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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.