Water is one of the prime necessities of life, and to early man the sign of a spring of crystal liquid bubbling out of the ground, or gushing from some crevice in a rock, must have appeared nothing short of miraculous..… Water is other. Its moods are strange and various. By turns it is quiet, and violent; it can refresh or it can kill. It emerges in a miraculous way from the earth, for it is neither living, nor inanimate; it possesses life, yet is not itself alive, and unlike fire, can never fully be domesticated. Water further comes from below, from darkness, from the place where the dead…are buried, from the brooding presence beneath the feet.
James Rattue, The Living Stream: Holy Wells in Historical Context, 1995
A veneration of water can be found throughout the world. For all societies, water is a precious and astonishing thing. Its special and essential life-giving attributes have been respected and even sanctified for millennia. On a grand scale think of the rivers Nile and Ganges, while closer to home we have holy wells, once equally cherished.
There are estimated to be an impressive 3000 holy wells in Ireland. At one time every community would have had a least one well visited for its saintliness or healing qualities.
It is difficult to say how old the holy wells are in Ireland but it is believed that many are pre-Christian. Very few have been excavated but St Anne’s Well in Randalstown, County Meath (excavated in 1976), was found to have votive offerings associated with it dating back to the Iron Age. The arrival of Christianity in the sixth century (also with its emphasis on water as a means of being baptised into the church) meant that many springs and wells were absorbed into the new religion, early Christians sensibly building onto existing practices. At St Anne’s well, for example, it seems the site was originally dedicated to the Celtic goddess Áine who was then deposed and merged with St Anne. The native church flourished and many local saints were created, it was not necessary to be officially recognised until the eleventh century. Many wells now bear the names of these little known but intriguing local saints: St Laitiarian, St Ina, St Mologa, St Fionncúi, St Dalbach and St Olán are just a few examples of names that don’t instantly spring to mind.
During the period of repressive Penal Laws introduced in 1692, Catholic congregations were forced to worship in secret and often in the open air. Holy wells seemed to offer suitable sites as they were already venerated. Many have mass rocks in close proximity and stories associated with repression and miraculous intervention. At Our Lady’s Well on the Sheep’s Head, the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) herself is said to have appeared and swirled her cloak over the congregation illegally gathered there to worship. The ensuing confusion allowed the priest to escape and terrified the soldiers dispatched to arrest him.
During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries pattern days became very popular. These were feast days, worship combined with celebration, but they eventually became too rowdy to continue (see Ritual). Although many pattern days died out post 1850 when the Catholic Church sought to enforce a tighter grip on its congregations, the veneration of wells quietly continued.
As a rule, all the Irish saints have one or more blessed wells dedicated to their memory in the immediate neighbourhood of the churches which they founded. Indeed, the church was never founded except near a well. Pure water was necessary, not only for Baptism and for the Holy Sacrifice, but also for the daily needs of the holy men and women whose lives were given there to the service of God. What wonder these became holy wells – blessed for Baptism, used at mass, giving daily drink to generations of saints, who, with pure and grateful hearts, blessed God who gave them those crystal springs. We believe that some of their (ie the saints) ancient holiness still lingers round our blessed wells, that their holy patrons still pray in a special way for those who frequent them in a pious and confiding spirit, and that God often hears those fervent prayers and grants special requests to the faithful suppliants through the fervour of their faith and the merits of the saints.
Extract from Holy Wells of Ireland by Most Rev. John Healy, D.D., Archbishop of Tuam
During the early twentieth century most communities would still have had a well, visited for its healing powers and revered. Their popularity slowly declined, some disappearing altogether, some still visited by a devout few. Recently there has been a resurgence of interest.
Some are being rediscovered and restored; masses are again being said at them; pattern days and pilgrimages revived; and some of us are quite keen that they should be recorded and remembered!
Whatever your beliefs, holy wells offer a quiet and usually very scenic place to escape the rigours of everyday life, a connection with the past, and somewhere to simply consider a few mysteries.