeal.  The  present  well, a natural spring,  is a product of   restoration work carried out  during the 1930s.  Four grave slabs in upright positions were revealed, set out in a cruciform pattern. The spring is enclosed by a stone wall ( key hole shaped) and accessed by series of steps. The surrounding area has been paved. The base of the well is full of coins left by modern visitors to the well.


St Manchan’s well

The waters of the well are reputed to cure   nearly every ailment is cured , but particularly neuralgia, cancer and warts. The folklore suggests that for a  person to be cured they must apply water to the affected part and walk three times around the well. Beside the well is a misshapen ash tree, covered in rags, handkerchief, rosary beads etc. There is  local  tradition of taking pieces of wood to protect the home.  Similar  practices occur at other sites church as St Moling’s well at Mullinakill Co Kilkenny, where the wood of the tree beside the well is supposed to protect against fire.


Rag tree beside St Manchan’s holy well

Like most sites we can only get a  glimpse of the medieval pilgrimage tradition  here, through the centuries  pilgrimage has continued and adapted  to the modern pilgrim landscape which focuses on the  piscina within the church and the holy well and rag tree.  I think Lemanaghan was a pilgrimage site in its own right with St Manchan attracting pilgrims  from the locality and beyond but it may have also acted as a secondary shrine for pilgrims enroute to Clonmacnoise & Durrow. If you want to find out more about the site and its history check out the sources listed below.

© Louise Nugent 2013


Crawford,  H. S. 1911. ‘The early slabs at Leamonaghan, King’s County’, JRSAI, xli,  151-56.

De Paor, L. 1998, ‘The Monastic ideal; a poem attributed to St. Manachan’ in Ireland and Europe,   163-169.

Fitzpatrick,  E. & O’Brien, C.  1998.  Medieval churches of County Offaly.  Dublin: Government of Ireland.

Graves, J.1874, ‘The Church and Shrine of St. Manchan’ JRSAI, xiii , 134-150.

Monahan, J. 1886. Records relating to the dioceses of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise. Dublin : M. H. Gill and son.

O’Carroll, E. 2001. The Archaeology of Leamonaghan: the Story of an Irish Bog. Dublin.

O’Riain, P. 2011. The dictionary of Early Irish Saints. Dublin : Four Courts Press.

O’Brien, C. &  Sweetman, D. P. (eds) 1997.  Archaeological Inventory of County Offaly . Dublin : Stationery Office.

Saint Nicholas an Irish Connection

Given that it is  Christmas, this post has a slightly festive theme. It will  explore  the development of the cult of St Nicholas and the saints’  connections with medieval Ireland.


St Nicholas of Myra

St Nicholas was born in the 4th century and following his death,  his cult developed and spread across the Christian world.  He was a very important saint and was the patron saint of  merchants, sailors, prisoners and children. Today he is venerated in both the Orthrodox and Catholic church. Over time his cult  developed into the modern Santa Clause tradition.


Map of modern day Turkey showing the territory of Lycia

St  Nicholas  was  born into a wealthy family in  Asia Minor in a place called  Patara (in the modern-day Turkey).  He became  bishop of the port town of  Myra in  the territory of Lycia.

St Nicholas being carried to his burial place  (

An image of St Nicholas being carried to his burial-place (

The site of his grave soon attracted pilgrims and Myra became a thriving pilgrimage destination. It is thought that the site of the saints grave is located within  the 9th century church  of St Nicholas on the outskirts of Myra. This church sits on an earlier 6th century  church which tradition holds was built over the grave of the saint. Within the present church , there is a  sarcophagus which is thought to have held the remains of the saint.

St Nicholas's tomb at Myra (from

St Nicholas’s tomb at Myra (from

Throughout his life , St Nicholas performed many miracles and  acts of kindness. Fresco’s within the church depict scenes from the saints life, such as  healing the sick and Nicholas saving the Basileios from the Arabs.

The church at Myra remained a place of pilgrimage  even after the remains of St. Nicholas were stolen in 1087 AD  by Italian sailor from Bari and  brought to  the port town of Bari  in Italy where they remain to this day.  Tradition holds that in their haste  the sailors left fragments of the body  in the grave and these were collected by Venetian sailors during the first crusade and  then brought to Venice. They  were then placed in a church  dedicated to the saint an  on the  Lido.  Over the centuries there was much disagreement between Bari and Venice as to who had the true relic of the saint. Interestingly  Professor of anatomy Luigi Martino at the University of Bari has examined both the remains at Bari and Venice and concluded that the fragments of bones in Venice were complementary to the bones in Bari. His investigations suggest that the bone  are from the skeleton of the same man ( ).

