Pilgrimage to St Mullins Co. Carlow during the Black Death

Throughout the medieval period many people made pilgrimage in times of crisis such as personal illness, outbreaks of disease and natural disasters like drought. The Black Death was one of the biggest crisis to be faced by people during the fourteenth century in  Ireland.

The Annals of Ireland written between 1333-1349 by John Clyn, a Franciscan friar of Kilkenny, contains a chilling first hand account of the Black Death as it raged through Ireland.

The text also records a very rare account of pilgrimage to the ecclesiastical site of St Mullins whose ruins are now at the centre of a picturesque village of the same name in Co. Carlow.

Image may contain: grass, outdoor and nature

Remains of St Moling’s ecclesiastical site along side the Anglo Norman motte at St Mullins Co. Carlow ( image from SMART (St. Mullins Amenity & Recreational Tourism Group) Facebook Page.

The ecclesiastical site of St Mullins traces its history back to the seventh century, when St Moling founded a monastery on the banks of the river Barrow.  Following the saints death his monastery went on to become one of the most importance pilgrim sites in Leinster.

In the year in 1348  John Clyn recorded great numbers of pilgrims arriving at St Mullins. The pilgrims were drawn here because of St Moling reputation for healing and miracles. They hoped that by praying to the saint in the presence of his relics they might be protected from the plague.

This year, and chiefly in the months of September and October, great numbers of bishops and prelates, ecclesiastical and religious, peers and others, and in general people of both sexes, flocked together by troops to the pilgrimage and wading of the water at Tigh Moling [St Mullins] so that many thousands might be seen there together for many days; some came out of devotion, but the greater part for fear of the pestilence which raged at that time with great violence….” ( Williams 2007, 246).

The pilgrims made their prayers at St Moling’s holy well  and millrace located just outside the main monastic enclosure.  The twelfth Latin Life of  St Moling, recalls how the saint single handed dug the mill race over seven years and then consecrated ‘…by walking through it against the flood…’. The pilgrims hoped that by washing or ‘wading’ in the of the waters of the millrace and the holy well they would be protected from the plague. We do not know how the pilgrims fared in the coming months how many died or survived.


The plague spread rapidly after its arrival to Ireland.  In June of 1349 Clyn wrote that the pestilence was so contagious that those who ‘touched the dead or the sick were immediately affected themselves and died’.   Shortly after writing the description below Clyn contracted the disease and died.

Many died of boils, abscesses and pustules which erupted on the legs and in the armpits. Others died in frenzy, brought on by an affliction of the head, or vomiting blood. This amazing year was outside the usual order of things, exceptional in quite contradictory ways – abundantly fertile and yet at the same time sickly and deadly… It was very rare for just one person to die in a house, usually, husband, wife, children and servants all went the same way, the way of death… (Williams 2007, 250).

St Moling’s holy well along with the medieval millrace can still be seen in the modern landscape at St Mullins. St Moling’s holy well is still a focus of modern pilgrimage on the second Sunday of July.  If anyone who wants to find out more about the medieval pilgrimage at St Mullins check out  my new book Journeys of Faith. Stories of Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland.


Nugent, Louise.  Journeys of Faith. Stories of Pilgrimage From Medieval Ireland. Dublin: Columba Books, 2020.

Williams, Bernadette. The Annals of Friar John Clyn. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007.

St Flannan’s Holy Well, Errislannan Co Galway

Just before Christmas I  spent some time at St Flannan’s Holy Well at Errislannan in the company of archaeologist Will Anderson.
Errislannan is a small peninsula, on the west coast of Co Galway, in the Connemara region, a few miles from the town of Clifden.  Errislannan or Iorras Fhlannáin in Irish, means “Flannan’s Peninsula”. The area gets its name from the seventh century St Flannan who according to local folklore spent some time in the area before settling in Killaloe. The saint is also the patron of a ruined the medieval church and  holy well.
The church and holy well are located on the shores of Lough Nakilla in the townland of Kill. Today the church  and surrounding graveyard are overgrown with briars and dense vegetation. We managed to get into the interior of the church which appears to be a rectangular structure, without any  internal division. It was impossible to examine the fabric of the building in any detail but a  number of gravestones were visible at the eastern end of the church.

View of the interior of the St Flannan’s church at Errislannan.

