Pilgrimage to St Declan’s Holy Well at Ardmore, 1910

Pilgrimage in honour of St Declan at Ardmore, Co Waterford, can be traced back to the early medieval period.  During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Ardmore was one of the most important pilgrim sites in the southeast of Ireland, attracting 1000’s of pilgrims for the annual pattern day celebrations.

Pilgrim rituals during this period have been extensively discussed by Dr Stiofán Ó Cadhla’s  in his excellent book The Holy Well Tradition. The Pattern of St Declan, Ardmore County Waterford, 1800-2000.


Although the numbers of pilgrims have fallen over the years, the saint and the celebration of his feast day (24th of July) are still a very important part of village life in Ardmore.

The nineteenth century pilgrim landscape was quiet extensive and included St Declan’s grave (at the eary medieval monastery),  St Declan’s stone and St Declan’s holy well (see map on below).


Image taken Google Earth showing location of the St Declan’s grave,  St Declan’s stone and St Declan’s Holy Well, nodal points in pilgrim landscape at Ardmore.

Today modern devotions are almost exclusively focused on St Declan’s holy well. They   include a prayer vigil on St Declan’s eve at the well, along with the traditional rounds on the feast day.

During the course of my research I came across a wonderful film on the Ardmore  pattern day, which I want to share with you. This short film was created by Horgan Brothers’ films in 1910. The Horgan’s began their careers as photographers and later worked with film, opening a cinema in their home town of Youghal, Co. Cork. It was here they screened their newsreel style short films, which they named the Youghal Gazette many of which can be seen on the Irish Film Institute Website.

It is most unusual for an Irish pilgrimage of this period to have been filmed, let alone  available to a wide audience today (through the Irish Film Institute).  I am very grateful to the Horgan Brothers for their efforts as their work provides a wonderful window into devotional activity in Waterford in the 1900’s.


The film opens at  St Declan’s holy well  the last station in the early modern pilgrimage.  There are many accounts which allow us to reconstruct the early modern pilgrimage at Ardmore but to see real pilgrims moving through the landscape is truly fascinating.

The photo below shows the location where the Hogan brothers set up their camera. They choose a position that over looked the well and church and also the approach route from the village.


Image of St Declan’s Holy Well showing the site where the Horgans filmed the pilgrimage image from Waterford Co Museum Photographic Collection


As the film opens, directly in front of cameras are a group of six people, engaged, in what can only be described as people watching. Closest to the camera is  gentleman in straw boater hat.  He watches as people walk along the path to the well and is caught in the embarrassing act of picking his nose. Next to the man, is a lady dressed in a light coloured dress with a parasol.  It seems to have been a warm sunny day as many of the ladies present have parasols. The young woman relaxes on the grass after fixing her parasol behind her head to provide some shade. Again her position allows her to  comfortably view all who approach and leave. The remaining people in the vicinity of the camera are four ladies standing beside a wall adjacent to the entrance. They are watching the pilgrims complete their rounds and prayers with great interest.

At the time pilgrims began their prayers  in front of the well. They then walked clockwise around the church and well while reciting three decades of the rosary. They would then knee before the well, finishing  the rosary before moving to the well to say more prayers and take the water.

The film shows  people in different stages of their  pilgrimage. A cluster of people  are in front of St Declan’s Holy Well, they must have completed their rounds, while the stream of men and women, make a clockwise circuit of the holy well and  its adjacent church saying the rosary are only half way through theirs. It’s interesting to note the majority of men have removed their hats during the pilgrimage as a sign of respect for the place and the saint.

The landscape of the well has changed little since 1910. Below is a contemporary photo of the front of St Declan’s holy well which is obscured from view in the film.  The structure of well has changed little  over the years with the exception of the theft of the smallest of three medieval carved crucifix (on the left side of the photo) incorporated into the top of well superstructure.


