Believers Flock to Irish Holy Wells Seeking Solace From Pandemic

Believers Flock to Irish Holy Wells Seeking Solace From Pandemic

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The coronavirus pandemic has led many people to seek comfort in a variety of ways. In Ireland many people are making a pilgrimage to holy wells as the water from these is believed to have healing properties. A number of wells dedicated to St Fíonnán have seen an upsurge in pilgrims in recent weeks. This Christian saint is believed to protect people from the plague, sickness and misfortune.

There are many wells or springs that are believed to be sacred in Ireland and a recent project has mapped some 1300 of these sites throughout the island. These wells are often associated with Christian saints and people have been making pilgrimages to them for over a millennium. Pilgrims drink their waters because of their supposed healing powers and often perform rituals, which are believed to help them receive the protection or favor of a saint.

Seomra Ranga states that “at some wells it was customary to bathe a diseased part of the body with a piece of cloth.” Many people still take water from the well or spring and keep it in a bottle and drink it when they felt ill or bring it to those who are in hospitals.

Holy Wells Inspired By Pagan Origins

Many of these wells and the rituals associated with them, date to pre-Christian times. According to the Irish Culture and Customs website “elements of pre-Christian Celtic religion persist in the configuration of holy well sites and the practices that have been performed for generations.” These bodies of water were seen as gateways to the Celtic Otherworld. It appears that the Christians took over these pagan sites and often built churches in their vicinity.

The custom of making pilgrimages to holy wells has declined in popularity in recent years. However, many people during the coronavirus crisis are now visiting a number of holy wells in the picturesque Iveragh Peninsula, Co Kerry, on the west coast of Ireland. They are dedicated to the 6 th century St Fíonnán and according to RTE “he is said to have saved his people from a devastating plague by offering them sanctuary.”

St Fíonnán preaching to his pupils, depicted on a stain glass window in the Church of St. Finian at Clonard. (Andreas F. Borchert / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE )

Protection from Plague

The wells have been visited by those who sought the protection of the saint. A local historian Paddy Bushe is quoted by RTE as stating that “St Fíonnán had the reputation of being a sheltering figure, a protector of his people from cruel rulers, from weather that would destroy crops and, significantly, from the plague.” According to local folklore and a 17 th century Gaelic poem he was credited with saving the people in the area from a terrible plague.

There are a number of wells dedicated to St Fíonnán in County Kerry, but the most popular is one on the western tip of Iveragh Peninsula. It overlooks the famous Skellig Michael Island , which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many locals claim that St Fíonnán founded the now abandoned monastery on the island. In addition, Skellig Michael appeared in two recent Star Wars movies.

Skellig Michael Island or Great Skellig, home to the ruined remains of a Christian monastery and scenes from two Star Wars movies, Country Kerry, Ireland. ( MNStudio / Adobe stock)

Healing Waters Providing Solace

For generations local people have sought cures at the well. A local resident, Mícheal Ó Braonáin whose family have lived in the area for generations told RTE that “it’s believed there’s a cure for sickness in the water here, not only in the well itself, but also in the sea-water below in the strand.” Many people are now visiting the well, as they seek some solace during the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown.

The well and the pilgrimage is clearly helping people in these most difficult of times. Local man Carl O’Connell told RTE that “it was firmly believed that St Fíonnán set up these sanctuaries as a haven for people to save them from the plague.” Most people who visit the wells these days are seeking spiritual comfort.

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Coincidence Adds More Fire

There is no scientific basis for the belief that the waters from these sacred sites can heal people. However, many believers note a curious coincidence. Mr. O’Connell told RTE that “the first of the COVID-19 restrictions announced by the government were imposed the week leading up to 16 March, the feast-day of St Fíonnán.” Some believe that this is somehow significant and shows that the saint is still protecting them from coronavirus. The recent increase in interest in these wells may help heritage groups to map the remaining sites and help in their preservation.