 The Archaeological Inventory of County Galway Vol. I – West Galway, describes the church as follows
Small poorly preserved medieval church (E-W; L 10.3m, Wth 4.5m) dedicated to St Flannan of Killaloe. The only surviving features are a plain doorway in N wall and the Morris family tomb in interior. The oldest part of graveyard, oval in plan, surrounds the church. To S of church is a leacht consisting of a drystone wall (L 2.5m, H 0.5m) with a niche, set into the natural slope. A natural boulder, known as St Flannan’s Bed, lies c. 100m E of the graveyard and there is a holy well (GA035-048003-) to E.
According to the  seventheenth century Chorographical description of West or H-Iar Connaught by O’Flaherty, Roderic, 1629-1718,the church has no burials within the walls‘ due to a belief that the body would not stay buried and would be found on the ground the next say.  During the ensuing centuries this belief changed and today there are a number of grave markers in the interior of the church including the Morris family tomb. The heavy growth of vegetation made it impossible to examine these stones. The Morris family were landed gentry who had inherited part of the estate of the Frenchs of Errislannan and they had a house in Ballinaboy.  The surrounding graveyard was also very overgrown and I couldn’t find the leacht.

Terrain on the southern side of St Flannan’s church Errislannan

On the west side of the medieval church and historic graveyard, is a modern walled cemetery filled predominantly with modern marble and granite gravestones.  St Flannan’s holy well is located close to the gate leading into the modern burial ground.

Modern burial ground attached to St Flannan’s Medieval parish church Errislannan

The holy well  was once a place of pilgrimage on the 18th of December and we came here on this day to see if people from the area still visit.  Unfortunately I didn’t see anyone  here but some pilgrims could have visited before or after my visits.  It was a very wet day which could have been a factor in the lack of activity but I was told by some people in Clifden that the tradition of visiting the well on the feast day has all but died out here.


St Flannan’s Holy Well

The well itself is  a rectangular stone lined  feature with steps down into the interior. It is in turn surrounded by a low dry stone wall.


The well has the most charming appearance which is enhanced by its lakeside location. Evidence of  recent visits by pilgrims to the holy well are represented by a broken saddle quern on the external wall of the well, filled with votive offerings of coins (mostly euro currency) and the odd religious medals.


I must come back here again during the summer or on a nice sunny day as the location of the well is stunning and there is a real sence of peace and calm.


View of the Lough Nakilla from the holy well


St Bartholomew’s Holy Well Kinsalebeg, Co Waterford.

Yesterday I visited my first pilgrim site of 2013, St Batholomew’s holy well or Tobar Phárthanáin. The well is to be found  in the  parish of Kinsalebeg in Co Waterford, a short distance from the village of Pilltown and a few miles from the town of Youghal.

Location map of Holy well

Location map of St Bartholomew’s Holy Well. Image taken from Bing maps.

The well is located in a field of rough pasture on the east side of the Blackwater estuary, close to a cross roads in the townland of  Moord/Mord,  (An Móird/An Magh Ard or  “The High Plain”) about  mile south of Piltown. It’s really hard to find, I was really lucky to meet a local man who despite being in a hurry  brought me to the well.

The well is dedicated to St Bartholomew, who was one of the twelve apostles. The saints   feast day is  on the 24th of August.  There are a number of accounts of pilgrimage to the well   in the not too distant past, on this day. According to Power  writing in  1937  St. Bartholomew was traditionally held  to be the patron saint of the parish of Kinsalebeg. He also noted that his feast was kept  by local people

on the 24th of August, by visits to the ” Blessed Well” dedicated to him and that on the Sunday nearest to the feast, a public ” pattern ” is held at the well and at the adjoining village of Piltown.

From the NE the well is hidden   in a hollow  in the field close to the boundary ditch.  A short distance to the W is a small stream running into the estuary.


St Batholomew’s Holy Well

The well itself consists  of a small  of a rectangular stone and mortar built superstructure,  with a triangular-shaped top.


Stone built rectuangular superstructure of St Bartholomew’s well with triangular-shaped top.

There are two rectangular recesses one at the base where the water can be accessed.

Recess for access to well waters

Recess for access to well waters

The second recess sits  just above the lower opening  and below the apex of the structure. When I visited here  a modern ceramic mug  was housed within. The structure is white washed.


Upper recess in well superstructure . Note the modern mug.

Stone flags act as steps to the well and  divide it from  the large rectangular trough located beside it.


The larger trough is cut into the earth and  stone faced . The eastern face appears to have collapsed in but the side is still well-preserved. The west  wall is stepped with stone facing  sitting on top of three large  flags which may have acted as steps into  the trough. Perhaps in the past  pilgrims would have taken water from the smaller trough and washed their limbs   in this one.


FitzGerald writing in 1856  notes that  the well

is greatly resorted to for ‘giving  rounds’ at. It is celebrated for several cures, but especially for sore eyes.

