St Patrick’s day at St Patricks well in Glassely, Co Kildare

Last week I visited St Patrick’s well at Glassely/Glashealy in  Co. Kildare   to record the annual St Patrick’s day  pilgrimage. Sharon Greene a local archeologist and good friend of mine was at hand to  helped me to find the site which is difficult for a non local like myself to find, being located off the road in private land.


Statue of St Patrick at Glassely


The townland of Glassealy about 5 miles from Athy.   St Patrick’s  well is located  in the corner of a field close to the site of an old  graveyard  also dedicated to St Patrick.  The graveyard is semi circular in shape and the outer wall seems to enclose a circular bank. The dedication to St Patrick and the shape of the enclosure may suggest and early medieval date. The church no longer survives,  there is an underground vault or crypt  slightly east of center of the enclosure  and  also present are fragments of a  seventeenth century  altar tomb of the Fitzgerald family. Other features of note are the two portions of the shaft of a memorial cross dated to 1615.

Map of the area  by FitzGerald  created in 1912.

Map of the area by Lord Walter FitzGerald created in 1912 (J.K.A.S, 82)

St Patrick’s graveyard is situated at the edge of the road.  An old pilgrim path runs along the  north side of the stream which runs past the graveyard. The path follows the stream until it reached the well. The path  was known as the glen. ‘Glen’ is a term  often used in Ireland to refer to a small stream.   Running parallel to the stream is an old millrace  now dry which in former times powered a corn mill located close to Glassely House . A large mill-pond was located above the well. The well sits  in the corner of the adjoining field and its waters flow into the stream. Today most pilgrim get to the well through the roadside gateway of the well field  and on the main pilgrim day the farmer opens the get so that people drive there cars into the field .

The Well

The earliest reference I found concerning the well is the OS name books of 1838 which state

a well called St Patrick’s Well about 300 yards S. E. of the grave yard.

The well  is a natural spring  that rising out of rock  and is now located in a very pretty landscaped garden close to the banks of the stream.  The site is extremely peaceful and the modern renovations are very tastefully done. The landscaping was done about 15-20 years ago. I especially  liked the statue of St Patrick  which sits above the well as it  depicts the saint  as  a friendly and approachable character.


St Patrick’s well and garden

The well itself has not been changed although paving has been added around it to make access easier. Many coins have been left in the well and  the small tree over the well has some  ribbons and rosary beads tied to it, which show it is still visited  by pilgrims.


St Patrick’s well

The well and surrounding  area looked  very different 50-60 years ago.  The image below shows the well in the early 1900’s when it was surrounded by bushes and  scrub.

Fitzgerald (1912-1913) writing in 1912 wrote

The well itself, near the smaller of the two mill-ponds: the water from it  flows into the stream…The numbers of rags, coloured glass beads, and religious medals fastened to the overhanging branches and briars, testify to the reputation the well has for cures.

Image of the well from 1912

Image of the well taken by Lord Walter FitzGerald in 1912 (J.K.A.S, 97)

An article written in 1899-1902 on folk traditions in County Kildare  notes a tradition the water from the well would  boil (Greene 1899-1902, 371).

Tradition  states the well was  created by the saint. A large boulder  close to the well  has  three small holes/depressions in its side which tradition holds were created by St Patrick toes and are known as St Patrick’s footprints.  It is very interesting that FitzGearald in 1912  records the a stone known was St Patrick’s foot marks a short   distance  to the northwest in the field beside St Patrick’s graveyard (see map above).

 About a quarter of a mile up “the Glen,” through which the little stream flows, above the churchyard, and close to a sheep-dipping pool, there are some large boulders of a course brown kind of granite, in the side of  one which there are two indentations, which from time immemorial have been attributed to the Saint, and are called St Patrick’s Foot-marks’. Fitzgerald goes on to say local people said Patrick   “threw a lep” from the Blessed Well to this boulder. A few perches further up “the Glen”.

20130324_102940 - Copy

Image of St Patrick’s stone taken by Lord Walter FitzGerald. Note the X marks the spot of the foot prints. (J.K.A.S, 97).

