The 24th of July sees the feast day of Saint Declan of Ardmore, Co.Waterford. Declan was a pre-patrician saint, preaching the new religion and converting the pagan populace of Ardmore long before Saint Patrick ever set foot in Ireland. He was said to have set up his church around the spot where the 12th century “cathedral” and round tower now stand. Declan was a prince of the Deise tribe and had returned from Rome to convert people to the new religion. His supposed burial site, known as the oratory, stands nearby. A short walk from this site lies his holy well and the ruins of another church. It is here in a slightly more secluded spot, perched on a cliff, that Declan was said to have come to avoid the large crowds that were coming to his original church (this is a common motif when reading about saints. They often seek further seclusion or become hermits). His feast day was a very popular pilgrimage for centuries with thousands of people descending on the quaint seaside village to do the “rounds” of the pattern. The earliest accounts date to the 1600’s Like many patterns, the religious aspect was not the only thing to be found here. The beach was lined with tents with musicians and people selling drink. Heavy alcohol consumption was the norm after completing the rounds, a thing that left many of the 18th and 19th century observers (most of whom were protestant) aghast with what they were witnessing. Faction fighting was also a common feature at these pattern days, which had an equal effect on these observers. This sort of faction fighting was most common in areas such as mountain passes or areas where two townlands met. Here the factions from each district would ritualistically fight in an attempt to gain the luck of the saint for the year and carry it home with them. Despite being ritualistic in nature, injury often occurred. Below I will show the sites involved in the pattern and supplement it with some of the 19th century accounts. The pattern was revived in the last couple of decades and still draws thousands each year. Many of these patterns had died out due to church interference because the clergy were against the heavy drinking, debauchery, faction fighting and the holy well veneration (that was essentially a vestige of pagan practice).
This building is traditionally believed to have been the burial spot of the saint. If you peer in the window you can see a large hollow in the ground(see photo below). Out of this the clay was taken and used for all manner of cures. Due to its contact with the spot where the said was buried it was believed to have gained miraculous powers and was often ingested to provide a cure. It formed and important part of the”rounds” and was commented on in the old accounts. An old woman distributed or sold the clay to the pilgrims when they entered the oratory. The following account dates from 1841:
“22nd July, Arrived this evening at Ardmore, preparations already making for the due celebration of the Patron’s day; visited the dormitory of St. Declan; an old meagre figure had possession of the grave, in which she ate, drank, and slept, that none other might claim a right to it; one half of her only appeared above ground; the last supply of earth for the approaching demand, had just been put in; she recommended us strongly to take a portion in the name of God and the blessed Saint (on pronouncing the latter name she with due reverence dropped a low curtsey) as a preventive against fire, drowning, etc. etc, if eaten with due faith.
Of the clays efficacy against fire we read more later. The writer tells us :
9 o’clock – fire nearly subdued for want of fuel; here comes the old jezebel from the grave, covered with earth, half naked, and yellow as the clay of which she bears a portion, and is strewing in places the fire cannot reach, to show its virtue in destroying that devouring element.
The Round Tower and Cathedral
Although neither of these dates to the time of the saint they both feature strongly as part of the rounds/pattern. The round tower remains one of the finest and most complete examples of these characteristic towers that dot the Irish landscape. These conical towers, called Cloig Theach (bell towers) in the native tongue, are often mistakenly assumed to be of a defensive nature due to their doors being placed meters off the floor. This in fact is a structural feature as most of these towers were build without any real foundations to speak of. It is a testament to the builders of these awe inspiring monuments that many of these still stand when the buildings around them has long since crumbled. They often stand as status symbols in the most important ecclesiastical sites around the country. They served not only as landmarks but experimental archaeology has shown that ringing a hand bell from the top floor can be heard for miles around. In relation to the pattern observances of the feast day we are told the following:
“A few yards brought us to the far-famed round tower, the most perfect in Ireland; here again the devout pilgrims repeated prayers and told their beads, and knelt with the utmost humility, kissed the tower, broke off pieces which they carried away; then the whole crowd filed off to the chapel, which was open to receive them, and mass was celebrated in all due form; here the devotions of the day ended”.
The church, called the Cathedral despite its minuscule size, dates to around the 12th century and incorporates an array of design features such as the Romanesque arcading seen in the picture above featuring biblical scenes such as Adam and Eve and the judging of Solomon. Further Romaneque features can be found inside along with a pointed chancel arch. If you look close enough, crosses can be seen carved into the walls near the doorway that you enter through. Two Ogham stones can also be found within the church.
