St. Columba’s Well, Derry, Co. Derry

Holy Well (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – C 43117 16615

Archaeology & History

Long since gone, there are very few references to this once sacred site, which seemed to comprise of three sacred wells next to each other, each with its own formal dedication.  This would have made it one fuck of an important place in early- and pre-christian times.  But even when Thomas Colby (1837) and his mates surveyed the area, it seems like it was on its last legs.  He told that:

Site on Colby’s 1837 map

“As connected with the ancient history of Derry the sacred springs, called St. Columb’s Wells, claim some notice in this place.  They are, or rather were, three in number — for one has been dried up, or diverted from its original locality — and are situated near the Roman Catholic chapel, outside the wall.  It appears from the Irish annals that each of these wells had its peculiar name, one being called Tobar Adamnam, another Tobar Martain, and the third Tobar Colum — but the two former names are now quite forgotten, and the springs are popularly called St. Columb’s Wells.  They are regarded with much superstitious veneration by the Roman Catholic peasantry, but no celebration of St. Columb’s festival is now held at them.”

The wells were found very close to St. Columba’s bullaun stone, which possessed its own healing abilities.  The two sites had symbiotic ceremonial relationships with each other, doubtless performed in bygone centuries on St. Columba’s old festival date of June 9.

References:

  1. Colby, Thomas, Ordnance Survey of the County of Londonderry, HMG: Dublin 1837.
  2. Doherty, William, Derry Columbkille, Brown & Nolan: Dublin 1899.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian 

St. Columba’s Stone, Derry, Co. Derry

Bullaun:  OS Grid Reference – C 4312 1662

Also Known as:

  1. St. Columb’s Stone

Archaeology & History

Site on Colby’s 1837 map

Not to be confused with the other St. Columba’s Stone at Shantallow, 1¾ miles to the north of here, this legendary rock was found in very close association—barely ten yards away—with one of St. Columba’s holy wells (in fact there were three holy wells hereby, but the others were dedicated to saints Adamnan and Martin).  The two sites were inextricably related to each other, both in terms of their proximity and, more importantly, in terms of the symbiotic traditions the two of them had.  And despite the relationship they had under the guise of one “St. Columba”, it’s pretty obvious that this was a thoroughly unchristian place to begin with.

St Columba’s Stone in 1837

As with many bullauns, it’s a relatively small stone with two deep hollows on either side.  We don’t know for certain when the stone was placed here, but tradition tells us it was sanctified at this spot in the 6th century; and so it remained until June 9, 1897 when, deemed as being an “obstruction” on the roadway, it was uprooted and moved some 300 yards south where, a year later, it was incorporated into the base of a cross outside the Long Tower Church of St Columba, where it remains to this day (at grid-reference C 4303 1635).

The stone was still in situ when Thomas Colby (1837) and his mates were doing their work for the Irish Ordnance Survey, at a period when many an Irish antiquity was still frequented by local folks for ceremonies, both personal and social.  Colby wrote:

The stone set beneath the cross

“In the centre of St. Columb’s Lane, adjacent to the Wells, there is a remarkable stone, called St. Columb’s Stone, which is popularly regarded with a still higher veneration by the aboriginal Irish of the district.  It is of an irregular form, about three feet long, and ten inches wide: the height above ground is one foot and a half, and it has two oval hollows on each side, artificially formed.  Many foolish legends are current among the peasantry respecting the origin of these hollows, which, it is supposed, are the impressions made by the saint’s knees when he leaped from the nail of the city.  It may, however, be worth observing, that stones of this description are found in the vicinity of most of the Irish churches, and usually bear the name of the founder, or patron saint: they are always held sacred, and the rain-water, deposited in their hollows, is believed to possess a miraculous power in curing various diseases.”

William Doherty (1899) told how parts of the bullaun holes had been made “by pious pilgrims trying to remove chips as relics”, who then wore them as amulets for curative properties and good fortune; then later, “it was utilized as a Holy Water Font, to prevent further mutilation.”

