The cult of the holy well was deep rooted in the religious traditions of this part of the country but Ladywell is the sole survivor of holy wells in this and adjoining parishes. In order to indicate the sphere of pious practices from which Ladywell sprung there is included in the Ladywell booklet (2008) a brief account of other holy wells in this parish and from Canon Carrigan (historian of Ossory) a list of the holy wells of this diocese.The holy well and shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary are in the part of Castlemarket townsland to which they give their name – Ladywell. This hallowed spot is situated just off the Ballinakill to Durrow road about 2km from Ballinakill. It is about 90 metres into County Kilkenny being that distance from the Disheen stream which forms the county boundary at this point. Ladywell therefore is in the civil and ancient parish of Rosconnell in the modern parish of Ballyragget and in the diocese of Ossory.
The visual scene at Ladywell has been transfigured and the devotional scene changed completely. All the principal ceremonies of Catholic worship will be found here now during the pilgrimage time. Gone are the rounds of the well, the tying of pieces of cloth to the bush and the pitching of coins or medals into the well and many improvements have been carried out to its general area over the past eighty years.
The pilgrim to Ladywell seventy years ago and before followed a grassy path to an open green field site marked by an ancient hawthorn or skeagh bush which bent over a spring well. There was no shelter at this spot from the wind or weather and people knelt on the damp grass to pray their stations around the holy well.
Today the visitor or pilgrim arrives here by modern tarmac road to a state of the art site that affords a dry footing and shelter from the elements with space to stand, sit or kneel in relative comfort. This transformation has been brought about over three quarters of a century by an energetic committee supported by clergy and people and encouraged by the ever increasing numbers who have come here to pray but the curious and interested will want an explanation of this phenomenon.
What are the origins of Ladywell? The answer simply is Ladywell is one of the holy wells of Ireland, the devotions at which have survived down through the centuries. There were thousands of holy wells in Ireland and some kind of devotions were associated with most of them. It was in the eighteenth century when the Catholic faith was suppressed that holy wells really came into their own. The great patterns developed around the well’s feast day. The most popular of these drew crowds of people from far and near, some coming for prayer and penance, others for enjoyment.
Ladywell is a continuation of the Rosconnell pilgrimage, the origins of which are lost in the mists of time. The first record of this comes from the year 1731 in the report of the Protestant Bishop of Ossory (Tennyson) on Rosconnell Church “the walls of the church are good. The churchyard is spoiled by trenches dug all over it for planting of booths at pattern times.”
In the 1870’s Reverend Patrick Neary was curate in Ballyouskill. He was very interested in local history and was a member of Ossory Archaeological Society. He records that there were then (1870’s) people alive who remembered the pattern held at Rosconnell Church and they recalled seeing the fields around the church filled by tents of all kinds during the octave of the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The holy well at that time appears to have been in Rosconell Glebe just across the river from the church. It was known both as Ladywell and the Lodge Well. In the late 1790’s when religious and political tensions rose the Protestant rector of Rosconnell, Reverend Chamberlain Walker had the well on his glebe filled up. Tradition had it that a new well then appeared at present day Ladywell, however the possibility cannot be ruled out that both wells co-existed for a period.
A feature of holy wells in olden times was that pilgrims came, many from afar, bare footed and fasting to do their rounds or stations at the well and headed home in the same spirit. This was in compliance with ancient penitential custom. Everyone did not come to do penance because the pattern was a strange mixture of fun and piety, most of those who came did so to enjoy themselves and laid on for them was all the fun of the fair. There was eating, drinking, singing, dancing, gambling and the inevitable fighting. Even at the worst of Penal times the church condemned the conduct at holy wells but could do little about it.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century Penal laws had declined. The Catholic Church had reasserted itself with churches or chapels of some kind in almost every parish. The bishops and clergy called for them to be the focal points of Catholic worship. The holy wells with their attendant patterns were to be abandoned. In Ossory almost every parish had at least one pattern. (Ballyragget Parish had four – Rosconnell, Kilmenan, Attanagh and Finan) the two last named had been suppressed or abandoned long ago.