Thanks to the relics of the saint,  Bari  soon became a great centre of pilgrimage.   Following the saint’s death in the 4th century his body was said to exude a clear liquid called manna or myrrh which was believed to have miraculous powers. When the skeleton was moved to Bari it continued  to exude this clear liquid which was called ‘manna of the saint’. Pilgrims believed the manna had special healing powers .  The manna was diluted and made available in bottles decorated with images of the saint. Every year  on the feast day  of the translation of St Nicholas relics to Bari   a great festival  takes place which culminates in the extraction of the manna by the rector  of the Basilica  (this you tube  link shows this  ceremony

St Nichola's tomb at Bari (

St Nicholas’ tomb at Bari (

So what of the saints connections with Ireland?

The earliest evidence for the  cult of St Nicholas  in Ireland  occurs in the Hiberno Norse town of Dublin.  In  1038, Sigtrygg Silkbeard Olafsson, king of Dublin, with the support of Dúnán the bishop of the city, founded Christ Church Cathedral, with a   chapel  dedicated to St. Nicholas (Bairéad 2010).  For a really interesting discussion on the introduction of the cult of St Nicholas to 11th century Dublin see Eoin Bairéad’s article Nicholas and Dublin  reference given below.

In the  medieval period  his cult  was found in  Gaelic and Norman communities alike.  Dedications to St Nicholas are found attached to holy wells and medieval parish churches across  the entire island of Ireland.  At present I am putting together a database of all medieval sites dedicated to the saint. Hopefully by this time next year I will be able to share more information on the distribution of the cult in Ireland.

One of the most beautiful  medieval churches dedicated to St Nicholas in Ireland is the medieval collegiate church  in Galway city.

St Nicholas's collegiate church Galway

St Nicholas’s collegiate church Galway

Churches and chapels  dedicated to the saint are also found in the port towns of Drogheda  and Waterford.  Additional dedications are found at Dunsany Co Meath, Clonmel, Co Tipperary and Newtown Jerpoint  Co Kilkenny. Holy wells dedicated to the saint are found   in the counties of  Kerry, Limerick ,  Meath and Waterford .

Given the popularity of St Nicholas I see no reason why Irish pilgrims to Rome or Jerusalem would not have  visited Bari or Venice. The Via Francigena was one of the main pilgrim routes to Rome and from Rome it continued  south to the port of Bari.  Bari was also  one of the departure points for the Holy Land and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Within Ireland local pilgrimages were made to holy wells dedicated to the saint  across the country.  I hope to discuss these pilgrimages further in another blog post.

Another likely place of pilgrimage  within Ireland is the deserted medieval town of Newtown Jerpoint Co Kilkenny. I visited   Newtown Jerpoint yesterday and had such a lovely time .  This unique site is in private ownership but it’s  owners Joe and Maeve O’Connell have opened this special place to the public. I highly recommend a visit here and if anyone is interested in visiting check out their website

Located close to the great  Cistercian  foundation of Jerpoint Abbey. The medieval town of  Newtown Jerpoint  was founded  c.1200,  shortly afterwards a church dedicated to St Nicholas was built to cater for the towns growing population.  The town fell out of use in the 17th century.  The remains of the town are   preserved today as a series of earthworks but the guided tour really makes the landscape come alive and you get a real sence of what the town was like .


Artists reconstruction of the medieval town

So what of the sites connection with pilgrimage? Although extensive records for the town’s history exist there are no  references to medieval pilgrimage  here however tentative evidence may be suggested by the  tradition that St Nicholas of Myra was buried here.  The  Newtown Jerpoint conservation plan  notes that ‘according to local legend , there had been fourteen wine-taverns among the trading establishments of Jerpoint.’  There are some who think that the large amount of taverns may have existed to cater for pilgrims.


View of St Nicholas’s church at Newtown Jerpoint

So tradition holds that St Nicholas’s grave is marked by  a large medieval  grave slab. The slab  has been dated to the early 14th century by John Hunt (1974, 197). The slab has an effigy of a cleric  dressed in a full chasuble (outermost liturgical vestment worn by clergy), his hands are raised palm-outwards on his chest. On his feet are pointed shoes. Above each shoulder are two heads  one wearing a mitre-like head-dress and the other a pill-box type head-dress.