References:

  1. Colby, Thomas, Ordnance Survey of the County of Londonderry, HMG: Dublin 1837.
  2. Doherty, William, Derry Columbkille, Brown & Nolan: Dublin 1899.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian 

St. Columba’s Stone, Shantallow, Derry, Co. Derry

Petroglyph:  OS Grid Reference – C 4386 1934

Also Known as:

  1. Chieftain’s Installation Stone
  2. Inauguration Stone
  3. St Columb’s Footprints
  4. St Columb’s Stone

Archaeology & History

St Columb’s feet carving

To be found in the grounds of Belmont House School, just 1¾ miles (2.8km) north of Derry’s other Columba’s Stone, this is one of the many petroglyphic “footprints” that folklore ascribes to Ireland’s saint Columb/Columba/Columbkille (and other variants).  Said to have originally been carved at the great fortress of Grianan of Aileach, 4½ miles (7.2km) to the west, this great block of stone—roughly 6 feet square on top—has the distinct sculpturings of two feet, each about 10 inches long, etched into its sloping surface.  Archaeologically speaking, there’s little more to say about the stone; but its traditions are another thing altogether and are of considerably greater importance…

Folklore

Like the carved footprint on top of Dunadd in Argyll with its association of tribal initiations, the traditions relating to this footprint follows the same path, so to speak.  It was H.P. Swan (1938) who gave us a good summary of the olde lore here, telling that,

“It is almost absolutely certain that it was brought from the Grianan of Aileach after its destruction, probably by an O’Doherty for his own installation.  If so, the task of removal was no joke, for the stone weighs some seven tons.  It was the “crowning stone” of the Kinel-Owen, or, in other words, the stone upon which the chieftains of the great O’Neill clan were inaugurated.  They reigned in Aileach for many centuries.

“At his installation, as supreme head of the clan, the newly-chosen chief was placed upon this stone, his bare feet in the footmarks; a peeled willow wand was put into his hand, as an emblem of the pure and gentle sway he should exercise over his tribe; an oath was administered to him by the chief ecclesiastic in the neighbourhood, that he should preserve inviolable the ancient custom of his country, and deliver the succession peaceably to his tanist (successor); after which, descending from the stone, he turned himself thrice backwards and thrice forwards, to signify that he was ready to meet all foes, from whatever quarter they might come; and was then, with wild acclamations, hailed as their chief by his assembled clan.

“At the time of Ireland’s conversion to christianity by St Patrick, that holy man visited the Grianan (about AD 443), where this stone had been so used for centuries before; Owen was then King; he was converted from Paganism to the new faith and baptised by Patrick; at the same time, the saint consecrated this stone, and blessed it as the crowning-stone of the Kinel-Owen for ever.  Time, however, has proved his blessing futile, as may be read in the account of the Grianan, which was deserted by the Kinel-Owen after its destruction by the O’Briens in 1101.”

The ritual described here cannot be taken lightly, nor seen as a presentation of fiction, for its ingredients are found echoed in kingship rites in many cultures.

References:

  1. Swan, Harry Percival, The Book of Inishowen, William Doherty: Buncrana 1938.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian


St Columbkille’s Footprints, Drumcavany, Co. Donegal

Bullaun Stone:  Grid Reference – C 093 154

Also Known as:

  1. St. Columb’s Stone
Photo thanks to Catherine of We Love Donegal

Archaeology & History

St Columbkille’s place in Irish history was considerable and, said Maghtochair (1867), he was said to have “founded more than one hundred churches and religious houses.”  His feet, also, have been carved or burned into a number of rocks scattering the Irish landscape.  Not to be confused with his ‘feet’ that are carved near Londonderry, the ones here have been classed in the archaeological inventories as a bullaun and, wrote Brian Lacy (1983) in the Donegal Archaeological Survey, can be found on,

“A 2m long ledge of rock outcrop containing two depressions, c.0.33m in diameter x ).1m deep.  They are known locally as St. Columbkille’s footprints.”

As can be seen in the above photo, the ‘footprints’ seem to have been artificially outlined at some time long ago, to make them more notable.

