Saturday 5 February 2022

A Legend of Donegal

Today we are staying at Saint Brigid's holy well in Donegal to explore another piece of its associated folklore. Whilst rural Catholics cherished holy wells and the rituals which took place at them, the sites themselves were often in the ownership of Protestant landlords who could be hostile to their tenantry's traditions. Such a story is told of the landowner of the site of Saint Brigid's well and it is typical of the type of accounts uncovered by folklore collectors in the nineteenth century. This tale of how the Protestant landlord tries to impede access to the well, only to have a vision of a beautiful maiden hover protectively over it, was published in the American periodical The Sacred Heart Review in 1889. The illustration above is a postcard from my own collection showing Saint Brigid hovering ethereally above the stream at her reputed birthplace of Faughart, in County Louth:


Not far from the picturesque little village of Stranorlar, renowned as the last resting-place of Butt, the founder of the Home Rule movement, lies a calm, placid sheet of water, known to the peasantry as Loch Lawne. In its southern side, about three feet from the pebbly shore, is the famous well of St. Brigid, surrounded by a mound of small white stones brought from almost every part of Ulster, and surmounted by pieces of linen, sticks, and crutches, left by those who had the happiness of being cured by its healing waters. It has long been considered a pious custom for the pilgrim, on his first visit, to place three white stones on the ever-increasing mound. 

In the year 18 —, the concourse of pilgrims being larger than usual, the owner of the estate on which the lake is situated, under pretence that his crops were in danger of being destroyed, closed all ingress to the holy well. The peasantry became excited; threats were indulged in by some; petitions were made by others, but in vain. He was a man of gentle, but by times (as in the present instance), of stubborn manner. He knew no fear, and threats as well as petitions were entirely disregarded. For three months his hateful mandate was in force. One morning the inhabitants of Stranorlar awoke to find the following placard on the trunk of a large beech-tree, long used for public notices. It was signed by the owner of the estate: 


Many were the suppositions of the pious villagers as to the cause of his relenting; some said that his cattle were all dying; others, that good St. Brigid had sent him a warning from heaven. Be this as it may, a great change had come over him; his toleration was the wonder of all. Pilgrims might trample his oats, break his fences; he would only remark, "I will be nothing the poorer." 

Sitting one evening by his blazing peat-fire, many years after, he said to me: "I will tell you an incident that happened long years ago. You were then a mere boy. One morning I found my fences thrown into the lake. I became angry, and falsely suspecting the pilgrims, I poured forth threats and curses against them, and closed all ingress to the well; I even determined to drain it by means of a channel connecting it with the lake. To accomplish this spiteful work, I chose a clear, moonlight night. Taking a gun and spade, I set out by the shortest route to the well. Judge of my surprise on finding it illuminated as if by hundreds of candles! Trembling, I aimed my gun and fired. Not a light was extinguished; on the contrary, I seemed only to have increased the brilliancy of the scene. As I was pausing, not knowing whether to proceed to the well or return home, I saw a beautiful maiden rising, as it were, from the lake, attired in a long-flowing white robe, girded by a blue sash. On her breast sparkled gems more dazzling than the sun. She glided as I have seen swallows, without touching the earth, and hovered over the well. No doubt it was St. Brigid. . . . I often think of calling on Father C , and joining the Catholic Church." 

He is dead now, but his son, who inherits his liberal spirit, has made an excellent road to St. Brigid's well. And the peasants thereabout tell the strangers that linger on that romantic way the story I have told you.— S.D. in the Ave Maria.

 The Sacred Heart Review, Volume 1, Number 24, 11 May 1889, p6.

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