It’s taken a long time, quite a few very late nights… by that I really mean early mornings 😂, a few a lot of glasses of wine, much foul language sweet blessings, blood, sweat and tears, but finally, my latest book, ‘Conor Kelly’s Guide to Ireland’s Ancient Places‘ is here!
This has been, without a doubt, the hardest book I have written and produced so far. Formatting images is hard, hard, HARD, I’m telling you! And you can’t have a guide book without images. Let’s just say I unexpectedly learned a lot. And I sincerely hope you will think it was worth it.
So, what’s it all about?
Well, you could be mistaken for assuming that all the locations in my books are pure fantasy. After all, we are used to the sophisticated world-building of today’s brilliant fantasy and science-fiction authors.
But that’s not what you get with my books; all the magical locations are REAL, and I have visited every one, most of them many times over. (Except for the Otherworld, I’ve only ever been there in my dreams! 😜)
This book features images and information on some of the ancient sites – Tara, Uisneach, Newgrange, Knowth and several others – as featured in my Conor Kelly series, The Tir na Nog Trilogy.
But it’s not just a bunch of dry facts on archaeology, oh no! In it, I tell you some of the myths attached to each site, why each site is so special to me, what I love about them, as well as essential info like how to get there, should you decide to tour Ireland yourself one day. I also connect each site to the relevant chapter in my books, so you can see how I built the story around them.
But before you all rush off to Amazon… hehe, I should be so lucky!… I should tell you that this book is NOT FOR SALE.
This book is exclusively a gift for my email subscribers.
It’s a thank you for supporting my blog and other writing endeavours. I do appreciate you all immensely.
If you have not yet signed up to my mailing list, but would like to, and get your free copy of ‘Conor Kelly’s Guide to Ireland’s Ancient Places’, all you have to do is click the button below, and you will receive a download link direct to your email. Simple!
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I hope my books bring a little Irish magic into the lives of people for whom these legends are new and unheard of. I hope I do that in a way which is fun, and in language that can be easily understood. I hope I transport you to Ireland’s ancient places, even though you live on the other side of this multi-faceted global community we are lucky to be a part of.
I hope in your mind’s eye you can see them as you read, feel the stone, cold and damp under your hand; feel the mist caress your face, hear the rustle of the hawthorn trees in the breeze, feel the beat of Eriu’s heart in the earth deep beneath your feet.
I hope you can see the bustling splendour of Newgrange and Almu as they once were, witness the victory and defeat of battle, hear the soft murmur of lovers’ words, exult in the stirring speeches of High Kings, weep at the tragedy of a hero’s death, delight in the strains of a harper’s song. I hope all this, and much, much more.
I started 2017 with a trip to Teltown. It was the morning after the night before, and I looked like it, but I didn’t bring you here just to admire my good looks (ahem); I have something far more interesting to show you…
No, that’s not me, but I can see the resemblance. Ok, not really. 😁 She’s Tailtiu, last Queen of the Fir Bolg. Some say she was the King of Spain’s daughter, or even that she was of Egyptian origin, and that her name was Neffertiti. In which case, I suspect she may have looked a little different to the woman in my image…
Her husband, Eochaidh mac Eirc, was killed by the Tuatha de Danann in the First Battle of Moytura, when they invaded Ireland. After their victory, in order to establish good relations with her and her people, the Danann gave her one of their noble-born sons, Lugh, to foster. This was common practice in ancient Ireland.
Tailtiu retired to the area located on the River Blackwater between Navan and Kells now known as Teltown. In Irish, its name is Tailten. Here she established her home, and set about the back-breaking task of clearing the land for farming.
Meanwhile, she loved Lugh as if he were her own, lavishing care and attention on him. She found for him all the best tutors, and had him trained not just in the arts of battle and strategy, as befitting a high-born son, but in music, poetry, healing, the secrets of the forge, and many other skills besides.
When she died, Lugh was heart-broken. He buried her beneath a great mound at her beloved Teltown, and set up the Tailten games, known as the Oenach Tailten, in her honour every year at Lughnasadh (August 1st), that she might never be forgotten. This festival continued on, in some form, well into the nineteenth century.