2 Million-Year-Old Human Ancestor Had A Grip Just Like Us

Inhabiting what is now modern-day South Africa, an ancient human ancestor, Australopithecus sediba, that lived two million years ago had hands that might have enabled it to carry out some movements like modern humans, a new study suggests.

Dr Christopher Dunmore, who led the new research project, the results of which were recently published in the journal Nature, Ecology and Evolution , said his team anthropologists from the University of Kent analyzed the two million year old hominin’s well-preserved hand bones revealing it was “a hybrid” that had climbed trees like its predecessors, but the bone structure indicated that it could also perform precise “human-like movements”.

The fossilized hand bones of A ustralopithecus sediba. (Image: © Dunmore et al. University of Kent )

الحج إلى آبار أيرلندا المُقدسة.. من الوثنية القديمة إلى المسيحية

رغم أن الحجاج المسيحيين يحجون حاليًا إلى آبار أيرلندا، فإن العديد من هذه الآبار والطقوس المُرتبطة بها تعود إلى عصور ما قبل المسيحية. وفقًا لموقع الثقافة والعادات الأيرلندية، ترتبط هذه الآبار بالديانة السلتية الوثنية، وهي ديانة تسبق المسيحية. كان يُنظر إلى هذه المياه على أنها بوابات للعالم الآخر لدى السلتيك.

وفي الأسطورة الأيرلندية، تُصوَّر الآبار والينابيع على أنها نشأت في العالم الآخر، ذلك البُعد الموازي الذي يتمتع سكانه بالقدرة على التحكم في القوى الطبيعية لهذا العالم. ومن مصادر موجودة بالعالم الآخر، تتدفق المياه إلى عالمنا لملء الينابيع، أو تتدفق أكثر وتُكوِّن الأنهار. ترتبط هذه المسطحات المائية في المُعتقد الأيرلندي القديم ارتباطًا وثيقًا بالآلهة، فكان يُعتقد أن الشرب من هذه المياه المُقدسة أو الاستحمام فيها من شأنه أن يمنح قوة العالم الآخر في شكل إلهام شعري، أو حكمة، أو شفاء. المسيحيون أيضًا قدَّسوا هذه الآبار وبنوا الكنائس في محيطها.

منذ حوالي 60 عامًا، زعم مسح أن هناك ما يصل إلى 3 آلاف بئر مقدسة في أيرلندا، وهو عدد يفوق أي بلد آخر في العالم، ورغم تراجع شعبية الحج إلى الآبار المُقدسة في السنوات الأخيرة. فإن العديد من الأشخاص خلال أزمة فيروس كورونا الحالية زاروا عددًا من هذه الآبار المقدسة للحماية من الوباء.

تتراوح آبار أيرلندا المُقدسة من الينابيع التي تجذب عددًا صغيرًا من الزوار، مثل بئر الأحد وبئر ماري، إلى مواقع أكبر وأكثر شهرة تستقبل المئات، إن لم يكن الآلاف، من المؤمنين سنويًّا، وعادةً ما ترتبط الآبار المُقدسة بقديس أو شخصية مقدسة.

يُحج إلى هذه الآبار في أعياد القديس المُرتبط بكل بئر، فيزور الناس الآبار، ويؤدون طقوسًا، ويشربون ماء الآبار، ويأخذون جزءًا منها بعيدًا لمباركة المنازل والمزارع، أو المرضى. وغالبًا ما يتلون سلسلة من الصلوات، ويمكن أن يترك الحجاج في البئر تماثيل دينية، وشموعًا وبطاقات تذكارية، وغيرها من الحاجات الشخصية، التي ترمز إلى النوايا والأدعية والرغبات المُقدَّمة للقديس أو الشخصية الروحية، فقد تنظر العروس في المياه آملة في إيجاد حظها السعيد، أو قد يستحم بالمياه أحد المُقعدين على أمل الشفاء.