Photo of three women at St Declan’s Holy Well  taken 1910 from Waterford Co Museum Photographic Archive

Part of the pilgrim rituals at the holy well involved  pilgrims carving crosses into the wall of the church and parts of the well superstructure. These actions are also caught by the camera. This practice is not unique to Ardmore but here as at the other sites,  it is unlikely to have begun earlier then the nineteenth century.

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Crosses carved by pilgrims into the walls of the church at St Declan’s Holy Well

From the well  the film then cuts to St Declans’ Stone,  an erratic boulder located at the southern end of the strand some 500m to the east of the holy well. According to tradition  the stone carried St Declan’s bell and vestments, floating across the sea from Wales to Ardmore. The stone was used as a penitential station by past pilgrims.

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View of St Declan’s Stone as the tide comes in

In the film we see a woman wearing a Kinsale clock,  a traditional  garment worn up until the early twentieth century,  standing beside the stone. A man wearing a long trench coat can be seem crawling out from under the stone. Traditional devotions at the stone involved the pilgrim saying set prayers before crawling under the rock. Given its located on the shore devotions could only take place when the tide was out. Outside of the pattern day the stone was also visited for healing and was thought to be particularly beneficial for those with backache or rheumatism. The stone was a central part of the pattern day devotions until the mid-twentieth century but  pilgrimage has now ceased here.

The film then ends abruptly as the woman kneels in prayer and we do not get to see her crawled under the stone but she surely did.

climbing out of the srtone

Pilgrims performing rounds at St Declan’s stone (still from Horgan Brothers Film)


I plan to write a more detailed post about the post medieval and medieval pilgrimage rituals at Ardmore in the new year. I will also be discussing the site at an upcoming lecture for the Waterford Historical and Archaeological Society in February of 2019 so please come along if you want to find out more.

If you find this film interesting you may also want to check out some of the other films by the Horgan Brother that are on the Irish Film Institute website  at https://ifiplayer.ie/category/horgan/




The story of the 2014 Patten Day at Durrow through StorymapJS

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

Durrow Pattern day.


The Pattern Day at Clonmacnoise

The ecclesiastical complex at Clonmacnoise is truly an amazing place. Founded by St Ciarán in 545, the site  developed into a vast ecclesiastical complex and became one of the great power houses of the medieval church in Ireland.

Aerial photo of Clonmacnoise (from http://www.athlonespringshotel.com/attractions.htm)

I have  visited Clonmacnoise on many occasions and each time I spend hours walking around , there really is so much to see here.

Plan of the ecclesiastical complex at Clonmacnoise

This visit coincided with the Pattern Day celebrations of St Ciarán’s feast day on the 9th of September. Clonmacnoise is one of the very few Irish ecclesiastical sites to have an unbroken tradition of pilgrimage that stretches from the 6th /7thcentury to modern times. The history of pilgrimage during the early to late medieval period and  the early modern period is very interesting and complex and is best discussed in more detail in another blog post.


According to the Clonmacnoise Heritage Centre there are two special days of devotion here at Clonmacnoise. The Church of Ireland hold an open air  service on the last Sunday in July which I hope to attend next year, while the annual St Ciarán’s Pattern Day  is held on the third Sunday in September, or if possible celebrated on the 9th of September (St Ciarán’s feast day) as it was yesterday.


Pilgrims beginning to arrive for the Pattern day


The Pattern celebrations began around 3pm. From around 2.30 pm people began to come into the main ecclesiastical complex in small groups and before  the main celebrations began there must have been well over a 100- 150 people present. A local man I spoke too said that even more people would normally be present but  the All Ireland final between Kilkenny and Galway had kept many away.

Unlike the pilgrimage I documented earlier this year at St Mullins, pilgrims were spread out around the site. A large group of people were seat on chairs in front of the open air oratory, which was  built for Pope John Paul II ‘s visit in 1979,

Pilgrims seated in front of the open air oratory

Pilgrims seated in front of the open air oratory

the rest of the pilgrims were scattered among the gravestones and the ruins of other churches at the site.