View of Donaghpatrick Church across the River Blackwater
You can see the mound or platform the church appears to be sitting on from the rear of the graveyard
Teltown is a vast and complex ancient site of some significance dating to the Iron Age. Features include the remnants of mounds, ring forts, earthen ramparts, artificial lakes, and an ancient roadway, but much of these have been erased from the landscape through the actions of farming over the years.
The font and the standing stone.
The standing stone and me… just to add a bit of context so you can see how tall it is.
I came to see Donaghpatrick Church, and Rath Airthir, which means ‘the Eastern Fort’. Donaghpatrick, from Domnach Pádraig, meaning the ‘church of St Patrick’. According to legend, Conaill, brother of the High King Laoighre, gave the land to St Patrick after his baptism.
It’s kind of hard to imagine that the Irish would have handed over such an important site so willingly, but not so hard to imagine why Patrick would have wanted it. What better way to stamp out pagan activities than to establish a Christian church right there in the middle of it all?
The back of the medieval tower house attatched to the church
The mysterious stone head high on the front facing wall of the towerhouse
In fact, there are six churches in total, though not all are still in use. Donaghpatrick is itself very intriguing. It appears to be constructed upon a mound or platform, possibly an earlier ancient one, and contains a standing stone, and the old medieval font from the previous church in its grave yard. It is built upon a medieval tower house, which has a strange stone head embedded three quarters of the way up one wall, slightly offset to the right.
But most wonderful of all, if you stand with your back to the church, Rath Airthir faces directly opposite, in a field just across the road. It is a trivallate ringfort, meaning it has three ramparts circling it, and stands at around 30m (98ft) in diameter. The ramparts could not be seen from this angle, but even so, it really is quite spectacular.
Apparently, Rath Airthir has been identified by archaeologist Michael Herity as the Tredua (triple rampart) fort of Tailtú, as noted in the Metrical Dindshenchas: ‘the Tredua of Tailtiú, famed beyond all lands, where the Kings of Ireland used to fast that no disease might visit the land of Erin.’ (see Voices from the Dawn)
This, coupled with the triple rampart, seems to me to be ritual in nature, possibly the site of some ancient Kingship purification rite, but don’t quote me on that… it’s just my guess, I’m no expert.
I was gutted when I walked up the road and found a sign on the gate prohibiting entry. As much as it maddens and disappoints me, one has to respect the wishes of private landowners; trespassing does not win their favour.
Rath Airthir was, on this occasion, only to be admired from afar.
Happy New Year to you all! Athbhliain faoi shéan is faoi mhaise daoibh!
(AH-VLEE-in fwee hayn iss fwee WISH-uh deev)
COMING SOON: Conor Kelly’s Guide to Ireland’s Ancient Places, an exclusive free gift for all newsletter subscribers, featuring all the sites and locations upon which The Tir na Nog Trilogy is based. WANT ONE? It’s FREE, and coming to a newsletter near you soon! All you have to do is sign up to my Marvellous Myths newsletter.
I am delighted to introduce Irish author Michael Bolan to you today. Like me, Michael bases his books on Irish myths. Here is an excerpt from his latest book, The Stone Bridge; check it out, and give the gift of a book this Christmas… even if it’s to yourself! Enjoy!
Isabella’s good mood stayed with her as she walked her horse slowly through the ancient trees of the forest. It seemed that most of the world was covered by trees, something she never complained about. The soft sounds of the forest soothed her, the rustling of the leaves overhead helped her forget the perils that lay ahead.
She kept thinking about her mission and about the family she had left hours previously. Their life was etched in sweat and toil, bound by the cycle of the seasons. It was so different to the pampered life she had enjoyed in Leuven, or even the unusual existence she had built for herself within the warband, something she had only been able to do because of the education, both formal and informal, that she had received as Duke Henry’s daughter. And yet, despite being simple, uneducated folk, Dentek and his family were happy; happier than most.
Spending time with them had refreshed her; as a long bath washes grime from the skin, her brief sojourn with the farmer left her feeling more alive than she had for weeks. Her burning need to rejoin her people was lessened, her desire for Conor banked like an overnight fire, as she found her thoughts repeatedly returning to the simple family. Leaving Dentek without offering some form of recompense for their hospitality galled her, so she slowed her horse and wheeled the beast around. She would hide her coinpurse where it would be easily found. She found herself humming a gentle ditty as she moved through the woods, dappled in the sunlight.
