The holy well
Ladywell is situated outside of the town of Durrow and about 90 kilometres into County Kilkenny, falling into the diocese of Ossory. At the site there is both a holy well and a shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is listed, along with another number of wells in a booklet produced by Canon Carrigan, who was considered to be a diocesan historian. When I visited major works were underway and it was impossible to get close to the well.
The Shrine to the Virgin
In more recent years, Ladywell has undergone very significant change with the fencing off of a field for use as a car park, the erection of a fairly significant modern concrete shrine to the Virgin and the transformation of a shed into an open air chapel of sorts, complete with pews and chairs to accommodate around two hundred or so people. The well itself was undergoing some work when I visited, surrounded by caging and set within broken quarry stone. I can only hope that archaeologists were consulted before this work was carried out, but I somehow doubt it.
The large seating area at the well
The parish priests of the area have long had concerns about the practices at this particular well and decided throughout the history of the well to try and remove what they considered to be ‘pagan’ or ‘semi-pagan’ practices. The praying of ‘rounds’ has been discouraged even to this day and the trees have been removed to stop the tying of rags. Making ‘rounds’ has always been an early Christian practice; firstly, to be done in such a way as to greet the rising sun, secondly as a way of invoking the Trinity (done three times), and thirdly as a symbolic act for those who could not afford to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, or in times when it was considered to dangerous to do so. The practice reached its zenith in the medieval period with the development of labyrinths, some of which still survive in medieval cathedrals today traced out in tiles on the floor. There are no tokens left at the well either. Early traditions included bringing a stone, small or large, which you took with you for the entire pilgrimage to the well and sometimes they were deposited there. It’s hard to know exactly why this practice was done, but it may have a parallel in a practice done on Atonement Day in Judaism, linked to the casting off of sin. Tying rags or ‘clouties’ is a relatively modern practice associated with prayers for healing. In the past, pilgrims carried a strip of white linen or cotton (which presumable became quite dirty along the way) and tied it to the tree as a symbol of forgiveness and the washing away of sin. The practice in this ‘pure form’ was still going on in County Down at holy wells into the early 1980’s and many white linen strips could be seen at wells. But even then, there were signs of it being replaced by the more modern practice. The idea of hanging your sins on the tree has of course very strong Christian parallels to Christ on the cross. Trees were also important in pre-Christian Celtic times and the presence of trees at holy wells is something of a pagan hangover with some evidence that the early Irish saints were happy to accommodate or tolerate their veneration, but exactly why certain trees were venerated in some places is unclear and it isn’t clear either as to why the early Irish saints accommodated this.
Ongoing works at the well
Ladywell during much of the nineteenth century was a somewhat obscure well, rarely visited. It lay in the centre of a field, accessed by a narrow grassy path where a large and ancient hawthorn bent over the spring well. Today, the well is clearly attracting much attention and obviously accommodates significant gatherings. In ancient times Ladywell was one of the stations on the Rosconnell pilgrimage. Little is now known of this ancient pilgrimage route or what other wells were included. The first mention comes in 1731 in a report from the Church of Ireland Bishop Tennyson of Ossory who laments that the building of booths in deep trenches all around the walls of his church at the time of the pattern and he expresses some concern that it might have a negative effect on the structure. By 1870 the traditions at Ladywell had begun to fade away. The Reverend Patrick Neary, curate of Ballyouskill and member of the Ossory Archaeological Society remarks that he found someone who remembered tents being erected at the well during the Feast of the Assumption, so we can assume that because he records a remembrance the tradition had essentially stopped.
Scapula's left at the shrine
The diocese of Ossory was somewhat strict about practices at holy wells (dare I say it, a tradition they seem keen to keep up today to a degree) and in 1810 began to stamp out any practices in the diocese. The effect of this was to remove all but the most significant Irish saints from the church’s calendar, although today things are beginning to change a little. Another result was the neglect of holy wells and pilgrimage sites and even the remembrance of local saints, with much material being lost, deliberately destroyed and some holy wells even being filled in. At one point the diocese even announced a ban from the pulpit on any attempts to make pilgrimages to holy wells. Oddly, this was the trigger for the revival of interest in Ladywell. A crowd of four hundred people made a pilgrimage to the holy well in defiance of the diocesan order. The crowd stayed at the well for some time and a police report filed on 15th August 1881 records that the gathering was orderly and passed off peacefully. In 1900 Tom Delaney from Ballinakill erected a stone cross at the well. Interest in the well continued until 1929 when a committee was formed to look after the well and they erected a collection box to garner funds for a statue of the Virgin. A statue was duly purchased and a small altar was carved by James Coady of Ballinakill which stood in the open air until a shrine was made to enclose it in 1942.
It wasn’t until the 15th August 1940 that the Catholic church finally recognised the site as being of religious importance to people, and an understanding priest (Fr William Kerwick) said the first public rosary at the shrine. It was Fr Kerwick who mobilised the committee to apply for the plot of land around the well and this application was successful in 1948 with rights granted for public right of way. From this time on the services and prayers at the shrine and well have continued to develop and grow and the well has undergone subsequent changes right up to the present day.
The statue of the Virgin
When you arrive on the site the first thing you see is the large barn with chairs and pews that provides shelter for the services and the reciting of the rosary. The statue in the shrine dates from 1954 and was purchased to commemorate the Marian year. The first mass at the well was celebrated by Bishop Peter Birch of Ossory on 15th August 1980, but the practice of making ‘rounds’ was publicly discouraged. By the year 2000, the clergy of the local churches were slightly less concerned about trees and bushes near the well and an oak tree was planted – although not anywhere near the well it must be said! In 2001 a tradition began of marking a novena from 31st August until 8th September with the public saying of the rosary, benediction and a guest speaker each evening.
I don’t know if water is drawn from the well anymore, but when I visited a set of steps was being built down to it. It must have been quite deep and maybe even dangerous in days gone by, but now it is clearly visible and will be easily accessed when the works are completed. It appears to have a significant lime content as the water has a milky quality, but this may have been from recent works. It is not entirely a peaceful place, but it has become so bound up with the events that take place on 15th August that it is somewhat hard to get a sense of it when you visit outside these times. It is somewhat barren in terms of its surrounding countryside and there is certainly a sense of being exposed to the elements. Many holy wells are in picturesque locations and often sheltered in valleys and hidden by trees, but this well is exposed to the wilds of the Irish weather and one can imagine that in times past this well was probably more about a pilgrimage of penance than a resort for solace of the soul.
We magnify thee, O Mother of the True Light,
And we glorify thee, O virgin saint, birth-giver of God,
For thou hast borne unto us the Saviour of the world;
He came and saved our souls.
Coptic Orthodox intercession to the Virgin.
How to find it:
On the road out of Durrow towards the town land of Ballinakill the holy well is clearly signposted down a narrow road to the right. Towards the end of this road a large tree sits in the centre of the road and to the right is a grassy area surrounded by tarmac and the well is situated at the far end of this site.
The original stone cross?