Cailleach ‘Biorar’

Alexander Carmichael: Carmina Gaedelica Volume 2, Notes: “Cailleach uisce” (n.b. – Western Isles, Highlands of Scotland, 19thC)

“…According to some people, ‘Cailleach’ as a period of time is the first week of April, and is represented as a wild hag with a venomous temper, hurrying about with a magic wand in her withered hand switching the grass and keeping down vegetation, to the detriment of man and beast. When, however, the grass upborne by the warm sun, the gentle dew, and the fragrant rain overcomes the ‘Cailleach,’ she flies into a terrible temper, and throwing away her wand into the root of a whin bush, she disappears in a whirling cloud of angry passion till the beginning of April comes again…”

Carmichael’s account is paralleled by that of John Gregorson Campbell, who writes (The Gaelic Otherworld – John Gregorson Campbell’s Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland(1901) and Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands. Ed. Ronald Black, Pub. Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2005, p.544):

A’ Chailleach‘, The Old Wife (?Part of the month after the Faoilleach month)

This old wife is the same as the hag of whom people were afraid in harvest (the last done with the shearing had to feed her till next harvest) and to whom boys bid defiance in their New Year day rhyme, viz., ‘the Famine, or Scarcity of the Farm’. In spring she was engaged with a hammer in keeping the grass under.

Buailidh i thall, buailidh i bhos, Buailidh i eadar a dà chois

(“She strikes here, she strikes there, she strikes between her legs”)

but the grass grows too fast for her, and in despair she throws the hammer from her, and where it lighted no grass grows.

Thilg i e fon chraoibh chruaidh chuilinn, Air nach do chinn gas feur no fionnadh riamh.

(“She threw it beneath the hard holly tree / Where grass or hair has never grown.”)

Holly (Ilex aquifolium) – In Gaelic, the name is Cuillean (Manx: Hollin). Its piercing spines and shiny evergreen leaves made it a tree associated with the Otherworld. ‘Bir’ in Old Irish means a ‘sharp point’ or ‘spear’ (eDiL). Some Manx people used to burn their Christmas holly wreaths and formerly the old harvest babbin on the fire at Easter.

The legendary occupying ‘hag’ of Sliabh gCuillinn (Slieve Gullion) in St Patrick’s ‘home’ province Co. Armagh, Ulster, was called Cailleach Biorar in Nicholas O’Kearney’s in-depth account of the Irish goddess Aine, published in 1853 (Transactions of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, Volumes 1-2, p.32). He translated this name as ‘Old woman of the waters’. On Slieve Gullion, her home was supposed to be the spectacular chambered cairn (the ‘South Cairn’), also known as ‘Cailleach Beara‘s House’, which gets a popular mention among writers about the goddess. This Cailleach Biorar, O’Kearney reminds us, also went by the name of Milucradh/Miluchradh and was described as a sister the goddess Aine and a main characterin the Fenian tale known as ‘Feis Tighe Chonáin Chinn Shléibhe’ (The Festivities of the house of Conan of Ceann-Slieve).

‘Feis Tighe Chonáin Chinn Shléibhe’:

This Fenian tale was derived from a relatively late copy in a post-MacPherson 18thC manuscript by a Waterford scribe named Foran, although there are fragments from manuscripts some 200 years older. It appears to contain some interesting detail as to the identity of Fionn, as well as the Cailleach Biorar or Milucradh. O’Kearney translated and published this in the journal of the Ossianic Society in 1855.

In a memorable part of the tale Conan asks Fionn how his hair came to be white. He tells them a tale known as ‘The Chase of Slieve Gullion’ in which the sisters Miluchradh and Aine, daughters of Cuailgne of the Tuatha de Danann wish to seduce Fionn, but set to arguing. Aine boasted that her husband’s hair would never turn grey (a boast of her sexual prowess, no doubt) and this enrages the Cailleach (Miluchradh) who bids her hosts build them a magical lake on the slopes of Slieve Gullion. Any man who bathes in the lake is doomed to old age! Milucradh tricks Fionn by shapeshifting into the form of a grey fawn to whom Fionn and his hounds give chase. She is cornered on the banks of the lough and transforms into a beautiful maiden who then tricks Fionn into diving into the waters in order to retrieve her ring (a theme common to the 12thC fairy romances, loaded as it is with sexual allusions). After Fionn emerges ancient and decrepit from the lake, she dives into the waters never to be seen again…

