Home Customs Chibbyr Baltane Holy Well

Chibbyr Baltane Holy Well

by Bernadette Weyde

Lovely video by Culture Vannin on the rediscovery of Chibbyr Baltane in the parish of Rushen!  This important well was visited by our ancestors for healing through the centuries but had disappeared for some years and in this instance, it probably occurred because people no longer visited and tended the well resulting in the tradition dying out.  Consider Mother Nature taking over, as is her way, and a well can silt up with plant debris causing it to run dry or its flow is restricted to all but a damp patch of ground making it difficult to recognise it as a well today.  Plants too and the likes of gorse claim their place thus making it challenging to even get near an area to see if a well still survives.  In this case though, and with the landowner’s permission, some serious clearing of the location was undertaken and with the help of recorded information about the well, Chibbyr Baltane was successfully rediscovered.

The well has a noted tradition of being visited especially at Boaldyn (Beltane) on 1 May (12 May Old Calendar) and JJ Kneen in his work ‘The Place-names of the Isle of Man…‘ records:

…‘the well of Beltane’ or ‘May.’ Connected with the ancient festival of Beltane. The late Thomas Moore,— owner of Ballalonney, the farm on which the well is situated,— remembered its being held in reverence by the older inhabitants. He had found old rags hanging on the bushes, and had seen various objects, such as coins, etc, in the well. This custom was a lingering relic of pagan times, when prayers were offered up, and offerings left at the well by the worshippers who drank of its waters. It is probable that this well had some connection with the old chapel which stood near it, and which was demolished about forty years ago, according to Mr.Moore. (v. Magher y Chabbal). 

We do not know for sure if the tradition stretches far back to pre-Christian times or if it is associated with a nearby keeill (old chapel) but if the latter, it is likely to have been dedicated to a saint and George Broderick in his book ‘A Dictionary of Manx Place-Names‘ offers St Ultan as the saint from whom the well gets its name.  This implies that if the well was originally known as Chibbyr Ultan, it underwent some change over time to arrive at its present form of Chibbyr Baltane.  This is not uncommon as language develops and many of our place-names have undergone changes through the years, some of whose original form is unknown.

On researching St Ultan, there are two Irish saints with this name.  The first was an abbot-bishop of Ardbraccan in Meath who is usually referred to as Ultan of Ardbraccan, probably to distinguish him from the second Ultan.  He was from the Kingdom of Connacht which stretches to the west coast of Ireland and is recorded as being of the ‘royal race of O’Connor’.  He was a gifted scribe and collected the writings of St Brighid and illuminated them. 

In the Féilire of Aengus (catalogue of saints), Ultan is mentioned as “the great sinless prince in whom the little ones are flourishing: the children play greatly round Ultan of Ardbraccan.” The annotation explains that the Yellow Plague attacked adults more than children and described the piteous scenes of human suffering witnessed during its continuance. Everywhere through the country numbers of little children, whose mothers and fathers had been carried off, were left helpless and starving.  Ultan collected all the orphan babes he could find, and brought them to his monastery.   In one of the accounts, we are told that he often had as many as 150.  He is said to have invented a method of feeding his young charges by “procuring a number of cows’ teats, which he filled with milk”  At some point in his life, Ultan went to the Arran Islands where his tomb slab was later discovered.  He died on 4 September c.657 and this day is his feast day.  

The second Ultan was a monk, abbot and hermit who spent time in the Kingdom of Anglia and France.  He is the son of Fyltan, King of Munster and grandson of King Áed of Connacht (possibly Áed mac Echach).  Along with two of his brothers, Foillan and Fursey (or Fursa), he took holy orders and all three were elevated to sainthood.  The Venerable Bede relates that Ultan joined the mission led by Fursey which went from Ireland through British territory to East Anglia in around 633 AD, to the kingdom of King Sigeberht of East Anglia. The monastery of which he was a member there was established in the precinct of an old Roman stone-built shore-fort near the sea, at a place called Cnobheresburg. The King received them and endowed the monastery, and it was later re-endowed by King Anna of East Anglia and his nobles. The site is commonly identified with Burgh Castle, Norfolk. 

After several years in which he served a probation in the monastery at Cnobheresburg, Ultan went off to live alone in East Anglia as a hermit.  In around 643 Fursey handed his duties to Foillan and went to join Ultan, taking nothing with him, and they lived for a year together by the labour of their hands in a life of contemplation and philosophy.

A record preserved at Nivelles (Belgium) shows that Foillan and his brethren (including Ultan) fled the Kingdom of East Anglia with the help of King Anna of East Anglia in 651, when the monastery was under attack from King Penda of Mercia, and King Anna himself was then exiled from his own kingdom. Foillan and Ultan took away the precious property and books of the monastery, and after unhappy dealings with Erchinoald they were received by St Gertrude of Nivelles and her mother Itta. Foillan went off to found a monastery at Fosse (now Fosses-la-Ville) near Namur with the encouragement and support of Itta, but was murdered with some companions not long afterwards by bandits, during a journey from Nivelles to Fosse.

About the year 653, St. Gertrude, of Brabant, sent for Foillan and Ultan as she wanted them to teach psalmody to her nuns. These two Irish monks complied with her request, and built an adjoining monastery at Fosse, in the diocese of Liege.  Ultan died on 1 May c.686 and this became his feast day.  

Looking at both Ultans and pondering on which one may be associated with the well, if indeed Ultan it is, I cannot say but the first Ultan, with his help to the children and his work in collecting and illuminating the writings of Brighid – she who the Manx people held in such high esteem – seems a good contender though the second Ultan’s feast day has my attention too!

Whatever the original purpose and dedication of Chibbyr Baltane, it is a wonderful thing to see it is again being given the respect it deserves.  It is no mean feat sometimes hunting down these lost treasures of ours and that one more is now restored to the records and hearts of the Manx people is a credit to all involved.

(source: still photograph of the well is a screenshot from the Cultue Vannin video; St Ultan on wiki https://bit.ly/2y3ACVl; https://bit.ly/2SlM9WQ; George Broderick ‘A Dictionary of Manx Place-Names’ (2006); ‘The Saints’ Collection 2,428 Saints’, publication date unknown, text from a google preview of the book which can be purchased from Catholic Way Publishing)

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