Ireland’s Holy Wells

St. Patrick's Holy Well, Ballintubber, Co. Mayo
https://www.irishcentral.com/travel/best-of-ireland/ireland-holy-well

When the persecution of Catholics began following the Reformation numbers began to assemble for devotional purposes at such wells.  When Catholics were forbidden under the Penal Laws to assemble for Mass in churches, altars were erected beside these wells and Mass was said there in secret whenever possible for the assembled faithful.  If no priest could be found, private devotions were carried out by a lay leader of the people.  Each well is usually found in a quiet place, sheltered by trees, & covered by a flat stone shade to preserve it from contamination.  Round the well a circle is traced & there are ‘statues’ or resting places for prayer and meditation at regular intervals along the line 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  At the close of the visit the pilgrim may drink some water from the well by a vessel secured with a chain to a nearby stone or wall.[i]

During the nineteenth century the people of a locality visited the holy wells on feast days.  They requested a cure of a particular saint of the well, then when these were granted, they decorated a nearby bush with a rag in thanksgiving.  They walked round the well a certain number of times as they prayed on the Patten day.  These Patten days occurred usually on the last Sunday in July called Garland Sunday or on the 15th August.  Both dates corresponded with the Festival of Crom Dubh or Lunasa. {‘A Step Back In Time with James Reddiough’ October 14, 2017 a history) [ii]  

The nineteenth century devotional rituals engaged by people were quite complex also known as the long stations.  Possibly up to fifteen thousand to twenty thousand people attended on the eve of the feast day.  Bare foot pilgrims began the rituals in the graveyard where they knelt then said a Pater, Ave and Gloria seven times.  They crawled on their knees to the high altar at the second church as they recited one Pater, fifteen Aves.  At the altar they recited the Litany of the Blessed Virgin plus seven Aves and seven Glories.  Then they walked around the graveyard seven times as they prayed fifteen decades of the Rosary.  As they returned to the altar, they again recited the Pater, Ave and Gloria five times.  At each cairn they recited five Paters and Aves.  They turned around three times.  At the Well they made the sign of the cross with its waters as they prayed one Ave each time.  That was the completion of their station.   (Rynne 1998 page 183) [iii]

The origin of the Holy Wells may be linked to Celtic times.  They influenced the native Irish in terms of their religious beliefs, especially with an emphasis on the ‘power of place.’  That was a belief that society is intrinsically linked with nature itself.  Certain physical sides preserve both regenerative & curative powers.  Site surveys indicate that many of the well locations are formed of three distinct elements.  These are the many locations of the water source that serves it, an ancient & sizable tree, a Hazel tree plus often a standing stone or a link.  Rituals known as ‘patterns’ generally included a prescribed clockwise walk around to site.  A common ritual was to tie a scrap of cloth, known as a clootie to the branches of the Holy Tree for bathing / washing or drinking from the Holy Well.[iv]

Holy Well rituals tended to date from pre – Christian times.  They served as a form of natural religion in which a well was held to be sacred.  They vary greatly in appearance: some simply decorated with rounded river stones.  Whilst others were highly ornate adorned with holy statues, medals, pictures, rosary beads, flowers, or candles.  They were famous for their healing properties.  In some areas, rags, handkerchiefs, or clothes were tied to tress above or around the well.  It was a belief that as the rag disintegrated the illness or disease would leave the person.  A red coloured cloth was believed to resist the powerful evil spirits.  In his publication ‘The Holy Wells of Ireland’ Patrick Logan cites a claim that there are approximately three thousand Holy Wells in Ireland with possibly every parish in a county having one in situ.  This site has a list of Ireland’s Holy Wells.  An extract from ‘Holy Wells of Ireland’ by Most Rev. John Healy DD Archbishop of Tuam reported that ‘as a rule, all the Irish Saints have one or more blessed wells dedicated to their memory in the immediate neighbourhood of the churches they founded.  Indeed, the church was never founded except near a well.  Water was necessary, mainly for Baptism and the Holy Sacrifice but also for daily needs of the holy men and women whose lives were given there in the service of God.  We believe them (ie the saints) ancient holiness still lingers round our blessed wells, that their holy patrons still pray in a special way for those that frequent them.’ [v]

