‘St Patrick’s Bed’ (Leaba Phádraig) stands on top of Croagh Patrick as a focal point of ritual activity as pilgrims round the feature repeated sets of prayers. Small votive offerings and donations are also left there. In developing, my attempts to materialise or ‘Lego’ my research, I’ve tried to recreate a scene of pilgrims circling and praying at the bed.
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Inspired the the great work of the good people at Follow the Things, I’ve attempted to use Lego to convey aspects of my research. It is a type of materialisation of research, which will complement more standard visualisations in photos and video. These are the photos of my first attempt at this process, it is an imagined holy well been visited by two pilgrims. The well has a bee-hive structure and a rag tree beside it. As an imagine place, although with specific features, it can be several holy wells or no holy well. It is a sort of creative non-fiction.
Check out the Follow the Things blog for more about their good work.
Last week Vickie Langan (artist, soundy person and all round lady) and I visited two holy wells, The City, near Rathmore, Kerry and Tubrid, Millstreet, Cork. Below are a number of photos, videos and audio recordings, punctuated with text, that came out of the excursion. I also have a post on Researching with your Smartphone, based on our previous excursion.
This photo of the well, which was posted while we were on site, shows the cement structure along with a cup and glass. Unlike many other wells, the one at the City is not adorned with many votive offerings or extra materials. Like the site itself, it has a certain rawness. On a wind swept Tuesday in February, with the threat of serious rain, we had the places to ourselves.
Using the Soundcloud App on my phone, I took several recordings of the cup in the water, you can hear me lifting it, submerging it, pouring out some water and replacing it. This simple activity is central to these wells.
The altar at Tubrid holy well, on the Rathmore side of Millstreet. The altar is sheltered by a structure with offerings, signs and memorial cards throughout.
This short video of the candles on the altar indicate the recent visits by numerous people that day. Each one serving as an elemental remnant of a believer’s intentions and memories.
The site is very well maintained, as is demonstrated by this rack made especially to hold the cups used to drink the water and the other structures. It is at this point, where the water bubbling up in the well flows out, that people collect and drink the water.
Another recording using the SoundCloud App, of the water flowing.
This photo was taken while all of the pilgrims were attending evening mass on Lough Derg. At this time, the Penitential Beds are devoid of people (except in this case myself). I began thinking about the nature of place without people. The Beds are usually a hive of activity, with people walking around, kneeling and praying; but, here they are still, quiet, deserted. This place now feels completely different, like walking city streets early in the morning or being in an empty sports stadium. While the structures and constructed elements remain, the character that living, moving humans give a place is absent. This changes the place, not necessarily making it less or more, just different.
The water gently emerging in a roadside holy well in Gortnacullia, Co. Galway. There is a particular peacefulness to this well, a sense of which is conveyed in this short video clip. The shallow ripples indicating a soft flow of water and ambient sounds enrich the experience.
GA128-055 (Archaeological Survey of Ireland, Record Details) on http://www.archaeology.ie. Posted: 10 May 2007
On a recent trip to St Gobnait’s Well in Ballyvourney, I used my phone to capture some of the sounds, sights and movements of the place. The capabilities of smartphones and the selection of Apps are making it increasingly possible for all researchers, especially qualitative minded ones, to have a wonderfully versatile device with them at all times. It is now standard for a phone to be a camera, video and audio recorder, and notebook, while all the time connecting you to the internet. While the compact and multipurpose nature means that a phone does not have a quality of each of these items individually, they are a functional everyday tool which offers new potential for research, encounter and dissemination.
There also has been emerging comment on the use of phones and apps in research. Katharine Welsh and Derek France state that the “multi-tasking and portable nature of a smartphone renders the device an ideal data collection tool” and that “e educational potential offered by smartphones will likely increase over time.” (Smart Phones and Fieldwork). While Jay Zaltzman and Betsy Leichliter point out a whole range of real-time communications and recordings now possible that “can be used to share participants’ experiences and perceptions in more ways than ever” (Mobile Qualitative Research).
Also, phones offer a means of instant dissemination as all recordings, along with micro commentary, can be immediately posted online. This also ties in with the recognition of the role of social media as a means of communicating research and engaging the public.
Here are some of the items collected and transmitted using my phone on the trip. I was able to use the phone and apps together to take photos, to make audio recordings and record video, and then transmit these using the apps.
The Soundcloud App is particularly handy as you can easily record (and pause and resume recording) edit and post the clip. This App actually captures nicely how easier apps than older tools, even using recording devices and computers together.
Instagram allows you to record, edit and upload video, while also instantly sharing the post via social media sites.
The massive leaps in technology and capabilities mean that we can only speculate on the tools that will be available for research an the potential they will over. In the meantime, get exploring and transmitting.
Smart Phones and Fieldwork from Enhanced Fieldwork.org.uk
Mobile Qualitative Research from New Qualitative.org
Visits to holy wells are a main part of my research. I usually leave with notes, audio recordings, video and photos, but also, frequently, a bottle of well water. In regards to the latter take-home, I am participating in one of the main activities of the holy well. People come to collected the holy water from the well, usually on the main feast day, to bring home or to carry to relations, friends and neighbours.
The water is mainly used as a blessings, invoking protection for the house and visitors, recovery from illness or warding off evil. Some wells are associated with specific cures or purposes; for example, the water from the City is used to bless crops and livestock in early May, while the water from Tobarín Súl near Lough Eyne is used for tooth aches.