A patron at the well is mentioned in a number of sources.  The Ordnance Survey Letters of 1840, state that a pattern was last held here in 1812 on St. Bartholomew’s Day. FitzGerald in 1856 wrote ‘there is a patron held here every 24th of August’. Power writing in  1937 notes

This is a well-known holy well at which a pattern is held and “rounds” made on August 24th.

However the I.T.A. survey of 1945  noted that

up to about 50 years ago this well was held in high repute and hundreds of people came here to “make their rounds”.Of late years very few visit it’.

This may suggest the pattern was reviewed for a time after 1840 before declining in popularity  in the early 1900’s. Today the well looks like it is maintained, the white washing of the masonry   and the presence of the mug suggests its probable still used but I wonder by how many people.  Despite the grey day it is really one of the nicest wells I have visited.


Nearby stream flowing out into estuary.

Rituals  performed by  pilgrims  here in the 19th century  involved the ‘making of rounds’  a tale told by Fitzgerald in 1856 suggests that the pilgrim landscape extended beyond the well.

“ when I visited it last, a couple of months ago, a very intelligent young man of the neighbourhood  pointed out to me two houses some twenty yards from the well, which he said were built on the ground that was formerly taken in by the pilgrims in their circuit of ‘rounds’ , and that to his own knowledge the parties who made the encroachments all dwindled away to nothing – none of them ever had a day’s luck afterwards.”

I haven’t had time to consult the 1st or 2nd edition OS maps but  it is interesting to note that a short distance from the well are two small cairn of  what looks like building rubble .

The well was once associated with a rag tree which  is unfortunately no longer in existence. Fitzgerald gives the following colourful description of the tree and its associated rituals.

the fine old venerable  thorns which overshadowed  it bore a most motley appearance, actually crowded with old red, blue, and green ribbons and rags, as if torn from the dresses of pilgrims, and tied up as a finale to their ‘rounds’  and prayers.

He goes on to describe a conversation with a lady that he meet at the well  who described to him the meaning of this practice at the well.

An old crone engaged in giving her ‘rounds’ told me they were tied up by each to leave all the sickness of the year behind them.

This description of the tree sounds  so very colourful and vibrant. It makes you wonder  how many other wells also had rag tree that have disappeared.

St Batholomew’s holy well or Tobar Phárthanáin is a really peaceful and lovely well. If anyone has any other information about  the well or  modern traditions associated with  it,  I’d love to hear from them.

© Louise Nugent 2013


FitzGerald, E. (1856-7) Proceedings – “Jottings in archaeology”, JRSAI 4, 40-49, 289-91.

I.T.A. Topographical and General Survey of County Waterford. Ireland, 1945. [on-line] http://snap.waterfordcoco.ie/collections/efolders/155321/ita_survey.pdf [accessed 4/08/2012]

O’Flanagan, M. (Compiler) (1929) Letters containing information relative to the antiquities of the county of Waterford collected during the progress of the Ordnance Survey in 1841. Typescript. Bray.

Power, P. 1937. Waterford & Lismore : a compendious history of the united dioceses. Cork: Cork University Press, 128.

Lady well or Tobar Mhuire in Modeligo, Co Waterford

The village of Modeligo has one of the nicest holy wells,  it is  a real gem. The well like the parish church is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and local people still gather here on the 15th of August the Feast of the Assumption, to say the rosary.

Medieval Parish church at Medeligo, Co. Waterford

The Ordnance Survey maps record the well as Lady well, while Forsayeth in 1911 says the well was known as Tobar Beannuighthe. Beary also writing in 1911 notes that local people referred to the well as Tobar Mhuire or Mary’s well. Today local people just call it the Holy well.

I first heard about this well from a friend Gillian McCarthy who happens to be from Modeligo and for the last two years I have been trying to visit. Finally in August 2012, I was able to visit and Gillian kindly gave my mum and I a guided tour of the village and the well, which is located in the townland of Knockgarraun a short distance from the local community centre, in farmland own by Gillian’s father Roger.

Lane way leading to Holy Well

The main focus of devotion at the well is the 15th of August and a pattern day is held in the village around this date but it is now a separate event to devotions at the well. The pattern appears to be a revival of an older tradition as in 1911 it was recorded that the pattern day;

‘used to take place here in olden times. People may still be seen to congregate on the aforesaid date, and they invariably hang mementoes, the shape of rags and other objects on the ancient hawthorn that grows beside the well’ (Fortheysth 1911, 187).

