It was unseasonably warm for early March, thirteen degrees declared the car thermometer; that was in the sunshine, which,a rare treat, was shining. Saint Ciarán’s Day and the people of the parish of Seir Kieran in Co Offaly were holding their annual ‘pattern’, a pilgrimage walk to the holy sites in the parish – the well, the tree, and the monastic site.
It was December 2009 when I first encountered a holy well – at Old Leighlin in Co Carlow. Beside the holy well, there was a heavy iron box fixed to the ground. Perhaps it had once been for offerings people might make; now it was covered with an odd assortment of items – memorial cards, funeral notices, prayer cards, a picture of Padre Pio, hand written requests, a child’s doll, the plastic cover from a Ventolin inhaler. It was like some religious version of Kim’s Game. Everything was soggy and the print had run on some of the cards.
To a hard-nosed old Protestant, there seemed a deep sadness about the eccentric collection; those leaving items could not have failed to notice the esoteric quality of the thing, was this some last throw of the dice? Was it a case of everything else had failed, so what was there to lose in going to the well?
A tree stood nearby, skeletal, gaunt in deep midwinter, its branches were tied with strips of cloth of varying ages and colours. Why would anyone want to tie coloured rags to a tree? What god or saint or spirit responded to such gestures? It seemed very alien to anything you would find in Anglican spirituality, there would be nothing in our traditions that would come remotely near anything you might find at the holy wells.
A few years ago, a friend made me a present of ‘Fish Stone Water: the Holy Wells of Ireland’. It seemed as remote from anything I knew as would be a book on sailing or flying. Angela Bourke’s introduction to the book by Anna Rackard and Liam O’Callaghan, explains the customs found at the holy well; they seem at once more ancient and more modern than anything Christian. The rags on the tree are explained:
Ancient trees overhang many holy wells, and just as the water will not boil, their branches will not burn. Often the tree-most likely a whitethorn, a holly or an ash-will be decked with rags. In some places the rags used to be red, perhaps torn from flannel petticoats. Pilgrims would use a piece of cloth to wash the afflicted body part, then tie the cloth to the tree, leaving the illness behind. Nowadays, rags are any colour, and may include plastic bags and crisp packets, and among the tokens left behind are written pleas: brief notes about the troubles people suffer.
The tree in Seir Kieran stands at a remove from the holy well; it is the custom when driving from the south to leave the road and follow a track that passes a few feet to the left of the tree, though no-one has explained what will befall me for persistently failing to do so. Standing in the spring sunshine, the crowd recited the words of the Rosary, led by a group from the local primary school. Prayers were said for fair weather and good crops. In a scientific age, one wonders what efficacy people might attribute to such devotions. Whatever the words might achieve, the gentle walk was good and the sunshine lifted the spirits.