Some historians believe that the springs from which St. Patrick and the early Saints of Ireland took water to baptise their converts was held in veneration by the early Christians and were regarded in these early times as places of pilgrimage.  However, it was only when the persecution of Catholics began after the Reformation that large numbers began to assemble for devotional purposes at such wells.  When Catholics were forbidden under the Penal Laws to assemble for Mass in Churches, altars were erected beside these wells.  Mass was said there in secret whenever possible for the assembled faithful.  If no priest could be found, private devotions were carried out by a lay leader of the people.  Each well is usually found in a quiet place, sheltered by trees, and covered by a flat stone slab to preserve it from contamination.  A circle is traced and there are ‘stations’ or resting places for prayers and meditation at regular intervals along the line 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. [vi]

There are twenty – one Wells in Dublin with sixteen Wells in the Fingal area identified by Petra Skyvova, 2005 {‘A Step Back In Time with James Reddiough’ October 14, 2017) A History. [vii]   There are twenty – three holy wells in Co. Mayo, Galway has twenty – two, Kerry has twenty – one.  Roscommon plus Waterford have fourteen wells, Sligo also Limerick have eleven.  There are ten wells in Wexford, nine in Louth, eight in Kildare, seven in Offaly, with six in Meath.  Leitrim also West Meath have five wells while Wicklow has four, Kilkenny & Tyrone have two.  There is just one Holy Well in both Tipperary & Fermoy.[viii]

Below are descriptions of some Holy Wells around the country:

The Well of the White Cow, Tara Hill, Co. Meath

There has been worldwide Celtic evidence that sites of wells were of great religious or ritual importance.  Within Ireland however possibly due to the faith of animistic beliefs plus a plethora of deities of either local or national interests it may have been the reason for its unpopularity.  According to this site not many well sites have been fully archaeologically excavated either.  Those excavated were dated to seven thousand years ago plus were of Christian origin.  The sites were situated outside the community boundaries.  It has been suggested that the holy wells were a clever way to introduce or spread the faith: as it was observed that live clean, drinkable water was essential to all people’s existence.  There were in fact six or seven holy wells in the area but during the eighteen or nineteenth centuries they were neglected.  They were safely enclosed with small hedges grown around the perimeter.  Seats or trees were dedicated to several people’s memories.  This Well of the White Cow was largely forgotten during the eighteenth & nineteenth centuries until renovated or transformed by Dinny Donnely with the National Restoration Society.  It is situated at the base of Tara Hill.  It has been known also as Caprach Cormac, Liagh, Tipra bo finne, Deared Dubne, Poillocair na Tuiliche or even St. Patrick’s Well.  It was written in an ancient manuscript: that on entering the water and rising out of it: if one had a black spot, it proved guilt or if one was spotless one was proved to be innocent.  The name Tibra bo finne appeared in several sets of legends.  The legend of a sacred pagan white cow was confirmed by oral tradition from the twelfth or thirteenth centuries.  The Táin may also refer to the bulls as symbols of virility or religious powers.  This site has an image of the holy well. [ix]

Our Lady’s Well, Dundalk, Co. Louth

Our Lady’s Well is situated within a flat area surrounded by a couple of houses.  It is assessed by a long track. The well had at one time been surrounded by tall thin trees.  During the 1900’s it was one of the most famous wells in Ireland.  Several steps were added with railings with the addition of a new cross.  The Pattern Day was held annually on the fifteenth of August.  On the eve of the Feast Day at 10.45 pm the well was blessed, followed by a Procession.  Early on the morning of the fifteenth Mass was celebrated again followed by another Procession.  There was an old tradition that stated that the well was dry for three hundred & sixty – four days each year with water magically appearing on the Feast Day.[x]

 Ogulla Holy Well Tulsk, Co. Roscommon

This Ogulla spring in Roscommon is believed to be the Cliabach Well where St. Patrick baptized the pagan princesses Eithna & Fidelma the daughters of the High King of Ireland.  Yet several people believe that the Well at Toberrery may be the actual Well.  Nearby to the Ogulla Holy Well there is a rag tree with a modern enclosed shrine.  The coordinates are Longitude of 8 16 34 W with Latitude 54 46 39 N. [xi]

St. Patrick’s Holy Well at Ogulla is believed to be the site where St. Patrick baptized the daughters of the High King of Ireland Fidelma & Eithne.  People leave votive offerings of St. Patrick while they perform their Stations of the Cross at the Shrine.  A small modern Oratory has been erected where Mass is celebrated on the last Sunday of June.  It has been reported that various cures & healings have occurred at Ogulla. [xii]

