The Irish Spirit – Issue No. 7
“Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking” is an oft-quoted observation by late Spanish poet Antonio Machado. It’s one that might resonate with “quiet pilgrims”, as in the growing numbers of people in recent years who have sought solace in landscape as interest in organised religion has waned.
Sea routes have a similar appeal, as British writer Robert Macfarlane has noted in his best-selling book, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. Although he believed the words ‘pilgrim’ and “pilgrimage” had become “tainted with a tiresome piety”, Macfarlane said he had met many” inspiring and modest improvisers” on his travels.
He wrote of the couple he had encountered along the moor paths on the Scottish isle of Lewis, and the man “sailing his sea roads through storm and sunshine”. There were the three folk singers who sold all their possessions and took to the paths of England, sleeping in woods and earning food by performing the music they acquired along the way…
Had the same three singers taken to walking the Irish Atlantic coast, they might have been fortunate enough to experience the rich birdsong symphonies in the woods around Co Clare’s Killone Abbey.
They might have marvelled at the fortune of Augustinian nuns who passed their cloistered lives there in a verdant valley, overlooking a tranquil lake bordered by fissured limestone. And they might have made a wish, or said a prayer, or both at the well named after “Eoghan” of Cill Eoghan, as in St John the Baptist and purported to have a cure for ailments of the eye.
Killone Abbey, which is a national monument, was one of only three existing cloistered nunneries in Ireland, according to Bishop of Killaloe Fintan Monahan, who knows it well. On a recent walk there, he spoke of how the land was donated by the king of Munster, Donal Mór O’Brien around 1189 – around about the same time as the Augustinian Clare Abbey several miles away.
“The nuns lived in cloister but were involved in pastoral work, and their counterparts were in Clare Abbey and on Canon island on the Shannon estuary”, Bishop Monahan explained.
The abbey was suppressed in 1584, after several attempts at closure, and was in ruins by 1617, but had some interesting associations during its brief time as a nunnery. The death of its abbess, Slaney – a sister of king of Thomond Donnchadh O’Brien – was recorded in the Annals of Inishfallen in 1259.
The nunnery was valued at “two marks” in 1302 Papal taxation records, and the last will and testament of another abbess, Renalda O’Brien, is listed in the Ormond Deeds. Its last known abbess was Lady Honora O’Brien, who had pursued a religious calling at Killone when young, but then eloped with Sir Roger O’Shaughnessy.
The couple had children before the Pope gave dispensation for their marriage. When Killone Abbey was dissolved, it was granted to Honora’s father, the first Earl of Thomond Murrough O’Brien who died in 1551.
“Since that time it has been a place of pilgrimage for local people, and people have asked to be buried here too as you can see from the graveyard,” Bishop Monahan said, pointing to the ornate Late Romanesque east window in the remains of the church.
The National Monuments Service also lists some other interesting features in the complex. These include an intramural (within the building walls) stair to the church’s parapet incorporated within the east window, and a decorative stone quoin in the shape of a woman’s head and arms, which appears to support the church, on the external south-east corner.
It is a short walk down from the nunnery to the lakeshore where St John’s Well is found. The original altar is “topped” with several “cursing stones”, which kept a count of the pilgrims’ rounds made at the well. As the National Monuments Service states, these rounds are associated with a pilgrim route to Ennis town. An inscription notes that the altar was last repaired by an Ennis merchant, Anthony Roche, in 1731.
The well is location for annual outdoor mass on June 23rd, the eve of the feast of St John at Killone’s holy well, which Bishop Monahan has celebrated on two occasions since his appointment to Killaloe.
“We would have several hundred people in here at the Pattern,”he recalled, surveying the natural sanctuary created by the centuries old woodland and moss-coated stone walls.
“We would seat the older people here near the altar, then the younger families behind and around the sides, and the musicians just over here near the well.”
“This year, it has had to be very different – with a recorded Mass streamed online. No doubt there will still be people visiting, but St John’s feast comes just before the opening of churches again for religious worship on June 29th.”
This year will also be remembered for the prolonged drought, which has left the well at Killone completely dry.
“I tend to visit it regularly, right throughout the year as it is an accessible bike ride from Ennis, and I love to go there to commune with nature and soak up the ancient ecclesiastical atmosphere and the prayerfulness that echoes in the walls of stone and down in the well area,”Bishop Monahan said.
Killone is one of several locations featured in a series of videos which Bishop Monahan has made in recent weeks during the Covid-19 pandemic – focusing on places in and around Ennis, while travelling limits were in place. He provided his own narrative, and posted them on YouTube and Vimeo.
“It was just an idea that I stumbled on during the time of lockdown. Most of the ones I have done are very local, but the diocese is full of ancient religious sites and I intend to get round to a lot more as the travel restrictions are gradually lifted,”he said.
As late writer Elizabeth Healy observed , each holy well has its own “station” or features and prescribed ritual which involves taking a sup of water or pouring a little over a wound. During research for her book, In Search of Holy Wells (Wolfhound Press, 2001) in the late 1990s, she noted how extensive water’s sacred significance still is at the beginning of the third millennium.