The Holy Well
The holy well comprises one of the main elements of the Pattern, as it quite often does at these kind of observances. I will cover the phenomenon of holy wells in a future article as these are a fascinating belief system that stems from an age old water cult with fascinating ties to pagan practice and belief. These fall well outside the standard doctrine and although associated with christian saints, were never officially sanctioned by the church.During the 19th Century attempts were made by the diocesan clergy to suppress pilgrimages/patterns with little effect. Pilgrimages did in fact decline but this was mostly due to the Famine and social change.
For those unfamiliar with holy wells, either drinking or topically applying the water can elicit cures. Quite often this cure can be for a specific body part such as for curing eye problems etc. There are some pretty graphic accounts of people dipping limbs affected by all manner of ailment into the water and then others drinking from it ( A fact I can even attest to seeing in the past 20 years). This particular well is especially effective in the treatment of eye problems but can be used for a multitude of symptoms. Similar to the account above of the old woman above distributing clay, It was not uncommon for women to distribute/ sell the water at these wells, as in the photo below of Declan’s well from the early 20th century (circa 1910).
Lord Walter Fitzgerald writing in the Journal of the Royal society of Antiquaries in 1856 had the following to say:
“The most celebrated well in this province for ‘rounds’ and miraculous cures. Its powers of healing are still frequently put to the test with all sorts of sprains and mutilations of the human body, especially on the patron day, which is held on the 24th July. There are also said to be three holy wells on the strand at Ardmore, which were formed by a miracle of St Declan, but these cannot be seen except at extreme low tides, and at low water mark; they are noted for curing inward complaints in those who are fortunate to glimpse of them at the propitious moment. At each of the wells mentioned here, except those on the strand, the visitor will find numerous coloured objects tied to the trees and briars in the neighbourhood.”
Further accounts can be found in Mr & Mrs halls writings from 1841 (as used previously above):
“On the brink stand the remnants of a chapel, said to be the first built in Ireland. On entering the gateway, on your right hand, is the well St. Declan blessed: a narrow doorway leads to it, a formidable figure had possession of it, and dealt out in pint mugs to those who paid; some drank it, some poured it on their limbs, their head, their backs, in the most devout manner, some claimed a second portion to bottle and carry home to sick relatives, or to preserve their house from fire; they then knelt down to the well, and said their prayers”
Above Is the stone visible in the old photo used at the beginning of the article. It lies at the gable end of the church ruin and as part of the rounds the crosses are carved into the stone as prayers are said (it is not unusual at other pilgrimages for the dust created from carving those crosses to be collected, added to water and consumed in the believe that it could also provide cures. Below are the ruins of the church near this stone and the well. Perched on the precipice of the cliff it offers stunning views of the bay below (The name Ardmore comes from the Irish Aird Mhór meaning “Great height”).
Saint Declans Stone
The last item I would like to mention is the boulder known locally as “Saint Declan’s Stone”. This stone forms an important part of the rounds and is believed to be efficacious in treating back pain and rheumatism by stooping down and crawling beneath it through the narrow aperture seen above. It was also circled a number of times on the knees while praying. The story of the stone is as follows: When the saint was returning from wales, he realised he had left his bell behind on a rock on the foreshore. He prayed to God and the stone started to float after him with the bell on top of it. Recognising the miracle he allowed the boulder to lead the way and decided that wherever it was to land he would set up his church. This of course landed on the beach of Ardmore where it still remains today, only accessible at low tide. The boulder is appears to be a glacial erratic as it is the only stone of its kind on the beach. This stone also features in the accounts from the 18th century:
“there the first scene began, and I counted 154 persons kneeling round the stone, fresh comers every moment succeeding those who had told their beads and said their prayers. I watched their motions as they approached the stone; they took off their hats, then lowly bowed their heads, and dropped their knees on the pointed rocks; here they repeated several prayers, telling over their beads; then solemnly drew near and reverentially kissed the informed (???) mass several times, then bumped their backs against it three times, drew back in awe, dropped again on their knees, repeating more prayers and silently retired, children in arms were pressed down till their little mouths touched the holy stone”.
That brings to a close this brief foray into the sites attributed to Saint Declan and his pattern day. Thank you for taking the time to read it and I hope you enjoyed it. If you enjoyed my photographs feel free to follow my Photography page on facebook (click here) and also my Folklore page (here). For the 19th century accounts above I used:
Mr. & Mrs. S.H. Hall. 1841. Ireland: Its Scenery, Character & C. London: How & Parsons (pp. 284-85)