St Colmcille’s holy well is situated at the end of a short lane on the road between Glencolmcille and Kinvara. The lane is prone to flooding. In living memory, if the lane were flooded on pattern day 9th June, wooden planks were laid down in order to ensure access to the well.
The ensemble of water, well house and cross fragment are known locally as “the oratory”. The cross fragment was originally part of the cross in the church site 0.5 kilometer to the south east of the well. (See previous blog – section “The Saint’s Missal”). There was a blessed or rag tree on site up to about 50 years ago. It has been described to me as “a big, round hawthorn tree”. On pattern day an image of Colmcille was nailed to the bark of the tree. The turas or rounding ritual included walking in a clockwise fashion “by the whitethorn tree, around the mound, around the oratory and using the stepping stones to cross the stream”. Pilgrims prayed as they rounded and they carried 5 counting stones and each time a round was completed a stone was left at the base of the tree. When the fifth stone was laid down, the pilgrim knew his/her praying ritual was done.
The tree was cut down by a “newcomer” about fifty years ago. He was a timber fuel merchant and was not aware of the spiritual significance of the tree.
The well water was believed to cure eye ailments. Visitors would rub their eyes with water or fill bottles with water and take them away. Eye-wells are easily the most common holy well type in Ireland. Gary R Varner is a U.S. lecturer and writer on folklore and early religions. In his book Sacred Wells, Varner says “One reason that eyes were a constant worry in the past with many eye-wells drawing large groups of pilgrims is that commoners did not receive sufficient Vitamin A in their diets, resulting in xerophthalmia.”
A forward thinking ex-priest Brian Mooney attempted to revive the pattern day. Mass was said on site on the 9th June on two successive years but the revival was short-lived. Brian is a Kilkee-based poet who founded the Burren Perfumery in this parish of Carran in the late 1960s. It is Ireland’s oldest working perfumery. Moreover, Brian co-founded the group The Clare Pilgrim Way in 2011. The group is documenting a pilgrim route linking ancient monastic sites, holy places and cultural centres around County Clare and a small section of South Galway.
The only votive offering on site on my last visit this autumn was a set of rosary beads.
• Gary Varner’s book Sacred Wells was first published by Algora Publishing in 2009.
• Xerophthalmia is characterised by pathologic dryness of the conjunctiva and cornea. If untreated, it can lead to corneal ulceration and ultimately to blindness.
• The Clare Pilgrim Way website is http://www.clarepilgrimway.ie
• Sources for this piece are natives of Glencolmcille.
Penitential cairns are dry stone constructions and are usually not more than 2 metres in height. The cairns are cylindrical or square in shape and some of them have pillar stones at their summit. All cairns may have had pillar stones in the past. None of the Burren cairns have been dated. However, some of the cairns associated with the monastic site on Inishmurray Island, County Sligo have been dated to the Early Medieval period (400-1100 A.D.). The cairns are intrinsically linked to centres of pilgrimage and have been recorded for example at Struel Wells (a set of four holy wells) in Downpatrick, County Down and St Mac Duagh’s island in County Galway.
There are two impressive complexes of penitential cairns associated with the Glencolmcille pilgrimage tradition. One complex is on high ground above Glencolmcille valley, about one kilometre east of St Colmcille’s holy well in the townland of Fahee North. There are at least ten cairns on site. The largest cairn is elongated and has a number of peaks of stacked stones on it. A priest called Father Lee wrote that as part of the all-night vigil at St Colmcille’s well, “people climbed to the top of Glencolmcille Mountain where they counted their rounds by placing a stone on a mound there”. The quotation is from an essay Father Lee contributed to the sublime local publication “The Parish of Kilkeedy A Local History” compiled by Frank Brew and published in 1998. The ritual described by Father Lee may help explain the extravagant size and shape of the largest cairn in Fahee North. Unfortunately otherwise I know of nobody locally who can recall any customs related to the cairns. Pilgrims may have prayed as they circled the cairns as part of their repentance of sins. The second complex is located about 0.5 kilometres north of the well and consists of at least twenty cairns. The scale of the monumentalisation of the Glencolmcille landscape with cairns suggest that the valley was a significant place of pilgrimage in the past.
Sources: The Parish of Kilkeedy compiled by Frank Brew ; published by Frank Brew. Inishmurray – Monks and Pilgrims in an Atlantic Landscape by Jerry O’Sullivan and Tomás O’Carragáin ; published by The Collins Press.