The sun was beginning to sink towards the western horizon when she smelled the smoke. Assuming that one of the farmers in the hamlet was burning stubble in the fields, she thought nothing of it and continued riding. Something struck her as odd about the smell. It was early to be clearing fields; that was done post-harvest, the ash serving to enrich the soil for the next year. And the smell was strange: not the golden dryness of burning straw, redolent of leather and sunshine; but a more acrid smoke which made her think of Leuven’s ironworks. Frowning, she picked up her pace, bouncing in the saddle as she trotted her horse towards the hamlet.
As she crested the ridge overlooking the shallow valley in which the homestead lay, she felt bile rise in her throat. The thatched rooves of the farmhouses were ablaze, the livestock running wild. Of Dentek, his family and his neighbours, there was no sign. She felt a curious detachment settle over her as she slipped from her saddle and unhooked her packs. Without haste, she loaded her four pistols, strung her bowstaff, checked the fletching of her arrows, and loosened her throwing knives in their sheaths. Satisfied she was ready for battle, she remounted and kicked her heels hard into the horse’s sides. Well-trained for war, the stallion galloped headlong through the trees towards the village.
The roan steed crashed through the treeline like a cannonball, hooves ripping up great clods as it raced towards the homestead, rider clinging centaur-like to its neck. As they neared the village, Isabella could smell the metallic tang of blood and knew her worst fears would be realised. The dispassion that had taken her deepened. Her mind focused on what was to come.
Rider and mount burst into the open space between the houses, unable to stop. Her eyes caught glimpses of dead bodies strewn between the buildings, and she almost crashed into two demons running from one of the houses, swords dripping garish blood onto the hard-packed earth. The pistol in either hand boomed, and the two demons fell, their twisted carmine masks alive as they screamed. Her hands holstered the spent guns and raised her second pair. Hoping that the madcap ride had not loosened their deadly load, she raised and fired, dropping another pair of demon-masked men. And then she was through, her mount barrelling out of the homestead and back into the open fields.
Isabella paused at the treeline to reload her guns and then trotted the lathered horse along the edge of the fields to approach the village from a different angle. Her horse gathered speed once again, and she used her knees to steer it between houses, surprising yet another pair of attackers. One gun rang true, dropping a fifth, while the other misfired. With the grace of an acrobat, she drew her spare pistols and kicked her leg over the saddle, dropping to the earth and rolling, the farmyard dust coating her dark leather armour. She regained her feet with grace, sighting the attacker as she did so. Firing both pistols, she killed him without qualm.
Her senses were fast becoming overloaded with the rank charnel-house odour when stone chips exploded from the wall of the house behind her. She hadn’t even heard the report of the musket. Another shot boomed out, pinning her down behind the low stone wall of the communal well. A brief lull suggested that there were only two marauders left, and that they were reloading their guns. Thinking it likely they both had pistols as well as their muskets, Isabella’s mind raced, unfettered by emotion. Knowing her current position was untenable, she looked around for ideas.
The well-bucket lay on its side, its contents long soaked into the dry soil. Hefting it with her right hand, she used a throwing knife to saw through its rope before throwing it backwards over the well, towards the muskets’ position. Two shots rang out immediately, and she burst from cover, sprinting in a crouch towards the byre. The large double doors were barred shut, but the small picket hung open. Inside she could hear the bellowing of the bull, driven mad by the noise and smell. She dove headfirst through the door, hearing two more shots ring out, higher-pitched than before. Pistols, she noted, as she skidded face-first through the fragrant loam of the byre floor. She rushed to the doors and lifted the stout wooden bar that held them closed, before spinning and flipping the latches of the bull’s pen.
The enraged beast burst from its stall like a horse at the beginning of a race, knocking the byre doors from their hinges as it escaped its confines. Twelve hundredweight of prize beef made no attempt to pause for the man before it; in fact the bull’s weak eyesight didn’t register the obstacle until it was too late. Isabella followed the beast from the byre to see one of the remaining attackers crushed to a messy pulp under its broad hooves, dead before he could scream. She ran for cover, throwing knives in hand as she sprinted.
“A woman!” roared a voice behind her, astonishment colouring the anger it contained. “You demonic bitch!” it screamed, the irony of the statement lost. Isabella skidded to a halt beside the wall of one of the houses, realising with a start that it was Dentek’s. At least, it had been. Fury rose inside her, as she stood and walked into the open.
