Of Shrines and Brigid’s Wells

by Jole Bortoli

Saturday 17th March 2012.

This St. Patrick’s Day I chose to spend some time with Ireland’s other famous saint, Brigid. I’ve never been too fond of Patrick anyway, with his banishing of the snakes who had done nothing wrong, the poor creatures! I don’t like parades either, being uncomfortable with big crowds, so I decided to continue my mapping exercise of Co. Clare’s shrines and wells and, with my husband John we set out in the car armed with camera and notebooks.

St. Brigid’s well is situated on the coast road R478 between Liscannor and Doolin very close to the Cliffs of Moher, right beside Considine’s pub. The place is instantly recognizable because a considerable effort has been put in landscaping the spot that surrounds the entrance to the shrine. A wide well-tended flower bed surrounds a tall glass case that contains a statue representing St. Brigid.

I have to say that this representation was a bit of a disappointment. In my mind’s eye I’ve always pictured Brigid as a fiery goddess with long flowy hair and, even in her christian version as a powerful abbess in the act of spreading her famous cloak over the land. This constrained statue enclosed in a case did not live up to my expectations.

Behind the statue is the arched entrance to the well and shrine. Used as I am to the wells I’ve mapped so far, situated in open landscapes of remarkable beauty, I wasn’t at all prepared for what was in store. The grotto, that can be better described as a short vaulted tunnel, is literally covered by hundreds of votive offerings, photographs, mass cards, written notes and personal objects: caps, hats, shoes, neck ties and toys.

The most remarkable feature however are the dozens of holy statues that crowd every available space, statues of the Virgin Mary and the Christ, all laden with rosary beads. The figures, of many different sizes are wedged in beside each other and, most upsetting, in various stages of decay brought about by the dampness of the place.

The well itself is at the far end of the tunnel but open to the sky, with clear crystalline water streaming down into a pool.

This place came as a bit of a shock. Its enclosed space, the cramming of objects and cards, the decaying statues and the dampness all conspired to form a feeling of discomfort that gradually descended on me. Childhood memories of scary closets, attics, rooms jammed full with strange objects and props of past times full of mystery and dust crowded my mind. But here the damp not the dust was playing havoc attacking and eroding the fine features of the holy statues and sending a chill through my bones.

This strange display acted on me like a scary metaphor of all the darkest and negative aspects of the Catholic faith I thought I left behind as I went in search of more positive and fulfilling spiritual experiences. I couln’t get out of that tunnel fast enough.

Outside the soft Irish rain did nothing to alleviate this sense of gloom.

The following day however the sun was shining once more and stayed out all day long. We went out for a long hike on the hills, in the open, in nature, in beauty.