Many wells had a Pattern, or patron, day dedicated to the saint the well was named after. During this day many came to pay their respects and do the rounds, or turas – a prescribed route.
Pattern days used to be hugely popular with big crowds coming to pay their respects, many arriving on the eve of the feast day and camping out overnight. It was also a very social day of celebration with music and dancing. A few pattern days still survive and are well attended. The annual pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick is probably the most well-known but in County Cork pilgrims still flock to pay respects to several saints including St Gobnait in Ballyvourney. On her feast day, the 11th February, masses are held throughout the day at the nearby church and an ancient carving of the saint is brought out and included in devotions. Rounds are also made at the saint’s shrine in the old church, with two wells included in the turas.
Doing the rounds
What you did once you had arrived at the well was clearly set out with the focus on repetition and meditation There was a set path, or round, which was followed, usually in single file and often in bare feet. The rounds were always done in a clockwise fashion. The rounds could be done many times, a cross inscribed or a pebble dropped after each one to keep track of how many rounds had been completed. At Lady’s Well on the Sheep’s Head for example, 15 rounds were required, each time a small white pebble was deposited in or near the well. Stops were made at various prescribed places, the stations, where prayers were offered.
Sometimes an object might be handled, or a cross inscribed in a stone. At St Gobnait’s in Ballyvourney, pilgrims touch a sile na gig, (carving of a female figure) and an agate ball known as the bulla as part of the rounds. The rounds were completed by drinking the water from the well and leaving a small offering.
Throughout this process, specific prayers were said: Hail Marys, Our Fathers and Glorias, which all emphasised the repetition and almost trance-like circumambulation.
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries many of these pattern days seem to have disintegrate into drinking and dubious behaviour. Thomas Crofton Croker visited Gougane Barra in1813, on one of the two feast days held to commemorate St Finbar. Here he describes the party atmosphere:
We …. turned towards the banks of the lake, where whiskey, porter, bread and salmon were sold in booths or tents resembling a gipsy encampment, and formed by means of poles or branches of trees meeting at angles, over which were thrown the proprietor’s great coat, his wife’s cloak, old blankets, quilts, and occasionally a little straw. Above the entrance of each was suspended the name of the owner, if he happened to possess a license; when this was not the case, a jug, a bottle, or pipe were displayed to indicate that spirits and porter might be had within, and not unfrequently were added a piece of ribbon, and an old shoe, the first to distinguish some popular party, the latter emblematic of dancing, to which amusement the lower orders of Irish are immoderately attached. Researches in the South of Ireland, Thomas Crofton Croker, 1813
Often this merriment turned nasty and ended in faction fighting which occasionally resulted in a death. The church grew increasingly alarmed by such behaviour and many patterns were banned, including the one at Gougane. During the twentieth century some wells continued to be visited independently though and bans were gradually relaxed. Today the pilgrimage to St Finbar’s Chapel at Gougane Barra on the saint’s feast day, 25th September, is much venerated and thriving, with several hundred people taking part. The drinking of water from the well is still included as part of the rounds.
Other pilgrimages are more local but still an important focal point for the community, such as the annual Mass held at Skour Well, near Lough Hyne – a moving ceremony, and a feast for the swarms of midges.
And some places are just hopeful.