I’m just back from an excellent two day conference on Holy Wells, An Tobar, in Waterford. It’s always good to meet like minded fellow enthusiasts and it was a very cosmopolitan and interesting gathering. Congratulations to the two organisers, Celeste Ray and Shane Lordan, for such a well organised and comprehensive conference.
After all the presentations it was of course necessary to visit a holy well and off we all went to St Declan’s Well in Ardmore – yes a Waterford well but a guest well for this week! We were fortunate enough to have Dr Stiofán O Cadha with us, one of the leading experts on this particular well.
St Declan’s Well, Tobar Beannaithe Dhéagláin, Ardmore
St Declan’s Well is a a vibrant, living well, still much revered and beautifully positioned on a cliff top over-looking the dramatic sweep of Ardmore Bay, today looking positively Caribbean.
The well itself is approached along a small tree-line avenue, now part of St Declan’s Way, a long distance pilgrimage path which starts in Ardmore and ends in Cashel. It’s also a popular local cliff walk so although it’s a peaceful spot it feels right in the heart of the community with people wandering through constantly.
The well is part of a larger ecclesiastical complex containing the remains of an ancient hermitage and Medieval church and is the first structure you come to.
The stone wellhouse is usually described as modern but must date from the nineteenth century if not earlier. It has been cut into the bank and comprises chunky, attractive blocks of stone laid in an uneven pattern, with two rectangular openings supported by large lintels. There is actually only one well basin within, the two doorways probably just an attempt to relieve the pressure of many pilgrims visiting at once. Stone seating curves out from beside the well, now a useful resting place but once where women sat to hand out cups of water to visiting pilgrims.
Over the well are two worn sculptures depicting the crucifixion. Originally there were three figures: the central cross representing Jesus, the one on the right representing the repentant thief and the one on the left, now missing, depicting the unrepentant thief. There seem to be various explanations as to what happened to the third figure. One is that an outraged Protestant minister smashed it up and threw the idolatrous fragments into the sea. Another possibility suggests it was stolen whilst a third story says it may simply have fallen down and somehow rolled into the sea.
All three figures were still there in 1898 for The Kilkenny and the South East Archeological Society records the following:
… the Holy Well dedicated, like every other ancient monument in Ardmore, to St. Declan. Three rude crucifixions (apparently late medieval) in stone have been built into the modern masonry which surmounts the well. Rounds or “stations” are performed at the well and church ruin by thousands of persons on each recurring feast day of the saint (July 24th) or on the Sunday within its octave.
An annual pattern day is still held here on the saint’s feast day, 24th July, and proceedings usually start just after midnight with a candelit procession to the well. Some people remain on vigil throughout the night. Stiófan recounted how an elderly nun, now in her 90s, attends the vigil every year and remains motionless in front of the well throughout the night. Some of the An Tobar delegates were keen to pay their respects too.
The pattern day has always attracted a large crowd, literally thousands of people were attending in the mid nineteenth century, to Philip Dixon-Hardy’s horror:
This annual scene of disgusting superstition is exhibited at Ardmore, in the County of Waterford, on the 24th of July, in each year. Several thousand persons, of all ages and sexes, assemble upon this occasion. The greater part of the extensive strand, which forms the western part of Ardmore Bay, is literally covered by a dense mass of people. Tents and stands for the sale of whiskey are placed along the shore. Each tent has its green ensign waving on high. The Holy Wells of Ireland, Dixon-Hardy, 1836
The next excerpt, taken from Holyandhealingwells excellent blog shows the pattern day was still thriving in 1949 and describes how the rounds were made:
Ian Lee in Ar mo thiasteal dom, a radio show aired in 1949 described the devotion at the well stating that the first thing on entering the gate is that people go on their knees in front of the well, then a number of prayers would be said, such as the Rosary, seven Our Fathers and seven Hail Mary and then one could ask Holy Declan through the power of God any wish you might have for the good of your soul or body. He states: Then the Our father is begun around the well three times and on the third round saying the Rosary; people enter through the door in the southern end, go down on their knees and on completing the Rosary they take a stone and cut the sign of the cross on the eastern end-that was the custom but it is said that it’s a pagan custom. They come out then to the well after finishing the three rounds and say seven Our Fathers and seven Hail Marys and some other Prayers
The rounds are still paid more or less in this manner today and the feast day is still attended by a large number of people. Drinking of the water is of course an essential part of the rounds. The water is still abundant and fresh and is said to contain a cure, especially effective for sore eyes but useful in helping the healing of all manner of ailments. Lord Walter Fitzgerald writing in the Journal of the Royal society of Antiquaries in 1856 had the following to say:
The most celebrated well in this province for ‘rounds’ and miraculous cures. Its powers of healing are still frequently put to the test with all sorts of sprains and mutilations of the human body, especially on the patron day, which is held on the 24th July. There are also said to be three holy wells on the strand at Ardmore, which were formed by a miracle of St Declan, but these cannot be seen except at extreme low tides, and at low water mark; they are noted for curing inward complaints in those who are fortunate to glimpse of them at the propitious moment. At each of the wells mentioned here, except those on the strand, the visitor will find numerous coloured objects tied to the trees and briars in the neighbourhood.
