“Its branches drip with tatters.
It seems held down with pleas.
Over fields it might
be a monster disturbed in a story,
rustling its rags in unease”.
From the poem “West Cork”
from “Collected” by Seán Dunne, Gallery Press 2005.
The tree festooned with ribbons (image above) is known as a rag tree. It is associated with the nearby holy well of St Colman Mac Duagh.
The tree and well are about a kilometre north of the coastal village of Kinvara on the N67 road to Galway city. The site attracts few visitors unlike Dún Guaire medieval castle which is only a few hundred metres away.
This stretch of road also forms part of the Wild Atlantic Way. The Wild Atlantic Way (Irish: Slí an Atlantaigh Fhiáin) is a tourism trail on the west coast of Ireland. It was launched in February 2014. 10 million euros was spent by the Irish government in 2014 in the design and marketing of the Way. The trail is 2,500 kilometres long making it the world’s longest defined coastal touring route.
In the past rags were torn from their clothes by ailing pilgrims, dipped in the holy well water, rubbed on the ailing part of the body and then tied to the rag tree. The rag was the symbol of the ailment of the pilgrim. The pilgrim believed that the tree would spirit away his/her ailment. Folk medicine á la grande.
During 1842-43 Thomas L. Cooke wrote a series of articles for the Galway Vindicator newspaper on the area around New Quay in north Clare. Cooke was underwhelmed by the unofficial religion practiced by the peasantry at St Colman Mac Duagh’s well and tree. In his article Subterranean River at Pouloshe and Well at Tubbermacduagh, he refers to the pilgrims’ “over-ardent devotion”
The site also features in the Philip Dixon Hardy’s book Holy Wells of Ireland (1836). The book is a robust attack on the holy well tradition from an elitist standpoint.
Cooke’s articles and Dixon Hardy’s book are fascinating reads and remain important for their historical insights.
The modern pilgrim is now draping the tree in Kinvara with ribbons rather than rags. Some conservationists have misgivings about this modern “ritual” and regard it as littering. Others argue that it is a case of tradition in constant state of transition. I must say I find the subject complex. Perhaps when you hang out your brightest colours, all is not black and white.
Note : A scrapbook of Cooke’s Galway Vindicator articles entitled Autumnal Rambles about New Quay is available on the wonderful Clare County Library website.
© Text by Tony Kirby / Images by Carsten Krieger