References:

  1. Lacy, Brian, Archaeological Survey of County Donegal, Donegal County Council 1983. p.307
  2. Maghtochair, Inishowen – Its History, Traditions and Antiquity, Journal Office: Londonderry 1867.
  3. Sconce, James, “Cup-Marked Stones,” in Transactions of the Edinburgh Field Naturalists, volume 5, 1907.
  4. Swan, Harry Percival, The Book of Inishowen, William Doherty: Buncrana 1938.

AcknowledgementsBig thanks to Catherine, of the We Love Donegal website.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian 

Bride’s Well, Ballintemple, Wicklow

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference – T 17340 77380

Archaeology & History

The earliest OS-map of this area shows this well a hundred yards or so northwest of an old church and just a few yards east of the stream that is now in woodland; but unlike today, when the early survey was done there were no trees, enabling a clear view of the waters.  When Myles Ronan (1927) wrote of the place, he told that it was still visible.  The site was added to the Grogan & Kilfeather (1997) county inventory where they suggested it’s probable relationship with the legendary St Brigid.  This seems highly probable.  Does anyone know if the Well is still there?

References:

  1. Grogan, Eion & Kilfeather, Annaba, Archaeological Inventory of County Wicklow, Stationery Office: Dublin 1997.
  2. Ronan, Myles V., “The Ancient Churches of the Deanery of Arklow”, in Journal Royal Society Antiquaries, Ireland, December 1927.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Pipers Stones, Blessington, County Wicklow

Stone Circle (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – N 96998 14582

Archaeology & History

This stone circle was found close to the roadside and is remembered today only by the street-name of ‘Pipers Stones’.  Shown on the first OS-map of the area, the site was destroyed sometime before 1838.

Folklore

In a folklore motif found at a number of megalithic rings, Grogan & Kilfeather (1997) tell us that the name of this circle,

“refers to a tradition that people caught dancing on a Sunday were turned to stone.”

References:

  1. Grogan, Eion & Kilfeather, Annaba, Archaeological Inventory of County Wicklow, Stationery Office: Dublin 1997.
  2. o’ Flanagan, Michael, Letters Containing Information Relative to the Antiquities of the County of Wicklow, Bray 1928.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian 

St. Patrick’s Well, Ballinvalley Upper, County Wicklow

Holy Well (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – T 2481 8173 

Archaeology & History

Highlighted on the 1838 OS-map, Grogan and Kilfeather (1997) report that there are  “no visible remains” to be seen of this holy well.  The cult of St Patrick is still celebrated in Ireland every year on 17 March.

References:

  1. Grogan, Eion & Kilfeather, Annaba, Archaeological Inventory of County Wicklow, Stationery Office: Dublin 1997.
  2. Lynch, Geraldine, “The Holy Wells of County Wicklow,” in Wicklow History and Society (edited by K. Hannigan & W. Noland), Dublin 1994.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian 

Rathgall Hillfort, Coolkenna, County Wicklow

Hillfort:  OS Grid Reference – S 9020 7315

Archaeology & History

Early aerial photo of Rathgall hillfort

A prehistoric ‘fort’ with a long history behind it, with recent excavations finding burial and settlement remains from the Bronze- and Iron Ages.  The following article about this impressive archaeological site was written by Barry Raftery’s in an early edition of Antiquity journal (1970), following excavation work here.  He wrote:

“Rathgall is a large and imposing hillfort situated on the end of a long ridge some 6km east of Tullow, Co. Carlow.  It is sited impressively and commands a fine view on all sides.  The defences of the fort comprise four roughly circular, concentric ramparts.  The three outer banks, though largely overgrown, appear to be of earth faced with stone; the inner one is built entirely of granite boulders, many of considerable size.  The fort covers some 18 acres (c. 7 hectares); its overall diameter is about 310m. (Orpen 1911; 1913)

“Excavation in 1969 was confined, with the exception of one short trench, to the inner enclosure.  This is surrounded by the granite wall, dry-built and of poor quality.  It is made up of a series of straight lengths so that, though superficially the enclosure appears to be circular, it is in fact polygonal.  The entrance is a simple break on the western side.  The wall varies in thickness from 7m in the southeast, to 1.5m in the north, though the reason is not immediately clear.  In height the wall varies from 2m to 2.5m.  The minimum internal dimensions of the enclosure are 44m and 46m.

