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Graduate Qualifying Paper

Graduate Qualifying Paper, Graduate Student, Research, Research Travel, Students

An Exploration of the Irish Holy Wells of St. Brigid

Clare Monardo is an art history graduate student currently completing her qualifying paper on the Irish Holy Wells of St. Brigid. She was awarded the Art History Department Graduate Research Grant to help make this project possible. Clare will present her paper at the Fall 2016 Graduate Student Forum on Dec. 16th.  

This summer I was fortunate to be able to travel around Ireland for three weeks researching the holy wells of St. Brigid in Ireland, which is the topic of my qualifying paper for this program. I have been exploring the St. Brigid’s holy wells for two years now and had hit a wall due to a lack of photographs and site-specific records, prompting this trip.

A sign marks St. Brigid’s Well, Killare, County Westmeath. In order to access the holy well, which is located in a copse of trees, visitors must walk through a field of grazing sheep. Photograph taken by author on June 4, 2016.

A sign marks St. Brigid’s Well, Killare, County Westmeath. In order to access the holy well, which is located in a copse of trees, visitors must walk through a field of grazing sheep. Photograph taken by author on June 4, 2016.

Holy wells are noteworthy settings because, in addition to being semi-man-made places of prayer and contemplation out in nature, many of them are believed to cure physical ailments in addition to spiritual ones. Almost every town in Ireland has at least one holy well, with some counties having upwards of one hundred, for a total of approximately three thousand wells in the country as a whole. The landscape in which holy wells reside shows an amalgamation of pre-Christian and Christian practice and have been enhanced by man-made additions such as signs, well-houses, paved paths, shrines, and the Stations of the Cross.

Stations of the Cross at St. Brigid’s Well in Cullion, County Westmeath. A path allows visitors to circumambulate the well while praying the Stations of the Cross. Photograph taken by author on June 4, 2016.

Stations of the Cross at St. Brigid’s Well in Cullion, County Westmeath. A path allows visitors to circumambulate the well while praying the Stations of the Cross. Photograph taken by author on June 4, 2016.

Throughout the course of my research I have come across one hundred holy wells dedicated to St. Brigid in Ireland, not all of which are still in use today. I was able to visit ten of these holy wells while in Ireland, along with local libraries, historical sites, and the Solas Bhríde center in Kildare run by Brigidine nuns. My qualifying paper focuses on four sites, located throughout the country: two wells in Tully, County Kildare; one in Ballysteen, County Clare; one in Faughart, County Louth. These four holy wells were chosen because of their popularity, the fact that they are still venerated today, and because the greatest amount of information regarding the Irish holy wells of St. Brigid focuses on these particular sites. Some of the holy wells that I visited were clearly marked and had road signs pointing the way, making them easy to find. Others, however, were not so obvious, leading to lots of extra driving around (which was already somewhat stressful as it’s on the opposite side of the road from what we’re used to!) and eventually having to ask for directions from locals. These included the St. Brigid’s Well in the Faughart graveyard and another located down the road from Raffony Graveyard.

 A stone beehive hut encloses St. Brigid’s Well in Faughart, County Louth, and there are steep steps going down to the water. To the left of the well are clootie trees. Photograph taken by author on June 12, 2016.

A stone beehive hut encloses St. Brigid’s Well in Faughart, County Louth, and there are steep steps going down to the water. To the left of the well are clootie trees. Photograph taken by author on June 12, 2016.

 

Tucked into a hillside down the road from Raffony Graveyard is St. Brigid’s Well, Raffony, County Cavan. Photograph taken by author on June 10, 2016.

Tucked into a hillside down the road from Raffony Graveyard is St. Brigid’s Well, Raffony, County Cavan. Photograph taken by author on June 10, 2016.

Two holy wells associated with St. Brigid, known as St. Brigid’s Well and St. Brigid’s Wayside Well are located in Tully, County Kildare. Both of these sites are still visited today, but the popularity of the Wayside Well has diminished in recent decades with the renovations of the nearby St. Brigid’s Well.