This year mass was to be said for the first time at the well but it was cancelled like many other events this summer due to the torrential rain and wind.  To get to the well you have to park at the community centre and walk down a long grassy boreen which leads into farmland. The well is located on steep slope on a rock outcrop that overlooks the Finisk River.

The well is a roughly circular hollow in the rock outcrop, the result of natural erosion by rainwater. The water within the well is a result of the hollow filling with rain water. Coming up to 15th of August a member of the McCarthy family will clean out the well getting rid of any algae growing in the water.

Forsayeth (1911, 186) noted that when the well was emptied a cross carved into the base was visible and Gillian confirms seeing this.

The hawthorn tree mentioned above still grows beside the well and Gillian’s father Roger, told me that rags and rosary beads were tied to the tree up to the 1960’s but the tradition has died out now.

Image of the Holy Well in 1911 ( Forsayeth 1911, 186).

Little is known about the well prior to the early twentieth century, Lewis writing in 1837 about the parish noted ‘There is a vitriolic spring in the parish the water of which is clear and sharp’.

Smith in his book the The Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Waterford in 1746 notes

‘On the south side of the parish lies the church; and near it, is a reputed holy well’

A local elderly lady called Mrs Cronin of Knocknageragh (a nearby townland) told Beary in 1911

‘ The rounds were made here. The water of this well may be used for any purpose, such as applying or pouring on the head, or rubbing on parts of the body, and some sup it out of the palm of the hand…. The rounds each time however, are finished  at the flowing spring well 60 yards below, on the flat Inch, and near the brink of the Finisc River. Here  three  sups or swallows are to be taken in honour of the Blessed Trinity’

The tradition of going to the Trinity well has died out in the area and I only came aware of the wells existence following my visit so I wasn’t able to seek it out.

View of the River Finisk from the Holy Well

Another very interesting fact about Lady well is that according to folklore from the 19th century this well  has moved its location in the past.

It was originally in the townland of Scart on the land of a Mr Healy and was resorted to for a cure for bad eyes and blindness.

‘….Mr. Healy used to hear all the people that was cured at this well talking about the well. So he told his steward to take a blind horse he had to the well. But the steward wouldn’t take the horse, so he had to take him himself to the well. So the horse got his sight back there and then, and Mr. Healy, who had  the impudence to take a dumb animal to the well, was struck blind himself, and the well disappeared. So there was no trace of the well to be found where it was. But after some days the well was found where it is at present, up a boreen under the chapel of Modelligo’  (Ussher 1914, 120).

There is another tradition which  states that it was a one Cromwell’s men who led his blind horse to the well in mockery and to test out the healing waters of the well, the horse was cured the solider stuck blind and the well up and moved to Modelligo (Forsayeth 1911, 187).


Beary, M, 1911. ‘Holy Well at Modeligo’JRSAI  Ser. 6, Vol. I, 393-394.

Forsayeth, G. 1911. ‘Holy well near Modeligo, Co. Waterford.’  JRSAI  Ser. 6, Vol. I,  186-187.

Lewis, S. A. 1837. A topographical dictionary of Ireland.

 Smith, C. 1746. The Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Waterford:

  Being a Natural, Civil, Ecclesiastical, Historical and Topographical Description

  Thereof. Dublin: Printed by A. Reilly.

Usher, E. 1914. ‘Waterford Folklore 1’, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Mar. 31, 1914),  109-121.

Scattery Island. A place of prayer, battle and beauty!

I am delighted to introduce   my first guest post written by Maggie McNamara .  Maggie is an archaeologist based in Co Clare who has a great interest  in archaeology and history of  Scattery Island also known as Inis Cathaigh.

Scattery Island (Inis Cathaigh), a beautiful historic island located in the mouth of the Shannon estuary, off the coast of Kilrush Co. Clare, is home to a monastery founded by St. Senan in the early 6th century.

View of Scattery Island

Legend tells us that Senan was placed on the island by an angel where he had to defeat a terrifying monster called Cathach hence the name Inis Cathaigh. The island contains evidence of intensive religious activity represented by the ruins of 6 churches, a round tower and holy well. It is said that there were 7 churches here at one stage if not more. An important religious settlement and place of learning in medieval times, administering to a diocese in the 12th century, associated with monastic possessions such as the Golden Bell (7th-8th century) and Bell Shrine (12th century) and a strong cult of Senan which survives to the present day. The saint is also said to have founded monastic cells in Brittany, Wales and Cornwall as well as at other Irish sites in Enniscorthy and Cork and on Mutton and Canon Islands in Co. Clare. Connections with other monastic foundations are known, most notably Clonmacnoise. The church ruins date to between the 7th and 15th centuries and display much fine stonework and a number of carved faces including representations of a bishop and kings. The round tower dates to the 10th century and is unusual in that it is one of only two in the country with its door at ground level.