“About one-quarter of the enclosure was excavated in the northeastern quadrant.  A trench 2m wide and 20m long outside the wall and running into the interior was begun and this demonstrated the existence of occupation outside the wall.

“The first season’s excavation suggests the presence of at least three main phases of occupation on the site — Late Bronze Age, early Iron Age and Medieval.  The relatively thin soil covering on the site does not as yet allow the periods to be clearly defined stratigraphically.

“About 1500 objects came to light, over 1000 of them being pot-sherds.  The great majority belong to the Early Iron Age phase of occupation, apparently the period of densest settlement on the site.  As well as the remains of circular and rectangular structures, the excavation also revealed a number of very large hearths and a bank-and-ditch enclosure hitherto quite unsuspected.

“This latter feature partly underlay the granite wall.  The ditch had been filled in and the bank denuded before the construction of the wall.  The latter averaged about 50cm high and lay outside the ditch, which was dug carefully to a V-shaped section.  In width it varied from 1.5 to 3.5m at its edge and in depth from 75cm to 1.1m

“Bank and ditch enclosed an area about 35m in diameter.  So far no entrance to this enclosure has been distinguished, though there appears to be a gap in the south-east which may be an original opening.  It is noticeable that the bank runs, without a break, straight across the entrance to the stone enclosure, further emphasizing the lack of structural connection between the two features.

“The relationship of either of these enclosures to the outer lines of defence is not clear and so elucidation of this problem must await further excavation.  It seems, however, that the granite wall is a late feature and is probably of medieval date.  The massive outer ramparts, on the other hand, are more likely to belong to the Early Iron Age occupation of Rathgall.

“Over the whole area so far excavated indications of rectangular houses were frequent.  The walls of these houses were formed of timber posts, generally of no great size; they were set usually singly but sometimes in paris, in bedding trenches 30 to 40cm wide.  The upright posts presumably formed the framework of wattle-and-daub constructions.  There appears to have been extensive rebuilding, so that the plans are greatly confused and not always easy to interpret.  The houses were quite large: one of them was as much as 7.5m in length.

“These houses belong to the latest phase of occupation on the site and appear to be contemporary with the construction of the granite wall.  They were built on top of the fill of the ditch and were confined by the wall: there is no indication anywhere of house foundations running underneath the wall.  Green-glazed sherd from the fill of the bedding trenches suggests a 13th-century date for these houses and a late 13th-century silver coin points in the same direction.

“A circular bedding trench, apparently concentric with the large V-shaped ditch, was found in the centre of the stone-walled enclosure.  One-quarter of the bedding trench was exposed in the 1969 excavations.  In section it is roughly U-shaped and is 25cm wide and 30-35cm deep.  It encloses a space about 18m in diameter.  Its outer edge is for the most part lined with packing stones of medium size.  One metre inside this bedding trench and running concentrically with it for about one-third of the excavated arc there is a second bedding trench of similar type.  Whether these bedding trenches represent the remains of a large timber house of whether they were for a timber stockade is uncertain; further excavation may provide the answer to this problem.  As regards relative dating, however, it is clear that the circular structure, whatever it was, was earlier than the rectangular houses, for the bedding trenches of the latter lay above the trench for the former.  As well, some sherds of coarse ware of a date appreciably earlier than medieval times were found in the fill of the circular trenches.

“In turn, a huge oval hearth was found beneath the circular structure.  The hearth consisted of a steep-sided, flat-bottomed pit, 3.1m long and 1.5m wide, dug into the yellow subsoil.  A large quantity of black, burnt material came from the hearth and there appeared to be three main phases of use, each separated from the other by a layer of rough cobbling.  The hearth also produced sherds of coarse pottery, including two decorated fragments.  The decoration takes the form of one sherd of a row of finger-nail impressions and on the other a row of simple nicks in the edge of the rim.

“Large hearths of this type are, indeed, a feature of the site as a whole.  Five in all have so far come to light: one, especially elaborate, consisted of a large rectangular pit, 2.85m by 1.2m, dug 40cm into the subsoil.  At each corner there was a circular pit; two of these pits look like post-holes, the other two appear to be much too large to have served such a purpose.  All the hearths have produced coarse pottery and can thus be placed in their relative chronological position, though as yet none appears to be related specifically to any single structure on the site.  It may be that these were open-air hearths, covered by some sort of canopy.