This transfer of water is a form of mobility. Wells are necessarily located. It is at the exact point where the water surfaces, transforming from a subterranean substance to a grounded, earthly form, that it is held to be potent. It must be accessed at the source, for the very same water is not collected when it flows away to a stream or elsewhere. However, the forces and qualities of the well are mobile, through and in the water. Essences of the well, the saintly or supernatural can be brought to homes where it is stored and applied as required or as tradition sets out. While the well remains fixed, it is also highly mobile.
An audio clip of me collecting water from the well at the City near Rathmore on May Day, 2013.
While holy wells can be found across Ireland, each one as a unique character. The physical location, site features, number of visitors, votive offerings, origins, saintly or supernatural associations and numerous other elements all combine to make each spot distinct. To this we can add the context of the visit – the time (both in a day and seasonally), the purpose, whether we are alone or with others – and the meanings and emotions we, and others, bring to the site.
Ronan Foley (2011, p. 470) outlines how holy wells “range from literal holes in the ground to substantial landscaped sites with a mix of natural and culturally introduced elements. In general, the sites contain the wells themselves, streams, stone crosses and covers, paths, trees and bushes, altars and statues, all of which have physical form but wider symbolic meanings as well”. His description captures some of the variety that one finds materially at holy wells, while also hinting at how features combine to create each one.
While it makes sense for any study of holy wells to engage with them both collectively and individually, that process should remain conscious of the uniqueness of each site and how that affects and shapes our understandings.
Foley, R. 2011. Performing Health in Place: The Holy Well as a Therapeutic Assemblage. Health & Place, 17, pp. 470-479.
Touch is a sense that is frequently overlooked in academic research, and indeed, in our daily lives. We tend to think primarily in visual terms and then audio, whereas our other sense are relegated in our understandings. However, touch is brought to the fore in different religious-spiritual context. Humans seem to have an innate desire to touch important objects (that’s why so many museums, exhibitions and shops have signs expressing their displeasure at such!). In touching something we feel closer to it – it is intimate act. With religious, spiritual or supernatural objects by touching it we get closer to the origin of their significance.
Pilgrims visiting Knock, a Marion Shrine in Mayo, often touch a section of wall at the corner of the Apparition Chapel. It is believe that in 1879 the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared at the gable end of the parish church, along with St Joseph, St John (the Evangelist) and Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God. The stones of that section of wall are from the end of church where the apparition occurred.
Some pilgrims briefly touch the wall in passing, others keep their hands there focused on feeling the stone, and others, as seen above, rest their faces against the spot. In the more purposeful and concentrated touches the prayers are made physical. The intentions and well-wishes are channelled into that touch.
“As you ‘walk the Tóchar’, whether on foot or in fantasy, you will be going not only on a spiritual pilgrimage, but on a cultural and historical journey down through the ages also. And both experiences, if fully entered into, should bring about that change of heart and insight of mind which is essential to a pilgrim’s progress.” (p.v) Fr Frank Fahey in Tóchar Phádraig: a Pilgrim’s Progress.
Tóchar Pádraig is a walkway that leads from Ballintubber Abbey to Croagh Patrick. This old pilgrim road stretches c.35 km across mid-Mayo on a route that is both cross-country and on quite rural roads. Annually, Ballintubber Abbey organises four group walks during the summer months. This account is taken from one such event.
The gathering in the Abbey is a starting point where Fr Frank Fahey gives an introduction to the route and the concept of pilgrimage. Although some people arrive in the groups – in my case, my father accompanied me – most people don’t know each other. During the day people, through chat and travelling together, will get to know each other better, leading to the emergence of a camaraderie or communitas. My research was a nice topic of conversation which I shared with different people throughout the day.
A tóchar is an historical route way which served an important land-based transport systems in ancient and medieval times. They were particularly associated with pilgrimages and ecclesiastical foundations. It is speculated that Tóchar Phádraig is based on an earlier route from Cruachain, Roscommon, the seat of the Kings of Connacht to Croagh Patrick, which itself is a site of ancient ritual activity.
The route meanders through the landscape, as we move in meadows, walk along ridges and navigate boggy areas. The removal from the everyday is most definitely expressed in the cross-country sections where soft paths carry us away from the world through quiet patches of nature. Even the on-road sections can be very sedate with little traffic coming by. This withdrawing from the rest of the world and our own lives is a central part of pilgrimage. The landscape itself, is central to the creation of this liminality.
Only a few climb to the actual summit of Croagh Patrick, as it is an extra undertaking: it is explained to us that the main part of the pilgrimage is the route itself, in doing this you have completed the pilgrimage. This speaks to an ideal of pilgrimage as a journey, rather than a destination. The typical outlook would see the summit of the Reek as a requirement, but in this event our attention is called to other ways of walking and being. It is a readjustment, a pleasant one.
As the bus takes our group from Murrisk back to Ballintubber, we chat and rest. We say our goodbyes and each of us, in our previous groupings or as individuals, go on our own paths.
“Reminding yourself that life is a journey not a destination, you now let slow motion time drift past on diaphanous wings while you absorb the timeless sensations and colours of the Mayo countryside.” John O’Dwyer, Pilgrim Trail, The Irish Times, Jul 14, 2012.
Tóchar Phádraig: a Pilgrim’s Progress. 1989, Ballintubber Abbey Publication, Mayo.