THE RACE COURSE
The geography of the pattern day celebration is quite interesting. The secular activity (the races and the fair) was concentrated in the townland of Turloughmore whereas the ritual sites are all located in Glencolmcille. In fact not alone did the religious and secular take place in different townlands but also in different parishes and dioceses.
The site of the racecourse was a flood plain which has undergone reclamation works in modern times. The course was 4.5 miles in length and anti-clockwise in direction.
It crossed the avenue in the image above on two occasions during each race. The Gaelic aristocrats, the O’Briens of Leamaneh, had previously owned a race course in Coad, Kilnaboy. Coad course was closed and a race course was subsequently opened by the O’Briens at their newly acquired lands in Turloughmore towards the end of the 17th century. The seat of power of the O’Briens in this area in the late medieval period was the castle or tower house in Glencolmcille. The ruins of the castle lie one kilometre west of the holy well on the road to Kinvara.
The races at Turloughmore took place on pattern day, 9th June. People made their way to the races after the spiritual duties had concluded at the holy well. The race day was renowned and attracted people from as far away as Connemara. Apart from the sporting event, the day was a hive of commercial and social activity also. The informal economy on the race day revolved largely around the sale of food and drink from “pop-up” outlets in tents. The milder past times of singing, dancing and courting took place in the earlier hours. However, those who revelled hardest, stayed longest and the latter part of the day was noted for individual score-settling and faction fighting – some of which was drink-induced.
St Brigid’s Well at Liscannor and Tobar Eidne (St Enda’s Well) in Barna, County Galway are examples of other pilgrim sites in the extended region which featured horse racing on the pattern day. The main festival at St Brigid’s well took place on the last Sunday of July as opposed to the Saint’s feast day (1st February). The strand at Lahinch served as the race course. The calendar of events at Liscannor/Lahinch was the same as that at Glencolmcille/Turloughmore i.e. a vigil of prayer and penance at the holy well on the eve of the pattern day followed by some merriment. On the pattern day morning, the pilgrims would decamp to the race course site for a day of socialising and merriment. The St Brigid festival has survived to this day albeit in a modern form at Liscannor. Mass is celebrated each year at the holy well on 15th August (The Feast of the Assumption).
Horse racing died out at Turloughmore in the late 1800s. The race day was valiantly revived for one year in 1946 by a local parish committee. The poster for the event included the race card. A framed edition of the poster hangs in Walsh’s pub in the Square in Gort.
Sources: The Parish of Kilkeedy compiled by Frank Brew ; published by Frank Brew. The Festival of Lughnasa by Máire Mac Neill ; published by Comhairle Bhéaloideas Eireann, U.C.D.
Faction fighting in Ireland was an 18th and 19th century rural tradition of largely recreational, clan-based violence which took place at occasions of popular assembly like fairs, weddings, funerals, markets, wakes, race meetings and pattern days.
The cudgel was the most common weapon in the melees with blackthorn being the most favoured wood. However, the “ash plant” was most popular at the fights at Turloughmore as the ash tree grows abundantly in the area. A local person recalls his father telling him of the cudgels being seasoned over the winter in the chimney in order to make the wood harder in texture for combat!
Fights at Turloughmore took place at a more advanced stage of the race day and some of the violence was drink-induced. Liberal quantities of beer and poitín were sold by the traders in their tents.
The 19th century police force in Ireland was the Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.). As the police barracks in the Turloughmore locale was too distant from the race course, the constabulary rented a room in the house of a local family on pattern/race day. The room was used by the police as a temporary detention point/cooling-off station for some of the faction fighting ”hotheads”.
Faction fighting had largely died out in Ireland by the second half of the 19th century in the overall context of the decline of rural traditions. However, there is living memory of faction fighting taking place on pattern day at Turloughmore up to the 1920s. This latter fighting is said to have been caused by land disputes.
Most of the 19th century church and lay élite were hostile to popular agrarian tradition including pattern days. Faction fighting was regarded as quite barbarous. The most famous 19th century written expression of élite hostility towards pattern days is the book The Holy Wells of Ireland by Philip Dixon Hardy – writer, publisher and member of the Dublin Protestant élite. Despite the prejudices of the author, the work remains an extremely important eye-witness account of the religious practices of the rural poor in Ireland in the 1800s.
© Text by Tony Kirby / Images by Carsten Krieger