Ardpatrick

We’re back from a few days in Limerick with Amanda – she of Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry – and Peter. It felt like we were sneaking over the border into unknown territory! What – do Cork and Kerry not have enough holy wells for you, Amanda? It turns out that the answer to that question is no – Limerick beckons and we obey the call.

We managed fifteen wells in an afternoon, a morning and a whole day – along with some stained glass, some random archaeological sites – and a steeplechase! See Robert’s post for more on that story. I’ll probably write more about the wells in future, but for now take a look at Amanda’s latest post to get a sense of one of her objectives for the trip. The bit I am writing about is our walk up to the top of Ardpatrick and what we saw there (above, above and below).

At the end of the full day, having slogged across (I’m sure) half of muddy Limerick, Amanda airily announced that our last location of the day might be up a slight rise. Knowing Amanda, a vision of Jacob’s ladder arose in front of me – and I was not wrong! But what a site – Ardpatrick is one of those places that you can’t believe you never knew about before and are SO glad you do now!

At the top of a steep hill, it’s an early medieval monastic site, with the ruins of a church, the stump of a round tower, an erstwhile holy well, and a large graveyard. The road up has been recently concreted, probably to make it easier to access the graveyard. 

Limerick seems to specialise in ancient graveyards marooned in the middle of fields, with little visible sign of roads leading to them. We saw several like that over the course of three days and this one had the added feature of being on the top of a mountain. The original road to it was known as the Rian Bó Phádraig, or the Path of Patrick’s Cow. Like many another saint (St Manchan, for example), Patrick had a cow to supply his milk and this cow had mighty horns which she used to plough a path up the hill so he could build his monastery at the top.

The actual shape of the site isn’t as obvious on the ground, but it appeared to have been a typical early-medieval ecclesiastical site comprising of a group of buildings within one or more circular enclosures. The monks lived in small huts, there was a central church (often containing relics of the founding saint) and in this case there was also a round tower. This illustration is at the beginning of the walk to the site.

There would have been a complex of fields and dwellings around the site and these are most clearly visible now from the air. Also from the air can be seen the original Rian Bó Phádraig and the approaches from either side.

The round tower is just a vestige now, but Brian Lalor in his book The Irish Round Tower (more recently re-published as Ireland’s Round Towers) says, When fully standing, the tower would have dominated the landscape, even from a great distance, and is among the finest sited of all towers. He suggests a date of 11th to 12th century and states, The paucity of the tower remains are more than compensated for by the interest and drama of the site.

The church is a confusion of walls and one archway, much broken down and ivy-covered. Although some authorities suggest that the church had antae (see this post for an explanation of antae), typically found on churches of this era, those antae are not obvious now and the church was probably re-built on several occasions over the centuries. Indeed there is one account that it was burned down in 1114.

That same source, The Annals of the Four Masters, tells of the death of the abbot in 1129. 

In this year ‘Ceallach [Celsus], successor of Patrick, a son of purity, and Archbishop of the west of Europe, the only head whom the foreigners and Irish of Ireland, both laity and clergy, obeyed; after having ordained bishops, priests, and persons of every degree; after having consecrated many churches and cemeteries; after having bestowed jewels and wealth; after having established rules and good morals among all, both laity and clergy; after having spent a life of fasting, prayer, and mass-celebration; after unction and good penance, resigned his spirit to heaven, at Ard-Padraig, in Munster, on the first day of April, on Monday precisely, in the fiftieth year of his age. His body was conveyed for interment, on the Wednesday following, to Lis-mor-Mochuda, in accordance with his own will; it was waked with psalms, hymns, and canticles, and interred with honour in the tomb of the bishops, on the Thursday following. Muircheartach, son of Domhnall, was appointed to the successorship of Patrick afterwards 

O’Donovan’s translation, available here

The holy well (above) has been covered in ‘for safety reasons’. It held a cure for rickets, lameness and rheumatism, and according to the folklore if you saw your reflection in the water, you’d be grand. But if you didn’t, you’d be dead within the year. Perhaps it’s just as well it’s filled in.

The graveyard is still in active use. One of the features of all the Limerick graveyards we saw on our trip is a curious double-gapped ‘stile’. I wondered if it also functions as a coffin rest, with those carrying the coffin able to pass into the graveyard through the gaps, while resting the coffin on the middle stand. More than one observer has commented that the top piece of masonry on this middle stand probably came from the early church.

It had been a magnificent day – very cold but sunny and bright – and it was getting dusky as we headed back down the hill. It was at this point that I discovered that my cute but ill-fitting wellies were not designed for downhill travel, as my toes slid forward and were soon very painful. This was when I needed the intervention of St Patrick to perform some kind of toe miracle, but alas he turned a deaf ear and in the end I had to come down mostly backwards. The only compensation for descending facing backwards was seeing the silhouette of the mountain in the fading light – the cemetery crosses standing starkly against the skyline.

Amanda has now written up her own version of our day and for even more about this wonderful site, have a look at this entry by our friend, the marvellous Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland.

9 thoughts

  1. It’s hard to judge the width of the stiles but are they a suitable distance apart to allow pall bearers to carry the coffin into the graveyard? (and put their load down for a rest in the process!)

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    • Related to this question is the actual practice of resting the coffin. In Carrickaboy, Co. Cavan, local people brought me me to The Lone Bush (the fairly typical belief that a bush growing alone was the property of the fairies), where, they added, people would pause to rest the coffin on its journey to the Churchyard. This made me curious about how far people might carry a coffin, to what extent they would or would not use something like a cart, and whether there was a formal ritual of resting the coffin at certain places or was it just the practicality of providing rest for the bearers.

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  2. On the aerial photo, top center in the shadows cast by the trees, the rectangles look like Plantation bawn sites, although I don’t think Limerick has Plantation architecture?

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