All Holy Wells in Ireland bear a striking resemblance to one another. Each well is usually found in a quiet place, sheltered by trees, and covered by a flat stone slab to preserve it from contamination. Round the well a circle is traced and there are “stations” or resting places for prayer and meditation at regular intervals along the outline of the circle. Close to the well there is a crude altar beside a tree trunk on which a crucifix in wood or stone is hung. On the branches of the trees in the vicinity, small pieces of cloth may be fastened. These are memorials of pilgrims’ visits. At the close of the visit, the pilgrim may drink some water from the well out of a vessel secured by a chain to a nearby stone or wall.
Extract from Sight Unseen Programme, Bernadette Players, 1958
Holy wells are often found in quiet, remote places. The area around them in which the rounds were done (see Ritual) is known as the térmonn, or sacred space and often has certain characteristics all centred on the well.
The source of water is obviously the main centre of veneration. The well can be anything from a tiny indentation in natural rock, to a specially constructed basin to a large water course. Some wells are protected by simple well houses made of stone whilst others have more elaborate constructions. Many are just open to the elements. There might be a stone slab for offerings or a small niche. Some wells might be presided over by a statue of the resident saint.
Some wells have a tree which is also considered sacred and known as bhile in Irish. Whitethorn and hawthorns seem the most common. These sacred trees, sometimes called rag trees or clootie trees, would also be venerated. Traditionally a fragment of red flannel was first rubbed on the source of pain then hung on tree; as the rag decayed so did pain. The hawthorn tree near Inghe Bhuidhe’s well in North Cork is festooned with rags of many colours.
Many wells are found near pre-historic or early Christian sites. Their provenance is not always clear. Were the sites chosen because the well was already there or vice versa? Some sites feature standing stones, Ogham stones (stones with an ancient Irish alphabet carved into them) or ballaun stones (stones with man-made indentations).
The ritual prescribed at a holy well site might include leaving a small stone each time a round was achieved. The pilgrims would often take small stacks of stones with them, quartz being especially popular, and deposit a stone each time they did a round. Offerings were also left, sometimes of a healing nature, others of a religious nature: coins, rosary beads, prayer cards, pins, nails, pottery shards, glasses, photos, crutches, prayers, dummies, teeny shoes and statues are all commonly seen. Offerings can be pretty eclectic today, whatever the visitor seems to have at hand!
Fish feature large in folklore of well – an eel is often said to be lurking within and should you see it your prayers will come true. This must surely go back to story of Salmon of Knowledge where the ancient Irish hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill gained knowledge after sucking his thumb, burnt whilst cooking the mythical salmon. The fish is also a very popular and ancient symbol for Christianity. Sometimes, as in the case of St Flanahan, the fish that resides in the well is said to be an embodiment of the saint himself.