Before her stood a heavily-muscled man, his six-foot frame clad in blood-red leather armour. He cast his pistol aside, having no time to reload it, and drew a shortsword from his belt. His left hand held a long dagger, blade crimson with the spilled blood of the villagers. As Isabella walked towards him, he spat and stretched his neck from side to side, readying himself to pounce. “Who are you, whore? I would know your name before I fuck your dead body,”
The pair were separated by no more than three yards. Isabella dropped her knives. “I am the bull of seven battles; I am the eagle on the rock.” She undid her belt buckle, allowing her empty sheaths to fall to the earth, doing the same with her shoulder quiver. “I am a flash from the sun; I am a strong wild boar.” Her voice grew from a whisper, gaining strength as she stared at the man. Never had she felt such hatred, such righteous anger.
Impatient to finish her, the man attacked. His shortsword slashed crosswise before swinging back, as he stabbed his dagger towards her belly. He was fast, but Isabella was not where he had thought. She skipped aside. “I am a salmon in the water.” Her right foot shot out, catching the warrior in the side, knocking the wind from him. He whirled, both blades swinging low to catch her legs. She jumped, smashing a foot into his face as she spun sideways. “I am the word of knowledge,” she cried as he attacked again, his blades finding nothing but air as she spun away.
The man stepped back, ripping off his mask, exposing a cold face reddened with anger. “Who are you, bitch?” he shouted. “Ach, it matters not, you will die!” He leaped forward again, swinging both blades in sequence, chopping and scything as if cutting wheat. Isabella’s hands darted out, blocking the insides of his forearms, deflecting his blows, seemingly at the last possible moment. Her punches began to take on force, beating him in the stomach, the chest, the neck, the head, as she shouted in his face, “I am the head of the spear in battle!”
Her hands flew back, striking his wrists at the same time, knocking the blades from unfeeling fingers. With all her force she drove her right fist forward, her bunched knuckles hitting the man’s throat. She heard the gristly crunch as his windpipe collapsed. He flew backwards, landing on his back.
Isabella stared down at his gurgling countenance. “I am the god that puts fire in the head. I am vengeance. I am Nemesis. And I will wait for you in Hell.”
She stamped her heel down on his face.
Michael Bolan: nomadic Irish storyteller
It took Michael Bolan over two decades of running in the corporate ratrace to realise that all he actually did was tell stories.
There was no Damascene revelation for Bolan which caused him to pen his first work of fiction, “The Sons of Brabant”. An avid reader, he simply felt that he could do as good a job as many of the authors he read and decided to put his money where his mouth was.
Living and working in many countries left him with smatterings of a dozen languages and their stories, and his love for history focused his ideas on the Thirty Years War, the most destructive conflict that the continent has ever seen.
Now living in Prague (again), Michael brings alive the twisted alleys of the 17th century and recreates the brooding darkness of a fractured Europe, where no-one was entirely sure who was fighting whom.
Michael writes while liberally soused in gin, a testament to Franz de le Boë, who was mixing oil of juniper with neat spirit while the thirty Years War raged around him.
His website (http://www.michaelbolan.org) is a place where he can post his thoughts and feelings – along with reviews of books he finds lying around the internet.
Lectures start today. That’s right, at nearly fifty, I’m going back to school. Maynooth University, to be precise, for a BA in Irish Medieval and Celtic Studies, History and English. I must be mad.
First up, it’s Celtic Civilisations at 11am, followed by English Prose and Fiction at 12pm, and finally History; Vikings and Normans at 1pm. If you know me at all, I think you’ll guess that I’m as happy as a muc in muck! That’s ‘pig’ in mud, for the non-Irish among you! 😃😂😜
After my interview back in May, I walked out the door straight into this…
… and my heart started to flutter; I was falling in love, and knew instantly how much I really wanted to study there.
