The Holy Well of Saint Olcan – Every Tatter Tells a Story
Finding Saint Olcan’s Well
On the northern shores of Lough Neagh in Cranfield, County Antrim is the Holy Well of Saint Olcan – Tobar Naomh Olcan. Cranfield is a hamlet in the barony of Upper Toome. Its name comes from Creamh Choill meaning ‘wild garlic wood’. Nearby are the ruins of a thirteenth century church. It is likely this stands on the site of an earlier one, probably dedicated to Saint Olcan.
The Old Church
The Church at the site was in use for 400 years until its destruction in 1662. Incidentally, according to C.E.B. Brett’s book “The Buildings of County Antrim“, the first recorded ‘preaching-minister’ of the church was the unfortunately named Thomas Cowturd – a surname that seems to have been lost in the centuries that followed. During Penal times Mass was said in secret here in the Cranfield cemetery.
Outdoor Mass is still celebrated on the site on the closest Sunday to Saint Olcan’s feast day, 29th June. The service includes the blessing of the boats of the local fishermen.
The remains of the Church and the graveyard are in the most tranquil setting overlooking the waters of the Lough.
“The ancient parish church is now a noble pile of ruins, situated on the verge of Cranfield Point, overlooking Lough Neagh”Lewis Topographical Dictionary 1837
The Powers of the Holy Well
The water from this well is said to have been blessed by Saint Olcan and to have healing powers. The well contains gypsum crystals which look like amber pebbles. Gypsum is a soft mineral containing calcium sulphate. The water is reputed to protect women during childbirth and save men from drowning. A small container of water or an amber pebble kept in a house will prevent that home going on fire or being burgled. (Drinking the water is not recommended on Health & Safety grounds).
It is said that emigrants, in the Penal Law times and during the famine, would swallow a pebble to safeguard them on their arduous journey to America.
(See our post on the amazing “Vere Foster – One of the greatest men you’ve never heard of” for an understanding of the hardships involved in those journeys to America).
“These (the amber pebbles) they take to America: their tradition is no ship can be wrecked in which they are.”T C Hannyngton Ordinance Survey Memoirs 1835
On Saint Olcan’s feast day, the water in the well is said to rise and overflow, making it easier to collect the amber pebbles. The Cranfield stones were well-known throughout Ireland.
Saint Olcan’s Story
It is recorded that Olcan was found as a baby by Saint Patrick
“Patrick went afterwards to Dal-Araidhe and Dal-Riada. Then he proceeded to Rori, to Carn-Setna, southwards, where he heard the screams of an infant from out of the ground. The carn was demolished, the sepulchre was laid bare, and a smell of wine arose around them from out of the sepulchre. They saw the living child with the dead mother. A woman that died of ague; she was brought across the sea to Eriu, and the child was born after death; and seven days lived in the tumulus”Tripartite Life of St Patrick
The baby was taken to Dunseverick Castle on the north coast of Antrim. Here he was baptised by Saint Patrick. As a young man Olcan’s intelligence was recognised and he was sent to study in Gaul. In 474 Olcan was consecrated the first Christian bishop in Ireland. St Patrick gave Olcan care of the sacred relics of St Peter and St Paul. Olcan founded a monastery at Armoy, the religious centre of the kingdom of Dal Riada. The remains of the round tower can still be seen today.
There was a traditional ritual the suffering pilgrim, seeking a cure, had to perform at the Holy Well. The penitent had to pray whilst walking around the church and the well seven times, dropping a small stone each time a circuit was completed. This had to be performed on 3 consecutive days. Then a piece of material would be dipped in the water of the well and applied to the afflicted part of the body. The rag was then tied to the nearby hawthorn tree. As the rag disintegrated so would the illness or ailment. The best time to visit the well is between May’s Eve and 29th June, Saint Olcan’s Feast Day. Until the mid-1800’s thousands of pilgrims preformed the ‘patterns’ at St Olcan’s well in the hope of a cure.
“Near them is a celebrated well, to which the peasantry resort in great numbers on June 26th, 27th and 28th, and booths are erected for their accommodation; they perform ‘stations’ round the ruins of the church, and drink and wash in the waters of the well, which is supposed to have been endued with healing properties by St Olcan, who is traditionally recorded to have been buried here in earth brought from Rome; and in which are found beautiful yellow crystals, very scarce and held in high estimation”Lewis Topographical Dictionary 1837
The Stone of Saint Olcan
Just a few feet from the Holy Well is the large flat Stone of Saint Olcan. Here the saint is said to have lain, giving the boulder healing powers for anyone who has a bad back
Holy Wells are a common feature of Irish history. In the past Druids regarded certain springs and wells as sacred places. These could be linked to pagan deities or elements of nature. The early leaders of the Christian church treated these traditional places of worship with respect and blessed them so assimilating the ancient religion into the new. There are over 3,000 Holy Wells recorded in Ireland. The water from these wells are reputed to cure a variety of ailments or to offer protection. The water from many have tested positive for magnesium, sulphur and iron all minerals which have health promoting properties.
Hidden Heritage of Holy Wells
A team from Queens University Belfast, Hidden Heritage of Holy Wells, are hoping to uncover and protect Holy Wells in Northern Ireland so that the associated folklore will not be lost. However, as these are private places for prayer and contemplation, the spiritual aspects of the wells should be respected also.
“Holy wells are quite ephemeral looking things and they are not very well known but clearly they are culturally really important in the story of Ireland and in the story of Christianity on the island of Ireland – its small heritage but when you add it up it’s a big story”Dr Keith Lilley HHHW
The Holy Well Today
Despite disapproval from the Christian Churches, the practice of visiting the Holy Well continues to this day. Evidence of this is the numerous rags and tokens left at the site by pilgrims, believers or those in pain. The Well and its surroundings certainly evoke a sense of history and peace and a connection with all those who have visited before throughout the ages.
Address: St Olcan’s Well, 36 Cranfield Road, Randalstown, County Antrim BT41 3ND
Gallery of Images
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Born rich with a lifetime of luxury ahead, Vere Foster instead died alone in Belfast in poverty after giving it all away to help the poorest in Ireland. A story crying out to be heard.
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