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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Many thanks to Pius Murray of Coisceim Anama walks for taking me to see this holy well. For information on Pius’s guided walks see www.coisceimanama.ie / www.pilgrimpath.ie
Nugent, L. & Scriven, R. 2015. Wells, Graves & Statues. Exploring the heritage & culture of pilgrimage in medieval & modern Cork city. Cork City Council: Cork.
O’Donovan, J. and Curry E. 1839. ‘The Ordnance Survey Letters of Co Clare’, http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/history/osl/oughtmama3_masduachs_well.htm.