BY JOHN FITZGERALD
In 2001, I called to see the revered Raggedy Bush, located about three miles outside Kilkenny along the route to Kells village. I included a chapter about it in my book Kilkenny: People Places Faces, which is now out of print.
To an untutored newcomer, unversed in the traditions of the area, this relic of Celtic mysticism might be mistaken for an open-air clothes hanger. On the day I first saw it, the bush appeared to be almost weighed down with rags.
Its foliage was scarcely visible. From every sprig and leaf hung a piece of cloth. There were rags of every description: scarves, ribbons, stockings, handkerchiefs and tattered banners, bits of blankets and sheets, and items of female lingerie.
Some were as good as new, I noticed, with the odd trademark or label still intact; but most looked as if they might have been there since the dawn of time. Loose threads and remnants of decaying haberdashery abounded. Steam seemed to rise from the bush in the hot weather. About twenty yards from the bush in a ditch clearing is a stone plaque announcing its presence to passers-by.
For the people of Kells Road, and the thousands who visit the hallowed site every year, St. Patrick’s Raggedy Bush has a deep significance. For them, it represents a historic landmark and is, to quote one resident, “a spot favoured by the very saints of Heaven.” For as long as locals can remember, visitors have been tying rags on the bush as “visible prayers” or to mark crucial turning points in their lives.
In 2001, I spoke to locals and members of the Raggedy Bush Preservation Group. Dermot Kearney was the driving force behind the group, which aimed to promote the traditions associated with the bush and, hopefully, develop its potential as a tourist attraction.
“The bush is very important to us”, he informed me, “and the legends surrounding it are legion”. He explained that its origins are shrouded in mystery, and that nobody really knows how long it has been there or how it acquired its mystical status.
One legend, he added, relates that St. Patrick was resting at the spot where the bush now stands. As the saint relaxed after a day’s preaching, the Gaelic warrior Finn McCool caught a glimpse of the man who was seeking to convert Ireland to Christianity. Feeling that the old ways were threatened by this new doctrine, Finn took an enormous rock and flung it at St. Patrick.
Alerted by an angel, Patrick ducked and avoided certain death. To give thanks to God for this close shave, he knelt and offered a prayer. His knees melted the ground beneath them and it was here that the famous bush grew “with God’s blessing”.
The age of the bush is unknown, but Dermot established that it has been sinec the early 1900s “I have a map dating to 1903 that mentions it “, he informed me, “but it may be hundreds of years old.”
Nor does anyone know when people began hanging rags on the bush. Dermot reflected: “That tradition is certainly older than any of us who live in these parts. All sorts of people tie the rags, and everyone has a different motive or purpose in visiting the bush. You can offer the rag as a prayer or think of it as symbolising something you care about, or you can make a wish.”
Dermot revealed that the bush was almost uprooted during a storm three years ago.
“Luckily, it survived and we took steps to strengthen the bush by placing a forked branch under it”, he recalled. He said he looked forward to the peak tourist season when sightseers will flock to see the bush and take photographs. “There’s huge interest in it, and that interest could grow in the years ahead as word gets around”, he predicted.
(Picture: The Raggedly Bush group in June 2001. Left to Right: Dermot Kearney, Corey McHugh, Jack McHugh (aged four), Gavin Kearney and Derry Kearney.)
To be continued…