"St. Declan's stone" is on the beach; it is a large rock, resting on two others which elevate it a little above the ground. On the 24th of July, the festival of the saint, numbers of the lowest class do penance on their bare knees around the stone, and some, with great pain and difficulty, creep under it, in expectation of thereby curing or preventing, what it is much more likely to create, rheumatic affections of the back.The sarcasm would be amusing if it wasn't for the dismissive 'lowest class' remark?! From 'The history, topography and antiquities of the county and city of Waterford; with an account of the present state of the peasantry of that part of the south of Ireland' by R H Ryland (1824).
For more details, ideally you'd want the original of the following account from Philip Dixon Hardy's 'Holy Wells of Ireland' (1836) but I can only give you the paraphrased version in Borlase's 1893 'Age of the Saints'. The date of the shenanigans alters here, but if it was indeed in December, maybe a shot of whisky wouldn't have gone amiss:
The festival of St. Declan was held at Ardmore, in the county of Waterford, on December 23. It was attended by several thousand persons of all ages and both sexes.
'The greater part of the extensive strand which forms the western part of Ardmore Bay was literally covered by a dense mass of people. Tents were spread, each with its green ensign, for the sale of whisky. The devotional exercises were commenced at an early hour in the day, by passing under the holy rock of St. Declan in a state of half-nudity. Stretched at full length on the ground on the face and stomach, each devotee moved forward, as if in the act of swimming, and thus squeezed or dragged their bodies through. Both sexes were obliged to submit to this humiliating mode of proceeding. Upwards of 1,100 persons were observed to go through this ceremony in the course of the day [...]'
[Hardy] describes the fair on the seashore - the tents, with food and liquor, and the cards, dice, wheels of fortune, and the like. The stone, which is on the margin of the sea, is, he says, of the same kind as the neighbouring rocks, and weighs some two or three tons. It is said to have been floated on the sea from Italy, crowned with nine bells, which came opportunely, as the priest was in want of a bell, and was about to celebrate Mass. Since then the stone has been venerated for its miraculous cures.
It is only at low water that people can go under the stone and perform their devotions there; they must always take advantage of the tide. On the Saint's day it was always necessary to remove some of the sand which had accumulated under the stone, to make a sufficient passage for a large man or woman.
As the little rocks on which the stone rests form irregular pillars – like the supporting stones in a dolmen, in fact – it is necessary to have the surface under the stone lower than the front or rear. As a commencement the men took off hats, coats, shoes, stockings, and, if very large, their waistcoats, and turned up their breeches above the knee; then, lying flat on the ground, put in hands, arms, and head – one shoulder more forward than the other, in order to work their way through more easily – and coming out from under the stone at the other end (from front to rear being a distance of, perhaps, four feet) rose on their knees and struck their backs three times against the stone, removing beads and repeating aves all the while. They then proceeded on bare knees over a number of little rocks to the place where they had to enter again under the stone, and thus proceeded three times, which done they washed their knees, bodies, and dress, and made for [St. Declan's well]. The women went through the ceremony in the same manner as the men, taking off bonnets, shoes, and stockings, and turning up their petticoats above the knee, so that they might go through the exercise on bare knees.
[…] In illustration of the strength of the popular devotion for St. Declan's Stone, that priests had actually whipped the people from it, but they continued their superstitions in spite of them, and in consequence some priests were content to let things alone and wink at the practice.
Posted by Rhiannon
19th January 2010ce
Edited 20th January 2010ce