Round Tower and St Senan’s church at Scattery Island

There is also a 10th century cross slab containing the inscription ‘A prayer for moinach, tutor of mogroin’ and an undated ogham stone.

St. Senan is said to have died  here in 544 on March 8th. In post medieval times pilgrimage took place here on Easter Monday and the 8th March, the saint’s feast day. Although there are no direct references to pilgrimage in medieval times, the modern pilgrimage is very likely to be a continuation of a medieval tradition.

The pilgrimage involved rounds of the island, starting on the shore and moving to the various churches and other points on the island, finishing at the holy well (located close to the round tower). The well is said to cure eye ailments and was an important focus for the islanders. The saint’s grave was also supposed to be the site of miraculous cures. The Life of St Senan states that the

Stones from St. Senan’s Bed were regarded as relics and a protection against diseases and especially drowning.

The Parliamentary Gazeteer of Ireland for 1845 noted

“A holy well in the island,” says Mr. Hely Dutton, “is resorted to by great numbers of devotees, who, as they term it, take their rounds about it annually on their bare knees; and it is a frequent practice for those who cannot conveniently perform this penance, to pay at this and other holy wells a trifling gratuity to some persons to perform this ceremony for them; I have known a woman to make a trade of this mummery. The common people have a great veneration for this island and its ruins; they carry pebbles taken from it as preservatives against shipwreck, and the boatmen will not navigate a boat that has not taken a round about Scattery in a course opposite the sun.”

Interior of St Senan’s church

The island has seen much turmoil over the centuries having been raided numerous times by the Vikings, Irish and Anglo Normans. The Vikings had a stronghold here in the mid 10th century. Other features on the island include a late 16th century tower house, 19th century battery and lighthouse and a 19th-20th century village, home to river pilots and fisher-farmers up to the late 1970’s. A place of prayer, battle and beauty!


Anon. 1845 The Parliamentary Gazeteer of Ireland, 1845. [online] http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/places/scattery_1845.htm [accessed 3/04/2012]

Local studies Project (no date) Scattery Island [on line] http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/people/life_of_senan.htm

[accessed 4/08/2012].

Hedderman, Fr. S. Life of St Senan, Bishop, Patron Saint of West Clare [on line] http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/people/chapter8.htm [accessed 4/08/2012].

Westropp, T. J. 1905. ‘Iniscatha (1188-1420)’ in Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol xxxv .

Westropp, T. J. 1897. ‘Descriptive sketch of places visited: Scattery Island and Canons’ Island, Co. Clare in Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. xxvii .

Westropp, T. J. 1915, ‘Ancient remains on the west coast of Co. Clare: St Senan’s bell shrine’ in Journal of the North Munster Archaeological Society, vol.iii, no. 4 .

Pilgrimage at St Declan’s Well, Toor, Co. Waterford

St Declan’s Well at Toor in Co. Waterford, has a special significance for me as my grandmother, who was originally from the area, visited the well throughout her life (even when living in another county).

St Declan’s Well

According to folklore St Declan  stopped here while en route to Cashel to quenched his thirst and it was this act that blessed the waters (Komen no date). I was unable to find any references to the well prior to the twentieth century, but the dedication to St Declan a pre-patrician saint suggests it is of some antiquity and  it may have originally attracted pilgrims only from the local area.

Statue of St Declan at Toor

Changing landscape of the Well

The modern landscape of the well is relatively recent. The statues, the structure where mass is said, the outdoor pulpit, are all additions dating to the 1950’s -1960’s. The coniferous plantation which surrounds the well is also modern. Thanks to the permission of Waterford County Museum I have included a number of photos of what the site was like in the 1950’s which show these changes.

Pilgrims praying at St Declan’s Well in the 1950’s (Waterford County Museum Image Archives)

The photo below (Waterford County Museum Archive) shows the well as a deep  depression. The   large cross covered in rosary beads with flowers at the base is still present at the site.

Kate McGrath (nee_Corcoran), at St Declan’s well Toor in the 1950’s (Waterford County Museum Image Archive)

In the early 1950’s Josephine Fitzgerald the wife of Jerry Fitzgerald a cycle shop owner from Main Street, Dungarvan was cured at the well. In the subsequent years the couple were involved with others in the up keep and the addition of  the statues, new buildings  etc. at the site. There are two plaques dedicated to  their work at the site.

