Hubcaps and Lace
Fifty Holy Wells, #3
St Flannan’s Blessed Well, Drimanure, County Clare
There’s a fancy new sign affixed to a wall by the road, which points the way across the fields to St Flannan’s Blessed Well. It replaces an older one, which consists of the words ‘St Flannan’s Well’ and an arrow spray-painted clumsily on the wall. I prefer the older sign. New, shiny, official things make me nervous, especially around the wells. The worst thing that can happen to a religious site like this - or to anywhere interesting for that matter - is for officialdom to come along and start tidying it up.
Luckily, when you reach the well, you find that it is an intriguing example of the kind of Folk Christianity I wrote about here recently.
There are two wells here: the main spring, contained in a blue and white concrete wellhouse, and a smaller pool next to it. The main well is the sacred spring: water from here may be drunk on site, or used for blessings, as well as prayed over. Offerings can be left in the wellhouse. The second well is water which is permissible to take home - though the water will remain blessed, which means it should never be used for anything profane. We have already seen what happens to people who use water from holy wells to make tea.
Opposite the well is a structure that resembles a bus shelter built by a devout Catholic. It is obviously locally made. I’ve not seen anything quite like this at any other well:
You can sit here drinking your tea, or indeed well water, in the shelter of the saints, as the birds sing in the wood or the rain falls.
Here’s a close-up of the interior:
This kind of thing often hammers home to me the fact that I am not Catholic. With no offence meant to my Catholic readers, I have to admit that Catholic iconography and statuary often just leaves me cold. There’s something about it that doesn’t speak to me. Jesus, especially, is often a curiously effeminate figure, especially compared to the Orthodox representation. Also, I can’t take all the lace. In my view, the greatest division between the Orthodox and Catholic worlds is not the filioque clause or theosis or the supposed infallibility of the Bishop of Rome, but the lace. What’s happening there? Who decided that lace on a Bishop was ever a good look?
But at the same time, and even feeling this way, I have a certain fondness for the kind of thing that some others, including some Catholics, sometimes deride as ‘Catholic kitsch.’ In churches it often makes me cringe, but out here, somehow, it works:
And as a representative example of Folk Christianity, it can be quite moving. In fact, I think it might be growing on me the more wells I visit. Every offering, after all, tells a story. All of these statues or rosaries or candles or paintings have appeared here courtesy of devout local Christians, all of them keeping this well alive:
This well, like many, is surrounded by land which is used on the well’s ‘pattern day’ (patron day) to ‘make the rounds’. This usually consists of walking a path, sometimes through woods, sometimes through a garden, sometimes on a mountain or even on a cliff, marked by the fourteen ‘stations of the cross.’ Not being Catholic, I have only the dimmest notion of what these stations are, just as I have only the dimmest notion of how a rosary works. But I do know that the patterns of both have drummed the faith into the Irish soil for over a thousand years.
At this well, the stations are Folk Christianity in action. Each one is marked by a stone, a tree stump or, as in this photograph, a repurposed farmyard water barrel on a plastic garden chair:
But my very favourite example is a car hubcap nailed to a tree:
The tree at St Flannan’s Well is in fact quite famous. Known locally as ‘the unusual tree’ it is an ancient ash which over time has had offerings hung on it, nailed to it or left leaning on its trunk. It’s very common in Ireland to find old trees near wells. Some are what are called ‘clootie trees’ - trees on which rags are hung as offerings - but others, perhaps like this one, may once have been regarded as sacred in their own right.
Michael Houlihan, Clare’s foremost well expert, who is also an authority on the county’s sacred trees writes that:
… the earliest written records – transcriptions taken from a long oral tradition – speak of the five sacred trees of Ireland, reaching back to the mythic era. At the beginning of the Christian age a little after 400 AD as writing began to come into use, trees were important to both secular and religious. No king had a cathair or estate without his sacred tree (bile ratha), no inauguration or assembly site was without one or more trees, churches and saints were all the stronger for the presence of trees. The tree as source or symbol was associated with power.
When this age passed, trees maintained their presence at holy wells and abandoned monasteries or were left standing apart in open plains.
There is always something more going on at a well than meets the eye. If you sit in the shelter here with your teacup of well water and let the place sink into you, you never know what might arise.
You can follow my ‘Fifty Holy Wells’ series as it develops by clicking on the Holy Wells link on the homepage menu.