On the Trail of a Lesser Known Irish Saint
Following the Pilgrims
According to A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland by Samuel Lewis, 1837, Cranfield Point on the banks of Lough Neagh in County Antrim was the site of pilgrimage this time of year. There lies the remains of a 13th-century church, described by Lewis as “a noble pile of ruins.” And nearby a holy well said to be blessed with the healing powers of St. Olcan.
This saint may not be well known today, but St. Patrick himself thought so highly of him he gave him the relics of Saints Peter and Paul.
St. Olcan’s Connection to St. Patrick
Ancient writings tell us Olcan met Patrick in a memorable way. A woman who had “come from over the sea” died when she was with child. When Patrick approached the grave it was open and a sweet smell–some accounts say like wine–met his senses. He called forth the child, or else he heard the child crying from the grave. The male baby had been born after his mother was buried and Patrick saved him. This child was named Olcan.
In a 16th century manuscript titled Martyrology of Salisbury, the claim is made that Olcan’s mother was St. Patrick’s sister. It seems this claim has not been found elsewhere, but the woman did “come from over the sea” like Patrick himself, and Patrick did show Olcan some favor, and even some measure of grace when Olcan was the Bishop of Armoy. Olcan had granted admission to heaven (however that is done!) to someone Patrick had previously taken it from. Patrick was pretty angry about that, as angry as any father who having tried hard to teach things to his son sees his boy do just the opposite.
St. Olcan’s Well
Sure it’s speculation, but these are the kinds of stories the Irish are famous for. There is yet one more, that of rare amber crystals found in Olcan’s well.
At the time Lewis wrote his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland–what has become a valuable resource for genealogists and historians–he witnessed pilgrims setting up camp at Cranfield for several days and performing stations around the church ruin. Then they would go to the well to drink and wash, and thus receive St. Olcan’s blessing.
When my husband and I visited last April in the company of our friend, local historian and author Alister McReynolds, I did not see any amber crystals, but it is a beautiful ancient site to visit on the banks of beautiful Loch Neagh. I dipped my husband’s hankie into the well water and he placed it on his throat, a spot he where he needed healing. Alister suggested my husband say a silent prayer, and then I tied the cloth to a bush along with the other garments fellow pilgrims had placed there. We did this with no thought that it would make a difference. Has it? Well, all I can say is my husband’s health has improved.
A Hidden Gem
There something nearby likely overlooked by most people–tourists and local folks alike. Lewis mentions it in his account:
“A curiously carved cross of wood, marking the limit of what is considered holy ground, stands a mile from the well.”
Alister spotted it in a sports field and we pulled off the road to get a photograph.
Obviously this is not the cross Lewis spoke of, but a replacement. Legend has it several crosses have been erected in this spot. These crosses were said to mark boundaries, and because it’s so close to Olcan’s monastic settlement, it’s reasonable that this one marked an outer boundary. It’s not a cross you’d come upon on your own, and it’s possible that other than the football players using the field, few even realize it’s there or that it’s connected in some way to the settlement at Cranfield Point.
It’s been suggested by seasoned tourists of Ireland that the best places to visit are off the beaten track. Historical sites interest me the most, so of course I have no trouble finding something to do in Ireland! But if you go venturing off to find St. Olcan’s resting place (said to be inside the church under dirt brought over from Rome) or seek the healing miracles of his holy well, you will impress your friends when you tell them you not only walked the path of St. Patrick, but also of his close companion and perhaps even his nephew. How many tourists can say that?
Your turn: What relatively unknown Irish figure have you trailed (or would like to trail) in Ireland?
Cindy Thomson is the author of a new novel featuring an Irish immigrant to Ellis Island, Grace’s Pictures. She is also the author of Celtic Wisdom and Brigid of Ireland. She enjoys exploring Irish history. She has written numerous articles on Irish genealogy. Visit her blog Celtic Voices and her web site where you can sign up for her monthly newsletter.