EUGENE DALY continues his series on  various aspects of Irish folklore and customs

Down through the centuries, since the coming of Christianity, Irish people have visited – gone on pilgrimage – to sacred places, such as holy wells, mountains, lakes and off-shore islands. Many of these sacred places were venerated before Christianity and adopted by the Christian clergy.

In olden times pilgrims who could afford it visited St. James’s Shrine in Compostella, northern Spain. It is said that the Franciscan Abbey on Sherkin Island off West Cork, was built after the local O’Driscoll chieftain returned from Compostela.

A famous midsummer pilgrimage was to an island in Gougane Lake, seven miles from Inchigeelagh. It was here that St. Finbarr built his first church, before following the River Lee and founded his chief monastery in Cork.  

Gougane Barra (after Finbarr) is set in beautiful surroundings and still attracts many visitors. Pilgrims used to gather at the lake on St. John’s Eve, June 23rd, and cattle were driven through the water to protect them from disease.  

P. D. Hardy in his book, The Holy Wells of Ireland (published in 1836) stated that in the centre of the island, which is joined to the mainland by a causeway, was a wooden pole which he believed was the remains of a large cross. He said that the pole was covered with votive rags and the spancels of the cattle were also hung on the pole.

A part of the lake adjoining the causeway was enclosed and covered in, and treated as a holy well. Indeed the well is still there and contains many coins and sacred medals left by pilgrims. He also mentioned ‘a piece of rusty iron’ which was passed from one pilgrim to the next. At one time very large crowds gathered here on June 23rd and 24th.  

Sceilg Mhicíl is one of the most inaccessible holy islands in the world. It is little more than a barren rock, nine miles off the coast of Kerry, rising steeply from the sea, and it is only possible to land on it in very calm weather. At one time it was inhabited by a congregation of monks.  

It was described in detail by Charles Smith in his History of Kerry, published in 1756. It is dedicated to St. Michael, the Archangel, and may be considered similar to other ‘high places’, where St. Michael is also honoured, as at Mont San Michel in Normandy, France.

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