Confined to barracks due to hurricanes and tidal surges, my thoughts turned to blessed fish. During the year and a half I have been exploring holy wells in County Cork, I have been fascinated by how many are said to contain a blessed fish – roughly one tenth. The fish are usually described as eels but could also be trout or salmon. What’s going on here?
The Salmon of Knowledge
It seems many cultures have venerated fish or chosen a fish as the symbol of a god or goddess, and by the 2nd century AD, a fish was being used in Christian iconography to symbolise Jesus Christ. In Irish culture, the veneration of fish must surely come from the ancient story of The Salmon of Knowledge An Bradán Feasa, found in the Fenian Cycle of Irish Mythology, an Fhiannaíocht, which largely focuses on the exploits of the renowned hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill,(usually anglicised to Finn McCool) including his boyhood adventures and how he gained the knowledge of the world. Here’s a brief summary:
Nine hazel trees once surrounded the Well of Wisdom, Tobar Segais, and one day nine hazel nuts fell into the water. A salmon ate the hazel nuts and by doing so gained all the knowledge of the world. It was said that whoever ate the salmon in turn would gain the knowledge. The druid Finegas (Finn Ecas) heard the story and longed to gain all the wisdom for himself. He made his home along the banks of the River Boyne and spent years pursuing the salmon. He had a young apprentice, Fionn, who in exchange for tuition kept his house clean and did the chores. After seven years Finegas caught the salmon and ordered Fionn to cook it, warning him not to eat any. Fionn did as he was told but in cooking the fish accidentally burnt his thumb on the spit and sucked it to ease the pain. When the boy served up the fish, the old druid noticed something different about Fionn – an inner light seemed to be streaming from him. Anxiously he asked if Fionn had eaten any salmon. He said he had not but confessed to having burnt his thumb whilst cooking. Finegas realised that this was enough and that Fionn was the chosen one. He urged Fionn to eat all the fish. When he had finished he asked him if he felt any different. Fionn said he did not but then Finegas ordered him to suck his thumb for that was where he had first touched the salmon. Fionn did so and all the wisdom of the world rushed into him! Fionn of course went on to become a poet, warrior and leader of the Fianna, the greatest band of warriors ever know in Ireland, and when he wanted to know something, he just sucked his thumb!
(A thought here on wisdom and eye wells, tobar na súl. A cure for sore eyes is the most popular cure contained by many wells – nearly a sixth of wells explored so far. I wonder if this search for improved sight could also encompass a search for wisdom and enlightenment, a reference to the well as a font of wisdom as well as the slightly more mundane search for a cure for sore eyes. Did some pilgrims visit eye wells for answers to questions and enlightenment? And if a fish resided within, was the well extra potent?)
Fish as supernatural beings
As mentioned the fish was chosen as a symbol of Jesus Christ and remains a sacred motif to this day. The symbol derives from the Greek word ichthys, meaning fish, which consists of five letters from the Greek alphabet: I-ch-th-y-s. These five letters are used as initials for: Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, translated as Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour.
Other fishy signifiers in the Christian religion include the name for initiates in early baptism rites: pisciculi – little fish, with the font itself known as the piscina, or fishpond. Wells could perhaps be seen as real or symbolic fonts and those containing fish considered to have extra potency, the fish being revered as the guardian of the well, the supernatural being that gives the well its healing power and innate wisdom.
The most common fish to inhabit wells seem to be trout or eels, themselves boundary crossers: the trout leaves the sea to enter freshwater to mate, and the eel leaves freshwater to travel to the Saragossa sea near Bermuda. Seeing a blessed fish was considered extremely fortunate and a sign that a pilgrim’s prayers would usually be answered. At Lady’s Well Rockspring, North Cork a positive outcome was not always guaranteed:
It is said that in the well a fish is seen. When people see the fish they wish for something. Sometimes they get what they wish for but sometimes they do not. At night it is said that the fish is to be seen. Lady’s Well, Rockspring (216:0367; Schools’ Folklore Collection)
At Templemologa the pilgrims travelled hopefully:
A trout lives in the well and the diseased people look out for it because they think their rituals more effective in the trout’s presence. St Mologa’s Well, Templemologa (Schools’ Folklore Collection, 0376: 001/002)
St Peter and St Paul’s Well, near Skibbereen, contained two blessed eels which were much venerated and the focus of an annual pilgrimage. The pilgrims brought bread with the specific intention of feeding the fish:
In Mr Carey’s land, about a mile and a quarter from Skibbereen, there is a Blessed Well. Pilgrims visit it annually on the Feast of St Peter and St Paul, 29th June. Prayers are said during the rounds. In it there is a blessed eel and the pilgrims throw bread to him. Hundreds of people go to this well on the 29th June every year. The people take a piece of bread or cloth with them usually. There are two blessed eels in this well; it is said that long ago a blind woman and a lame man were cured there. It is said you must see one of the eels before you can be cured. People take a piece of cloth with them to tie to the whitethorn bush which is growing up over the well. I have heard that six unbaptised children were buried in a mound of earth a couple of yards from the well. May the Lord have mercy on their souls. The water that flows from this well drops from a rock that is over the well; if a person looked up he could see the drops falling down. Why people take a piece of bread with them is because they say the eels will live on that much food in the year.( 0297: 143/144)