“ All the great civilisations of the world have arisen where there is water. Wars are still fought for control of water. Small wonder then that it is not only our bodies that respond to its power, but also our imaginations and even our souls…”she wrote.
Water cults have been “universal throughout time” and the great sacred rivers of the Nile and Ganges have rituals “associated with the whole life cycle of the peoples who live along their pathways”, she wrote – noting that traditional water rites can be found in every culture, ranging from rain-making to healing and fertility and “down to such simple practises as bathing our faces in the dew of May mornings”.
Healy traced some 3,000 holy wells recorded in Ireland, with at least 40 in the “waterless” limestone landscape of the Burren, and 163 placenames with the word “tobar” or versions of same in the Irish Townlands Index.
Not all wells are dedicated to saints, with pin wells, rag wells, healing wells and wells with particular healing qualities named after pagan deities.
“By assimilating such cultic places, the new Christian churches helped to preserve them into our own time,”Healy wrote. She indexed and matched the wells with their reputed cures – beginning alphabetically with aching limbs and arthritis, catered for by the Ogulla well near Tulsk in Co Roscommon, named after Oigh-Ghiolla, a 6th century saint.
The recent pandemic may have aroused more interest in holy wells and sacred places, but many around the island are falling into disrepair, according to Burren walking guide and author Tony Kirby.
“I feel that, generally speaking, the holy well sites have been in freefall since the 1800s,”said Kirby, who is researching a new book on the subject.
“However, there are two locations on the Burren where there has been renewed interest and an increase in visitors – St Colman MacDuagh’s hermitage among mature ash and hazel woodland at the base of Eagle’s rock, where St Colman lived in the sixth century, and Teampall Chronáin near the village of Carron,”he said.
“There is also a holy well dedicated to St Colman MacDuagh near Kinvara, Co Galway, where visitors have increased, but this may be due to the Wild Atlantic Way,”Kirby noted.
Another location, St Brigid’s Well in Liscannor, Co Clare, has become increasingly popular, and is very well tended by the Considine family who live nearby.
“It has an extraordinary number of offerings, and this could be partly due to its proximity to the Cliffs of Moher, and members of the Travelling community also feel far more at ease visiting locations like this,”he says.
Dr Máire MacNeill had described the Liscannor well as “one of the three most strongly lasting survivals of Lughnasa”, the festival marking the beginning of the harvest season – the other two being the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage in Mayo and the Puck Fair in Kerry.
Trees form an integral part of holy well rituals. Rag trees, where pieces of clothing represent an illness requiring a cure were tied, are often close by. Kirby likes the phrase “culturally modified trees” to describe their significance. Not only are they bedecked in pieces of clothing, but many of these rag trees bear strings, ribbons, rosaries and medals.
Latterly, hawthorns or “wishing trees” on the Hill of Tara in Co Meath, have become the focus of “love objects”. This has prompted the Tara Skryne Preservation Group to appeal to visitors to
stop “suffocating” them with objects. Coins have even been hammered into the bark, causing fungal disease.
As Healy noted, certain trees were sacred to the Celts, with oak, holly, hazel and whitethorn being the most sacred. The oldest Gaelic alphabet is based on associations with trees, including birch, rowan and ash, she wrote.
Jesuit priest, sociologist and writer Fr Micheál MacGréil is responsible for reviving one particular pilgrim ritual which attracts hundreds every year – Máméan. Like this year’s Croagh Patrick pilgrimage, it has been officially postponed by the Tuam archdiocese due to Covid-19.
Máméan -Irish for “the pass of the birds” – was also associated with the Lughnasa festivals. It is said to have been visited by St Patrick during his travels, and it is marked by a holy well, St Patrick’s Bed, a cleft in the rock and stone circles representing the Stations of the Cross. Its mass rock was used during the time of the Penal Laws.
Faction fights and poitín are said to have been main reasons for abandonment of the annual pilgrimage by the church at the end of the 19th century.
Bishop Monahan, who formerly served in the Tuam archdiocese, has climbed Máméan “hundreds of times”, along with Croagh Patrick, and has participated in the annual pilgrimage to MacDara’s island, where a mass is celebrated at the oratory in mid-July.
“I also love Canon island in the Shannon estuary, Holy island in Lough Derg and Scattery island off Kilrush,”he said.
This year, due to the Covid-19 restrictions, Fr La is offering a “virtual” retreat to Donegal’s Lough Derg from June 27th to 29th, by clicking on the “three day pilgrimage” option on its website.
Bishop Monahan recalled the observations of a film-maker, quoted by Fr MacGréil, in relation to pilgrimage sites in Ireland. His impression was that “Lough Derg was the most penitential, Croagh Patrick was the most physical, but Máméan was the most spiritual…”
“Dawn masses, pilgrim walks, holy wells, sacred mountains and the celebration of Pattern days have a very important role in attracting a certain type of person who might otherwise have little interest in matters religious,”Bishop Monahan said.
“ There is something special about the mix of the sacred and the beauty of nature,” he says, and for some it is a much easier “encounter with God”.
Bishop Monahan’s YouTube video on Killone Abbey and St John’s Well can be viewed here