What makes a well holy is a question I’ve often been asked and one I pondered on today as I investigated two very different but both interesting wells.
First stop Letterlickey (leitir lice, hillside of the flagstones) where I had been invited to look at a well on private land. The owners had only recently moved into the house and were delighted to discover the well in their garden, hidden under a sheet of corrugated metal and rampant foliage.
They have cleared the undergrowth covering the well and are restoring it sympathetically. The little path leading to it is still rich in ferns and bracken, the well tucked away and secret, nestling into a slope.
It is beautifully and sturdily made out of blocks of stone, arranged in a traditional semi-circular shape. The basin is deep and rectangular, the water fresh, clear and cold; reddish-orange staining on the stone evidence that there is iron in the water. A large slab is in front of the well – for ease of collecting water, or for kneeling?
Apparently the water is considered excellent and believed never to freeze, local farmers coming to use it when their own supplies have failed. A cup was still there under all the greenery when the well was uncovered.
The well is not marked on any maps nor is it in the Archaeological Inventory. The present owners feel it is a special place though and have instilled their own sense of place: little figurines have been added and to them it is undoubtedly a sacred place.
The second well was another lickey – this time in Ballylickey (beal ath lice, ford of the flagstones) and I had been alerted to this during a chance conversation. A friend had introduced me to another friend as the one researching wells! Her friend immediately inquired if I knew about the one in Ballylickey: 200 yards up from the garden centre. You couldn’t miss it, distinguished by the bumpy shape. I didn’t know of it and, again, there was no written evidence but it had to be investigated.
I parked by the garden centre and set off on the pavement, cars whooshing by on the busy N71. The friend was right – it was easy to find, dampness spilling out onto the pavement and the well itself cut into the steep roadside banks. It was much overgrown but easy to clear carefully around it.
Another very pleasant looking well was revealed, nicely made from stone, fitting snugly into the steep, roadside banks, the basin deep and rectangular with a large slab in front.
The water was abundant and fresh. It looked very promising. I inquired in the garden centre on the way back and the lady told me the story. The woman who had lived in the old cottage over 30 years ago, Mattie, had used the well for her water until the council had attached her to the mains. No holiness, just good clean water.
So two wells, neither officially holy but one about to become so. What does make a well holy? Actually wish I hadn’t started pondering on this for there is no straightforward answer and a satisfactory response would necessitate years of research and inquiry and a PhD at the end! And even then …!
The easy answer is a well is holy if someone wants it to be or says it is!
The PhD can come later but here are a few simple pointers that seem to indicate how to define a holy well:
- It is a collection of water around which some sort of cultural or spiritual activity has arisen
- There will have been some kind of spiritual intervention at the well, allowing direct connection with a particular saint or deity (many ancient wells were amalgamated and sained (purified) with the coming of Christianity)
- The water will be valued for purposes other than thirst and will only be drunk as part of a prescribed ritual or for healing purposes
- The water may have healing properties: there are wells to cure just about anything from sore eyes to insanity, warts to female ailments
- There will be stories associated with the well – how it originated, who frequented it, what occurred there
- There will be rituals associated with the well: when to visit it, how to use how to use it and how to behave when you get there
- And maybe most importantly and least easy to define, there will be a sense of place: a unique power experienced at this particular geographical site
Most of the above pointers may have disappeared at many of the wells today but one that still seems to fill all criteria is St Bridget’s Well at Castlemagner, north Cork.
Here there seems to be evidence of pagan deities co-existing, not always comfortably, with Christian saints; the water is potent and should be drunk during a certain ritual; miraculous cures have occurred at the well, stories abound, and the sense of place is still palpable.
As to the two lickeys: one woman’s clear spring is another woman’s holy well. I think they’re both pretty special.
*And apologies for the terrible title but I couldn’t resist it.
Many thanks to Brendan and Michelle for showing me their well.
The location of these wells can be found in the Gazetteer. The Letterlickey well is on private land and permission must be sought.