14th century grave slab which local tradition holds marks the burial-place of St Nicholas

Local tradition holds that this figure depicts  St Nicholas and the heads are two crusaders who  brought the saints remains back to Ireland.  The tale tells of a band of Irish-Norman knights from Jerpoint, traveling to the Holy Land to take part in the Crusades. On their return  home to Ireland, they seized St Nicholas’ remains, bringing them back to Kilkenny, where the bones were buried.

Another version of the story tells of a French family, the de Frainets, who removed Nicholas’ remains from  Myra to Bari , in 1169 when Bari was under the Normans. The de Frainets were crusaders to the Holy Land and also owned land in Thomastown, Ireland. After the Normans were forced out of Bari, the de Frainets moved to Nice, France, taking the relics with them. When Normans lost power in France, the Nicholas de Frainets packed up once again, moving to Ireland. This story has the relics being buried in Jerpoint in 1200.

Like all legends   there is   probably some  truth to this.  I think it is unlikely that  the  body of St Nicholas  was brought here,  if it had  such an important saint would  most certainly have been placed in an elaborate shrine (most likely within the church). However it is my opinion that the church was  in possession  of  one if not two corporeal  relics  of  St Nicholas.  Norman knights from Kilkenny  did participated in the Crusades to the Holy Land so it is possible one or two  of them brought some relics back with them.  I think that over time this   legend developed and attached itself to the near by burial slab which most likely depicts a cleric associated with the church or nearby Jerpoint abbey. Recently a second grave slab of a similar date has been uncovered at the site and  it also depicts a cleric.

Any church in the possession of  a relic (s) had the potential of attracting pilgrims  and I see no reason why pilgrims would not have come here  to pray to St Nicholas.  A  holy well located a short distance from the church,  also   dedicated to St Nicholas  was another possible point of devotion and there was a tradition that the  water was a cure for skin complaints.

St Nicholas's holy well

St Nicholas’s holy well

Even if St Nicholas is not buried here Newtown Jerpoint is a very special place.  The  sites owner Joe told me he feels a strong connection with St Nicholas and the site and he suspects the saint is buried here. He also told me that  since the site has been open to the public there have been many  happy coincident  which have connected people,  the saint and the site. So  if you get the time take a visit to Newtown Jerpoint.

© Louise Nugent 2012


Bairéad, E.  2010. ‘Nicholas and Dublin’, In eds. Davies, M., MacConville, U. & Cooney, G. A grand gallimaufry: collected in honour of Nick Maxwell. Dublin: Wordwell.
Hunt, J. 1974. Irish Medieval Figure Sculpture. 1200-1600. Irish University Press.

Click to access Newton_Jerpoint.pdf

St. Willibrord, Patron Saint of Luxembourg & the Carlow connection

I am delighted to present this exciting  guest post about St Willibrord  the patron saint of Luxembourg who has an  interesting connection to Co. Carlow. The post is  written by Dermot Mulligan  curator of the Carlow County Museum.

St. Willibrord as featured in a stain glass window in the Basilica of Echternach, Luxembourg. Photo Carlow County Museum.

Today November 7th is St. Willibrord’s Feast Day. He is from England, is the Patron Saint of Luxembourg, he was trained and ordained in County Carlow. In 690AD  he led a successful European mission from Carlow, and the annual hopping procession held in his honour in Echternach, Luxembourg has received UNESCO World Heritage Status.

Located in the townland of Garryhundon, Co Carlow is an archaeological site commonly referred to as Killogan, Rath Melsigi (Rathmelsh) or Clonmelsh Graveyard (¹). The site of Clonmelsh Graveyard at  Garryhundon  is situated on private land and is not accessible to the public. A worthy alternative is the magnificent St. Laserian’s Cathedral,  in the village of Old Leighlin.

Image of St Laseran’s Cathedral Old Leighlin taken from Wiki Commons.

During the seventh and eight centuries Rath Melsigi was the site of the  most important Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical settlement in Ireland (2).

