• Lughnasa at St Marcan’s Lough, Clew Bay, Co. Mayo – Part 1

    It is that time of year again – the ancient Irish festival of Lughnasa. The traditions of Lughnasa sites such as Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo have been well documented over the years. However, a little known Lughnasa site nearby can be found at St Marcan’s Lough at Rosclave, on one of the many inlets that form the eastern part of Clew Bay. The site is associated with a St Marcan. There is a holy well at the site, however, the remains of a small church and a leacht or altar that were recorded here by Hubert T. Knox no longer survive. This church and leacht were located at the landward end of a narrow spit of land that extends across the narrow inlet. This peninsula has effectively created a pool of water at the head of the inlet, known as St Marcan’s Lough. At low tide the water empties out of this sea lough through the narrow passage along the southern side of the inlet, but even at the lowest Spring tide the water in this lough is never fully emptied. It seems most likely that this was originally a freshwater lake.

    On the foreshore of the narrow outlet of St Marcan’s Lough, and only exposed at low tide, is a small, sea-weed covered, cairn of stones which is supposed to be a pilgrim’s station, and in 1997 a local man told me that it has the ‘cure for man or beast’. In 1838 John O’Donovan reported that pilgrims still came here bringing their cattle to the well to be cured of various diseases (Ordnance Survey Letters). However, some of the most informative accounts of the Lughnasa traditions at this site are recorded in the archives of the Folklore Commission.

    One correspondent writing in 1934 in response to the Irish Folklore Commission’s questionnaire on holy wells, described the site as such;

    “a raised piece of ground 15ft x 14ft surrounded by a wall of large stones loosely placed on one another. On the north west side of the small enclosure there is a good rigid white thorn growing. In the centre of the enclosure there is a ‘well’ – without water however. Twenty yards or so to the south of this well there is a large stone called the “altar”.

    Stations are performed at the ‘well’ up to the present day. The first week in August – or so Tom O’Donnell whose home is beside the well informed me “the nearest Sunday before or after the 4th August”. Pilgrims to Loc Marcan at the present time are few but fifty years ago there were thousands coming in cars, carts and horseback. In the past the ground around was strewn with cow ‘tyings’ – in every stone round the ‘Altar’ and in the ‘Monument’ there was a ‘spancel’. Money was also left near the well’.”.

    A few years later, correspondents to the Folklore Commission’s questionnaire to schools provide several interesting accounts of the traditions attached to the site;

    “Many years ago the people went every year to Loc Marcán to perform stations for the safety of their cattle and as offerings they threw into the lake rolls of butter or spancels for tying cattle”.

    Another correspondent described the site as such;

    “There is an old kesh (a patch over a soft or wet piece of ground) near the lake and the people used to bring their ailing cattle to the lake and walk them across this kesh. If the beast could cross the kesh without tripping it would be cured, but if it tripped its days were numbered. Spancels (tyings for cattle) and rolls of butter were thrown into the lake to ward off diseases to cattle”.

    Further correspondents claimed that;

    “If the cattle were dying on you and you left a spancel on the rock at Tobar Marcán no more would die”,

    and;

    “Bring water out of Lough Marcán on the day of pilgrimage and it will cure any sick beast”.

    The beginning of August is the most consistent date given.

    The dedication of the site to St Marcán is a consistent one, however, there is no reference to an ecclesiast named Marcan in any of the known historical sources. However, it is possible that the name Marcan is the same as Begmarcach (Ua Becce of Maighin) who is listed in the Martyrology of Donegal under 1st August, which is similar to the date of the pilgrimage at St Marcan’s Lough. It is interesting that both names probably derive from the Irish word marcach, a rider or horseman, which is significant given the context of swimming horses here.

    The tradition of swimming sick horses and cattle across the bay and bringing them to the holy well for cures in August has a number of parallels. Máire MacNeill found widespread examples of swimming horses in lakes on the August 1st (though St Marcan’s Lough does not feature in her list of sites), and argued a Lughnasa tradition. Other examples of horse bathing in the sea at Lughnasa are at Dooras, Kinvara, Co. Galway and Kilkee, Co. Clare. The swimming of cattle as well as horses is not mentioned in either of these cases, but it is mentioned in connection with the bathing of horses at Lough Owel. Cattle are also featured in connection with swimming at rivers in Meath, notably at Stackallen on the River Boyne. At Loughkeeran near Bohola in east Mayo is a small lake in the bog where horses were bathed at Lughnasa. However, a curious aspect of this site is that there was also a tradition of throwing a roll of butter into the lake as part of the ritual, as well as the hanging of cords for tying cattle on a nearby tree. This corresponds well with the folklore evidence for St Marcan’s Lough. In popular folk tradition the bathing of the horses and cattle is explained as a curative exercise, but more often it is seen as a prevention of diseases. However, it is clear from the evidence of racing at Lough Owel and general festivities associated with a number of other sites that the origins behind the bathing of horses and cattle is far more complex, and is an important element of the pre-Christian Lughnasa festival.

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