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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

Keeping the Well Alive



Ardbraccan 3. As mentioned previously when Braccan, the founder of Ardbraccan, in 670 went off to set up other communities around the county he put Ultan in charge, starting a tradition of historians and poets.

Ultan was famous for housing 500 orphans following an outbreak of the Yellow Plague.  The Annals state he designed a feeding bottle using cows’ teats filled with milk which he put into the babies’ mouths, probably the first mentioned of a baby’s feeding bottle on record.

However he was also a noted historian and poet. He wrote an early life of St Brigid and illuminated it with his own hand.  His Latin hymn in praise of her, commencing ‘Christus in nostra insula’, is incorporated in the famous Solesmes Chant books.

When he retired to the Aran Islands he was succeeded by another distinguished abbot, Tierchan, who wrote a ‘The Life of St Patrick’ in the 7th century. From his references to numerous geographical areas, holy wells, cemeteries, crosses and churches the historian  Terry O’Hagan called Tírechán one of the most ‘widely travelled’ of early medieval writers. So much for the image of Celtic monks spending their whole life alone in remote cells!

With the Reformation the story of Ardbraccan took a new turn. The COI bishops of Meath lived in nearby ‘Bishops Palace’ (now Arbraccan House) and in ‘Bishops Court’ from 1884. Where the Catholic bishops of Meath resided is less clear.  

There was a coming together of the two traditions when the Catholic Spiritan missionaries took over Bishops Court in 1990s and turned it into a Retreat Centre, named An Tobar (in honour of Ultan’s Well). When the COI at Ardbraccan officially closed in 1981 its stained glass were in danger of vandalism and some finally found a home in the Centre. Fittingly, one was ‘The Woman at the Well’ by Ethel Rhind though her centrepiece in the new chapel has a Resurrection theme. Not a bad choice either.

Another link at An Tobar with the spiritual origins of Ardbraccan is the ‘modern’ labyrinth. Since ancient times the intricate paths of a labyrinth have symbolised the difficulties in life’s journey.

All this I missed on my first hasty visit to Ardbraccan. If was worth making a second trip. 

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