During the sixth century St. Colmcille established a monastery on the island of Iona off the coast of Scotland. In the late sixth century and early seventh century Carlow born (Myshall) St. Columbanus became the leading figure of Irish missionary work on mainland Europe. As a result of such work there were a number of monasteries established in Europe which had close relationships with abbeys in Ireland. It is believed that much of the early Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were written in Irish script either directly by Irish monks based in Britain or by Anglo-Saxon monks who were trained by Irish monks (3).

Stain Glass window in the Basilica of Echternach depicting St. Willibrord at Rathmelsh. Photo Carlow County Museum.

Building on this close relationship between Irish and European monasteries a number of ecclesiastical settlements were established in Ireland that accommodated European monks, in particular Anglo-Saxon monks. The most note worthy of these was the settlement in Garryhundon. It is quite likely that the site had a direct relationship with the monastery that was located at the site now occupied by St. Laserian’s Cathedral in Old Leighlin. This monastery, which is believed to have had over one thousand monks, was for several centuries a major ecclesiastical settlement.

From 678AD to 690AD a student named Willibrord from Northumbria was trained and based at Rathmelsh (4). From here he led eleven other Carlow based monks on a major mission to the Frisian Land and in 695AD he was consecrated a Bishop by Pope Sergius 1 (5).

St. Willibrord’s tomb in the crypt of the Basilica of Echternach, Luxembourg. Photo Carlow County Museum.

He initially built a cathedral in Utrecht, Holland but later he moved to present day Luxembourg and to the town of Echternach where he founded an abbey. From here he continued to co-ordinate missions of the surrounding countries and in 739AD he died aged 81 (6). He is buried in Echternach, and he is the only saint to be buried in Luxembourg. As part of the abbey in Echternach he established a very important scriptorium and for a considerable period of time many great European bibles, psalms and prayer books were produced by the Abbey. It is likely that the initial scribes were from Carlow.

Great devotion and religious festivals are still held to this day in his honour and in particular a hopping procession, a dance that dates back to, if not predates                           St. Willibrord’s life time. The hopping procession takes place annually on the Tuesday after Pentecost Sunday and over thirty thousand people descend on Echternach to partake along with dozens of Cardinals, Arch-Bishops and Bishops from over one hundred and sixty parishes across Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland and Germany who still have devotions to St. Willibrord.

Hopping Procession in honour of St. Willibrord, over nine thousand people hop a two kilometer route from the monastery to the Basilica and past St. Willibrord’s tomb. Photo Carlow County Museum.

The abbey is now home to a large secondary school and in the adjoining Basilica                St. Willibrord is buried in the crypt under the altar. The hopping procession starts in the abbey square and proceeds for approximately two kilometers through the streets of the town, then into the Basilica, down into the crypt and past St. Willibrord’s remains. This unique procession coupled with the European importance of the abbey saw the procession granted UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2010 ( 7).

Hopping Procession in honour of St. Willibrord, over nine thousand people hop a two kilometer route from the monastery to the Basilica and past St. Willibrord’s tomb. Photo Carlow County Museum.

Towards the end of World War 11 the Basilica was badly damaged during the Battle of the Bulge but during the 1950s it was reconstructed including the instillation of a stain glass window depicting St Willibrord’s training, ordination and first mass at Rathmelsh(8).

In October 2009 President Mary McAleese as part of her official state visit to Luxembourg visited Echternach. In May 2010 following an invitation from the St. Willibrord Foundation staff from Carlow County Museum visited the town during the famous hopping procession. In April 2012 Ireland’s newest County Museum, Carlow opened to the public in Carlow town and there is a section depicting St. Willibrord and his connection to the county.

President Mary McAleese & her husband Martin in Echternach during the Presidents State to Luxembourg in October 2009. Photograph Alain Muller, Willibrordus-Bauverein

Post written by Dermot Mulligan Curator of Carlow County Museum. Information & pictures supplied by Carlow County Museum.

Telephone:       059-9131554



Twitter:           @CarlowCountyMus


Download for free a copy of ‘Carlow Trails of the Saints’, which consists of three distinct driving trails around the county,


1          Recorded Monuments County Carlow 1995. SMR Number: CW012-025 Garryhundon.

2          Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinin, NUI Galway

3          Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinin, NUI Galway. ‘The first century of Anglo-Irish relations AD 600 – 700’; The O’Donnell Lecture 2003, National University of Ireland.