The university is split into two campuses; north and south. South side is the old part, north is more modern, and where I will probably spend most of my study time. On Thursdays, however, I will have five hours of free time spread between three lectures, and some of that I will use to explore; the south campus has an old church, a museum, and Maynooth Castle stands guard at the entrance. Also, there are rumours of mysterious tunnels beneath the old buildings…
The old yew, said to be over 700 years old
A closer look
The tactile texture of a tree trunk
It also boasts the oldest yew tree in Ireland standing in its grounds; it’s said to be 700 years old, and I can well believe it. I mean, just look at it! Yes, something else which I think you will realise makes me very happy. I think this university and me were made for each other. 😃
The remains of maynooth Castle stands at the entrance to the university
Old and new
The old church and tower on the south campus
Of course, being such an old institution, Maynooth University has its own set of resident ghosts. Room 2, located in a building called Rhetoric House (now the History building), is where two students in C19th, took their lives 19 years apart from each other. It’s claimed that a ‘diabolical presence’ made itself known to them, and caused them to jump out of the window to their deaths in terror. Dark stains on the floor of Room 2 are said to be human blood (allegedly confirmed by the college’s chemistry department) which can’t be removed or covered up. Creepy, huh?
In 1860, as a result of all this, Room 2 was converted into an oratory of St Joseph, and the window sealed. The room has since become a waiting area between offices.
Maynooth actually means ‘Nuada’s Plain’ in Irish, and if you have read any of my books or early blog posts, then you will understand why this thrills me; Nuada was the King of the Tuatha de Danann, and it was he who was responsible for leading the Danann into Ireland.
Nuada lost his sword arm in the First Battle of Moytura against the Fir Bolg, who ruled at the time. It was cut from his body in single combat with Sreng, the enemy’s champion. Nuada was carried from the battle ground and tended by his skilled physicians, Dian-Cecht and his son Miach, a surgeon, and daughter Airmid, a herbalist.
He survived, and the next day when Sreng saw him, he couldn’t believe his eyes. He challenged Nuada to another armed combat, and cunningly, Nuada agreed, on the condition that Sreng tie his sword arm behind his back and fight with only his left hand. Sreng refused, and relinquished power to the Danann.
Unfortunately, though, despite how well-loved Nuada was as a King, he was unable to continue in that role, as the King was required to be whole and unblemished if the land and the people were to prosper.
In the years to come, as Nuada healed, Dian-Cecht worked with Creidne, one of the Danann’s leading craftsmen, and fashioned a fully functioning ‘arm of silver’ for Nuada. Perhaps this was the world’s first bionic arm, or at least a prosthetic one, created over four thousand years ago.
Miach somehow managed to grow skin and blood over it, and thus in due course, when Bres was deposed for being a bad King, Nuada, now considered whole again, was elected as High King. He ruled for another twenty years, until his death at the hands of Balor in the Second Battle of Moytura.
Nuada also carried the Sword of Light, known in Irish as Cliamh Solais in Irish (pronounced Klee-uv Shull-ish), and is considered to be one of the lost Four Treasures of Eirean. It was made in the northern city of Findias (or Gorias, depending on which version you read) by a powerful fílí and magician named Uiscas.
Undoubtedly, the High King’s great sword came to have symbolic meaning for the people; it represented strength, power, unity, physical prowess and identity. But what did its title mean? Did it refer to the illumination of knowledge, justice, truth? Or was it something more obvious, like a laser, for example, or a flame thrower. You can find out more about this magical, mystical sword in my post The Sword of Light.
Reading about Nuada all those years ago began my fascination with Irish mythology. I never thought then that he would spark the idea for a book series, a blog, and all the other things which have grown from it; storytelling, tour guiding, vlogging (my newest venture that I’m working on, coming soon!), even the Bloggers Bash, which I would never have been a part of if I hadn’t met Sacha through blogging.
The coincidence is not lost on me; going to Maynooth to learn more about ancient Ireland and its mythology kind of feels like a full circle has been completed. Well, almost. And it’s fitting that it should take place here, where Nuada’s legacy remains.
Ps. I spotted a whole row of beautiful mature rowan trees nearby, so I’ll get some pictures this week and post them on Instagram, for those who love them as much as I do. 😊
COMING SOON: Conor Kelly’s Guide to Ireland’s Ancient Places, an exclusive free gift for all newsletter subscribers, featuring all the sites and locations upon which The Tir na Nog Trilogy is based. WANT ONE? It’s FREE, and coming to a newsletter near you soon! All you have to do is sign up to my Marvellous Myths newsletter.
I went to the Hill of Tara yesterday. I haven’t been in quite a while; the sun was shining, and I’d been cooped up in the house for a couple of days, and I just felt drawn, so off I went.
