St Colman O’Ficra was a Catholic saint who lived in the 7th century and founded a monastery on what is now St Colman’s Church in Templeshanbo, County Wexford.
Between two graveyards is a holy well and at this spot there was once a large pond supplied with water from the well. For many years after St Colman’s death a number of ducks lived on the pond and were believed to be under the saint’s special protection. St Colman had been fond of birds, and ducks were his favourites. The ducks were treated with great affection and tenderness, so much so that they became very tame and would even take food direct from the hands of the pilgrims who visited.
As these ducks were under such protection, legend said nothing could harm them – not that any of the villagers would dare to even disturb a single feather on their heads. However, because the ducks were so tame, someone fetching water from the pond on a dark night would occasionally head home with rather more than they’d bargained on. Without realising, they’d throw the contents of the vessel, bird and all, into a pot over a fire for boiling. But no matter how long the fire burned, or how much wood was added to it, the water stayed stone cold. Upon further inspection, the duck would be discovered swimming about in the pot and returned to the pond none the worse for its experience, at which point the pot would heat and the water boil without further delay.
In the 12th century, Gerald of Wales recorded more of these duck tales in his ‘Topography of Ireland’, which he wrote as an account of his journey to Ireland with King Henry II’s son, John. One such story claims that if anyone showed disrespect to the Church or clergy, or even to the ducks themselves, the whole flock would fly away and settle on some other lake. Almost immediately, the pond water would become cloudy and start smelling, making it completely unfit for human consumption. Once the offender had been found and suitably punished, the ducks would fly back to the pond and the moment they returned the water would become clear and fit to drink again.
It wasn’t only animals that were under special protection according to legend. Merlin’s Oak stood in the centre of Carmarthen town and it was said that King Arthur’s magician had made a prophecy about it:
“When Merlin’s tree shall tumble down, then shall fall Carmarthen town.”
The tree actually died in 1856 as the result of deliberate poisoning. However, the stump remained there until 1978, when it was destroyed by fire. After its removal, Carmarthen suffered its worst floods in living memory. Coincidence – or the prophecy in effect?
Either way, the remains of Merlin’s Oak are preserved in the civic hall.