4          Emile Seiler ‘St. Willibrord’; Carloviana, 2000.

5          Willibrordus-Bauverein ‘Die Basilika St. Willibrord in Echternach’.

6          Emile Seiler ‘St. Willibrord’; Carloviana, 2000


8                     ‘Das Leben und Wirken des heiligen Willibrord’ Willibrordus-Bauverein, 2008

Medieval Pilgrimage at Hollywood Co. Wicklow

Hollywood,  Co Wicklow could not be further from its glitzy namesake in Los Angeles. This  quiet rural village is  a really interesting place and has its own unique charm. There is much about the history of pilgrimage at  Hollywood that we do not know, but I firmly believe that this little village played a very important role in the early and later medieval  pilgrimage  landscape of the King’s River Valley and was a stop  for pilgrims en-route to the shrine of St Kevin at Glendalough.

Hollywood Co. Wicklow.

Located at one of the main entry points into the King’s River Valley, the village is traditionally held to be the starting point of St Kevin’s road, a well known medieval pilgrim route .  The route of St Kevin’s road cuts through the Wicklow Mountains via the King’s River and the Glendassan Valleys. The road  linked Hollywood to the ecclesiastical site of Glendalough. Over the centuries countless pilgrims would have passed through Hollywood when travelling to Glendalough.

Unfortunately  there are few historical sources relating to Hollywood. The first mention of the area is in a charter granting land and the right to build a castle here, to the de Marisco family in 1192 (Price 1983, 207-08). All that remains of the castle is a large Medieval Motte located at the edge of the modern village.

View of Motte from St Kevin's Bed

View of Motte from St Kevin’s Bed

The charter and subsequent documents refer to Hollywood as Bosco Sancto or ‘holy wood’  interestingly a later sixteenth century source refers to the area as Cillín Chaoimhín or the little church of St Kevin. This late reference confirms links with St Kevin the founder of Glendalough and alludes to the existence of a church and cult associated with the saint. I believe that this association has a much earlier history. Folklore suggests that St Kevin spent time here in retreat before he headed across the Wicklow mountains and founded the ecclesiastical site of Glendalough. It is possible that a small church or hermitage may have existed at Hollywood  in the early medieval period. The earliest mention to a church at Hollywood is found in a thirteenth century charter but  no physical traces of the medieval church survive. Its location is likely to be the site of the seventeenth century Church of Ireland.

The seventeenth century church built on the site of the earlier medieval church at Hollywood.

Five  medieval cross slabs dating to the thirteenth-early fourteenth century are to be found in its surrounding graveyard and they represent the only visible evidence of  medieval ecclesiastical activity  (Price 1983, 208; 216; Corlett 2003, 99-100; 105).

Medieval Cross Slab at Hollywood

Medieval Cross Slab at Hollywood.

All traces of past pilgrimage are located a short distance from this church in an E-W running valley at the edge of the village.

The Village of Hollywood after google maps

The valley containing the pilgrim stations, is located below the village of Hollywood.

The  aforementioned Norman Motte (site of the de Marisco castle) is found at the entrance to the valley. The Motte overlook a mini pilgrim landscape of two natural caves and a boulder all linked to St Kevin. Although the earliest records of pilgrimage date to the nineteenth century the strong folklore tradition linking the area to St Kevin and its location on the route of St Kevin’s road  suggests that this place would have held significance for passing pilgrims during the early and later medieval period.

View of St Kevin's Cave and St Kevin's Bed from valley floor

View of St Kevin’s Cave and St Kevin’s Bed from valley floor

The two natural caves known as St Kevin’s Cave and St Kevin’s Bed  are sited on a steep east-facing cliff face. I have  visited the caves on a number of occasions, winter is definitely the easiest time to approach them as vegetation is low. The climb is steep and challenging.

  St Kevin’s Cave  is the larger of the two caves.

St Kevin's Cave

St Kevin’s Cave

I found some  graffiti at the back of the cave in 2006 ‘Help me Lord to find my home’ a simple Latin cross was painted over this inscription,  when I visited  again this summer the inscription had  faded and the cross had disappeared.

Graffiti at back of St Kevin's Cave

Graffiti at back of St Kevin’s Cave (2012)

Close by is St Kevin’s Bed,  a narrow  vertical shaft   that leads  through the rock above .  St Kevin spent time in both caves and supposedly  used to sleep here.