Going anywhere on my own these days is such a treat. And as I got nearer to my destination, I could feel the excitement mounting, until by the time I arrived, I was giddy as a schoolgirl!
In some ways, visiting Tara on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of July was a bit of a mistake; the Hill was packed. Not crowded, its much too big and open for that. But there was too much noise, human noise, and it was impossible to take a photo without it being invaded by unwanted guests.
Don’t get me wrong; we all have an equal right to be there. But somehow, I had mixed feelings over the way this ancient monument and symbol of our heritage was being used. Mostly, people were sunbathing, or kids were running gleefully up and down the bankings, climbing over all the ancient monuments.
Harmless, and yet I’ll admit that a part of me was appalled; they can do that anywhere, why come to somewhere special and fragile like Tara to do it? It seemed so disrespectful. On the other hand, it was good to see so many people congregating there, and enjoying the site. Tara has not been forgotten. It still draws people, and is still being used today.
I had a really good wander, and discovered parts of the site I had never been to before. But what I really came to see was these two fellows…
You might be wondering what’s so special about them… they’re just two stones in a graveyard, right? Well, yes… and no.
These two particular stones aren’t decayed headstones marking someone’s grave; they’re standing stones. According to legend, these are the two stones known as Bloc and Bluicne. As part of his inaugural ceremony, the newly elected High King had to drive his chariot at full speed towards these stones, and if his claim on the throne was honourable, and he was the rightful heir, the stones would recognise him as such, and move apart, allowing him safe passage between them.
I know what you’re thinking; sounds ridiculous. But these two stones weren’t the only ones on Tara… there were others, too. Remember the Lia Fail, also known as the ‘Stone of Destiny’, which cried so loud in recognition of the rightful King, its voice was heard all across the land? According to author Michael Slavin, ancient texts revealed the names of other sacred standing stones on the Hill of Tara, all now lost: Dall, Dorcha, Maol, in addition to the three previously mentioned. I love that they all had names, and that their names are still remembered.
The taller of the two stones was said to have a carving of the Horned God, Cernunos. If you look closely, you can see a raised indistinguishable area which could have been a carving, but it is badly eroded now, and unidentifiable.
I’d love to think this was true. However, there was once a headstone in this area of the churchyard called the ‘Cross of Adamnan’. Adamnan was a C7th saint. I’m sure he’d be turning in his grave if he realised the likeness on his gravestone had been interpreted as an image of a pagan fertility God! That thought made me chuckle on and off all afternoon. 😤
These two companion stones remind me of the two sentinels which guard the entrance to Brú na Bóinne’s Knowth; it’s thought that they represent fertility symbols, obviously the tall one is a phallus, and the shorter rotund one represents the rounded belly of the pregnant female form.
I’m just not convinced; we know from the stories and the grand monuments these people left behind that they were highly sophisticated and knowledgeable. They used complex engineering and calculations to build their cairns with lightboxes, and all their various other structures, all without the aid of computers and mechanisation, a feat most of us could not manage today.
Then in the next breath we accuse them of being so basic and crude as to worship their own penises and ovaries and immortalise them in stone. Ok, perhaps there are a lot of men out there today who secretly do worship their manhood and would love to see their body parts carved in stone, lol! But, you know what I’m saying.
Although Tara is most commonly thought of as the inaugural site of pagan kings, it also has strong Christian links. The church which stands there now is home to a Visitor Centre, and dates from 1822. It has a beautiful stained glass window. The first church was built in the early C13th, and was followed by a much larger one, the only trace of which remains is a crumbling section of wall, which you can see in this picture. You can also see Bloc and Bluicne close by.
Finally, I couldn’t mention the church without paying respect to the marble statue of St Patrick, which dominates the approach to the site. It’s weird; his eyes seem to follow you about and his gaze is piercing and none too friendly. Given all the things he is supposed to have done for his religion, I shouldn’t be surprised.
I have so much to show you and tell you, but it will have to wait for another day. Have a great week, everyone!