Pilgrims scattered around the ruins of the churches

Like the  Pattern at St Mullins, there is also a social element to this occasion,  this it is time for people to catch  up and chat, it is also a time for people to remember those who have died. Many of  people who attended the pattern also visit the graves of loved ones buried within the main complex and the modern graveyard beside it. Visiting of the graves takes place  before and after the Pattern Day mass.


During the nineteenth century and up to recent times   St Ciarán’s well, located a short distance away on the Shannonbridge road,  was a central part of the Pattern Day.  According to one lady that I spoke too,  mass and the stations here are now the main focus of pilgrims  but  some people still visit the well on the saints feast before or after the mass.

St Ciarán’s Holy Well


Clonmacnoise is part of the Catholic Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise.  St Ciarán is one of the patron saints of this diocese. The pilgrimage  is an import part of the Diocesan Calendar, so much so that  the Bishop of Colm O’Reilly officiated at the mass, aided by 11 priests.

The pilgrimage began with the procession of the ‘Pilgrim Cross’ (a processional cross) around the  monastic complex while the rosary was recited.

Pilgrim Cross being carried in procession to the first station

Local people were invited to join in the procession but most preferred to pray where they were and only a small group of people joined in the procession. The first station began at the small oratory known as Temple Ciarán, the  traditional burial-place of St Ciarán.


The first station at Tempel Ciarán

The Pilgrim Cross then  moved  to the second station at the top of the enclosure  among the gravestones.

The second station among the gravestones


The cross was then carried on to the third station at the Cross of the Scriptures opposite the Cathedral church.

The third station at the Cross of the Scriptures


The Pilgrim Cross then moved on to the fourth station was at the Round Tower.

The fourth station at the Round Tower


The Pilgrim Cross was then brought on procession down to Temple Connor the fifth station. This is the only church at Clonmacnoise which is still use, built in 1010 by Cathal O’Conor, it has been used as a place of worship by the Church of Ireland since the eighteenth century and services are still held here.

Procession past Temple Connor, the fifth station

The stations ended with the bishop reciting a litany of the saints of Ireland .  The mass began and  just as the sermon was being delivered by Fr Liam Hickey PP of St Ciaran’s parish Hartstown , Dublin, who was originally from this  area, the heavens opened and the Clonmacnoise became a very pretty sea of colourful umbrellas.

The umbrellas come out with the rain

As quickly as it began the rain cleared away. As the mass continued a few curious tourists looked on taking photos, perhaps wondering what was happening.

Bishop O’Reilly giving communion to the pilgrims


Looking around at the Clonmacnoise I really felt like the site was transformed from a museum into a living place belonging to the community. There was also a real sense of history and tradition, the pilgrims scattered around the site were following the same age-old traditions of their ancestors,  arriving here to celebrate St Ciarán just as their parents and grandparents had done before them and their parents before them and so on. As I will discuss in another post on Clonmacnoise the pilgrim rituals have changed through the centuries but the core act of pilgrimage, the community coming together in honour of their saint  on his feast day is unchanged and I feel really lucky to have been here to experience this.


Pilgrims praying during mass at the Clonmacnoise Pattern Day



The Pattern day at St Mullins, Co. Carlow

St Mullins is one of my favourite places and on Sunday the  22nd of July I headed along to the annual pattern day.

View of St Mullins graveyard and ecclesiastical settlement from Google Earth

A pattern day, is a day when people come together to perform pilgrimage at a holy well or saints grave, usually on the saints feast day. This  is a tradition that can be traced back to early medieval times.  Nineteenth century accounts suggest there were originally two main pilgrimage days  at St Mullins on the 17th of June the  feast day of St Moling and the 25th of July the feast of St James. Today the pattern  takes place on the last sunday before the 25th of July and prayers take place at the well and in the graveyard on the 25th of July.

