Fieldwork notes: Lady’s Island pilgrimage

UPDATE: I’ve posted some of the photos from the pilgrimage here.

By train and by car and finally by foot, I attended yesterday’s opening of the annual pilgrimage season at Lady’s Island, Wexford. I met Ronan at Bray DART station on one of the most beautiful days of the summer so far and barrelled down the N11, getting there at about 1.45pm. There will be some flickr pictures up later today to give you a better sense of its scale. This is perhaps one of the lesser well-known pilgrimage sites in Ireland and is highly regionalised, drawing people from the south and east of Ireland only. While there were lots of buses from Athy and Waterford, there is a clear impression here that this is not Knock which tends to bring people from all over the island and abroad. The site is approached by narrow tertiary roads but opens up into a much larger area as you get closer to the church and island itself. It looks onto a salt water lake and seems to be bordered at its southern edge by a beach head. Even as close as 2.45pm, the place seemed quiet and not a space about to be visited by 2,000 plus people for a 3 o’clock pilgrimage.

Before the formal ceremony began there were many public announcements about the availability of confession, the position of stewards and the arrangements for parking. On one occasion, the announcer made it clear that anyone wishing to receive communion in their cars could indicate their wish using the car’s hazard lights, extending the sacred space right into the car park. The liturgy was preceded by the parade of the seven sacraments using Marian blue banners carried by young people. They were announced individually to remind the gathered of their significance for us. This mirrored an informant’s previous wish for the pilgrimage to be more than just about the adoration of statues. To the left of the main stage, as we looked at it, stood a small Marian statue placed on a platform and decorated with flowers. This would later be carried in the midst of the pilgrims but did not form a central part of the procession.

Parish churchBishop Denis Brennan of Ferns was the main celebrant for the Mass and he was joined by 6 other priests. The congregation remained attentive through the Mass but generally less attentive than a Church-based Mass. I also noticed a small group of Traveller women on my right who had no problem in talking throughout the Mass in their regular voice, in distinction with the settled people also in attendance. It being the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, the focus was on Mary’s role in the mothering of Jesus. There were several allusions throughout the ceremony to Mary’s role in a Christian’s life but most particularly to the reasons why we were all gathered here in this place today.

When Mass was ended, we processed around the island with recitations of the rosary throughout. It was headed by a carried cross and a copy of the Bible although the carried Marian statue was considerably further down. Although Ronan and I advanced ahead of the procession to take some photographs, we later joined it as it walked straight past the Wayward Shrine on the island’s west side. It was at this point that a central conflict arises in most researcher’s fieldwork. Where is the line (if one is needed) between participant and researcher? I freely joined the procession, knowing that prayers were being recited and that I had previously been jumping ahead to take photographs. You could not but have noticed that I was the one taking these photographs if you arrived only for the procession: the Canon SLR dangled conspicuously around my neck. Many in the procession carried rosary beads, the presence of which brought back many memories of previous occasions of devotion in my childhood.

The holy well on the site was not observed officially although several people stopped to draw water for blessings along the way. The circular procession was tailed by an exposition of the  Blessed Sacrament under canopy and accompanied by members of an all-male organisation that I took to be the Knights of St Columbanus. (Can someone confirm their red sashes?) One participant told me that he had not seen as fine a day for the beginning of the pilgrimage in thirty years of coming to it. I hope to return to Lady’s Island, Wexford in the coming weeks to talk formally with some of the committees’ members. I got my farmer’s tan, about 150 photographs and a good sense of the place on such a busy day.

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3 thoughts on “Fieldwork notes: Lady’s Island pilgrimage

  1. No doubt you have done some research on this but for benefit of other readers see http://www.ourladysisland.ie/index.php

    This would appear to have been a Druidical site “taken over” by Christians in the 7th century. There is probably a scholarly term to describe this activity – christianised ? This phenomenon is common throughout christendom’s history from earliest times and is probably common to all colonising cultures

    1. Yes, you’re right. Many of the holy wells and springs in Ireland have been appropriated and their healing beliefs are mixed in with Christian ideas. But when has it been any other way? Is there a pure state of reason and meaning for all cultural symbols where there is no mediation?

      1. Yes, a huge area of study involving semiotics, superstition, shamanism and cultural prejudice. However, since the so called Enlightenment scientific reasoning has proven to be a more reliable way of explaining how the world (including the human mind) works.

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