Towards the end of our first day’s hiking in Co Clare, we came down off the tops and walked along a quiet country lane into Ballyvaughan, and came across this strange looking building…
Newtown Castle is a C16th tower house. There are many tower houses in Ireland, approximately 3000, but this one is quite unique because it is round, not square like the majority of the others, yet it rises from a square, pyramidal base. Continue reading →
I love holy wells. There is something magical about them. For me, the best holy wells are the ones which time has forgotten; the undeveloped ones, which still retain a sense of their origins.
These days, most holy wells are built up and named after various Christian saints, bedecked with statues with bland faces, rosary beads and mementos. I like that they are remembered and regularly visited, but I don’t like the trappings which surround them.
For me, the isolated well on a barren rugged hillside that took effort and determination to reach, that’s the one which fascinates me. Getting there is part of the devotion; it feels like you have earned the right to be there, and the healing which may come of being there.
St Colman’s Holy Well is exactly one such place. I mean, just look at it! It’s everything I imagine a holy well would be. Here, the crystal pure waters were said to be restorative for eye afflictions; handy, I thought, as my eyes were sore from the constant wind and stinging from the suncream which had run into them. When I saw the brown sludge awaiting me at the bottom of the well, however, my faith sadly deserted me; I decided I’d rather suffer a bit longer.
I was so glad to stop and rest here a while.
Looking down into the well. Hmmm… not very inviting.
Me descending into the well.
A closer look at the votive offerings and sludge which awaited.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of the holy well, let me enlighten you. There are literally hundreds of them all over Ireland, many still in use today. Originally, churches were founded near them, as pure water was needed for baptisms and other religious ceremonies, but also for the daily needs of the men and women of the religious community. However, it is believed that these springs were sacred places long before the advent of Christianity in Ireland.
Each well is generally associated with particular curative properties, ie the healing of warts, eye diseases, rheumatism, mental illness. Sometimes, this is reflected in the name given the well; Tobar na Súl (the Well of the Eye); Tobar na Plaighe (the Well of the Plague); Tobar na nGealt (the Well of the Insane).
An example of how such healing may occur would be to wet a rag in the water and bathe the afflicted part with it, then tie the rag in a nearby fairy/ rag tree.
Most often, however, the wells are associated with saints, perhaps those who were active locally in the community. Brigid and Patrick have numerous wells named after them up and down the country.
Some wells are quite ornate and visited in droves. Some are more humble and barely remembered. Many have been affected by modern farming or drainage practices, and still many more are long lost.
So back to St Colman. Who was he? He was born c.560AD in Kiltartan, Co Galway, the son of local chieftain Duach and his Queen, Rhinagh. It was foretold that he would grow up to be a man far greater than all others of his lineage. Fearing for her son’s life, Rhinagh ran away but her husband caught her and had her tied to a huge stone and thrown into the Kiltartan River. Miraculously, she survived, and gave birth to Colman soon after.
She took her baby to a priest to be baptised, only to find they had no source of water for the font. As she sheltered under an ash tree, praying, a spring bubbled up from the ground at her feet, and so Colman was baptised after all. Rhinagh then gave her son into the care of the monks, where he would be safe from his father.
Seems to me that the well should have been named after his kickass mother. She sounds like a mighty strong and determined woman who prayed a powerful prayer.
Colman was educated on Inishmore, where he lived as a hermit. Later, he moved to the Burren, seeking greater solitude. King Gaire, the local King, was so taken with his holiness, that he asked the hermit to build a monastery in his kingdom. Colman was then ordained a bishop. He died on October 29th, 632 AD.
Colman was said to have loved animals, and had several unusual pets; a cockerel which was trained to wake him at the same time every morning in order to ring the bells calling the monks to prayer; a mouse which woke him for Lauds at the same time every night by nibbling his ear, and a fly which marked his place in the manuscript he was reading, if he was ever called away.
At the end of one summer, his pets all died, and Colman was heartbroken. He wrote of his sorrow to St Columba, who replied, rather austerely:
“You were too rich when you had them. That is why you are sad now. Trouble like that only comes where there are riches. Be rich no more.”
There’s nothing quite like sympathy, and that really was nothing like sympathy! Perhaps compassion wasn’t approved of in the church. So poor old Colman realised one can be rich even without wealth.
You can read the Legend of Bóthar na Mias, ‘the Road of Dishes’, and how Colman acquires a feast fit for a King in my post, Legends of the Burren.
Still to come Corcomroe Abbey Newtown Castle Gleninagh Castle