St Moling founded a monastery here in the seventh century and he is reputed to be buried within the ruins of the monastic buildings found in the modern graveyard. Pilgrims having being coming to pray to St Moling  for centuries and St Mullins was one of the great pilgrimages in medieval Ireland.  A single blog post is not enough to discuss the history  and tradition of pilgrimage at the site,  I will just   focus on the  modern  pilgrimage.  I hope to write a second post about the  medieval and early modern pilgrimage in the  coming weeks.

On Sunday the pattern   began with the blessing of the water of the  holy well by the Parish Priest ,  the blessing was then followed by mass in the  nearby graveyard (attached to the ruins of the medieval monastic site).

Bless of the Well at St Mullins

View of the blessing of the waters at St Moling’s Well, St Mullins

Following the blessing  of the waters,  pilgrims  drink the water from the well and pray for their own intentions, before walking to the graveyard for mass. Some people  attended mass first and then went  to the well to drink its water.  The waters from the well are reputed to have great healing powers.

People walking from  St Moling's well to the graveyard

People walking from St Moling’s well to the graveyard

The well  which is dedicated to St Moling consists of a reservoir filled by nine springs  surrounded by a low wall.

Pool of water at St Molings Well

Pool of water at St Moling’s Well

The water flows from this reservoir into a small roofless structure.  To get to the water one has to enter through a narrow door. The water flows from the pool through  two large  granite holed stones in the back wall .  A rectangular cut stone  with a circular basin/depression catches the water  as it flows out.

The Holy well at St Mullins

The back wall of the structure at St Moling’s well

The water then flows  over flag stones out the door and into the nearby mill-race known as the Turas (Pilgrim’s Way).

Mill race beside St Moling's well

Mill race beside St Moling’s well

When I visited the well on the pattern day in 2008,  I met a lovely lady Molly who looked after pilgrims  at the well and handed out water to them , she told me she did this every year for 50 years and her father before her  did the same . This year  she couldn’t make it as  she had recently been ill, so two   local student  stepped in to help out.  I  forgot to  ask their  names, too busy talking. So  they were  in charge of  filling cups with water and handing them to pilgrims who didn’t want to go inside for the water ( the flagged floor was very wet so not everyone wanted to get their feet wet).  I also had a chat with Mr Joe Mahony who was originally from Coolrainey and is now aged 92. He told me that when he was young as well as drinking the water people would stick their heads under flow of water as it came out of the wall. It was the belief that this would protect them from ailments of the head for the coming year. Joe  is a great character has been in his own words  ‘ coming to the pattern day since before he was born’.

girl collecting water at st mullins

One of the local student in charge of giving water to the pilgrims

Mass  began in the graveyard at 3.  The weather was  wet and a constant light rain was down for the afternoon, but  despite the weather the graveyard was a see of coloured rain jackets and umbrellas.

View of Patron Mass from Summit of nearby Motte

Some tried to take cover from the rain under the trees or in the ruins of the monastic buildings.

Pilgrims hiding from the rain under the trees during mass at St Mullins

People of all ages  attendance on Sunday from small babies to the very elderly. There is a real sence that this is a very important event for the local community. The mass performed by the priest in the middle  of  the graveyard, at  the site of  a penal altar.

Mass  being at penal alter

Mass being at penal altar

It is amazing to think that this pilgrimage has been taking place for centuries and there is a real sence of community and  history here.

The Patron day is also a social event for local people,  in the green  beside the Norman Motte a short distance from the graveyard  there were amusements and stalls selling their wares, and chip vans .

Amusments  at St Mullins

Amusments at St Mullins

The pattern is a day for people to meet up with friends and have a chat.  Many local  people  who live in other parts of the county will come  back especially for the pattern.

Following the pattern, I headed to the  St Mullins Heritage Centre . The Heritage Centre is located in a former Church of Ireland church built in 1811 at the edge of the graveyard. It  is well worth a visit and has lots of information plaques of the history of the area, St Moling and the pilgrimage. The centre also deals with  genealogy queries .