“In addition to the hearths, the rectangular houses, the circular structure and the ditch and bank, a large number of post-holes were found.  Some of these were large, some small, but in no case could any positive pattern be established.

“The importance of the structural remains on the site is equalled by the significance of the material recovered.  The finds from the medieval period have already been referred to and the rectangular houses with which they were associated.  Before this there appears to have been a lengthy period when the site was not occupied.  The occupation before the beginning of this break appears to have been intensive.  It is characterized by large quantities of very coarse pottery.  This distinctive ware may be termed Freestone Hill Ware after the importance of the hillfort site of that name in County Kilkenny where the pottery was first isolated.  At this site it was associated with Roman bronzes of the 4th century AD and with a coin of Constantine II (Raftery, 1969).

“The sherds represent coarse, flat-bottomed, bucket-shaped pots, usually of a reddish, crumbly ware with very large grits.  Distinctive rims are characteristic: they are rounded, flat, T-shaped or internally bevelled.  At Freestone Hill a striking feature was the presence on many of the rim sherds of a row of small perforations; similar perforated rims are included in the Rathgall material.  In addition to the pottery, blue glass beads, bones, spindle whorls, portions of a lignite bracelet and many other objects of normal domestic refuse came to light.  A complete saddle quern was also found.  The most interesting of the Early Iron Age finds, however, was a small tinned strap-mount, beautifully decorated with a combination of openwork and incised curvilinear ornament of sub-La Tene type.  The art on this object has much in common with that on a bronze mount found at Freestone Hill and both appear to have a vital bearing on the transition from the true La Tene art of pre-christian times to the great flowering of art in Early Historic Ireland.

“Both at Freestone Hill and at Rathgall these decorated bronzes were associated with coarse pottery of identical type.  The pottery at the former site was dated to the mid-4th century and there, at least, the date is hardly in doubt.  It is possible to suggest a similar dating for the Wicklow material.  Coarse pottery of this type may, however, have had a fairly long life and indeed Freestone Hill may give but a central date for the group.

“Several points of some significance in relation to this pottery must be stressed.  Firstly, no excavated ring fort (rath) has ever produced this kind of ware — indeed, it is absent from any excavated site of the Early Historic Period in Ireland.  On the other hand, it is found increasingly in hillforts — to such an extent in fact, that it appears more and more to be basically a hillfort phenomenon.  Apart from the two sites referred to above, similar coarse sherds come from the hillforts at Clogher, Co. Tyrone, Emain Macaha, Co. Armagh, Downpatrick, Co. Down, and possibly also from Dunbeg in the same county.  In the present state of our knowledge therefore, it seems that Freestone Hill Ware may be regarded as characteristic of Irish hillforts: there is as yet no evidence for its continuation beyond the middle of the 1st millenium AD.

“The origins and ancestry of Freestone Hill Ware are matters which can hardly be discussed here, but pottery of this type without the perforated rims, may go back to pre-christian centuries.  Indeed, the indications at Emain Macha tend to confirm this possibility and Freestone Hill Ware may well have had its origins in the so-called Flat-rimmed wares of the Late Bronze Age in Ireland.

“This problem seems very real at Rathgall, since here are strong indications of Late Bronze Age activity.  This is the third of the three phases of occupation of the site.  Mould fragments of clay were recovered which were used in the manufacture of objects of Late Bronze Age type — swords, possibly spears and socketed implements with a rope moulding round the mouth of the socket.  The relationship of these fragments to any of the structures which were uncovered during the excavation is not clear.  In fact, apart from the mould fragments (and possibly the saddle quern) there is nothing else which can with certainty be assigned to a late Bronze Age context.  Some of the mould fragments came from the immediate vicinity of one of the large hearth, some from the fill of the ditch, and from the ditch also came the saddle quern.

