Four features of the early monastic site of Colmcille can be identified at separate locations in Crumlin.
They are Leac Na Naomh on the shore line. The Leac is a rock on which Colmcille is reputed to have landed after his time on Inis Mór with his fellow monk, Enda.
The church ruins are one kilometre due east and inland from the Leac.
Saint Colmcille’s well is about one kilometre south-east of the church whilst there is a complex of penitential stations located a further kilometre south-east.
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. The great 17th century hagiographer, John Colgan, compiled a list of more than sixty churches that laid claim to Colmcille (Ó Riain 2011, 213). There are two such Columban sites in the Burren – Glencolmcille, Carran and Crumlin, Fanore.
The ecclesiastical site at Crumlin is given an early date (Sheehan 1982, 46). The cyclopean masonry and the windows in the church are identified as early features (Swinfen 1992, 121).
Ó Riain, S. (2011). A Dictionary of Irish Saints. Four Courts Press.
Sheehan J. (1982) The Early-Historic Church Sites of North Clare. North Munster Antiquarian Journal. Thomond Archaeological and Historical Society. Volume 24.
Swinfen, A. (1992) Forgotten Stones Ancient Church Sites of the Burren and Environs. The Lilliput Press.
Topographically the well is positioned in the floor of a major trench (or alt) oriented north-south. The well is incised into the flank of the hill. There are accumulations of glacial till in the floor of the trench and high, steep walls, particularly on the eastern side.
The well is located in the Aillwee Member of the Burren Formation, probably just above one of the major shale layers that form the terraces in these limestones.
The well comprises two, separate, vertical cylindrical tubes, c. 150 mm in diameter, 350 mm deep and 100 mm apart apparently developed on a north-south joint. A trickle of water was flowing south-north across the base of the more northerly tube when the site was visited.
However, there was no flow or standing water apparent in the other tube despite recent rainfall. To function as a well (i.e. to retain a reservoir of water) it would probably have been necessary to dam the outflow route for the water (maybe with mud or moss) to enable the water to pond in the tube(s). (David Drew).
Holy wells known to cure eye ailments may on occasion resemble an eye (Bord 2006, 41). There are a number of wells in our study area which are eye-shaped including St Fachtna’s in Fahee South (Carran) and Tobar Iníon Baoith (Killinaboy). The natural likeness of the well to an eye helps to endorse these water bodies as supernatural antidotes to eye ailments.
St Colmcille’s in Crumlin goes one step better as the well comprises two separate, vertical cylindrical tubes, thus likening a pair of eyes. However, it is worth noting that one of tubes has no standing water.
Bord, J. (2006). Cures and Curses Ritual and Cult at Holy Wells. Heart of Albion.
More than twenty offerings lie on the wall of the well house. One offering is a rusted piece of metal. The remaining objects are low-denominations coins. Two currencies feature – the now obsolete punt and the current euro. The State began to withdraw Irish punt notes and coins on the first of January 2002. So all the coins here can at least be dated to two distinct periods – before 2002 and the period from 2002 onwards.
The church ruins lie just 0.5 kilometre from the rock on the coast (Leac na Naomh) where Colmcille is credited with landing on his return to the mainland from his time at Inis Mór. There is a record of an old path between these two Columban sites (Robinson). It is probable that both sites were the focus of ritual on pilgrimage going back to Early Medieval times.
Westropp described the church as “venerable” (. 68). However, “much injured by the tooth of time” is a far more accurate assessment of the “antiquity” (O’Donovan & Curry, 1839. 68). The ruins are now neglected and overwhelmed by ivy.
The church has been classified as “early historic”. (Sheehan). Features associated with the early period include the cyclopean masonry of the church, a nearby souterrain and the holy well.
The folk belief seems to have been that Colmcille founded a monastic site at Crumlin – the church “being attributed to him in the year in which he left Aran” (Westropp, 68). However, there is no evidence that Colmcille ever made it to North Clare. It is much more likely that a Columban community initially established a monastic site in Crumlin. There may have a church of wood at the core of the site (site of current stone ruins). Stone churches were rare in Ireland prior to the 900s.
The medieval churches were abandoned in the context of the English Protestant Reformation in Ireland. The Reformation was introduced in to Ireland at the behest of Henry VIII. The Reform did not subject holy wells to the same level of suppression as worship at churches (Whelan 2019, 51). In all probability, the well in Crumlin became the main the focus of public worship on the abandonment of the church.
O’Donovan J. & Curry E. (1839). The Antiquities of County Clare Ordnance Survey Letters. Clasp Press 1997.
Westropp T.J. Archaeology of the Burren Prehistoric Forts and Dolmens in North Clare. Clasp Press 1999.
Whelan, K. (2019). Religion, Landscape and Settlement in Ireland. Four Courts Press.