Today a rock with St Patrick’s foot steps is located beside the well. During the landscaping this rock was exposed  as were several other similar boulders but there was no suggestion  that the boulder with the toe print’s  was moved to its present location. From talking to local people it was exposed but not moved. One of the boulders has a bowl-shaped depression, which looks like it was made by a chisel. It looks very similar to a bullaun stone but to me it looks quiet modern.   Some local people I spoke to  told a story  that St Patrick jumped from the rock and when he landed the holy well was created.


Boulder at St Patrick’s well with depression known as St Patrick’s footprints

It is not unusual for there to be several version of the an origin tale for a holy well . I also came across another version in the article on Holy wells of County Kildare.  The author Patricia Jackson records a version by Mr John O’Brien in 1979

Tradition has it at on St Patrick’s way to Tara after landing in Co. Wicklow he camped at the foot of Mullaghmast. Some of the local chieftains were converted to Christianity and asked St. Patrick to bless the nearest well as was the custom – this  being Glashealy well.

St Patrick’s Day Pilgrimage

People visit St Patrick’s well throughout the year but the main  day of devotion for pilgrims is the feast of St Patrick.   The Patrick’s day pilgrimage attracts a large crowd. According to local man Tommy Hurley in the 1950’s on St Patrick’s day  a band made up of local people would gather at Grange crossroad and march in a procession  (followed by other  local people)  to the well . Then a football match used to be  played in the field beside the well but  over the years the tradition died  out.


Pilgrims at St Patrick’s well

In recent years a man named Jack O’Connor who is since deceased would play some hymns on the  pipes before the annual service began.

This years pilgrimage was on a very wet and cold day. Despite the weather  well over 60 people turned out to honor St Patrick. I was told that in fine weather crowds of over 100-200 people could be expected. Many of those who arrive were wearing the traditional shamrock.


Pilgrim wearing the shamrock

Shamrock is worn on St Patrick’s day all over Ireland as  tradition holds that when converting the Irish to Christianity Patrick explained the mystery of the Holy Trinity to the people using the shamrock plant whose leaves are clustered in threes. So much as St Brigit’s cross is a symbol of Brigit , the shamrock represents St Patrick.

The people of the area celebrate St Patrick’s day with an  Ecumenical Service at the well and people from all denominations attend and pray together. The service  began at 3 o clock and was led by Rev Isaac Delamere and Fr Tim Hannan.


Fr Tim and Rev Isaac shelter under an umbrella during the service

Despite the sporadic heavy showers and occasional hail stones everyone was in good spirits. Prayers and hymns were sung.  The prayer St Patrick’s Breast Plate  was recited in Irish by Tommy Hurley.  A poem was recited by  Louise Plewman the daughter of T.P. Plewman  the farmer who owns the land the well is on. This poem was written by her grand-uncle Tom Plewman.  It is a tradition that each year a member of the Plewman family recite this  poem each year.

Your St Patrick is a holy man

With Churches and Cathedrals,

Catholic and Protestant;

Your St Patrick is a learned man

With colleges and schools,

Green and red;

Your St Patrick is a healing man

With hospitals and homes

For sick and dying;

Your St Patrick is a pilgrim

Claiming his own Purgatory

May God and Mary and St Patrick be with you.

My St Patrick is a gentle man

Scarcely four foot tall,

Carved in stone, flat faced,

In simple Celtic style;

He stands alone.

His church is but a few square yards

Of grass rock and shrubs,

With healing water from his well

Offering peace to all without.

May God and Mary be with him.

There are no set rounds at the well. Before and after the service people went to the well and drank  its waters. Being a spring the water is crystal clear and is said to have curative powers.


Pilgrims getting water from the well


Despite the harsh  weather this was one of the nicest and intimate pilgrimages I have attended. On this special day St Patrick brings all the local communities  together and there is a real sense of pride in the well and St Patrick’s connection with the area. The local area is steeped in history  and I hope people continue to use and take care of this very special well.

© Louise Nugent 2013


Many thanks to Tommy Hurley, John O’Donovan and T.P Plewman for  information on the well. Also Sharon Greene for all her help and for having the foresight to  bring a large umbrella.


