Visits to Holy Wells is a beautiful experience, but can also be frustrating as I find I always leave them with more questions than answers. These questions are not of faith but of practical matters such as
“What made this Holy?”
“Why have they got that ugly concrete cover?”
“What’s this junk doing here?”
“Is this exclusively Catholic built by Catholics for Catholics or older?”
and the questioning goes on and on ….
My mission on this day before Good Friday was to check out just one Holy Well, St. Patrick’s Well below St. Patrick’s Hill, Ardras, near Celbridge, a pretty medieval town north west of Dublin. We have a group of Australian folk arriving in August and this well is just a mile from the hotel of their first night’s stay. I thought an arrival meditation there would be a wonderful idea.
Claire and I had performed our “Finding Brighid” show the night before near Howth, a lovely peninsula north west of Dublin. You fly over it before landing at Dublin Airport. The following day Claire had an engagement in the Wicklow mountains and I was supposed to rush home to Keash to complete another job.
I thought the visit to Ardras well would just be a quick detour. Hmmm! I was wrong.
Taking back roads to avoid the building up of both the “gotta get away from Dublin for Easter” and “let’s party over Easter in Dublin” traffic, along with the many Garda “police” check points slowing things further it turned out not to be a short cut.
First, as I was cutting through Firhouse and Oldbawn housing estates I had a flash of memory of photos I had seen of a beautifully restored Columcille well. As I drove though residential areas by where the well is marked on the map nobody knew what I was talking about. I never found the well.
Next, I thought I would try another well that I had seen in photos in a beautiful field of hedgerows with the well surrounded by hawthorn and willows, west of Oldbawn. Alas the whole area was now covered with huge new housing estates with hardly any green, a shopping mall and huge industrial estate that seemed to spread for miles. As I drove through this seemingly endless quagmire of concrete I became empty and angry.
All of a sudden it ended. I was in the pretty small town of Newcastle and quickly pulled into the beautiful tree lined drive to the ancient Church of Ireland church. I am glad I did. The churchyard was a bliss of peace and voices of nature. I stayed there awhile to bath in the relief of nature away from the concrete invasion.
I found a fallen ancient standing stone right by the church and by this was a couple of broken stones of ancient spiral carvings. There was also an ancient Celtic Christianity granite cross, but all carvings had long faded. Best of all I found a sign that mentioned a nearby Holy Well of St. Finians. It was on a road between Newcastle and the well I was heading to at Ardras. I was on my way!
The St. Finian’s Well, outside Newcastle, is a humble roadside well that could be a real gem with a little more attention. There is a nearby alternative healing centre, as there usually is by the best of sacred wells and these healing centres usually provide a wonderful caretaking job. Sadly, that was not evident for this well. I found myself thinking about the the lady minister of the Church of Ireland church. When I was in the church grounds I was feeling an image of a minister wondering if her mission was really worth it. I was feeling that image by the well too. Sadly, I cannot remember her name.
At Ardras the well is pretty and is an example where one or two people have tried to sustain it with little resources. It is beside the road but very hidden. Most people would whizz past in their cars and not know it was there. Sadly, the “whizzing” provided me with an unexpected challenge. The well is on a bend on a very busy road. I realized it was too unsafe to park minibuses and lead a group around the pathless sharp bend. This is a holy well to visit alone or with another. There’s not even much room around the well for a group to hover. Sadly there is also an oil run off from the road that has entered that water.
I thought that while I was there I would climb St. Patrick’s Hill as this is a flat land area and this was an only hill. There is a gate from the well to enter a path up the hill. Unfortunately, a resident angry bull started his bellowing and hoof scraping ritual, so this idea was postponed.
My next thought was that maybe the visiting Australian group would like to visit Columcille’s Well, instead, on the site of his ancient Durrow Monastery. I wondered how long that would take. I did not fortell the distractions I would have on the way.
My route took me through Clane. Last time I was there it was a small town with a constant traffic jam. There was a holy well outside that I had yet to visit. Alas, another well smothered by a new housing complex plus a new by-pass road with congestion greater than before.
Next town is Prosperous that looks more like small Kansas flat land redneck town. Again, the holy well outside is smothered, but this time by a modern farm. Red ribbons still hang from a hawthorn where the well should be.
Next was Carbury, a village on a hill in the middle of these flatlands, once an important ancient Celtic monastery and I thought I would check out its Holy Well. Alas, I was caught in a Garda road block and its took awhile before the got to me to see if was was drunk, paid my taxes and insurance, did not have bald tyres or carrying illegal contraband or carrying bags of waste for illegal dumping. Frustrated by this hold up I forgot about my Holy Well stop and was eager to find a side road and leave this main road madness of Easter escape. I was also hungry.
At the next town Edenbury, which last time I visited was another flatland redneck town, was now hosting major supermarkets, a modern shopping mall and drive through McDonald's. I went to a small middle eastern place and bought a wonderful unique but refreshing fish kebab.
