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

Bibliography

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.

Bibliography

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.