Greene, Miss,  1899-1902. ‘County Kildare Folk-tales. Collected from the narration of Tom Daly.’ Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society, Vol. III, 368-71

FitzGerald, W. 1912-1914. ‘Glassealy and its tenants. With the career of Walter “Reagh” FitzGerald.” Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society, Vol. VII, 83-108.

Jackson, P.  1980. ‘ The Holy Wells of County Kildare’  ,Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society   Vol. XVI, 133-61.

St. Patrick: A Man on a Mission

So today is the feast day of St Patrick, Ireland’s national saint. It is incredible to think that celebrations in the saints name are taking place all over the world today.  This post was written by  Terry O’Hagan  blogger and archaeologist . Terry is near to completing a PhD thesis on St Patrick at the school of Archaeology at UCD and  is one of the country’s experts on the saint.  Many thanks to Terry for taking the time to write this post and share his knowledge of the saint with us.

St. Patrick: A Man on a Mission

St. Patrick is a man of many faces: missionary, mascot, legend, figurehead, saint, sinner, superhero and saviour. Over the 1500 years or so since his death; successive generations have chosen to remake and remodel his life according to ever-changing concerns and  climates. Ongoing adaptation, along with the passing of the centuries, has resulted in a gradual obscuring of the historical man beneath the heavy presence of later legend. Such is the level of later additions, some modern audiences are even sometimes surprised to discover that he actually existed at all.

He most certainly did, though. We know this because he left behind two surviving documents (the Confessio; and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus) which together form the basis for all subsequent understanding and appreciation of his life and work. Later medieval and early modern accounts of him are products of their own times; and as interesting as they are, they can tell us practically nothing about the man himself. The only certainties that we have for the historical Patrick are those which can be found within his writings; the earliest documents known to have been written in Ireland.

Patrick (or Patricius, as he called himself) was born into a middle-class family somewhere in western Roman-Britain at the end of the fourth century, or perhaps early fifth century. His says that his father was a deacon and a decurion; while his grandfather was a priest. They owned a villa/estate that was large enough to have slaves. In the earliest surviving copy of his Confessio (within the Book of Armagh) his home town is given as Bannavem Taburniae. Scholarly consensus is that this is a textual corruption; and the original name is more likely to have been rendered as something like Banna Venta Burniae. No solid identification has ever been made of such a location; but most scholars would tend to agree that it was somewhere near the western coast of Britain.

Patrick seems to have led a normal, carefree life (apparently without any firm Christian belief, despite his families occupations) until the age of 16, when he was captured by slavers, transported to Ireland and sold to a man who put him to work tending animals. Contrary to later legend; there is no hint within his writings that this was Slemish, Antrim, or anywhere else in north-eastern Ireland. In fact, it was almost certainly somewhere in Co Mayo. Patrick does not expressly say what kind of animals he worked with, but he does use a term that could equally apply to cattle, or sheep. Given that he says that he was out on mountainsides in all weathers; it is likely that he would have worked with several different animals, depending on the season.

From a Romano-British perspective, Ireland was viewed as lying at the edge of the known world; a wild and dangerous place beyond civilisation. The shock of kidnapping and enslavement seems to have had a profound effect on Patrick. Amidst the extreme hardship and lifestyle, he underwent an intense and personal religious experience which he credits as helping him to survive 6 years as a slave. Towards the end of this period; he tells us that he had several dreams concerning his escape and return to his homeland. Eventually running away from his captors; he says that he travelled across the entire width of Ireland, some 200 miles, in order to reach a port. There he found passage on a ship and following initial refusal, was eventually taken on board.

The next phase of his life is hard to assess; the relevant portions of his texts are obscure in their arrangement and subject matter. When Patrick was writing them, he was doing so with motivations other than simple linear narrative; seeking to frame his movements and events within ecclesiastical and biblical frameworks. What is suggested within though is a gap of a few years following his escape from Ireland, before his eventual return to his parents and home. He may have taken ecclesiastical orders during this time, or perhaps later; there is no definitive indication in his own words. After some years again, within Britain, he tells us of his famous dream; where he received a call from ‘The Voice of the Irish’. In his dream, he reads the start of a letter entitled the same, and hears the voices of people in Ireland who knew him as a slave in his youth. This is the only other occasion where he gives a placename in Ireland: that of Silva Vocluti, the Wood of Foclut (Near Killala, Co. Mayo). Modern scholarship tends to agree that his phrasing of details indicate that this was the location of his earlier captivity.