There is a small lake at the top of Slieve Gullion near the cairns, but the Cailleach’s lake doesn’t just exist in the physical sense, being of fairy construction. The lough in the story almost appears to function with an opposite effect to the mystical subterranean wells of regeneration (Segais, Nechtain, Connla etc), associated elsewhere with Cailleach-related legends, sometimes involving capstones that are forgotten about (see later!). It was believed that rivers flowed eventually to the Otherworld, only to return mystically through chthonic wells in hills or sidhe places. These then manifested above ground as ‘holy wells’.

What is the significance of Slieve Gullion?

Slieve Gullion lies just inland from Dundalk on the southern Ulster coast, within sight of the great Carlingford Lough on the Irish Sea, whose name derives from the Old Norse and translates to Irish as ‘Lough Cailleach’! ‘Gullion’ derives from Cuillean or Guillean – supposed to be a famous blacksmith who was employed by legendary king Conchobar mac Nessa, and from whom Cuchullain was named in the Ulster Cycle legends. It is also the name of the holly tree in Irish, Scots and Manx. The words ‘Cuillean’ and ‘Caillean’ are quite similar – just as ‘Cuillean, ‘Chullain’ and ‘Cumhal’ seem so close…

With the ‘coming of Patrick’ all of Ireland’s Cailleach sites (such as Cruachan Bri Eile etc) required a Christian female to replace the resident goddess, and to this end, Slieve Gullion acquired the services of St Moninne, daughter of ‘King Machta’. She was also known as Darerca of Cill Sliebhe Cuillin or Blathnaidh/Blinne and had a church/monastery at Kileavy (Cil Aoibhe) on the slopes of the mountain, the remains of which are still there to visit. Astute observers of names associated with the pagan goddess will immediately notice that ‘Mo-ninne’ might be a version of the character known in medieval Arthurian romances as Niniane, the ‘Lady of the Lake’. ‘St Ninian’ also appears as an important evangelist of the Irish Sea region in the early middle ages.

Why Kileavy? It probably means ‘Beautiful Church’, but the other possibility is a church or religious house named after a founder other than Moninna: The name Aoife (Aoibhe or Aífe) is one much associated with the ‘fairy queen’ or ‘banshee’ in legends and placenames, particularly among the Dál gCais of Munster who called her ‘Aibell’ or ‘Aoibheal’ of Craig Liath – the name sounds like an epithet, of which the Gaelic goddess had as many as she had children.

In literature, the early Irish tale Aided Óenfhir Aífe, Aífe (also sometimes spelled Aoife or Aoibhe) was the mother of Cuchullain’s tragic child Connla (‘Connla’s Well’ anyone?), and in the Ulster Cycle tale Tochmairc Emire she is the opponent of Cu’s warrior-woman mentor Scáthach (another ‘epithet’ figure who, although given a Hebridean provenance in the TE, seems to be the same ‘peist’ character defeated by St Senan on the eponymous ‘Scattery’ Island in the mouth of the Shannon on the west coast).

Moninne’s other name Blathnaidh is the Irish equivalent of the Welsh Blodeuwedd – name of the treacherous magical wife of Lleu Llaw Gyffes who was made for him out of flowers by magicians in the fourth branch of the Mabinogion. Lleu is supposed to be equivalent to Ireland’s famous god-son, Lugh. Interestingly, the Moninne legend tells that she and her nuns adopted a widow whose son was named Lug.In Ulster Cycle mythology, Bláthnat is wife of the central figure, the Manannan-like Cu Roi. In the Moninne legend, the saint is guided by St Ibar mac Lugna, supposedly Ireland’s first bishop and a staple of Patrician legends. The Munster fairy queen Clíodhna (who controls the tides of Glandore harbour) is associated with the legend of the ‘Blarney Stone’ on Blarney Castle near Cork, which may be related – a stone of similar shape and dimensions appears on the grave of St Moninne at Kileavy…

‘Grave’ slab of Moninne at Kileavy, Slieve Gullion in Armagh. Another ‘Blathnaidh’ stone for the muse of poets?