The entrance to St Kevin’s Bed

St Kevin’s chair is located on the floor the valley, directly opposite the caves . The boulder is hard to see despite its size, I always seem to walk past it.  According to  the Ordnance Survey Name Books (1840’s) St Kevin, in a fit of rage, threw the rock/chair from St Kevin’s Cave at a woman who annoyed him. Irish saints were not known for their patience.   Sitting on the “chair”  was supposed to  cure   backache.

The stone known as St Kevin’s Chair.

It should be noted that  the pilgrim rituals  at Glendalough included  visiting a cave known as St Kevin’s Bed and a piece of natural rock called St Kevin’s chair . I am hoping to dig a little deeper into the history and folklore of the area in the coming months and I would be delighted to hear from anyone who has any other information on the area and past pilgrimages here.


Corlett, C. 2003. ‘The Hollywood Slabs- some late medieval grave slabs from West Wicklow and neighbouring Counties’, JRSAI vol. 133, 86-110.

Nugent, L. 2009. Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland, AD 600-1600. Unpublished PhD Thesis.

Price, L. 1940. ‘Glendalough: St. Kevin’s Road’, In Ryan, J. (ed.) FéilSgríbhinn

  Éoin Mhic Néil. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 244-71.

Price, L.  1983(reprint 1953). The Place-names of Co. Wicklow. Vol. IV-The Barony

  of Talbotstown Lower. Dublin: Dublin Institute For Advanced Studies.

St James, Irish Pilgrims & Pirates

Today is the feast of St James  the apostle.  The saint’s shrine  at Santiago de Compostela in Spain attracted large numbers of pilgrims from all over the Christian world  during the medieval period. Medieval souvenirs purchased by pilgrims to Santiago have been recovered  across Europe including  Ireland.  St James enjoyed  great devotion  in medieval Ireland and  his image turns up on a number of Irish medieval  tombs.

St James

Image of St James on a medieval tomb at the Franciscan Friary at Kilconnell, Co Galway

Given the long distance of the journey from Ireland to Santiago and the requirement to travel part of the journey by boat, a pilgrimage to Santiago from Ireland  was very expensive. Historical sources suggest that the majority of Irish pilgrims travelling to Santiago were  from the upper echelons of  Irish society. Pilgrims would have embarked from a variety of Irish ports such as Drogheda, Dublin, Wexford, New Ross, Waterford, Youghal, Cork, Kinsale, Dingle, Limerick and Galway (Stalley 1988, 398).

Roger Stalley gives an excellent discussion of the literary and archaeological evidence for Irish Pilgrimage to Santiago in his article ‘Sailing to Santiago: Medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de  Compostela and its artistic influences in Ireland’.

Travel by sea was shorter than by land but it was not without its own hazards. Pilgrims traveling by sea  were at risk from storms, disease and pirates. Bad weather was the biggest threat as storms had the potential of causing ship wrecks (Davies 1988, 47-48). There are many accounts of  pirates attacking ships  from Continental sources. Pirates  were known to  kill, kidnap and ransom or enslave pilgrims. A Lübeck chronicle dating to 1453 recorded the capture of some three hundred pilgrims returning from the Holy Land by hostile Saracens who killed all the men and enslaved the women (Ohler 1989, 48-49; Harpur 2002, 79). One of the most interesting reference to Irish Jacobean pilgrims dates to the year 1473.

The 1473 account concerns Irish pilgrims  traveling on ship called the La Mary London.  The  pilgrims appear to have been on their return journey from pilgrimage to Santiago when their boat was captured by pirates. It is not known  exactly how the events unfolded but the pilgrims were later released in the port of Youghal, Co. Cork, although the ship had originally been destined to dock at Waterford. It is likely that the pilgrims were ransomed by the pirates. They  had a lucky escape as they could have easily been, murdered or sold as slaves like the villagers of Baltimore in 1603  (Stalley 1988, 397 after Cal. Pat rolls. 1476-85, 78).


Harpur, J. 2002. Sacred Tracks. 2000 Years of Christian Pilgrimage. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd.

Ohler, N. 1989. The medieval traveller; translated by Caroline Hillier. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Stalley, R. 1988. ‘Sailing to Santiago: Medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and its artistic influences in Ireland’, In Bradley, J. (ed.) Settlement and  Society in Medieval Ireland. Studies presented to F.X. Martin, o.s.a. Kilkenny:  Boethius Press, 397-420.