A general clamp down on patterns and visitations to holy wells took place in Ossory about the year 1810, thus ended the great gatherings at the time in Ladywell. How then did Ladywell survive? Its location on the border of two dioceses saved it. A ban on attendance at holy wells in Kildare and Leighlin did not exist so the people from Ballinakill and adjoining parishes in that dioceses felt free to continue their devotions here. It is therefore thanks to the people of those places that Ladywell was kept alive during the greater part of the 19th century. A police report quoted in newspapers of the time stated that on the 15th August 1881 (Land War times) about four hundred persons attended the holy well “the gathering was orderly and peaceful”.
Gradually the people of Ballyragget and other Ossory parishes returned to pray here and by 1900 the attendance on the 15th August each year was considerable. Sometime in the early 1900’s Tom Delaney of Ballinakill made a cross and set it standing down in the well itself (it was later placed on the brink where it stands today). A short time after this Mrs. Mary Delaney, Lisbigney began to look after the well and for many years distributed the water on the 15th August. She continued this work to her death in the late 1920’s.
The attendance continued to grow not only on the 15th August feast but during its octave to the 8th September. In 1928 Reverend Robert Stephenson became CC in Ballyouskill, a resolute and determined man; he took full stock of Ladywell. Some things about the holy well did not meet his approval. He took a dim view of the ancient hawthorn bush bedecked with scraps of cloth, which still bent over the well (it was however to survive him). He also took exception to the fact that the place was a regular rendezvous for courting couples and there was evidence of misconduct by others also. However, Fr. Stephenson was aware that there was here an established genuine devotion to the Mother of God and that many who came to this lonesome spot did so in a true spirit of prayer. So that the place might be put and kept in proper order he decided to organise a committee to look after matters. The members of this first Ladywell Committee formed in the year 1929 were all from Castlemarket, Bill McGree, Kieran White, Bill Kilbride, Joe McEvoy, Molly Kilbride (later Mrs. Ryan) and Till Bergin (Mrs. Gough). Kieran White, the first Treasurer who held this position for over forty years was later succeeded by Jack McDonald who also dedicated himself to the task until his demise.
Bill McGree records… “We cleaned up the well and made it look more respectful. It was in a lonely looking way for a statute of our Blessed Lady. We chanced to put up a collection box and we were charmed if I remember rightly to find ₤6/3/5 in coppers and silver with which we bought a small statue of Our Lady and carpenter from Ballinakill James Coady RIP made us a case or altar (free) which remained in use until we built the present shrine in 1942 ”
On the 15th August 1940 Reverend Fr. William Kerwick C.C recited the first ever public rosary at Ladywell. At this time the surrounding farm, owned by Mr. Daniel Kennedy of Abbeyleix (who recommended that provision be made for the holy well) was acquired by the Irish Land Commission for division among the farmers of the area. Fr. Kerwick led the committee in their application for a plot of land around the holy well. They proved successful in this and with Fr. Drea, Kieran White and Joe McEvoy as trustees, the enclosure with the well became the property of the committee on the 22nd October 1948. At the same time rights of way to the plot from the public roads were granted.
From this time onwards the rosary was said in public every 15th August. The Ballypickas (later Ballyroan) band continues to be in attendance. Their rendering of music for hymns became an essential part of the service. A choir, whose members are from Ballyragget parish, Ballinakill and surrounding areas, led by Joan O’Gorman contributes in a special way to the ceremonies.
In early days horses, pony and donkey traps and carts and of course the bicycle brought pilgrims from afar. People did the round of the well saying a decade of the beads in one spot then moving to another to say the next and so on. Every year the attendance grew larger with people coming from further afield as time went on.
With the 1950’s came the motor car and the fading out of horse and donkey transport. This development brought with it parking problems. Nothing would have been achieved in this way were it not for the generosity of the two land owners on either side of the well area, William Butler and Edward Barry who every year opened their gates wide for the full term of Ladywell.
Bigger voluntary collection boxes were put up and with pilgrims coming in greater numbers each year the committee found itself in a stronger financial position. Fr. Patrick Holden who was curate at this time, took a very keen interest in Ladywell. The committee was now augmented by the co-option of new members, Paddy Mooney, Jack McDonald and Mick Gannon. The last named was to become a dominating figure and a driving force until his death in 1997. In 1953 the area surrounding the well was levelled and the drain from it piped and filled. The ancient hawthorn bush was at this time removed. All this work was carried out by voluntary labour.