St Darerca of Ireland is another mysterious legendary holy woman who shares a name with Moninne – they are likely the same. This other Darerca is made to appear as a ‘great mother’ of many saints and bishops and was supposed to be Patrick’s ‘sister’(Tripartite Life etc). Interestingly, her festival is celebrated at the Spring Equinox/Paddymas period (March 22) and she is claimed as the mother of St Mel, legendary purveyor of womens’ millinery goods. As well as gifting Brighid of Kildare with her veil, this curious hypostasis of Manannan (Mel – ‘Melinus’ in Jocelyn’s 12thC Vita Patriciae portrayal of Manannan, otherwise called ‘St. Maughold’) also managed to procure a miraculous fish which he supposedly ploughed up from a field, somewhat in the spirit of ‘The Voyage of Bran’! On the subject of galloping over water, ‘Darerca’ is credited in Brittany with being the mother of legendary King Gradlon! In the Breton legend, Gradlon married the sorceress ‘Malgven’ and was given a horse which could gallop on water (as if it were land) – his ‘evil’ daughter from their coupling was the Groac’h Ahes, Brittany’s answer to the Cailleach. ‘St. Malo’ was another Breton ‘Christian Manannan’.

Is this blowing your mind yet? If the answer is ‘no’, then it is because you believe that hagiographies and church stories of early saints are ‘true’ and about ‘real people’. Otherwise, it may be because you believe that Ireland literally had many multiple gods and goddesses of which the medieval Christian scribes and poets told true accounts… The truth is somewhere else!

Back to ‘Biorar’:

The eDiL (Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language) gives some interesting etymologies for the Old Irish word ‘Bir’ and its variants – the root of Biorar in ‘Cailleach Biorar’, and possibly the origin of the common variants – Beare and Bheur – although there are many more besides (I’ve included the references this time):

1 bir
Forms: biur ṁbir beura
Meaning: Stake, spit point spear
DIL 2012 B 103.52

2 bir
Forms: beru B.
Meaning: Mainly in glossaries and B. na f. and expld. as water spring, well, stream:
DIL 2012 B 104.36

Meaning: having springs or wells (2 bir):
DIL 2012 B 105.49

Also: Bearnán is a more modern word sometimes used to in the sense of ‘plant’.

As can be seen, the words for pointed or penetrating things and for springs of water have a connected etymology in Gaelic. In springtime this meaning is deeply connected with the rebirth of nature, reforged underground and in hidden places as if by a magical smith or crafter. Shoots penetrate the ground to bring new life and the flood of springs and wells gush with new waters. Pools in bogs are start to be perforated by reeds, rushes and magical plants representing this process such as the Caltha Palustris(Marsh Marigold, Kingcup, Bwillogh,as Bearnán Beltaine/Bhuide), the Menyanthes trifoliata (Bogbean, Bearnán lachan,Pónaire Chapaill), and the ubiquitous Veronica beccabunga(Brooklime, Biolar Mhuire, Biolar Uisce, Folacht (‘hidden’) etc)whose gaelic names – like that of the Bogbean – hint at the ancient mythological significance of these plants to water and regeneration in springtime and early summer in the Atlantic religion.

Caltha Palustris and other ‘piercing’ plants emerging in ‘Curragh’

Menyanthes Trifoliata emerging from Curragh pool in springtime – reborn from water!

Brooklime and watercress appear as if by magic from pools and streams in the springtime

All text © 2014 The Atlantic Religion, except where stated.