St. Brigid’s Wayside Well in Tully, County Kildare. Stone steps lead down to the murky and stagnant water, and a small amount of clooties and other items point to this well still being a place of veneration. Photograph taken by author on May 30, 2016.

St. Brigid’s Wayside Well in Tully, County Kildare. Stone steps lead down to the murky and stagnant water, and a small amount of clooties and other items point to this well still being a place of veneration. Photograph taken by author on May 30, 2016.

Ritual is an integral part of the holy well experience and it can involve not just the holy well, but also sacred trees and stones. Oftentimes trees nearby holy wells have pieces of cloth, called clooties, tied to their branches, marking them as being venerated. When visiting a holy well the afflicted takes a piece of his or her clothing and ties it to the tree with the belief that the disease which is plaguing them will be transferred from their body to the tree.

Located at the back of the axial site is St. Brigid’s Well. To the left of the well is a clootie tree with colorful ribbons and pieces of cloth tied to its branches. Tully, County Kildare. Photograph taken by author on June 1, 2016.

Located at the back of the axial site is St. Brigid’s Well. To the left of the well is a clootie tree with colorful ribbons and pieces of cloth tied to its branches. Tully, County Kildare. Photograph taken by author on June 1, 2016.

 

A small bridge passes over the stream at St. Brigid’s Well in Tully, allowing visitors to access the clootie bush on the right and the statue of St. Brigid on the left. Photograph taken by author on May 30, 2016.

A small bridge passes over the stream at St. Brigid’s Well in Tully, allowing visitors to access the clootie bush on the right and the statue of St. Brigid on the left. Photograph taken by author on May 30, 2016.

In addition to clooties, it has become quite common for visitors to leave a variety of other objects at holy wells. St. Bridget’s Well in Ballysteen, County Clare had the largest accumulation and assortment of items that I came across during my trip. Not only were there prayer and memorial cards, but also religious statues and images, rosaries, photographs, flowers, religious medals, an empty vodka bottle, a pair of children’s shoes, and a sparkly hula-hoop.

At St. Bridget’s Well, Ballysteen, County Clare, access to the holy water is gained by entering a whitewashed well-house that surrounds the well and proceeding down a dark and narrow passage. Multiple layers of votive offerings have built up inside the well-house. Photograph taken by author on June 8, 2016.

At St. Bridget’s Well, Ballysteen, County Clare, access to the holy water is gained by entering a whitewashed well-house that surrounds the well and proceeding down a dark and narrow passage. Multiple layers of votive offerings have built up inside the well-house. Photograph taken by author on June 8, 2016.

By going on this research trip I not only was able to access local sources that had been unavailable to me previously, but I also gained a better sense of how one is supposed to move through and use the space of holy well sites. Information from both types of visits will help me understand how ritual and space affect and inform one another at the holy wells of St. Brigid in Ireland as I continue to move forward with my qualifying paper.

Graduate Qualifying Paper, Graduate Student, Research, Research Travel

Pictish Stones

Sandy Tomney is an art history graduate student completing her qualifying paper research on the Pictish Stones found within Scotland. She was awarded the Art History Department Graduate Research Grant to help make this project possible. 

Hundreds of carved stones and stone fragments have been found within Scotland’s landscape.  Many of these sculptures are attributed to the peoples known as the Picts who lived in northern Britain during the early historic period.  Art historians and archeologists have been studying these monuments for several hundred years and are still working towards better understanding Pictish art and society.  Recently, on a trip to Scotland, I had the opportunity to examine some of the monuments and their find sites first hand.

St Orland’s Stone is an example of an early historic Pictish monument. (photos by author, 2016)

St Orland’s Stone is an example of an early historic Pictish monument. (photos by author, 2016)

Due to the large number of Pictish stones that have been found, I decided to use iconographical similarities to limit my investigation of the stones.  The ten monuments that were to be examined are carved with quadrupeds that have clawed feet, long legs, long tails, long duck-like noses, large eyes, and profiled bodies.  It just so happened that each of these monuments was originally found near Scotland’s east coast.  Each was discovered south of the Cairngorms and slightly inland from the coastline among agricultural land.  With the exception of the Forteviot Church Stone, each of the other monuments was originally found north of the River Tay.

