Faithlegg’s ancient holy well

Many readers will know that we have a holy well in Faithlegg dedicated to St Ita.  January 15th is her feast day, (she reputedly died on this day in 570AD).  We looked at St Ita around the same time last year, and I left it with a question in terms of why the well is dedicated to her.  I still haven’t answered this to my personal satisfaction and have a few more thoughts on it, but to begin, here’s an overview.


Various sources state that Ita was born Princess Deirdre, to King Kennoelad and Queen Necta  of the Deise tribe in Waterford circa 470AD.  Her birth place is not certain but the majority of written accounts speculate that it was in or around Ballyduff, Kilmeaden.   A few online sources have claimed she was born in Faithlegg. 
Ita travelled throughout the Deise area and appears to have studied in Ardmore, Clashmore and Lismore, and eventually she settled down in Killeedy in East Limerick where she founded her monastery.  There she ran a school which was responsible for the teaching of many early churchmen and women, including St Brendan the Navigator.  So many passed through her hands that she earned the nickname “foster
mother of the saints of Erin”. St Ita is often described as the Bridgid of Munster, highlighting her position in the pantheon of Irish female saints, a close second to Bridgid of Kildare.  
Last year I speculated on several theories about the well being dedicated to her at Faithlegg. However this year I wanted to highlight what for me is an inconsistency. You see when Canon Power was doing his famous work on the Placenames of the Decies (published in 1907), he actually mentions several wells in the area, but omits any mention of St Ita.
For him, the well we now know as St Ita’s, is known as Tobar Sionnaig or the Well of the Fox.  What he actually says about it is this: “…though it is possible that the latter member of the name is personal.  This well, which is nearly opposite the church and on the west side of the road, had a reputation for sanctity.  Rounds or stations were said here, but have been discontinued for nearly a century”
I find it puzzling that Power would have no mention of a christian saint, if such a name was associated with the well at the time.  Maybe he was going with the earlier work of another renowned placename researcher John O’Donovan and the staff of Ordnance Survey Ireland who between 1829 and 1842 completed the first ever large-scale survey of an entire country. Acclaimed for their accuracy, these maps are regarded by cartographers as amongst the finest ever produced.   We’ve seen the lengths these early map makers went to for accuracy with the name of Faitlegg previously. 
OSI 6″ B&W with Tobarshorork opposite Faithlegg Church
Canon Power was well known for doing his research, and would seek out older members of the community or those with learning to seek further information.  He does decry the lack of native Irish speakers in the parish at the time, but surely Ita or Idé would be a name that even the corruption of it would have giving him a clue.  The
fact that Power was a local (Callaghan), would have surely strengthened his knowledge of the area.
Deena had a suggestion that Foxes were associated with saints and perhaps that would explain a connection.  She found stories associated with St Moling, St Kieran, St Patrick and even St Bridgid but none for Ita.  
I can draw no conclusions on this except to express the possibility that St Ita was a name of more modern origin, and one which O’Donovan and Power refuted, or at least ignored.  Is it possible that the Power’s of Faithlegg brought it with them, when
the moved into the area in 1819?.   Or is it an older name, that came to light after the efforts of the OSI and Canon Power.  Again, only more research will possibly tell.

St Ita’s Holy Well, Faithlegg

They say no one ever remembers the runner up.  St Ita seems to be such a person, often described as the Bridgid of Munster, highlighting her position in the pantheon of Irish female saints, a close second to Bridgid of Kildare.  So unlike Bridgid who’s life and times are widely known and even covered in the national school curriculm, Ita, un-befitting her status in my view, seems to have been ignored, and except where there is a direct connection, practically forgotten.

A representation of St Ita early 20th C
accessed from

St Ita of course is relatively well known to us here in Cheekpoint and Faithlegg as the Holy well at the church is dedicated to her.  Up to the early part of the twentieth century there was an annual pattern on her feast day – January 15th.  The well was a simple hole in the ground marked by rock, one of which had a small recess, said to be the footprint of the infant Jesus.  As a child we could visit it, by jumping over the wall below the church, but then it was often trampled on by grazing cows. The De Las Salle order owned the land at that stage.  At the time of the building of the houses and golf course by McInerney construction, local pressure protected the site, and its from this time the present “romanticised” version stems.