“The presence of the mould fragments in the ditch is complicated by the discovery, in the very bottom, of fragments of pottery which seem to belong to that class known as Cordoned Ware which occurs in southwestern Britain and northwestern France in the centuries before and just after the birth of Christ.  It would seem then either that the mould fragments found their way into the ditch during an in-filling operation which took place at a time subsequent to the original Late Bronze Age occupation of the site, or alternatively that the pieces are contemporary with the Cordoned Ware, thereby suggesting a remarkable continuity of Late Bronze Age types in Ireland.

“At all events the construction of the ditch can be dated with reasonable certainty to the period of the Cordoned pottery.  Pottery of this type has never before been found in Ireland and its implications regarding Irish/British and Irish/Continental connections in the Early Iron Age — as well as having an important bearing on the development of the Irish hillfort — are considerable.

“The question of the date of the hearths is as yet a matter of some doubt.  It has already been pointed out that in one area  a hearth was overlain by both the circular enclosure and the much later rectangular structures.  This hearth at least belongs to any early phase of the occupation of the site and since all the five hearths so far revealed by excavation are not apparently associated with specific structures and have several points in common, such as size and details of construction, it seems reasonable to suggest that they may be broadly contemporary.

“All the hearths produced coarse ware and it therefore seems to be of prime importance to be able to distinguish between the Freestone Hill type of pottery of the Early Iron Age and the pottery to which the name Flat-rimmed Ware has been given and which is dated to the Late Bronze Age.  It may be that both are in the same developmental tradition and it is hoped that further work on the hillfort at Rathgall will help to elucidate the problem involved.”

References:

  1. Harbison, Peter, Pre-Christian Ireland, Thames & Hudson: London 1989.
  2. Raftery, Barry, “The Rathgall Hillfort, County Wicklow,” in Antiquity journal, volume 44 (no.173), March 1970.

Links:

  1. Rathgall Hill Fort on Irish Antiquities
  2. Rathgall Hillfort on Megalithic Portal

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian


St. Patrick’s Well, Carrowreagh, Donegal

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference – C 367 196

Folklore

To be found somewhere between the two outer embankments on the southern side of the legendary Grianan of Aileach, this — one of many St. Patrick’s Wells in Ireland — is typically attributed with healing properties.  It was described in Henry Morris’ (1938) survey (amongst others) as being the place where, in the 5th century when St. Patrick came here, Prince Eoghan was baptised and thereafter turned his back on the heathen gods of his ancestors for this new christian cult which was just growing at that time. (‘Eoghan,’ pronounced owen)  Thereafter other people were baptised by the waters from here, which in ancient days would have been the water supplies for those at the Grianan.

Henry Swan (1938) told that in previous times there once grew a legendary tree by this well, into which pilgrims inserted pins and other artefacts as offerings and to make wishes to the spirit of the waters. A similar thing (with the same underlying mythic structure) occurred at the tree and holy well of Loch Maree.

Up until quite recently, the well was very overgrown and in a condition that Rear Admiral Pascual o’ Dogherty called “disgusting.”  He called for renovation work and action to bring this ancient site back into good health, and thankfully, as a result of the man’s proclamations, St. Patrick’s Well here has been brought back into a good state of life.  Excellent stuff good sir!

References:

  1. Lacy, Brian, Archaeological Survey of County Donegal, DCC: Lifford 1983.
  2. Morris, Henry, ‘The Holy Wells of Inishowen,’ in H.P. Swan’s Book of Inishowen, Buncrana 1938.
  3. o’ Muirgheasa, Enri, ‘The Holy Wells of Donegal,’ in Béaloideas 6:2, 1936.
  4. Swan, Harry Percival, The Book of Inishowen, William Doherty: Buncrana 1938.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian


Mullans, Ballyshannon, County Donegal

Standing Stones (destroyed):  Grid Reference – G 915 605

Archaeology & History

Field-notes collected by Oliver Davies described there being “two standing stones, side by side,” at the coordinate given here.  In Lacy’s Archaeological Survey (1983), he told that the larger and southernmost of the monoliths stood 5’10” high, with its companion being just 3 feet tall.  All remains of these stones have apparently vanished.

References:

  1. Lacy, Brian, Archaeological Survey of County Donegal, DCC: Lifford 1983.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian