Northern Ireland news

Tyrone 'holy river' tradition kept alive with healing service

The 'Holy River' at Washingbay, outside Coalisland in Co Tyrone
Brendan Hughes

FOR generations it was a place of pilgrimage in Co Tyrone along Lough Neagh's south-west shoreline as people sought cures from its reputed healing waters.

At the 'Holy River', which flows into the lough, pilgrims would wash their sores with red flannel dipped in the waterway before tying the rags to trees along its banks.

The tradition on St John's Eve, before the feast day of St John the Baptist, largely declined in the 20th century – but its sentiment is being kept alive.

An annual 'healing service' takes place outside Coalisland at the Washingbay Centre, located near the Holy River.

A priest takes part in the service which involves a liturgy for the blessing of the sick, and a blessing of hands for those who look after the sick and infirm.

This year's healing service will take place at the Washingbay Centre on Wednesday, June 26 at 8pm.

Jackie Corr

Jackie Corr helped set up the annual event, which has been taking place for about a decade.

The retired accountant, who is from the area, said he recalls when he was a child how people would flock to the Holy River.

"They would have come to the Holy River, they would have washed their face and hands, usually using a red bit of cloth, dipped that in the water and then rubbed that on their sores," he said.

"They would have then hung that on the blackthorn bushes growing beside the river.

"The theory was that as the rags disintegrated, their sores would disappear."

Mr Corr said some people would still hang rags from the trees around the Holy River, and told how some locals have discovered religious medals and other artefacts nearby.

Since the 18th century people have been drawn to the Holy River, traditionally around midsummer, hoping to be healed of their ailments.

Red rags hang from trees at a sign near the 'Holy River' in Washingbay, Co Tyrone

Mr Corr said it was also believed the Holy River could have some therapeutic qualities as it waters flow through sphagnum moss before entering the Washingbay.

But he advised against bathing in the river nowaways, warning of "too much stuff going into the water".

For the healing service at the Washingbay Centre, which is near Derrylaughan GAA club, water taken from the lough is boiled and then allowed to cool before being blessed.

Mr Corr said he feels a "general interest in maintaining the traditions and culture of our part of the world".

The 'Holy River' at Washingbay, outside Coalisland in Co Tyrone

"It's a wee short religious service. We usually have our local priest say a little liturgy and then there will be the blessing of the sick, anybody who has any sort of condition," he added.

"I just think it's a nice little memory of that old tradition, and the fact that people get together, it's a wee social occasion as well and that in itself I suppose has healing qualities."

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