The work of building the shrine now commenced with Ballinakill contractor Paddy Carroll in charge. With the money collected a 5′ 3″ statue of the Blessed Virgin was purchased and all was ready for the blessing of the new shrine on Ladywell Day, 15th August 1954 (Marian Year). The artistic railing was made by Joe McCabe of Abbeyleix and the rockery was then provided. Peg White and Ita Brannigan were added to the committee to look after the flowers. From this time onwards the doing of the stations or rounds about the well died out.
The plot around the well was up to this time fenced only by a sod or clay bank which was getting broken down and unsightly. Fr. Thomas Bowden, appointed curate in 1957, organised the entire district and with the help of this voluntary labour the committee set to work again removing the old bank and replacing it with the present walls and gates which now enclose the area. Electric light was installed replacing batteries previously used for illumination. It was next decided to provide a shelter for invalids and the elderly and when Reverend Joseph Galavan became curate the first enlargement of the shelter took place and improved seating also became available. The seats were from the old church in Grogan (Errill). On the 15th August 1980 mass was celebrated at Ladywell for the first time. The principal celebrant being Most Reverend Dr. Peter Birch, Bishop of Ossory.
In 1983 the field of about 3 acres adjacent to the holy well was purchased by the committee from the Butler family and during the next couple of years the ground was levelled for car parking and the roadway put in. The sanitary facilities were provided in 1995 and further improvements made to the general area.
A memorable occasion took place at Ladywell on Sunday the 4th June 2000 attended by a large number of people. This was part of the Ossory Millennium celebrations of that year. Principal concelebrants of the mass were Dr. Laurence Forrestal of Ossory and Dr. Donal Murray (Limerick). The homily was preached by the latter and there were over forty priests in attendance with Fr. Richard Scriven (St. Kieran’s College) conducting the choir. An oak tree was planted in the grounds to commemorate this historic event.
A new era in devotions at Ladywell commenced in 2001 with the introduction of the novena for the last nine days of the pilgrimage (31st August to 8th September) consisting of public rosary benediction and a guest speaker each evening. In recent years the covered area at Ladywell has been considerably extended. A permanent altar was erected in 2007 and an office/meeting room was built.
The account of the early development of the Ladywell site might have been lost were it not for the memory and commitment of the late Bill McGree. A member of the first committee he made “the well” a life long interest and gave to it unsparingly of his time and energy. His personal memoir written down in his own words in 1983 (three years before his death) clearly reveals his dedication to this cause. This is Bill McGree’s description of Ladywell days (pre-1980’s) before mass was first said at the holy well.
“On the 15th morning the majority of people go to Holy Communion to start the day. Again I wish to state it is looked on for a good radius as a second Christmas day with all sorts of reunions of families in the evening and during the term until the 8th September. At about 3 o’clock the ceremony starts with the rosary with intervals of hymns to Our Lady. The hymn music is rendered by the Ballypickas and Ballyroan combined brass bands. They have travelled here for the last thirty years or more free of charge. We then have the services or Mr. Nicholas Mooney with powerful broadcasting unit. Of course we have then a sermon by a priest from the missions or from some local college. The waters of the well are then distributed and thousands of bottles of its water big and small are taken away, some of it to be sent to distant corners, it is most happy to just look at small groups renewing their friendships in this little place on the evening. We often see nuns and priests meeting here and in the course of conversation they discover that they are working not far from each other on the mission fields of the world.
I would estimate about four thousand people collect on Ladywell Day and by the 8th September it is scarcely ever without people every day and into the night. The hundreds of motor cars that are seen around those fields now make some of us feel old when we remember the ass and traps and ponies and traps that were tied up round the ditches in the good old days.
Present Ladywell Committee: Paddy Lalor – Treasurer; John Mooney – Secretary; Billy McDonald and Michael Phelan – Joint Treasurers; Committee Members – John Gannon; Jimmy Gorman; John Doheny and Sean Kennedy.
Presented by: Local Historian Dermot Dorgan.
GPS: 52.86180, -7.32715.