Gleann Cholm Cille. Glencolmcille. The valley of Colmcille. Known locally as “Glan”, it is a fertile valley in the north east of the Burren characterised today by improved grasslands and a sparse population. The valley is enclosed by the region’s distinctive rocky uplands. Glencolmcille may have served as an ancient route way into the Burren from the east (Gosling 1991, 126).
The former medieval parish of Glencolmcille has long since been subsumed into the parish of Carran. The population of the parish of Carran in 1837 was 1045 inhabitants (Lewis 1837, 9). Carran is now home to a mere 106 inhabitants (2011 census). The main reason for the dramatic depopulation is the Great Hunger (1845-49). Death and emigration were no strangers to the valley of Glencolmcille in the 19th century.
In the 1800s, over 85% of the Burren population lived in houses of 4th classification i.e. one-roomed mud cabins (Smyth 2012, 187). As these pre-famine dwellings were mostly of perishable materials, very little evidence of pre-famine peasant settlement survives in the Burren region in general or the Glencolmcille valley in particular.
If the housing of the huge peasant population was primitive , their religion was a mix of “casual adherence to Catholic practice and retention of Celtic rituals” (McMahon 2010).
This heady mix of orthodox and unorthodox religion was most in evidence each year in the valley on the 9th of June – the pattern (patron) day of Colmcille. Proceedings would initiate on St Colmcille’s eve on the 8th of June with the day time fair in Turloughmore, a bordering townland to the east of Glencolmcille. The fair was followed by an all-night vigil at the holy well.
Pilgrimage continued into St Colmcille’s day focusing on ritual monuments in Glencolmcille and penitential cairns in Fahee South. Later in the day the focus switched again to secular activity in Turloughmore in the form of horse racing. People travelled from as far as Connemara for the 8th/9th June festivities suggesting the “Glan” pilgrimage was of regional (as opposed to local) significance.
Gosling P. 1991. The Burren in Medieval Times from The Book of the Burren. Tír Eolas.
Lewis S. 1837. Clare A History and Topography. Clasp Press
Smyth W.J. Variations in Vulnerability from Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Editors Crowley J. Smyth W.J. Murphy. Cork University Press.
Mc Mahon A. 2010. The Rural Poor in Clare before the Great Famine from The Other Clare Volume 34.
Shannon Archaeological and Historical Society.
St. Colmcille is one of Ireland’s three patron saints – the other two being Patrick and Brigid. According to tradition, all three are said to be buried in Downpatrick, County Down. Colmcille is credited with founding a monastic site at Iona in Scotland in the 6th century. Iona was considered subsequently to be one of the three most significant ecclesiastical sites in Ireland and Scotland along with Kildare and Armagh. (Ó Riain 2011, 212).
Colmcille’s cult is spread across Ireland and Scotland today with two ancient sites dedicated to him in the Burren – Glencolmcille, Carran and Crumlin, Fanore. Both sites have ancient churches and holy wells named after him.
The church ruins in Glencolmcille today are Medieval (late 12th c. – early sixteenth c. AD). However, the ecclesiastical site may date in origin to Early Medieval times (c. 400 – late twelfth c. AD). The ruins are located less than one kilometre north-east of the holy well.
Ó Riain, S. (2011). A Dictionary of Irish Saints. Four Courts Press.
The well is situated at the end of a short lane on the left hand side of the road proceeding from the townland of Glencolmcille in the direction of Kinvara. The lane is prone to flooding. In living memory, if the lane were flooded on the saint’s feast day 9th June, wooden planks were laid down in order to ensure access to the well. The ensemble of water, dry stone well house and cross fragment are known locally as “the oratory”.
There was a blessed or rag tree on site up to about fifty years ago. It has been described as “a big, round hawthorn tree”. On pattern day an image of Colmcille was nailed to the bark of the tree.
The turas or rounding ritual included walking in a clockwise fashion “by the hawthorn tree, around the mound, around the oratory and using the stepping stones.
The well water was believed to cure eye ailments. Visitors would rub their eyes with water or fill bottles with water and take them away.
The water was also reputed to heal foot maladies (Doolan 1991, 169).
Doolan, L. 1991. Lores and Cures and Blessed Wells from The Book of the Burren. Tír Eolas.
THE SAINT’S FINGERS
The church ruins and monastic site are located in a field east of the holy well. A sacred stone is located in the field boundary on the left hand side of the road a couple of hundred meters east of the entrance to the monastic site. No folk belief survives regarding the stone although a local source maintains that the stone’s original position was beside the cross at the entrance to the field with the church ruins. The stone would have been the subject of ritual in pilgrimage in the valley. Perhaps a short prayer was recited and the fingers of the pilgrim were placed in the impressions in the rock.
The sacred stone is known as an imprint site – impressions primarily in stone believed to have been left by high profile figures in the landscape. Such figures include Buddha, Jesus Christ and an enormous array of saints (Bord J.and C. 2004).
