A blurry mix of devotion, ritual and superstition

A blurry mix of devotion, ritual and superstition Presenter Manchán Magan pauses at a holy well TG4’s Ag Triall ar an Tobar. Photo: TG4.

It is customary around this time of year for us to go all Celtic, with a focus on all things Irish, or even Oirish!

I wouldn’t accuse the new series Ag Triall ar an Tobar (TG4, Thursday) of that latter charge. I felt it was an enjoyable exploration of Irish holy wells with the personable Manchán Magan. It seems there are over 3,000 holy wells in Ireland, more than in any other country in the world. Many of them are associated with saints, even if some have pre-Christian origins.

In this first episode we visited holy wells on Achill, in Connemara and in Co. Waterford, where Magan spoke with locals who were well informed about the heritage of their areas.

At each well he collected a sample of the water – in case he needs it, he said. I think he will seek scientific analysis to determine the chemical makeup of the water – perhaps this will suggest a natural reason for healing properties.

The presenter comes at the subject with an open curiosity and respect for his subject matter. The approach is not devotional or evangelical – more from a social history perspective.

At one stage he said that these are “places that connect us to the land, to antiquity and to our ancestors”. He might well have added ‘to God’. Contributors did reference prayer and there was footage from the past of pilgrimages to the wells.

It was a blurry mix of genuine spirituality, devotion, ritual and superstition – eg having to walk around a well seven times with seven stones in your hand. I suppose it just shows the crucial role ritual plays in our lives, giving meaning to the mundane.

There was also an Irish flavour on Songs of Praise (BBC One, Sunday), when the show paid one of its visits to Northern Ireland, so central in the history of St Patrick.

We met Noel Hughes who was fascinated by the story of the saint and tried to walk in his shoes along Pilgrim paths with Patrick’s Confessio as his spiritual guide. We learned that St Patrick is also the patron saint of Nigeria and heard from Fr Cajetan Apeh, a Nigerian priest currently serving as a missionary in Ireland. He could relate to St Patrick as he too had been kidnapped in his home country.

Fr Eugene O’Neill introduced us to a relic of St Patrick – reputed to be a bone segment from the saint, encased in a most unusual reliquary shaped like an arm. The latter is kept in a museum, the former in St Patrick’s Church in Belfast, and once a year they are reunited for the feast day.

Parishioner Eilish McAuley, a regular attender at this event, spoke of how she can feel the presence of God on these occasions. Fr O’Neill explained how relics were not central to the Christian faith, but in a religion of incarnation they were a physical and intimate contact with the divine and with holy personages.

The music was predictable enough, with church congregations singing the beautiful but familiar ‘Christ Be Beside Me’ and ‘Be Thou My Vision’, along with the more interestingly unfamiliar ‘Immortal Invisible’ and ‘I Bind unto Myself’. In a seaside setting the Celtic Woman group sang a rather over produced and glossy version of ‘Amazing Grace’.

If you were missing the spiritual uplift of ‘Dóchas Linn Naomh Pádraig’ and ‘Hail Glorious St Patrick’, you would have got it on the Mass for St Patrick’s Day (RTÉ One) which came from the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Oranmore, Co. Galway. The fine singing was provided by the United Voices of Oranamore and Maree Co. Galway under the musical direction of Anne-Marie McGreevy.

On a sad note – on Tuesday morning of last week the news broke of the death of journalist Charlie Bird. Touching tributes poured in all day. Daniel O’Donnell spoke from Australia of his shock and grief on Today with Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1).

The presenter remembered his giving rosary beads to Charlie when they met on The Late Late Show. Charlie said he kept this gift with him always and wanted it in his hands when he died. He said Charlie told incredible stories during his years as a journalist but there was no story like the one he told in his last few years – that of his struggle with Moter Neurone disease, his own story.