Irish grid ref: L6537 5807. Close to the eastern shoreline of Lough Ballynakill (Loch Bhaile na Cille) at Doonen, near Clooncree, in Connemara, Co.Galway, is St Gregory’s Well, a pre-Christian healing spring that is dedicated to St Gregory (Ceannanach), a follower of St Patrick, who died about 500 AD. The well is a roughly half a mile to the southeast of a ruined 15th century chapel (on Cartron road), which is also named for this saint. The chapel stands at the top end of the large graveyard, now almost submerged in foliage and in a rather sorry state of repair; originally it would have been a fairly large, ornate building. Close to the ruined chapel there is a small, carved pillar-stone with an incised cross. St Ceannanach (Cononagh) was a native of Iararna at the southeastern side of the Aran Islands and is said to be buried at Inishmaan where Tempull Canannagh was founded by him in the 5th century AD. According to legend, the saint was martyred for his faith on the eastern shoreline of Lough Ballynakill where a stone, said to have blood stains on it, used to stand at the place where the saint died. The little village of Cartron (Moyard) is 1 mile to the north-west of Clooncree on the Tooreen road, while Cleggan is 2 miles to the west on the coast. Ballynakill means ‘The Lake of Church Town.’
There isn’t a great deal to see of the ancient well close to the Doonen road, to the east of the lough, just an opening down amongst some rocks but, almost certainly in the past it would have been regarded as a place of pilgrimage and the water no doubt having healing properties due to the very fact that an early Christian saint was murdered here, indeed, according to the well-told legend St Ceannanach the son of an Irish king was set upon by a pagan chieftain from Bundowlish who was ‘greatly’ annoyed at the holy man’s fervent desire to spread the Christian message in his territory; where the saint was beheaded there was a stone which forever afterwards was stained with blood. However in recent times the bloodstone, as it was called, has been lost although local children used to try and find it! Legend also says that: after being martyred the saint picked up his severed head, washed it in the well, and then miraculously re-attached it to his body. The well is 2 feet wide and surrounding it a stone-wall some 4 feet high, while the well enclosure is 12 feet in diameter; its spring issues from deep between some rocks and, when it is flowing properly it forms a little stream or rivulet. In days gone by pilgrims performed the Stations of the Cross round the well on sundays, but more especially on the saint’s feast-day 10th March.
St Ceannanach’s 15th century church at Cartron (Irish grid reference: L 6479 5828) is now in a very ruinous state, with only two gables left and fragmentary walls in between, nature having almost taken over with trees and bushes growing where the congregation once sat. However in this state it looks quite romantic and even evocative. There were churches on this site before the present one, one of which was said to have been built by the saint himself, or maybe by his followers? The church was 60 feet in length and 20 feet in width, its wall being 8 feet high; the east gable is 15th century, while the west gable retains its twin-light windows and a circular feature above. Close to the ruins (12 metres northeast) there is an early Christian pillar-stone with a thin incised cross, dating perhaps from the 6th century? But the centre of Ceannanach’s missionary work was on the Aran Islands, especially at Inishmaan where he founded an oratory called Tempull Cannanagh (Cononagh), which is now a ruin, and, at Iararna (southeast point) of the Aran Islands, his gravestone can still seen. He is probably to be identified with ‘Gregory the Fairheaded,’ while ‘Gregory Sound’ beyond Cleggan is ‘thought’ to be named after him – alluding to another, or the same legend concerning the saint’s martyrdom.
Previte, Anthony., A Guide to Connemara’s Early Christian Sites, Old Chapel Press, 2008.
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Copyright © Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2014 (up-dated 2021).