The most famous imprint site in the Burren is Bóthar na Miasa near St Colman’s Hermitage, Carran where St Colmán Mac Duagh is ascribed the Easter Miracle. However, the most common type of imprint site in the region is the bullaun – small hollows(s) in stone. Two depressions at the Kilmoon (Lisdoonvarna) ecclesiastical site are known as St Brigid’s knees. The most renowned international example of saint’s fingers is in a cave at Sennai in India where the doubting Apostle Thomas is believed to have left his mark.
Bord J. and C. 2004. Footprints in Stone: The Significance of Foot- and Hand-prints and Other Imprints Left by Early Men, Giants, Heroes, Devils, Saints, Animals, Ghosts, Witches, Fairies and Monsters Heart of Albion Press.
THE SAINT’S BED
“The bed of the saint, formed of stones, is still preserved as a relic. Some brass coins have been dug up here”. (Lewis 1837, 10). Lewis is referring to the Colmcille’s bed (tomb-shrine) in the church ruin – a valuable reference to a ritual monument which unfortunately no longer survives.
The church ruins probably date to the 12th century. However, the original church on site was probably of an Early Medieval date (400-110 A.D.). It would have been at the core of a monastic site.
The most famous saint’s bed in the Burren is that of St Colman Mac Duagh at his hermitage at Eagle’s Rock. The bed in that case is a cave. However, the bed in the region which probably most appropriates to St Colmcille’s is that of St Caimín at the latter’s ecclesiastical site at Caherminnaun West, Kilfenora. The latter has been described as “a hollow area partially flanked by large stones”. (Rynne, 1970. ). Not only is the bed still extant in Caimín’s case but the record of the ritual thereat has been preserved.
The material heritage of pilgrim sites was used by the monks to convey important ideas to the faithful regarding the exemplary lie of the saint. (Ó Carragáin and O’Sullivan 2009. 329). Colmcille’s fingers, missal and bed may be interpreted as part of the ideological tapestry of the early monks.
The ritual practised at these land marks probably evolved quite a bit over the period from Early Medieval times to the 19th century.
Lewis S. 1837. County Clare A History and Topography from A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland. Samuel Lewis.
Rynne E.1970 A Cure for Sore Eyes from North Munster Antiquarian Journal Number 58.
Ó Carragáin T. and O’Sullivan J. 2009. Monks and Pilgrims in an Atlantic Landscape. The Collins Press.
Penitential cairns are dry stone constructions and are usually not more than 2 metres in height. The cairns are cylindrical or square in shape and some of them have pillar stones at their summit. All cairns may have had pillar stones in the past. None of the Burren cairns have been dated. However, some of the cairns associated with the monastic site on Inishmurray Island, County Sligo have been dated to the Early Medieval period (Ó Carragain T. and O ‘Sullivan J. 2009).
The cairns are intrinsically linked to centres of pilgrimage and have been recorded for example at Struel Wells (a set of four holy wells) in Downpatrick, County Down and St Mac Duagh’s Island in County Galway.
There are two impressive complexes of penitential cairns associated with the Glencolmcille pilgrimage tradition. One complex is on high ground above Glencolmcille valley, about one kilometre east of St Colmcille’s holy well in the townland of Fahee North. There are at least ten cairns on site. The largest cairn is elongated and has a number of peaks of stacked stones on it. “People climbed to the top of Glencolmcille Mountain where they counted their rounds by placing a stone on a mound there” as part of the all-night vigil at St Colmcille’s well (Ó Laoi P. 1998. 232).
The ritual described by Father Ó Laoi may help explain the extravagant size and shape of the largest cairn in Fahee North.
Pilgrims may also performed stations i.e. prayed as they circled the cairns as part of their repentance of sins.
The second complex is located about 0.5 kilometres north of the well on a route to Kinvara. This complex was probably most used by the faithful coming across Galway Bay via Kinvara on their way to the valley.
Ó Carragáin T. and O’Sullivan J. 2009. Monks and Pilgrims in an Atlantic Landscape. The Collins Press.
Ó Laoi, An tAthair P. 1998. Turloughmore Races from The Parish of Kilkeedy. A Local History Frank Brew.
DECLINE OF TRADITION
Colmcille’s day is still celebrated communally at a number of locations including Durrow, Co Offally, Glencolmcille, Co Donegal and Inis Mór.. However, the celebration died out in Glencolmcille, Carran at some point in the second half of the 20th century.
Brian Mooney, a forward thinking ex-priest, subsequently attempted to revive the patron day. Mass was said on site on the 9th June on two successive years but the revival was short-lived.
The only votive offerings on site in February 2018 were a set of rosary beads and a piece of rusted metal on the cross arm over the well ; two small receptacles for candles located on the top of the well house and a piece of broken crockery in the water.
I interviewed two residents of Glencolmcille regarding the well. I am extremely grateful to them for sharing information.