It was essential to treat a holy well with respect, especially one containing a blessed fish. Using the holy water for domestic purposes usually ended badly. Back to St Mologa’s Well:
Close to Temple Mologa is a copious spring well, which was always held sacred by the people and should be used only for drinking and curative purposes; but on one occasion, the lady of the manor, an unbeliever, would insist on cooking her husband’s dinner in the water of the sacred spring. When the water had time to boil, the cook remarked it was icy cold; more logs were placed on the fire, still to no effect. The logs were still being piled on, the fire blazed, but when the dinner hour arrived, the water was still as cold as ever. The lord waxed hungry, and, like other mortals, became angry; he rushed into the kitchen to ascertain for himself the cause of the delay, had the cover lifted off the huge pot, and, although the fire was crackling and blazing high about it, he felt the water was quite cold; but what astonished him more was to behold a beautiful trout swimming about in it, without apparently suffering the least inconvenience. He became wonder-stricken, and had his advisers called in. They told him to take the water back to the well without delay and pour it in. This being done, the trout again became invisible, and is since rarely seen, except by certain votaries. In the district it is a common saying when water is slow to boil: ‘perhaps the Molaga trout is in it’. (Colonel Grove White: Historical and Topographical Notes Vol 1)
Not all wells were so forgiving and occasionally the well would take severe umbrage and dry up or move as happened at St Mary’s Well and Sunday’s Well, Walshestown near Cork City:
The story is to the effect that a local woman carried water home from the well to boil potatoes. Unfortunately the eel had been drawn out at the same time. To her amazement the water remained cold after hours of boiling until her husband found out what had happened and returned the eel and water to the well. But this did not appease the offended spirit which caused the water to dry up and it has remained dry to the present day. Cordner, from Carmichael Watson Project described as a blog for the Carmichael Watson project, which is based at Edinburgh University Library, centred on the papers of folklorist Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912).
These two wells, on each side of the niche containing the statue, were said to contain an eel in Sunday’s Well (to the left) and a trout in St Mary’s Well (to the right). It seems that the central area, which is now a grotto, might have once been a third well – the holiest well. Was this the one that dried up after being disrespected?
The blessed fish as representative of the saint
Some fish are also considered to be the direct manifestation of a saint and therefore especially potent. The eel sometimes spotted at St Fanahan’s well, Mitchelstown was considered to be the saint himself and this belief is clearly depicted on two very different sculptures of the formidable, warrior saint. The statue above the holy well shows an elegant sinuous eel below the dainty feet of the slender saint.
Contrast that with the sculpture outside the Garda station in the town where the true light of the saint shines through. This clearly is a depiction of man who might have a crozier called Cennachathach (head battler!) and whose teeth might spark thereby causing the shafts of his enemies’ spears to burn! The eel is pretty chunky too.
As always a sighting of the eel was considered a fortuitious sign for the pilgrim and this well held a cure for lameness.
The blessed fish as water purifier
Interesting at St Sylvester’s Well, Malahide, north Dublin, an eel was purposefully introduced into the holy well for it was recognised that eels keep water clean:
We are aware that many sacred fish are associated with holy wells and, here in Malahide, up to the close of the 1890’s, an eel was inserted into the waters of the well to purify it …. The custom of releasing an eel into the well water could also be a folk remedy for keeping the water pure as the eel will eat all the grubs, crustaceans, mites, flies, nympha and all aquatic insects which would otherwise contaminate it’s purity. Malahide Historical Society
However, not all eels were the bringer of good luck – just one dissenting voice at Abbey’s Well, Kilshannig where a good fish/bad fish routine seems to be going on:
it is said that an eel and a trout live are supposed to inhabit this well. The trout is supposed to be seen by people doing the rounds if their requests are to be granted. If not an eel may be seen. A few years ago a man named Jack Sullivan went paying rounds for his son who got a pain in his leg. One day as he was kneeling in front of the well he noticed the trout jump about the well. He had often heard it was very lucky to see a trout. To his surprise when he returned home the pain was gone. There was also a woman whose son fell seriously ill. She went paying rounds for him at Abby’s Well. One day as she was kneeling beside the well she noticed an eel in the water. When she returned home she informed the neighbours of what she had seen. She did not know anything about the eel but one of the onlisteners told her it was very unlucky to see an eel. Soon after the boy died. Schools’ Folklore Collection (139 -142:0363)
I have a very good friend who has spotted a blessed fish in a Cornish well but I am still travelling hopefully.