Jerry Fitzgerald, a cycle shop owner from Main Street, Dungarvan at Saint Declan’s Well in Toor. Mr. Fitzgerald was the caretaker of the well for many years.

By the 1960’s all the features that are visible at the site today were in place.

St Declan's well Toor 1966 ( Waterford County Museum Image Archive)

St Declan’s well, Toor in 1966, note the white rags tied to the fence ( Waterford County Museum Image Archive)

Today the site is enclosed but the older images suggest that prior to the planting of the modern forest, the site was open.  A really interesting feature at the site is the addition of a rag tree/bush following the enclosing.  Today  pilgrims tie cloths, kitchen towels and rosary beads to the hedge which surrounds the site.

Rags tied to hedge of enclosure around St Declan’s Well.

The Well and Healing

Like many other wells the water here is renowned for its healing powers. Its reputation is such that people travel here from all over Waterford and neighbouring counties such as Cork, Tipperary and Wexford to pray and to avail of the healing waters. The water is especially beneficial for diseases of the eyes and the skin.

St Declan's Well, Toor

St Declan’s Well, Toor

In 1945, The Irish Tourism Association  survey for Co Waterford recorded for the well that

 Cure for skin diseases, ringworm especially, is attributed to it. Seán Dower, an old man who lives near the well told me he saw many people come here and bath their lombs etc. which were afflicted with ringworm and exzema in the water, and he afterwards saw them quite cured. I got like information from other sources (I. T. A 1945, 122).

Pilgrimages take place here throughout the year. Individuals come to the well, drink the water, do the rounds while reciting the rosary. Many will then wash limbs in a small rectangular trough, located a short distance from the well.

Rectangular trough where pilgrims wash their limbs

For a cure or prayer to be successful it is a requirement to visit the well three times.

Annual Pilgrimage Mass

The well is also the site of two annual masses in July and on the 15th of August when, large number of people come to the well for the blessing of the waters and the celebration of mass and the feast of St Declan. This year I attended the July pilgrimage which is held here on the Thursday closest the feast day of St Declan on the 24th of July.

Mass at St Declan’s Well on the 26th of July

The tradition of mass is relatively new having begun in 1951. While attendance at other wells is in decline,  the pilgrimage here is very strong as evident from the large number of numbers of pilgrims young and old who arrived by car and bus. There was a very strong local presence with many people from the neighbouring parishes of Aglish and Clashmore attending. There  were many people who had travelled long distances to be here from Waterford City, Wexford and Clonmel.

The mass is an important event and  11 priests assisted   Fr.  Gerry O’Connor  the parish priest of , who said the mass.  The ceremony began with blessing of the waters of the well and those present, next a box containing  petitions to the saint, from those in attendance was carried to the well.

Pilgrims writing petitions to St Declan

This is a new  addition to the ceremony at the request of  pilgrims the previous year. Following mass pilgrims went to the well to drink the water and some when to wash their feet at the trough underneath the structure where mass was said.

Pilgrims drinking the water of St Declan’s well after the annual mass

There is also a real social aspect to the occasion, it’s a chance for people to catch up and talk, afterwards  in the field generously provided by the local farmer for parking, many people had picnics out of the booth of their cars.

I would like to thank Fr Ger MacCarthy and Fr Pat Butler  for information on the well  and Waterford County Museum for permission to reproduce their photos.


I.T.A. Topographical and General Survey of County Waterford. Ireland, 1945. [on line] http://snap.waterfordcoco.ie/collections/efolders/155321/ita_survey.pdf [accessed 4/08/2012]

Komen, J. no date. ‘St. Declan’s Pattern.’ [on line] http://www.waterfordmuseum.ie/exhibit/web/Display/article/331/7/The_Ardmore_Journal_St_Declans_Pattern_.html [accessed 3/08/2012]

Billberry Sunday

MacNeill (1962) has made a strong case that many pilgrimage  that take place on the last sunday of July such as pilgrimage to Mount Brandon Co Kerry, Croagh Patrick Co Mayo and Maumeen  Co Galway evolved from the celtic  Festival of Lughnasa held in honour of the God Lugh.  Another relic of this festival  was the collection of billberries  also on the same day the last sunday in July.

Billberry Bush

Billberry Bush

Bilberries are a small blue/black berry that looks very like a blueberrybut are much smaller. They  grow in mountainous land. They are known by different names around the country  fraughan or the irish  frachóg, whorts, hurts or heatherberries. The last sunday of just which is also known by a variety of terms Garland Sunday, Domhnach Crom Dubh (Sunday Black Crom) Domnach na bhFraochóg (Billberry Sunday) as well as Billberry Sunday or Fraughan Sunday.