St. Colmán’s Well, Oughtmama, Co. Clare

This Holy Well is part of the Monastic landscape of Oughtmama: located in a valley above Turlough Hill in the Burren in Co. Clare.  The Oughtmama area was associated with three different St. Colmán’s, one of which was St. Colmán Mac Duash, the Patron Saint of Kilmagdaugh.  It was reported that St. Colmán moved to the area for his retirement, then his demise occurred later.  According to the Ordinance Survey Letters of 1839 the well had ‘migrated from its original position and broke out a short distance lower on the slope of the hill, where it is now known by its new name of Sruthan na Naomh, the rivulet of the Saints: but its original locality is still called Tobar Cholmain has a small enclosure of stones, in the centre of which grows a small stunted, white thorn bush, exhibiting votive rags of various colours.  The Well is imbued with extraordinary naturally medicinal, or supernaturally miraculous virtues, for people have often washed their eyes in it, which are veiled with thick pearls, and ere they had completed the third washing these pearls (films) off leaving the eyes perfectly clear & bright’.  During the late 1830’s a Pattern was held on the 1st of November in honour of St. Colmán‘s Feast Day.  It is not clear when the actual Pattern tradition died out at this well.  St. Colmán’s Well is located on a steep North-Eastern slope of the valley.  It consists of a rectangular stone walled enclosure with steps leading down the well waters.  There is a Leacht plus a tree on either side of the well.  It is still a place of Pilgrimage with votive offerings with rags tied to the tree. [xiii]

Tobernalt Holy Well Co. Sligo

This Tobernalt Holy Well in Sligo is in one of the most picturesque sights of Ireland.  The name is derived from the cliff where the water gushes from.  According to the Rev. Fr. Jim Murray ‘the well has a double sanctity as beside blessed by St. Patrick; its waters were used during the Penal Days during the celebration of Mass.  Today Mass is celebrated at various times on Garland Sunday, last weekend of July with the most popular one the 6.00 am service. Pilgrims walk from St. Anne’s Church to Tobernalt at 4.45 am.’  There is a Mural by artist Nik Purdy painted on the Community Centre wall near Carroe Church that depicts the Holy Well. (first published by Val Robus in the ‘Sligo Now’ magazine during 2019) [xiv]

Tobernalt Holy Well is situated in a beautiful woodland setting near the shores of Lough Gill.  It may originally have been called ‘Tobar san Aill’ or ‘Tobar na nGealt.’  It existed pre – 5th century when the Celts celebrated Lá Lughnasa.  The day became known as Garland Sunday when it was Christianised.  Legend stated that St. Patrick’s fingerprints are visible on one of the stones of the nearby Mass Rock or Carring an Aifrinn.  It was believed that if pilgrims placed their hands on the rock, they would receive cures.  The well has retained several Celtic – inspired customs ie: to walk in a clockwise direction or the length of cloth or ribbon one left on nearby trees or bushes.  This site has beautiful images plus a map of the Well, Shrine plus the Mass Rock by Fergus 8 /2 / 2019. [xv]

The name is derived from the Irish ‘Tobar an Alt’ that means the ‘Well of the Cliff.’  This natural Spring Well is situated in a small wooded area at the base of Cairns Hill in Co. Sligo.  There are two Cairns on a hill dated to the Neolithic era.  It was believed that the ancient pagan festival Lughnasa was celebrated at the beginning of the harvest season pre – Christianity in Ireland.  Tobernalt Holy Well became Christianised during the 5th century with the festival replaced by Christian Services on Garland Sunday.  During Ireland’s Panel times Tobernalt became a refuge where Mass was celebrated.  There is a replica of the Panel Cross at the original well with the original alter in situ.  The pagan tradition of tying rags or clooties to trees as well as several Christian objects of rosary beads or medels is still practised today.  The site’s Longitude is 8 26 45W with its Latitude of 54 14 38N.  This site has several images of the well, shrine etc.[xvi]

Tobernalt Holy Well is a place of reflection & nurturing serenity.  It predates the advent of Christianity in Ireland.  This Tobernalt Holy Well is cared for by St. John’s Parish in Carraroe in Co. Sligo.  Celebrations occur on Garland Sunday which is a fusion of Celtic & Christian traditions.  The first Mass was celebrated at the Well during 1921.  This site has images plus a video of the holy well. [xvii]

