The guest speaker at this Thursday’s Skibbereen Historical Society meeting was Louise Nugent, speaking on the topic of Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland. We became familiar with Louise’s work though her blog of the same title – a blog which manages to be consistently erudite and down-to-earth and entertaining all at once – and suggested her as a speaker. This also gave us the opportunity to meet Louise in person (she is as engaging and as knowledgeable as her blog) and, the next day, show her a little bit of our part of West Cork.
One of the great delights of following Louise’s blog is realising that the concept of pilgrimage – a spiritual journey undertaken for a variety of purposes – is still very much alive in Ireland. Local veneration of shrines, relics and holy wells is common and often involves a mass or prayers on special days. The “journey” involves going to the shrine, and sometimes moving around it in a set pattern or round. Larger scale pilgrimages, such as the annual trek up Croagh Patrick or a stay at Lough Derg in Donegal or a Novena at Holy Cross Abbey, transcend the local and attract pilgrims from around Ireland. In her talk, Louise also described the popularity of pilgrimage in Medieval times to holy sites outside Ireland such as York, Santiago de Compostela, Rome, or Jerusalem. Those who completed the Santiago Camino wore scallop shells to signify their pilgrim status, an image we had just seen the previous weekend in Cork in the Cathedral of St Mary and St Anne, where we came across a shrine to Blessed Thaddeus McCarthy. There was a statue, a painting, scrolls, but most fascinating of all a reliquary containing a leg bone! Blessed Thaddeus lived in the 15th Century and was appointed a bishop twice but was never able to take up his see because of the activities of the rival clan O’Driscoll.
On our day with Louise we concentrated on the area around Skibbereen. We started off by visiting the 18th Century Church at Glebe, on the banks of the River Ilen. The church and graveyard enjoy a picturesque and peaceful setting and a wander around the graveyard yielded interesting headstones.
From there we went to the ruined medieval church at Kilcoe, stopping for a quick peak at the notable windows in the Church of the Most Holy Rosary at Aughadown. They deserve a fuller description at a future date, so for now I will include a detail from the rose window at the back of the church, designed and executed by the Harry Clarke studios in 1941.
The church at the tip of the Kilcoe Peninsula was already a ruin in the early 17th century. Although a simple rectangular structure, the pointed arched doorway and the tiny ogival windows mark it as medieval, perhaps as early as 14th or 15th century. Romantic and atmospheric as it is, it has the added advantage of a clear view of Kilcoe Castle, famously restored by Jeremy Irons and gently glowing in the afternoon light as we were there.
Louise’s special interest is in holy wells and several audience members the night before had come forward with information about local wells and the practices and beliefs associated with them. Two of the best known and most beloved local wells are situated close to each other at Lough Hyne. Robert is writing about these wells this week so I will leave the detailed description to him.
Our final stop was the village of Castletownshend and the Church of St Barrahane, filling two different functions. First, Louise had been to visit a holy well dedicated to St. Martin of Tours in Clare, and we wanted to show her the Harry Clarke window that Robert had described in his Martinmas post. Second, a trip to St Barrahane’s is always a pilgrimage of a different sort for me, as it is the final resting place of three of my heroes. The first two, of course, are the writing team of Somerville and Ross – more about them in this post. The third is Vice-Admiral Boyle Somerville, brother of Edith and a keen amateur archaeologist worthy of a post to himself in the future.
Come back soon, Louise – these two pilgrims have lots more to show you!