Earlier this year a man went to a holy well in Kerry. He fell and banged his head. When he came to he was cured of an illness that had dogged him for years. The man has no doubt that it was miracle, an act of God that has restored his faith.
The story was picked up by Dónal Nolan of ‘The Kerryman’ but attracted little attention elsewhere. Miracles and apparitions have had a bad press since statues started moving in in the 1980s. File it under ‘some people will believe anything’ and be kind enough not to use the ‘d’ word.
Deluded or not Jack Donovan (85) of Stillorgan is convinced that he was cured. “I have no doubt but that it was a miracle. That’s what happened to me in Ballyheigue” he told the Kerryman. “I wasn’t very religious before … but I have great faith now.”
Proof? A respiratory problem that had disabled him for years had disappeared. His GP didn’t find broken bones or any other injury. The only possible explanation was that he had visited Our Lady’s Well in Ballyheigue.
Holy wells tend to combine religion and fairy faith, elements of pre-Christian belief that were incorporated in the earliest versions of Irish Christianity. The belief in cures has persisted and is maintained in the folklore and rituals associated with holy wells throughout the country.
The well in Ballyheigue is famous for a ‘Pattern’ that is held on 8 September. It’s pagan origins are acknowledged but it is now thoroughly Christianised. A pattern is usually held in honour of the parish Patron – the local saint. Our Ladies Well is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
It starts with open air mass followed by ‘paying the rounds,’ walking around the well three times in a sunwise direction reciting the rosary as you go. To go the opposite would be regarded as blasphemous. It continues with a ‘bazaar’ or fair and ends with sessions in pubs throughout the village.
Patterns have had a mixed history, being the imperfect combination of the holy and the profane. They are based on much older gatherings that took place at Easter and Harvest time, when the moon was full and the tides ran low.
These had developed from aenachs, gatherings of freemen permitted by Irish law for the purpose of commerce and games, long before the development of towns in Ireland. Fairs were held on feast days or on the moveable feasts of Easter and Whitsun.
The combinatination of religion, commerce and gaming was a recipe for trouble. In the eyes of the state (under Queen Anne, the last of the Stuarts) Popery was the problem and a law was passed imposing fines and whippings on people involved in Popish rites at holy wells.
The church was appalled at the ‘moral holiday’ that followed the religious part of a pattern. The supression of Popery and the subsequent lack of religious control meant that patterns degenerated into occasions of lawlessness and bloodletting.
Donnybrook fair is infamous for the faction fighting that is associated with it but this was a feature of many partterns throughout the country. It gets worse.
In 1824 Mrs Hall described the pattern at Ronogues Well near Cork as a gathering of the ‘worthless and dissipated of the whole county.’ Superstitious rites were followed by ‘every sort of debauchery … dancing, shouting, courting, drinking and fighting.”
Many patterns were suppressed or abandoned. Tullaghan, Liscannor, Brandon and Glendalough were all famous for their patterns but are now silent. Croagh Patrick, Puck and Ballinasloe rank amongs the survivors in terms of scale and tradition.
After emancipation the clergy tried to restore some patterns. In 1868 Bishop Moriarty of Kerry organised a pilgrimmage to Teampuilín (Teampaillín) Breannain on Mount Brandon.
Brandon has been regarded as a sacred place for thousands of years. It is one of three great pilgrimage mountains on the West coast of Ireland (Croagh Patrick and Slieve League being the others) and its patron joins Patrick and Brigid in the trinity of great Irish saints.
It is one of the last places in Europe where the setting sun can be seen and according to Máire Mac an tSaoi, it was one of the main sites used to celebrate the victory of Lugh, the god of light, over Crom Dubh, the force of darkness.
A harvest festival took place on the eve of Lughnasa – on Domhnach Crom Dhubh, the last Sunday in July. Bishop Moriarty moved the date of the pilgrimmage forward by a month to emphasise the Christian aspect of the new festival but the message was lost on the 20,000 people who are reported to have gathered there.
The pilgrimmage / pattern was abandoned after outrageous scenes of drunkeness and debauchery were witnessed, ending one of the longest and most important festivals in West Kerry. Despite this, efforts continue to revive the pattern as a pilgrimmage on the last Sunday of June.
This led to the formation of one of the oldest mountaineering clubs in the country. Tralee Mountaineering Club was founded by Tom Finn, Pat and Sean Kelly and Ger Hogan in 1954, following a pilgrimmage to Mount Brandon.
The club gathers on Brandon every St. Stephen’s Day for the sport of it, the link with the pilgrimmage is long gone. But the spiritual dimemsion of these remote and difficult places is never lost on mountaineers.
This year a handful of intrepid walkers braved appalling conditions to accompany Ang Wong Chu to the summit of Brandon. A mass was celebrated in the teeth of wind and rain by Fr. Seamus McKenna. The idea of mountains as sacred places was marked in the tradition of pilgrimmage and in the spirit of an aenach.
Lugh (despite his absence on the day), Brendan and Chomolungma were acknowledged in the same way that the line between celtic beliefs – paganism – and early Christian practices were blurred in the 6th century: the Christians had spun it so that Brendan, son of Finn Lug, was connected to the Celtic pantheon.
It still hapens. Many within the church of Rome have sought to use ‘Celtic spirituality’ as a foil to a growing sense of crisis within the Irish church, tapping into a tradition of holy places that are essentially pre-Christian and of the people.
Our Lady’s Well in Ballyheigue was enclosed and a grotto was added in 1934. In 1946 the Pattern was still going strong with the usual array of sidestalls and ‘amusements.’ In the 1950s Fr. James Enright re-vitalised the pattern, making sure that the religious dimension was to the fore.
In the 1990s it was one of the few patterns left with a “vibrant religious character” according to Bryan McMahon. It continues to attract thousands of people to Ballyheigue every 8th September.
The well and the ‘rounds’ are thoroughly Christianised and the hope of an intercession or miracle is severely religious. There is another well nearby that remains much more pagan in attitude, despite being developed under the direction of a local priest.
Tobar na Súl or Dahalins’ Well as it is known is located about 2 miles along the road, in a hollow 300 yards or so from the River Shannon. Its is named for Daithlionn, a sainted lady of the 6th Century, daughter of Erc (a bishop and mentor of Brendan) and friend of St Brigid. It is also known as Brigid’s Well.
Legend has it that Daithlionn and her sisters were threatened by marauders and she blinded them. When they repented she instructed them to bathe their eyes in the well and their eyesight was restored. The origin myth and folklore are unmistakeably pagan.
The well is occupied by a fish, a story that is common to many wells. In Celtic mythology goddesses could take the shape of a fish and arrive in the well in water that originates in the otherworld. Those about to be cured would see the fish.
If the fish was removed the water wouldn’t boil. Anyone who dispoiled the well suffered badly. Billy ‘Laimhín’ Crosby had his hand withered, his dog went mad and bit him. He was seen afterwards standing on a ditch and barking at passers-by.
Or so legend has it. 15 cenuries later people are still drawn to Daithlionn’s well in the hope of a cure. And, in case you didn’t take the example of Laimhín Crosby seriously, a stone carving of a head was recently returned to Saint Ciaran’s well in Clonmacnoise. It was taken in 1998 and the person who took it has had “awful bad luck” ever since.
Jack Donovan’s miracle comes as no surprise to those who have a devotion to Mary and her sisters in the otherworld. The high places of Ireland draw more people than ever before, gathering in places that have focussed the spirit of the Irish people for thousands of years.
Scratch an Irish Christian and you’ll find a pagan. They haven’t gone away you know.