I also realized that my alternative idea of taking the group to Columcille’s Well at Durrow was not a wise alternative.
At the next small town, Rhode, I missed my turning and this was when circumstance became very surreal and exciting.
I found my main road whittled down to a small country road heading towards a very green almost mountain hill, which I later learned was Croghan Hill. On the top it looked if someone had planted a cross, like on Sidhe Mor in Co. Leitrim.
An ancient road sign pointed right “St. Patrick’s Well”. I was not expecting that, but without hesitation I turned right but the narrow surfaced road quickly became a very rough unsurfaced road. I checked my map and found the nearest holy well marked was a few miles away on the other side of the hill, along this unmade track. I also found I had missed a standing stone on the side of the road by the sign.
I drove slowly and carefully as the unmade road climbed and dropped steeply around this hill. I did find the well. Not the most attractive looking Holy Well, yet full of interest. Some lovely new hawthorns and hardwoods planted nearby and beautiful views across the flat boglands and lakes of counties Kildare, Offaly and Westmeath.
Of most interest was a plaque that read of St. Brigid visiting the well, was said to have been born further north along the track and received her “veil” at a monastery further back down the track where I had come. So what about the stories I have been telling that most people tell of her born in Co. Louth then going to Iona to become a druid priestess, becoming a teacher at Derry and then travelling with her 19 flame keepers to Kildare to set up a monastery there?
I thought about it, and concluded the plaque also probably revealed some truth too, but I will explain that through another blog post.
The unmade track eventually met a tarmac road so off I went cross country. I knew that if I followed the direction of the setting sun I would eventually meet Columcille’s Durrow. That almost did not happen.
I was overcome with an extreme and very painful headache along with some dizziness. I thought it would be best if I stopped and rested. There was a car park at a cross roads, I can could not identify what the car park served. I though I would have a nap. It was not long before sunset but thought I would not bother with Durrow and just drive home to Co. Sligo after a nap.
A quick look at the map showed I was only a few miles from Durrow, so I kept going, despite the headache.
Moments later, a huge welcome surprise! I came upon the entrance to the path to St. Hugh’s Well !!! So what’s special about that?
A few years ago I was also lost on country lanes and found St. Hugh’s Well and have often wondered since where it is. So why was I excited, apart from now realizing where St. Hugh’s Well is?
Before you arrive at Hugh’s Well there is an alter called “The Headache Stone”
It is said that St. Hugh was one of St. Brigid’s scribes. In the middle of dictating one of her poems to him she was gripped with a searing headache. St. Hugh took her to a stone altern where she knelt with her head against the stone alter. It is said that she was relieved of her headache. Not only that, her knees and head melted into the stones and left indentations. Today it is said that if you kneel in the indentations and place your head on the standing stone indentation your headache will disappear.
Well, just by thinking about this my headache went away, but I still dashed along the path and field to repeat this ritual, maybe to make sure my headache stayed away.
Minutes later, after leaving St. Hugh's I finally reached the gates to Columcille’s Durrow. The sun was in the middle of setting.
I was welcomed by a “night watchman”, quite a surprise, who questioned me on my intent.
The cemetery of the church as Durrow, on the site of the old Abbey, was home of the most amazing sculptured high cross in Ireland. The Office of Public Works came along, dug up the cross, encased it in a huge wooden box and decided to restore the church building to provide an indoor presentation of the cross and Columcille. After all, this is the site where the Book Of Durrow was written and the site of the event that kicked off the famous “Battle of The Books” in Co. Sligo.
The night watchman is there due a fear that someone might arrive in the night to steal the box containing the high cross. Years ago three ancient scripture engraved high crosses at Gowloon, Co. Fermanagh were stolen and never seen again
This restoration work has been going on for 3 years now, that a regular stone mason would have completed in 6 – 12 months. This is a “government contract” where the day’s focus is ensuring you are on time, not a minute late, for an 8:00 am start, and then the attention is on details of the tea breaks, lunch details, sports pages in the newspaper and what the union should be doing if they get their finger out.
The gate lodge is now being converted into a ticket office, maybe another year or two away.
Despite my cynicism the walk along the drive to the church was more beautiful than I have ever known it. A most wonderful place to come in spring regardless of what is at the end.
Near the church is Columcille’s well, which I have never seen look so good. This reminded me that this is still one of my favourite sacred wells and even one of my favourite ancient sites in Ireland. The sun was setting and this was a superb and magical completion to my day.
This left quite a time of brooding as I drove home in the dark to Co. Sligo, again in the line of the “gotta get out of Dublin for Easter” procession on the N4 highway facing the oncoming “gotta go and party in Dublin” brigade.
Arriving home it was straight to bed to enjoy the most relaxed undisturbed sleep for a long, long time. Today I feel in top health.
Visiting some sacred wells, that still do exist, are still very much an elixir of life.
Soon, I will add some photos of the wells I visited in this article.