Present Holy Well site in Faithlegg
Photo: Tomás Sullivan

But who exactly was this early Christian saint that has an association with Faithlegg?  There are many differing accounts of St Ita to be found via google which you could view for yourself.  I purchased a book called St Ita, The Forgotten Princess, by James Dunphy some years back which has a lot of interesting information, particularly about her connection with the Deise, but he prefaces his account thus: “I am not suggesting to anyone that this is all proven fact, but I offer it to those of an open mind as a representation of the life of St Ita” p4.  Dunphy and other online sources state that Ita was born Princess Deirdre, to King Kennoelad and Queen Necta  of the Deise tribe in Waterford in and around 470AD (again much variation).  Her birth place is not certain but it is speculated that it was in or around Ballyduff, Kilmeaden.

Her royal birth made her a much sought after young woman (again very similar account to Bridgid), but her interests appear to have lay only in the new religion of Partick and another Deise man, St Declan of Ardmore.  At some point her name was changed, perhaps at her own insistence to Ita – “Thirst for God”

According to Mossy Hunt in a history of the parish church of Clonea “in the Waterford region she is commemorated in several placenames: Kilmeaden, (Cill Mo Íde ín – Church of my little Ita), Kilbarrymeaden (Cill Barra Mo Íde ín – Church of my little Ita’s height) and Ita’s well between Kilmurrin and Boatstrand.” p14.  I wonder how many more have been lost.  Interestingly no mention of a Faithlegg placename here, though he does speculate that she was born at Faithlegg.  Something that is repeated in some online accounts.

Stained glass depiction in Clonea Power Church
Photo: Rosemarie Cusack

She travelled throughout the Deise area and appears to have studied or at least spent time in Ardmore, Clashmore and Lismore, and eventually she settled down in Killeedy in East Limerick where she founded her monastery.  There she ran a school which was responsible for the teaching of many early churchmen and women, including my own (and apparently her) favourite St Brendan the Navigator.  So many passed though her hands that she earned the nickname “foster mother of the saints of Erin”.  It is said, and I don’t know how anyone could disagree, that Ita thought Brendan all he would know about boats and seamanship based on her early upbringing around fishermen here in the Deise.

Countless images, statues, windows, convents, churches, schools and hospitals are dedicated to her and it appears that this is most pronounced in the western counties as far north as Galway.  Of course it was a common enough name in times past though less common now, although we do have a young neighbour called Mieda (my little Ita), living across the road.

Her connection with Faithlegg is puzzling.  Although some have said in publications that she was born here, there is no oral evidence or tradition of it in the area.  A plaque at the well, written by Julian Walton (if memory serves Julian covered her story in On This Day Vol I but I can’t locate my copy at the moment), speculates that her name, which would have been widely known in the early Christian era, was used as a marker by the Deise, to clearly designate their territory to passers by.  There are a few points I would yet like to explore however, for example the proximity of Faithlegg to another important early Christian settlement, Kilmokea in Great island in Co Wexford (2 miles away via boat) .  Another curiosity (and perhaps just a coincidence) is that both Faithlegg Church and Ballyduff Church are both dedicated to St Nicholas, could there be a connection?  Finally, the Barony of Ide sits across the river from Cheekpoint in the South East of Kilkenny, again something I have yet to explore.

Ita died on the day that would become her feast day 15th January, perhaps in the year 570 (at least according to Wikipedia).  For a lady with such a history and connection with the Deise it’s a shame that not more is made of her connections to us here, her life and her works.  I certainly look forward to researching her more.

Finally a poem dedicated to her memory from the late 19th Century

SING, sing ye a maiden holy,
And pure as the driven snow,
A saint of our sainted island
Serving God long ago.

Oh, she had riches and suitors
Where royal Decies stood,
But gave up all for a lover
Who shed for her His Blood.

Sing, sing ye a maiden holy,
And pure as the driven snow,
A saint of our sainted island
Serving God long ago.

“Depart”, cried a voice, “from kindred,
And from thy father’s lands;
Make haste to a distant region,
Where dark-browed Loochar stands.

Wild warriors there shall build thee
A home by the mountain side;
Hy-Connaill bloom as a garden,
And bless thee far and wide. “

Sing, sing ye a maiden holy,
And pure as the driven snow,
A saint of our sainted island
Serving God long ago.

And clansmen and maidens gathered
Around that white-robed dove;
And the land served God as a virgin,
All, all of that virgin’s love.

O, gem of our Church, fair Ita,
Maid of our worship and love,
Pray for our priests and people,
Saint of the heavens above.

Sing, sing ye a maiden holy,
And pure as the driven snow,
A saint of our sainted island
Serving God long ago.

R. O. K., St. Ita,  The Irish Monthly,  Vol. 23, No. 259 (Jan., 1895), p. 26.
Accessed from 09/01/2015

Dunphy. J.  St Ita, The Forgotten Princess.  2006.  Trafford Publishing.
Hunt. M.  A history of the Church of Saints Coan and Brogán Clonea Power.  2010