Traditionally the gathering of the berries was carried out by young people  who would climb up into the hills and have a
good time picking the berries. In the evening young girls would incorporate the berries into a cake and at the dance that evening present the cake to whatever ‘fella’ they had their eye on.


As a child, my cousins  my sister and I, would collect these berries which we called hurts as a snack when we played at my grandparents house, unaware of the ‘ Billberry Sunday’ tradition .

In the past the berry was used  for cooking in  medicine and as a dye. Seeds from the fruit have been found in excavations of Viking and Anglo Norman Dublin. The medieval sources for Ireland also suggest it was a a valuable crop being mentioned in a middle Irish text on the entitlements of kings (Kelly 2000, 307). In 1941 the berries were ‘ Bought and cleaned by local dealers, the berries were shipped off within 24 hours – some 400 tons of them in 1941, an exceptionally good year (when British pilots, reportedly, found bilberry jam improved their night vision)’ (Viney 2012).  It is sad that most people dont know what this berry is or what it looks like. This year with the wet summer the crop is very poor, but there are still some yummy berries to be found for the adventurous.


Kelly, F. 2000. Early Irish farming. Dublin: Institute for Advances Studies

MacNeill, M. 1962. The festival of Lughnasa: a study of the survival of the

  Celtic festival of the beginning of harvest. London: Oxford University Press.

Viney, M. 2012. ‘When we found our thrill picking billberries on a hill’ Irish Times Saturday, July 7, 2012

Sexton, R.( no date) ‘Bilberry Sunday, a Festival of Food and Courtship’ http://www.ireland-fun-facts.com/bilberry-sunday.html

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 .

The Blessing of the Graves & St Aidan’s Holy Well, Preban, Co. Wicklow

Last week I headed to Wicklow to visit Preban graveyard near Tinahely. Yvonne Whitty of the De Faoite Archaeology Company and member of the Preban graveyard committee brought me on a tour of Preban graveyard. She also  filled me in on the committee’s exciting plans for the site.

Preban Graveyard & St Aidan's Holy Well (taken fro Google earth)

View of Preban graveyard. St Aidan’s Well is located to the left hand side of the graveyard, marked by the black dot. The image is taken from Google earth

Preban is  an early medieval ecclesiastical site, there are no surviving upstanding  early medieval remains  but traces of an enclosure can be identified from the 1st edition Ordnance Survey maps and the surrounding field boundaries. Today the main features at the site are traces of a medieval church surrounded by a graveyard. In the coming months the site will be record and mapped and  a geophysical survey of  the surrounding fields. This graveyard is very special as it has some amazing eighteenth century gravestones three of which are by the renowned Denis Cullen.

Denis Cullen Headstone

Image of the crucifixion on Denis Cullen Headstone at Preban

The graveyard is not a site of pilgrimage but each year in July a blessing of the graves takes place. The blessing of the graves is a tradition that occurs in many graveyards around Ireland. The ritual can vary from place to place with either mass being celebrated in the graveyard and the priest then blesses the graves or elsewhere mass is celebrated in the parish church and people then come to the graveyard and the priest blesses the graves or prayers are said in the graveyard the the graves are then blessed. This ritual brings local communities together. It is also a time people tidy and clean up the graves of loved ones. This year the blessing of the graves  was last Friday  the 13th of July. Despite the wet weather there was still a good turnout from the local community and following some prayers by the Parish Priest Rev. James Hammel the  graves were blessed.

Blessing of the graves at Preban

Fr. Hammel blessing of the graves at Preban

St Aidan’s Holy well is located a short distance from Preban graveyard.  The well is not marked as an RMP site nor is it marked on the 1st edition Ordnance Survey maps of 1840’s, however local people remember it being a site of local pilgrimage. Today the well is very overgrown and visited by a very small number of local people.

St Aidan's Holy Well

View of St Aidan’s Holy Well and holy tree

St Aidan or Aodhán is the diminutive form of the name Aodh. Saints bearing this name are found throughout Ireland and Gaelic-speaking parts of Scotland (Ó’Riain 2011, 71). One of the most famous of these saints was Aodhán or Maodhóg (Mogue) of Ferns Co. Wexford (ibid). The well  at Preban appears to be dedicated to St Aidan of Fern’s as the feast day of both saints are  on the 31st of January.

Locating the well at present is very difficult as the field is in long grass/meadow. The well can be identified by a green circle of long grass at the centre of the field. A black thorn tree sits at the edge of the well. From what I could make out without disturbing  the thick vegetation the well is sunken below the ground level of the field and consists of a stone built superstructure the top of which is level with the ground level of the field. I will try and visit again in winter as it will be easier to examine the well when the vegetation is less dense.

