Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Tri Athy / Tubberara Well Pilgrimage

‘Athy is a lovely town’.  The praise came from a young Dublin mother whose first visit to the town coincided with the Tri Athy event for 2009.  It was a claim which those of us living here are less inclined to make for many reasons, but perhaps mostly because familiarity naturally breeds contempt, or at least a lack of appreciation for what we see day in day out.  That same lack of appreciation cannot be applied to the Tidy Towns volunteers whom I saw working in Emily Square one of the evenings before the Tri Athy Saturday.  The historic market place was being swept, while the flower beds were being renewed and tidied to ensure that the finest public open space in County Kildare looked its best for Tri Athy competitors and spectators alike. 

The work the Tidy Towns committee members do throughout the year remains largely unnoticed but the running of the largest event ever held in the centre of Athy gave ample reason to remind all of us that these volunteers deserve our thanks and our support.  Their job will be so much easier when the Outer Relief Road, now called the Southern Distributor Route, is in place and all the through traffic is removed from the centre of the town.  This major development, so long awaited, has the potential of re-energising the commercial heart of what was once the greatest market town in the province of Leinster and the sooner it is in place the better for the town of Athy.

Tri Athy has proved to be a great success story, bringing over 2,500 competitors to the town for an event which requires and utilises the unique combination of river, road and a substantial centrally located public open space.  Combined with the organisational genius of Dubliner Brian Crinion and our own Arthur Lynch and others, Tri Athy has grown year on year to become the largest triathlon in Ireland and provides our town with a huge opportunity to gain for itself priceless public recognition.  All involved in Tri Athy are to be congratulated on an exceptionally well organised event.  No more than the Tidy Towns volunteers who worked on the evenings leading up to the event, the Tri organisers did Athy proud on the day.  The opportunity to extend the goodwill factor beyond the Saturday morning and afternoon activities came with Jack L’s concert in the grounds of Whites Castle on Saturday evening.  It proved to be a great occasion, with Jack and his musicians putting on a first rate show for an audience which was not quite as large as one might have expected.  Congratulations to Gabriel Dooley whose initiative brought us a great nights enjoyment which showcased one of Ireland’s finest performers in the person of Athy’s own Jack L.  Athy people certainly had a lot to be proud of over the Tri Athy weekend.

Sunday, 14th June sees another local event taking place, which unlike Tri Athy has its roots and traditions extending back many centuries.  The Pattern Day associated with St. John’s day once saw people coming from far and wide to the Holy Well of Tubberara where according to an article in the Kildare Archaeological Society Journal of 1891 the pilgrims ‘drank the water, prayed and danced’.  Indeed the dancing and especially the drinking, which apparently was not confined to the well water, prompted the Catholic Church authorities in the early part of the 19th century to prohibit the celebrations of the Pattern Day at Tubberara. 

Located on the eastern bank of the River Barrow about 1½ miles north of Athy town, Tubberara was the site of a church in ancient times.  The walls of the small church have long since collapsed and the raised ground now covered in clay indicates where those fallen stones now lie.  The well of Tubberara was originally of utilitarian benefit for the locals, who drew water for their daily needs.  In time however the well, as was common enough in rural Ireland, took on the attributes of a holy well.  There are about 3,000 holy wells in Ireland and like Tubberara and its associated Pattern Day most of them ceased to be places of pilgrimage after the Church authorities condemned what in the immediate post famine years were regarded as occasions for faction fights and drunken disorderly behaviour.  However, we are fortunate that the pilgrimage associated with Tubberara Well was documented by some writers before it was lost to public memory. 

In the Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland published in 1814 the local vicar, Rev. Thomas Kingsbury, reported ‘Tubberara Well, a holy well among the Roman Catholics, is considered by them under the patronage of St. John.  The Patron Day is 24th June.  People come from far and near to drink the water, pray and dance.  Tubberara is derived from the Irish and probably signifies a holy well.’ 

The curate attached to St. Michael’s Church, Athy, Rev. J. Carroll, writing in the Kildare Archaeological Society Journal in 1891, noted :-  ‘A Church was built here in a most remote time ..... the well flows from the middle of it and sends forth a great flood of water ..... people come hither from far and near in olden times to drink the water and to pray.  St. John was the patron of the place and on his festival, 24th June, a great concourse of pilgrims were usually present and this custom continued during the early part of the present century.’

The Parish Priest of Athy put an end to the Pattern Day Pilgrimage, apparently because what was once a religious festival degenerated into a social gathering involving drinking, dancing and almost inevitably fisticuffs.  The revival in recent years of the Pattern Day has seen a more sedate form of celebration taking place in the grounds of the ancient Church of Tubberara which is associated with St. John the Baptist, whose name once graced several places in the town of Athy.  St. John’s was the name given to the Trinitarian monastery established in the shadow of Woodstock Castle in the early 13th century.  The principal street of the medieval village of Athy was called St. John’s Street (now Duke Street), while we retain the name St. John’s Lane for the laneway which once connected the main street of the medieval settlement with the monastery of St. Johns.

Next Sunday, 14th June, the Pattern Day of St. John, traditionally held on 24th June, will take place.  St. Vincent’s Hospital will be the gathering place with a 3.00 p.m. start for the walk via Cuan Mhuire to the holy well of Tubberara.  The pilgrimage walk will be taken at a leisurely pace and so no one should be deterred from taking part in what promises to be an enjoyable afternoon.  The tradition of pilgrimage to Tubberara goes back a long way in our local history and its continuance in this, the 21st century, is a welcome reminder of our shared past and of the pride we should take as a community in the success of Tri Athy and the spirited volunteerism shown by the members of the local Tidy Towns Committee.

In my recent article on the Athy Farmers Club I gave the name of its first president as Juan Greene, when in fact the honour belonged to his father, Johnny Greene.  My thanks to the people who contacted me in relation to that particular article, which apparently brought back memories for so many.

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