Not all relics are located in churches or monastic graveyards. In Ireland, relics also included places in the natural landscape, such as holy wells, caves, stones and even mountains. They could occur as independent pilgrim places or as part of an extended sacred landscape associated with the burial place of a saint or a church.
Holy wells: then and now
Holy wells are still places of pilgrimage in modern Ireland. They are usually a natural spring or hollow containing water, that is seen as holy because of an association with a saint. Irish wells are not all contemporary and have come into existence at diﬀerent points in time. In the majority of cases it is impossible to accurately determine when they ﬁrst became places of pilgrimage. Certainly, devotions at some Irish wells began as early as the Iron Age. Some of the oldest wells became Christian places in the early medieval period, but others came into existence throughout the late medieval period and in later centuries following the Reformation.
In folklore and hagiography holy wells were created by the saints, who either blessed an existing water source or, by a miraculous act, caused water to burst forth from rock or earth. The Lives of early Irish saints suggest that some wells were used by the saints for baptisms and healing. The location of some of these wells can still be identiﬁed; for example, the holy well at Aghagower/Achaidh Forbair (ﬁeld of the spring), Co. Mayo, was mentioned in the 7th-century Life of St Patrick. Other examples include St Attracta’s holy well at Cell Adroctae/Killaraghta, Co. Sligo, mentioned in Tírechán’s Collectanea, while the Tobar Ultáin of Toberultan, Co. Meath, is mentioned in other texts relating to St Patrick. Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis), writing in the 12th century, also makes reference to the veneration of holy wells by the Irish in his History and Topography of Ireland.
Irish saints and holy caves
Caves are part of the pilgrim landscapes at a number of holy places in Ireland. Most holy caves are found close to monastic sites or holy wells. In folklore, they were used by the saint for temporary accommodation, which is why they are often referred to as the saint’s bed. It has been suggested that links between a saint and a particular cave led to the construction of some monasteries at a particular location or, if a cave happened to exist in a monastic complex, it may have been appropriated by an anchorite, and association with the saint developed at a later date.
St Kevin’s Bed, a cave at the upper lake Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, was a central part of the 19th-century pilgrimage landscape at Glendalough. Folklore tells us that the saint lived there as a hermit prior to founding his monastery at the lower lake. The cave was ﬁrst mentioned in the 12th-century, Latin Life of St Laurence O’Toole. Laurence, or Lorcán, as he is known in the Irish language, retreated to the cave in prayer for 40 days and nights. The cave is situated in a jagged cliﬀ face 10 meters above the lake. A man-made cave, it was hewn out of the rock face, probably some time in the 12th century, as a response to the holy cave at Lough Derg. It was also recorded in a penitential pilgrimage in the mid-16th century but the tradition of pilgrimage probably dates to its formation. The cave was also referred to in a 17th-century Life of St Kevin.
Two other caves associated with the saint are found at the small village of Hollywood, also in Co. Wicklow, and were also visited by 19th-century pilgrims.
The most famous medieval Irish cave was St Patrick’s Purgatory at Lough Derg, Co. Donegal. The cave supposedly acted as a portal for pilgrims to experience Purgatory on earth and was a place of pilgrimage from at least the 12th century. According to one legend, when St Patrick was carrying out his missionary work, many people were confused about the doctrine of Purgatory. The saint went to Lough Derg and prayed. He was divinely inspired to circle his staﬀ on the ground. This action opened a pit of ﬁre and when local people saw this miniature ﬁery hell, they converted in great numbers. It is said the cave was created from this.
Holy sticks and holy stones
Irish pilgrims also visited holy trees, as their modern counterparts still do at Seir Kieran, Co. Oﬀaly, and Clonfert, Co. Galway. Several holy trees are recorded in the medieval Lives of the Irish saints. Most were miraculously created from the saint’s staﬀ; for example, when St Mochaomhog forgot the staﬀ that he had placed in the ground, it turned into a holy tree. A sacred hazel tree associated with St Máedóc was mentioned in his 12th-century Latin Life. Another example is found in the Life of Colum of Terryglass, which describes a miraculous hazel tree that took root from St Colum’s ﬁnger, at a place called Eadarghabhal, in Leinster.
Irish pilgrims also visited stones, both natural and those worked by man. Bullaun stones are often cited as evidence of medieval pilgrimage. They are stones or boulders with one or more man-made hollows or bowls in their surface and are thought to be of early medieval date. The majority are found at early medieval ecclesiastical sites and holy wells.
Natural stones and rock outcrops could also become a focus for pilgrimage. One such example is found in the 7th-century Life of St Patrick. We are told that Patrick went to Leinster and established a church at Druimm Hurchaille (Dunmurraghill near Donadea, Clane, Co. Kildare). The church was situated on the great road in the valley, beside a stone called ‘Patrick’s rock’ (petra Patricii).
The Bethu Brigte (Irish Life of Brigit) also mentions a miraculous stone associated with healing. Having fallen from her chariot, the saint hit her head on a stone, curring her head and bloodying the stone. The Life then notes that the saint’s holy blood cured two women and the stone that caused her injury ‘often heals many’ and any ‘head with a disease of the head which is placed on it returns from it cured’.
Christian pilgrim hikes
Irish pilgrims also made pilgrimages to holy mountain-tops, Mount Brandon and Croagh Patrick being two of the better-known examples. Both have been identiﬁed as places of prehistoric pilgrimage associated with the ancient festival of Lughnasa, and by the early medieval period they had become centres of Christian pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick was ﬁrst documented in the 12th century. In 1432, Pope Eugene IV granted an indulgence of two years to all penitents who climbed to the summit, and three pilgrims from outside Ireland are recorded as having visited there in the year 1485. Johannes Garhi and Franciscus Proly, said to be priests of the city of Lyon, accompanied by their servant Johannes Burges, are known to us only from a letter of the Archbishop of Armagh stating that they had fulﬁlled the proper penitential exercises at Lough Derg and Croagh Patrick. The latter has remained an important place of pilgrimage to the present day.
Mount Brandon was associated with St Brendan by the 9th century. Tentative evidence for pilgrimage can be discerned in references to the wealth of the church on the summit in the 12th and 14th centuries. The 17th-century Life of Aodh Mac Bric alludes to pilgrimage on the summit of Slieve League, Co. Donegal, while other likely locations include Slieve Donard, Co. Down, and Church Mountain, Co. Wicklow. Medieval pilgrimage may also have occurred at other mountain- top sites that had previously been identiﬁed as prehistoric Lughnasa sites.
As we have seen, pilgrims in early medieval Ireland visited a wide range of site types, such as holy wells, stones and mountain-tops, and corporeal and secondary relics at small and large monastic sites. It must be remembered that these pilgrim landscapes were never static. Those that managed to survive through the centuries often expanded and contracted at diﬀerent points in history, while others fell out of use and new pilgrim sites came into existence.
Eager to learn more? Read Journeys of Faith by Louise Nugent.