Gleann Cholm Cille. Glencolmcille. The valley of Colmcille is known locally as “Glan”. It is a fertile valley in the north east of the Burren characterised today by improved grasslands and a sparse population. The valley is enclosed by the region’s distinctive rocky uplands. Glencolmcille served as the most important eastern routeway into the Burren dating back to medieval times at least.
The former medieval parish of Glencolmcille has long since been subsumed into the parish of Carran. The population of the parish of Carran in 1837 was 1045 inhabitants (County Clare A History and Topography. Samuel Lewis 1837). Carran is now home to a mere 106 inhabitants (2011 census). The main reason for the depopulation is the Great Hunger (1845-49). Death and emigration were no strangers to the valley of Glencolmcille in the 19th century.
In the 1800s, over 85% of the Burren population lived in houses of 4th classification i.e. prevalently one-roomed mud cabins (census of 1841). As these pre-famine dwellings were mostly of perishable materials, very little evidence of pre-famine peasant settlement survives in the wider Burren region or the Glencolmcille valley in particular.
“Casual adherence to Catholic practice and retention of Celtic rituals” was the religious expression of the rural poor in the 19th century in County Clare according to Anne Mc Mahon in her outstanding essay The Rural Poor in Clare before the Great Famine (The Other Clare vol.34). The high point of the religious year in Glencolmcille was the 9th of June – the pattern (patron) day of Colmcille. Proceedings would initiate on St Colmcille’s eve on the 8th of June with the fair in Turloughmore, a bordering townland to the east of Glencolmcille. The fair was followed by an all-night vigil at the holy well. Pilgrimage continued into St Colmcille’s day. The focus switched to Turloughmore later in the day where the main draw was the horse racing. People travelled from as far as Connemara for the 8th/9th June festivities suggesting the “Glan” pilgrimage was of regional (as opposed to local) significance.
Colmcille is a 6th century Irish saint who is credited with establishing several monasteries in Ireland as well as the monastery on the island of Iona in the Hebrides in Scotland. Offshore islands have long had an aura for pilgrims. Colmcille is considered to be one of the pioneers of island pilgrimage through his choice of Iona as the capital of a network of monasteries in Ireland and Britain. He is one of the three most significant Irish saints – the other two being Patrick and Brigid.
The 17th century Franciscan friar and historian John Colgan compiled a list of over 60 churches dedicated to Colmcille. There are two church/holy well sites in North Clare named after Colmcille – one at Crumlin, Fanore and the other at Glencolmcille, Carran. It is highly unlikely that Colmcille ever visited County Clare. These two sites were most probably dedicated to him through cult diffusion. The saint’s feast day 9th June is still celebrated at some Colmcille sites in Ireland including Inis Mór ; Durrow, County Offaly and Glencolmcille, County Donegal.
THE SAINT’S FINGERS
The church ruins and monastic site are located in a field east of the holy well. A sacred stone is located in the field boundary on the left hand side of the road a couple of hundred meters east of the entrance to the monastic site. No folk belief survives regarding the stone although a local source maintains that the stone’s original position was beside the cross at the entrance to the field with the church ruins. The stone would have been the subject of ritual in pilgrimage in the valley. Perhaps a short prayer was recited and the fingers of the pilgrim were placed in the impressions in the rock.
The sacred stone is known as an imprint site – impressions primarily in stone left by high profile figures in the landscape. Such figures include Buddha, Jesus Christ and an enormous array of saints. Janet and Colin Bord are the authors of a book on imprint sites entitled Footprints in Stone: The Significance of Foot- and Hand-prints and Other Imprints Left by Early Men, Giants, Heroes, Devils, Saints, Animals, Ghosts, Witches, Fairies and Monsters (Heart of Albion Press 2004). The Bords live in North Wales where they run a picture library devoted to rural Britain, prehistoric sites and strange phenomena. They have written more than 20 books since their first successful joint venture, Mysterious Britain, published in 1972. Janet is currently writing a book on all holy wells in Wales with a saint dedication. I wish her well with this radical project.
The most famous imprint site in the Burren is Bóthar na Miasa near St Colman’s Hermitage, Carran where St Colmán Mac Duagh is ascribed the Easter Miracle. However, the most common type of imprint site in the region is the bullaun – small depression(s) natural or otherwise in the landscape. Two depressions at the Kilmoon (Lisdoonvarna) ecclesiastical site are known as St Brigid’s knees. The most renowned international example of saint’s fingers is in a cave at Sennai in India where the doubting Apostle Thomas is believed to have left his mark.
THE SAINT’S MISSAL
An undecorated, fragmentary cross is located at the entrance to the field in which the church ruins are located. Archaeologist Carleton Jones reckons that the cross is of a Late Medieval date (Medieval period – late 12th century to early 16th century). The cross itself and part of the shaft have been removed and are now located at the well house. The removal of the cross probably signifies the greater importance attached to the holy well site in more recent times.
There is a small recess in the base of the cross. Such recesses housed relics in the past and are known as relicavities. Several crosses in Ireland feature relicavities – the most notable being St Patrick’s Cross in the cathedral in Cashel. Surviving oral narrative in the valley suggests that the relic housed in the recess was St Colmcille’s missal. A missal is a liturgical book containing all instructions and texts necessary for the celebration of Mass throughout the year.
Relics were often paraded during pattern days and cures via the relics were sold to the pilgrims. Relics have been the subject of trade, theft, damage and loss. The fate of Saint Colmcille’s missal is unknown. St Colmcille’s most famous book relic is the Cathach (“the battler”) a late 6th century Psalter. A psalter is the Book of Psalms, a book of the bible with religious verses. The Cathach was used a talisman in battle by the O’Donnell clan in Donegal.
THE SAINT’S BED
“The bed of the saint, formed of stones, is still preserved as a relic. Some brass coins have been dug up here”. (County Clare A History and Topography by Samuel Lewis. First published 1837 as part of A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland). Lewis is referring to the saint’s bed in the church ruin. The church ruins probably date to the 12th century. However, the original church on site was probably of an Early Medieval date (400-110 A.D.). It would have been at the core of a monastic site. Lewis is making a valuable reference to a ritual monument which no longer survives.
The most famous saint’s bed in the Burren is that of St Colman Mac Duagh at his hermitage at Eagle’s Rock. The bed in that case is a cave. However, the bed in the region which most appropriates to St Colmcille’s is that of Caimín at the latter’s ecclesiastical site at Caherminnaun West about a mile north-west of Kilfenora. Etienne Rynne describes the bed in Kilcameen church as “a hollow area partially flanked by large stones”. “Lying down in this, head to the east and feet to the west, the supplicant finishes the ritual with the recital of nine Ave Marias”. If this ritual were performed along with ritual and prayer at the nearby holy well on certain days, the pilgrim would get the cure for sore eyes. (Etienne Rynne ; North Munster Antiquarian Journal ; 1970 ; number 58).
Tomás O Carragáin co-authored Monks and Pilgrims in an Atlantic Landscape with Jerry O’Sullivan (Collins Press 2008). O Carragáin argues therein that the material heritage of ecclesiastical sites was used by the church in Early Medieval times to communicate important ideas to the pilgrims. The saint’s fingers, missal and bed at Glencolmcille may thus be seen as strong ideological statements. They helped the church to convey important messages to the flock regarding the sanctity of the space and the story of the saint. O Carragáin describes this phenomenon as “the spatialisation of charisma”. Amen to that!
© Text by Tony Kirby / Images by Carsten Krieger