In normal times, this Friday would have been celebrated as Saint Ciarán’s Day. The people of the parish of Seir Kieran in Co Offaly would be holding their annual ‘pattern’, a pilgrimage walk to the holy sites in the parish – the well, the tree, and the monastic site.
I remember a sense of bafflement when, on a midwinter day, 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. 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.
In post-modern, post-Christian times, the things found at the holy well; they seem at once more ancient and more modern than anything Christian. The rags on the tree would have been dipped in the water of the holy well and then applied to the person in need of healing before being tied to the rag tree as a prayer.
The tree in Seir Kieran stands at a remove from the holy well. The rags had borne down so heavily upon it that people were asked to use ribbons instead. It was 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, so going clockwise around it. No-one ever explained to me what would befall me for failing to do so, but I fell into the habit of following the track.
On a normal Saint Ciaran’s day the crowd would recite the words of the Rosary, led by a group from the local primary school. There might be prayers 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 Offaly air were always good for the soul.