The other three wells described are very difficult to locate but there is a stone 550m away from the well, down by the sea shore that is also part of the rounds. Apparently, after a trip to Wales, Declan’s travelling companion, a monk called Runanus, forgot to pack the sacred holy bell given to Declan when he was anointed as Bishop. Distraught, prayers were said and the holy bell came miraculously floating back to Ardmore on a rock. Another version of the story says that the bell rang all the way from Rome until it stopped at Ardmore when Declan knew he had arrived at the place he needed to be. The rock is still there, a chunky boulder supported by smaller stones. Traditionally pilgrims would crawl under the stone three times as part of the rounds – especially effective for curing arthritis apparently.
Here’s Dixon-Hardy again:
At an early hour in the day, says a correspondent of the Roman Catholic Expositor, those whom a religious feeling had drawn to the spot, commence their devotional exerciser in a state of half nudity, by passing under the holy rock of St. Declan. Stretched at full length on the ground on the face and stomach, each devotee moved forward, as if in the act of swimming, and thus squeezed or dragged themselves through. Both sexes were obliged to submit to this humiliating mode of proceeding. Upwards of Eleven hundred persons were observed to go through this ceremony in the course of the day. A reverend gentleman who stood by part of the time exclaimed, ‘0 great is their faith.’ This object of so great veneration, is believed to be holy, and to be endued with miraculous powers. It is said to have been wafted from Rome, upon the surface of the ocean, at the period of St. Declaims founding his Church at Ardmore, and to have borne on its top a large bell for the church tower, and also vestments for the saint himself.
Holywellsandhealingwells has a very good account of his visit to the well, including the stone, on a recent pattern day.
The remains of the church probably date from the 12th century and hint at a once substantial structure. The tall west wall plus window is impressive as are the remaining walls and structures.
Other stations where pilgrims stopped to pay devotions included the old altar and aumbry in the east of the church. The aumbry (recess) has been made into a shrine, full of mass cards and other personal items, now beautifully topped with a crown of red valerian.
Next to this a rose bush is rapidly turning into a clootie tree. The original clootie tree was near the well but has since disappeared. To the left of the shrine a small stone font attracts offerings of coins.
Everywhere you look around the site there are crosses etched into the stone by multitudes of pilgrims. Some have been inscribed using thumbs, others have been scratched with stones, some are ancient and some are very recent.
The church was erected on the site of a hermitage where St Declan is said to have retreated in his later years, seeking solitude. The well, hermitage and church are just three of many features associated with the saint in Ardmore. A mile away lie the remains of a much larger monastic complex, essential visiting.
Round tower & Cathedral & Oratory
This monastic site, one of the earliest in Ireland, was founded by St Declan in the fifth century. Declan seems to have been a high born member of the Déisi Muman people of Waterford. Scholars put his life as somewhere between 350AD and 450 AD, and he is believed to have begun his missionary work before the arrival of St Patrick in around 432 AD. He is said to be buried in the tiny oratory (WAO40-00800) on this site. The oratory itself dates from the 9th or 10th century and was restored during the 18th century. Inside the floor is covered in flagstones but includes an empty grave recess, believed to be the spot where Declan is buried.
Today you can only peer through the metal grill and wonder. The oratory gets a little overshadowed (literally) by the highly impressive round tower (WAO40-008003). This dates from the 12th century and is 30m tall with a conical top. Inside it has four storeys, the entrance doorway being placed 4m above the ground for safety, accessed by a wooden ladder which could be pulled in or out as needed. Three small windows are in the main body of the tower while four windows are around the top at each point of the compass. Current thinking is that round towers were used as cloigthithe or bell towers attached to a monastery.
Close to the round tower are the equally impressive remains of a cathedral (WAO40-008002), also built in the 12th century.
It’s most well known for it’s spectacular western wall which is is adorned with an impressive carved arcade. This consists of 13 panels and two arched lunettes. Although the carvings are very worn certain images can be recognised: Adam and Eve, the Adoration of the Magi, the Archangel Michael weighing souls and the Judgement of Solomon are all discernible.
Inside the cathedral other things of interest include medieval grave slabs and two Ogham stones. A veritable cornucopia of fascinating things! After all this excitement, do what we did and take tea at the fabulously positioned Cliff House Hotel.
Two useful blogs: