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“They’re weak, they’re fat, they can’t run very fast, and they can’t fly.”*

December 2, 2009

So it can be said of turkeys as of humans.

But there’s something wrong with the food chain, and with the Darwinian theory of the survival of the fittest when you take into account that, contrary to popular belief, turkeys do not drown in the rain. No, animals are generally rather used to climatic phenomena. Only humans could do something so amazing as damage our eyes by staring at the sun for so long that it looks like a dancing lady because you are making yourself half-blind. Look, if you want to see a dancing lady, I can give you the names of some places. Some of them even do housecalls. And I know it’s a rare thing for us to see that blazing yellow ball in the sky, but unlike the legends of The Boy Whose Face Really Stayed That Way, or the fella whose Excitement At Seeing a Lady Dance Made Him Go Blind, the one about staring at the sun is actually true. If you want to go on a pilgrimage, who am I to judge? But for pete’s sake, be a little less stupid. In fact, be less stupid than the pilgrims of the past, who were significantly less idiotic and did things that, while certainly their own oldey-timey version of reiki or aromatherapy, at least were not actually dangerous (and, much like reiki and aromatherapy, will really only harm your wallet and may bring a pleasing placebo effect, if you’re lucky).

But the irony is that past pilgrims often travelled to allegedly holy places in the landscape in order to cure their ouchy eyes, not wreck them.

The country is still dotted with Holy Wells, although many have fallen out of use, and their patron saints have been forgotten, as have whatever curative powers they once had. But when the tradition was in full swing (the ‘pattern’, or tradition associated with visiting the wells was outlawed in the 19th century), a surprising proportion of wells were said to cure sore eyes (and I’ve seen a few listed as curing ‘gout’ which one would not expect to find in peasant populations, although maybe it was pilgrimage-marketing aimed at the better-off). This piece mentions a few wells still associated with such a cure, but underestimates how many others are still remembered for the same powers. If a holy well has multiple curative powers, sore eyes is most definitely going to be among them.**

"Blind Girl at the Holy Well" by F.W. Burton. NB: Pilgrims Actively Pursuing the Reversal of Eye-Damage. (Source:

The theory is (I think) that the conditions in which people lived, in smoky cottages often with holes in the roof instead of chimneys, and where they would have spent a lot of time over open fires, would have naturally made sore eyes a common complaint, possibly a more common complaint than not-sore eyes (for which modern pilgrims to Knock seem to have found an easy cure). As a lot of people, especially non-Dubliners, will know, holy wells are still visited locally, although their function has often changed, as has their dedication. When I was doing my undergraduate survey, a well that the literature told me was dedicated to a local Saint Inaoin Baoith was actually understood to be to St Anastasia. Most wells are dedicated to extremely local saints, or to Ireland’s national saints, Brigid or Patrick, and sometimes to St John (because of his association with pilgrimage). Even though Inine Baoith was the local hero (also the patron of the nearby village of Killinaboy), she had actually been more or less forgotten (or at least had been by the family on whose property the well was situated), and a more cosmopolitan saint had taken her place.

While my own photos of St Brigid’s well are somewhere in a box in my attic, I googled around and found, to my delight, that the excellent Dave Walsh over at Blather has posted a bunch of pictures of St Brigid’s Well in Liscannor, Co Clare, which you’ll have at least driven past if you’ve been to the Cliffs of Moher. It’s also known as ‘St Brigid in the Phone Box’ for the self-explanatory reason that the statue of the patron is in a glass box that resembles the now-amusingly archaic phone box.

However you feel about religion or the church or whatever, these places of pilgrimage are very much about personal petitions and private supplication, and I find them fascinating. At St Brigid’s Well, local tradition says that if you see an eel in the water, it is a portent of death. Or maybe it’s good luck. I can’t remember, and it depends whom you ask. Same goes for if you look out onto Liscannor Bay from nearby Lahinch and you see the rooftops and spires of the submerged town allegedly beneath the surface of its waters (there was actually a major flooding/settlement submerging incident in the area, but there is probably no spire, since the incident most definitely predated the building of anything with spires in Ireland), you are shit out of luck. Either way, these phenomena are said to occur every seven years, or bring seven years’ bad luck. There’s a prescribed pattern of visitation of holy wells, normally involving circumambulating in a clockwise direction, sometimes on your knees, reciting a series of prayers. Other traditions involve hammering coins into trees, tying small rags to branches, and leaving votive offerings (as is most spectacularly seen in Liscannor).

But to get back to my original point, as silly as some people might think folk religion is (although I happen to have a sort of respect for it because deep inside me there is a Victorian antiquarian in a tweed suit, smoking a pipe and giving me gas), none of these old traditions involve staring at the bleedin’ sun. So before you laugh at these 19th-century pilgrims who believed in the curative powers of their local springs and drank from skulls secreted in disused medieval churches (I’ve found some in West Clare, and believe me, peeking underneath a propped-up headstone on a hail-and-wind winter’s late afternoon, only to be met by the collective vacant stare of a triad of human skulls is scary. Ok, no, it’s cool. Whatever), remember that at least these people made every effort not to make themselves go blind.

*quote from this article, which demonstrates that turkeys are not as dumb as we are.
** My own personal theory for sore eyes would include a broader source of the problem. Holy Wells were also the sites for Pattern Day festivities, that included cudgel-play (which preserved swordsmanship among the Irish population, who were not allowed to own actual swords) and local factions kicking the shite out of each other with blackthorns and/or rocks in stockings (the ladies’ weapon of choice).

7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2009 11:12 am

    Great piece Jane.

  2. December 2, 2009 11:20 am

    Your story very much holds together, although the fascination with self-harm in an effort to appease the gods has a long pedigree. I’m reminded of the wandering pilgrims during the Black Death that roamed the country lacerating themselves with whips as atonement for the plague. It probably still has echoes even today.

    Didn’t the pilgrims at Fatima stare at the sun? This may be the origin of this modern example of irrationality.

    • Jane permalink*
      December 2, 2009 11:32 am

      I didn’t know that about Fatima, but I’m gonna look it up now – interesting! Which reminds me that yeah, actually, things like St Patrick’s purgatory involve a sort of vision quest that, not coincidentally, requires starvation and other forms of mild self-harm.

      The self-harm, various forms of martyrdom (apparently there was red, white and – er, I think blue, but I could be confusing it with my nation’s flag), all are quite old indeed. Given that most Christian traditions extend back into their pre-Christian roots, I’m going to guess that some forms of martyrdom also do. Not to mention the theories about human sacrifice in the Iron Age in Northern Europe, which could be considered pretty hardcore (although it’s not clear if those people offered themselves, or had any choice in the matter).

      My favourite Irish saint isn’t even properly a saint, but self-mortification enthusiast Matt Talbot will definitely get his own post here soon.

    • Jane permalink*
      December 2, 2009 11:36 am

      Oh and yeah, your comment also highlights the fact that I neglected to point out that it doesn’t seem the sun-staring was a form of self-harm, but an actual attempt to see the Virgin Mary appear. But I could be wrong. Like, that the eye-damage was a consequence of a genuine wish to see something mystical, not a way of bringing on the vision, which is at least (somewhat) acknowledge at Lough Derg, where the mild martyrdom is intentional.

      Gah. I hope I’m making sense. In any case, thanks for pointing that out!

      • December 2, 2009 12:25 pm

        Yes – that makes a pile of sense and I agree – they are two different things, or at least at two different places along a spectrum of weird behaviour associated with superstition and the supernatural. I think we are staring into a treasure trove of utter irrationality, which is a fascinating subject in its own right. In the right circumstances, gullible people will do highly damaging things to themselves in the belief that they are touching the divine. There are possibly other examples of this across the world – bathing in the Ganges perhaps, or those weird people in the Phillipines who crucify themselves every year.

      • Jane permalink*
        December 2, 2009 12:36 pm

        Totally. We like to think that we humans, especially we modern humans, are rational beings, or that the process of modernity is on some kind of trajectory that will lead to pure rationality. But we’re not, and probably shouldn’t be. And anyway, it’s our ability to think and behave in ridiculous ways, the way humans tend to seek transcendence even when it’s nutty, and our tendency to believe in irrational things that makes human beings so interesting.

        And to stretch it further, we do irrational and unsafe things in secular contexts, too, since getting twisted is a form of social bonding, and probably has been since the first time humans discovered mind-altering substances. Imagine the trial-and-error it took to figure out which mushrooms were suitable for dinner, and which for, er, after dinner?

        Irrationality is the most frustrating, but also the richest aspect of the human condition. Not sure I’d want to crucify myself, nor would I really want to see someone crucified. I mean, I’d be fascinated by the spectacle of the thing, but the gore would put me right off. I don’t care how many skulls and desiccated bits of human you hand me, I’m fine so long as all the juice is gone.

      • December 2, 2009 2:16 pm

        Speaking of mushrooms, Jared Diamond had an anecdote where he was foraging with a hunter-gatherer tribe in the middle of the Papua New Guinea rainforest when they came across a mushroom which looked suspiciously like a fungus that Diamond understood was extremely dangerous. The hunters popped the mushroom into their food bag without a second thought and were about to continue when Diamond (presumably through an interpreter – 3000 languages and all that), asked if picking that mushroom was such a good idea. “Of course it is, don’t tell us our job, whitey” was the essence of the reply. They were extremely annoyed with him for the remainder of the trip, which goes to show that though we might call such people “primitive”, in their own environment they are supremely well adapted and it is we, with our glittering technology, that are not at the races.

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