Despite being very personally affected by the dream; Patrick then alludes to even more years passing. He tells us that he was too afraid to put into action, what had apparently already started within his mind. During this time (at least several decades) he seems to have been ordained and sufficiently advanced to an age where it was possible for him to have been considered a bishop. Again, this period is very poorly rendered in his writings; but he alludes to several travels outside of Britain during this time and elsewhere speaks of peoples and ecclesiastical practices of Christians within Gaul (France). It seems likely that he may have spent a little time in a monastic environment there. Although he doesn’t expressly state it, he insinuates an admiration of monastic type lifestyles within his later Irish converts, something he may have experienced in Gaul.

At some stage in his middle years, he decided to come back to Ireland. His subsequent mission seems to have been viewed with some suspicion by fellow British Christians; and he spends a lot of his writings defending his actions. It must be remembered that at this stage of early Christianity; large-scale efforts to convert pagans was almost unheard of within Romanised provinces of Europe. The very idea of attempting to do so in Ireland, outside the frontiers and untouched by Roman administration, would have been considered highly dangerous and illogical to a fifth century Christian mindset. Many would have no doubt imagined that his efforts would have been short-lived and his life expectancy even shorter. Patrick’s survival and relative success seems to have surprised many; and his actions and methodology appears to have been questioned by some.

Patrick of course was a perfect candidate for attempting such a mission. His years in captivity left him more knowledgeable than most concerning insular Irish society. He spoke the language and had first-hand experience of the cultural habits and makeup; as well as an awareness of the workings of the hierarchical social structure of Ireland. Although he doesn’t give much details concerning his methods; he does hint at certain aspects; such as protection payments and hiring the sons of chieftains as royal bodyguards. He stresses the need to appear ‘above board’ when dealing with pagans at all times; for fear of retribution on his mission and converts.

The people he focused on were both high and low status. He mentions a daughter of a noble as well as female slave and children raised from an early age; implying that he worked at many different levels of society. Clerics ordained by him are referenced several times, illustrating the likelihood that his converts included men of similar varied classes. Taken altogether, it appears as if Patrick was focusing on establishing small communities of converts, along with a native clergy to tend them.

Patrick seems to have been active in extremely remote regions. He states that he had gone where nobody had ever brought the gospel to before.  Scholars have seen this as reflecting an awareness of other missionaries or Christian activity elsewhere in the Island; but he makes no further references to any such people. He was certainly in touch with a wider network of Christians both in Ireland and in Britain. The surviving documents testify to this; being open encyclical type letters intended for multiple recipients on each island.

Contrary to later legend, he makes no claim to have converted the entire country. Indeed, at the end of his documents, he appears to hold a rather pessimistic view on the future success of his converts. He considered their situation within Irish society as being precariously balanced to say the least; so much so that he was afraid to leave them for long periods. This fear was horribly realised when a group of recent converts were attacked by slavers. Many were killed and many more enslaved and sold on. Patrick’s second document, the Letter to Coroticus is a passionate plea to both free them and gain recognition from fellow British converts. We have no indication if it was ever successful. The last we hear of the historical Patrick (in his second document) is a man in his later years who expects to be killed at any moment; despairing for the safety and souls of his fledgling converts.

Within three-to-four generations of his death; Christianity had made serious inroads into Irish society. Latin literacy and the earliest strata of Irish monasteries were already established and in full flow. Within another generation after that, Irish Christianity was producing people of the calibre of Columbanus who went to Europe. Famously popular for his learning and piety in Merovingian Gaul; Columbanus was a man who would write to the Pope of the day (using floral Latin, with some choice Greek thrown in for good measure) in order to (politely) suggest that he was wrong on certain ecclesiastical matters!

I’d like to think that Patrick would have approved.

If you want to read more of Terry’s writings check out his blog

Further Reading:

De Paor, L (1993) (Ed. and trans.) Saint Patrick’s World. Blackrock and Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Patricks Confession (Trans: Padraig McCarthy); available at:

Patricks Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus (Trans: Padraig McCarthy); available 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