St Aidan's Holy Well

St Aidan’s Holy Well

I was very luck to chat with three local ladies who live and grew up close to the holy well. They were able to tell me about the  traditions  associated with the well. Benny Kelly told me when she was a child it was tradition to visit the well on the feast day of St Aidan the 31st of January  but that people also visited the well at other times during the year. She told me that there was a special prayer to St Aidan that some people recited when going to the well and its water had a great tradition of having a cure, but she didn’t think this cure was for any one illness. Another local lady Cathy Whitty told me that when she was a child the well was one of the only sources of local water and that people used to come here to get their drinking water but despite being used as a domestic water supply the well was still seen as holy and the water has healing qualities. Finally Maura Carthy one of the oldest surving inhabitants of the parish, told me when she was young  “the old people would go to the well nine days in a row before the feast of the saint and that people would tie red rags to the tree beside the well”. She also told me that pilgrims coming from Lough Derg  to Lady’s Island in Co. Wexford, “having cross over the mountains  would stop here to pray at the well” before heading on to Lady’s Island.

This is a very special well and the graveyard committee plan to collect more oral traditions associated with the well in the coming months. Many thanks to Yvonne for the tour of Preban and Benny, Cathy and Maura for sharing their memories of St Aidans well


Ó Riain, P. 2011. A Dictionary of Irish Saints. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Pilgrimage at Kildare in the Seventh Century

In September I will be presenting a paper to the Castledermot Historical Society concerning the historical and archaeological evidence for pilgrimage in Co. Kildare during the medieval period. I started working on the paper earlier in the week and I was reminded of the description of pilgrims arriving at monastery of St Brigit at Kildare. This account was recorded in the seventh century Life of St Brigit.

 And who can count the different crowds and numberless peoples flocking from all the provinces- some for the       abundant feasting, others for the healing of their afflictions, others to watch the pageant of the crowds, others with great gifts and offerings – to join in the solemn celebration of the feast of the saint Brigit who, free from care, cast off the burden of the flesh and followed the lamb of God into the heavenly mansions, having fallen asleep on the first day of the month of February (Connolly & Picard, 1987, 27).

As Peter Harbison notes in his book Pilgrimage in Ireland the surviving literary evidence for early medieval pilgrimage in Ireland is

‘sparse and sporadic….. So meagre is our information in most cases that we know little more than the names of places known to have been the goal of a pilgrim’ (1991, 51).

With this in mind the above text, although brief, provides a unique glimpse of pilgrimage at an important shrine in early medieval Ireland.

The pilgrimage described above was taking place on the feast day of St Brigit the first of February. Medieval sources from Britain and the Continent suggest that while pilgrims were free to perform pilgrimage at any time during the year (and many did), the main bursts of pilgrim activity, was focused on the eve and day of the saint’s feast. The feast day became the primary focus of devotion due to the belief that the saint’s powers and presence at the shrine was at its most potent on his or her feast day (Davies 1988, 5-6; Hopper 2006, 108; Sumption 1975, 23-24). On a practical note as all public holidays in the medieval world were church feast days, it was probably easier for ordinary people to organise travel and pilgrimages on such days.

The Life also provides a valuable insight into the motives of pilgrims. The text suggests that some came to Kildare for healing, others to offer thanks in the form of gifts and some merely to enjoy the festivities and celebration of the feast day. The text also gives a sense that the pilgrimage experience at Kildare was a mixture of pious devotion and secular celebration. The combing to devotion and celebration is recorded at many European shrines during the early and later medieval period. The co-existence of devotion and celebrate or the sacred and profane can also be seen in the mass pilgrimages early modern period to holy wells on the Patron day or Saints Feast day.

In the coming weeks I hope to expand on this  brief discussion of pilgrimage at Kildare and other Irish sites during the  early  medieval period.


Connolly, S. & Picard, J. M. 1987. ‘Cogitosus: Life of Saint Brigit’, JRSAI, Vol. 117,  11-27.

Davies, J. 1988. Pilgrimage Yesterday and Today. Why? Where? How? London:  SCM Press Ltd.

Harbison, P. 1991. Pilgrimage in Ireland. The monuments and the people. London: Syracuse University Press.

Hopper, S. 2006. Mothers, Mystics and Merrymakers. Medieval Women Pilgrims. Gloustershire: Sutton Publishing.

Sumption, J. 1975. Pilgrimage an Image of Medieval Religion. London: H.M.S.O.