Example of quadrupeds with clawed feet, long legs, long tails, long duck-like noses, large eyes, and profiled bodies found on Meigle No. 4. (Photo by author, 2016)

Example of quadrupeds with clawed feet, long legs, long tails, long duck-like noses, large eyes, and profiled bodies found on Meigle No. 4. (Photo by author, 2016)

Aberlemno No. 2 still stands in the local kirkyard. During the winter months it is covered with a protective box. (Photos by author, 2016)

Aberlemno No. 2 still stands in the local kirkyard. During the winter months it is covered with a protective box. (Photos by author, 2016)

The monuments have similar iconography, but visiting their find sites revealed a topographical connection between the stones as well. Seven of the find sites visited were near rolling fields of barley and other grains.  This landscape differs greatly from the more mountainous regions to the west and north. The eighth and most northerly Dunfallandy Stone’s find spot was near Killiecrankie along the floodplain of the River Gary.  The River Gary cuts through the southwestern tip of Cairngorm National Park.  Although the area’s landscape is in transition from rolling hills to mountains, similar to the other find spots, much of the land is dedicated to agriculture. Of the stones that were visited, only St. Orland’s Stone found in a field near Forfar and the Aberlemno stones situated along the local road and in the local kirkyard potentially remain in their original find spots.  Most of the monuments have been moved into museums or churches to avoid further deterioration that may be caused by the elements.

The village of Meigle is surrounded by productive agricultural land such as this barley field. (Photo by author, 2016)

The village of Meigle is surrounded by productive agricultural land such as this barley field. (Photo by author, 2016)

The River Gary near the Dunfallandy Stone’s find site. (Photo by author, 2016)

The River Gary near the Dunfallandy Stone’s find site. (Photo by author, 2016)

The trail to the remote St. Orland’s Stone in Angus. ((Photo by author, 2016)

The trail to the remote St. Orland’s Stone in Angus. ((Photo by author, 2016)

Visiting the small museums not only allowed me to view the stones in the study, but also provided a chance to see other Pictish stones. Seeing Strathmartine No. 3 on display at The Meffan Museum and Gallery in Forfar allowed me to better discern details on the stone that photographs just could not capture.  In addition to Strathmartine No. 3, the museum was exhibiting the stones found nearby at Kirriemuir.  About twelve miles from Forfar is the Meigle collection of twenty-six monuments that is housed in an old school house.  The Meigle Museum had on exhibit three of the monuments that were on the list of those to see.   Viewing the monuments allowed for a better understanding of the scale of the stones and how they might function within their original cultural landscape.  Although their collections did not include any of the monuments on my list, I also visited the St. Vigeans Stones and Museum as well as the Museum of Perth.  Both museums are located within the region and the monuments they exhibit may be useful as comparisons.

Strathmartine No. 3 on display at the Meffan Museum and Gallery in Forfar. (Phots by author, 2016)

Strathmartine No. 3 on display at the Meffan Museum and Gallery in Forfar. (Photo by author, 2016)

Originally found just outside of Aberlemno, the Woodrae Castle Stone was one of the stones on the list that was a “must see.”  It is now on display at the National Museum of Scotland, and a trip to the Edinburgh museum provided an opportunity to personally observe the details on the amazing stone.  The museum trip also permitted me to view an array of other Pictish stones, as well as, Celts a major joint exhibition between the National Museums of Britain and Scotland.  Although the museum in the busy city felt like another world after exploring the country side, it was well worth the detour.

The Woodrae Castle Stone at the Scottish National Museum, Edinburgh. (Photo by Robin Tomney, 2016)

The Woodrae Castle Stone at the Scottish National Museum, Edinburgh. (Photo by Robin Tomney, 2016)

Overall the trip allowed me to visit the find sites of all ten monuments and actually see eight of the ten stones.  In addition, it was helpful to see other Pictish stones that did not have the same iconography as those in the study.  The field information that was collected was helpful and greatly added to the research I am currently conducting.