There is a video with images on this site: https://www.irishcentral.com/travel/best-of-ireland/ireland-holy-well

Ballintuber Holy Well, Co. Mayo

Founded by the King of Connaught Cathal Crovdearg during 1216 Ballintubber Abbey (Ballintubber The Townland of the Well) was founded beside the holy well dedicated to St. Patrick.  During ancient eras, the Abbey or Monastery were designated The Monastery of St. Patrick or The Well of St. Patrick.  The old church was built as a Patrician church: it was previously known as Craobnach or Creevagh.  Close by is the Holy Well where converts were baptised by St. Patrick.  There is a stone alongside the well that is supposed to be an imprint of the Saint’s knee. [xviii]

The Holy Well at Ballintober is mentioned in John Healy’s 1908 ‘Irish Essays: Literary and Historical’[xix]

An article by Tom Kelly in the Connaught Telegraph, 29th June 1983: has details of the holy well at Loughkeeraun or Lios na Meanach (Fort of the Monks).  It was founded by St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise during the sixth Century.  Pilgrimages were held on Garland Sunday last Sunday in July, Lady’s Day 15th August also the saint’s feast day 9th September.  Donovan records information in the Ordnance Survey Letters for County Mayo (1837-38.)  This article details the legends re the well ‘s relocation etc.[xx]

Footnotes

A list of Holy Wells in Irish Counties may be viewed at this site.

Holy Wells in Ireland (https://irelandsholywells.blogspot.com/) [assessed 13th April 2020]

Images of Ireland’s Holy Wells are available at this site: http://megalithomania.com/

This site has images of several holy wells: https://www.duchas.ie/

This site has a history of Holy Wells plus several images: http://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/

This link provides a Map of Holy Well sites: https://sacredsites.com/europe/ireland/index.html

Further information of Irish Holy Wells may be read in the following publication: ‘The Festival of Lughnasa’ Mac Neill 2008 Four Courts Press: https://www.fourcourtspress.ie/books/folklore-commission/the-festival-of-lughnasa/

Information available at this link of ‘The Penal Laws 1691 -1760’ Wall Maureen 1976 Dublin Historical Society: http://dublinohiohistory.org/

In the Journal ‘Bealoideas’ is an article ‘The Holy Hills of Donegal’ by Ó ‘Muirgheasa Enri 1936 Folklore Society of Ireland. It may be read free online at this link: áhttps://www.jstor.org/stable/20521936?seq=1

This Publication ‘The Holy Wells of Ireland’ 1981 Dr. Logan Patrick, Colin Smythe Ltd is reviewed on this site: https://www.amazon.com/Holy-Wells-Ireland-Patrick-Logan/dp/0861400461

This Publication is listed on this site. ‘The Holy Wells of Ireland: containing an authentic account of those various places of pilgrimage and penance which are still annually visited by thousands of the Roman Catholic peasantry, with a minute description of the patterns and stations held in various districts of Ireland’ 1836 Hardy Philip Dixon 1836 Hardy, and Walker.

Holy Wells Places of Pilgrimage (https://irish-memories.com/history/holy-wells-places-pilgrimage-step-back-time-james-reddiough/)  [assessed 13th April 2020]

Publications that refer to Holy Wells include:

‘The Irish Round Tower’ Lalor B. 1999 Collins Press

Ordinance Survey Letters Mayo Healy M. 2009 Freemasons Press

‘Irish Round Towers’ O ‘Keefe 2004 Tempus Press [xxi]

Further Publications that may be of interest:

‘Celtic Sacred Landscapes’ Pennick Nigal 1000 Thames & Hudson New York

‘The Traveler’s Guide to Sacred Ireland’ Meehan Gary 2002 Gothic Image Publications

‘The Power of Place: Sacred Ground in Nature and Human Environments’ (particularly Chap. 10, ‘Holy Wells of Ireland’ Brenneman Walter Jr. 1995 Quest Books

‘The Holy Wells of Ireland’ Logan Patrick 1991 Paperback Buckinghamshire [xxii]

‘Cill Mobhi, a handbook on local history and folklore’ Mac Gabhann S.

Ordinance Survey Letter Clare 1839 O ‘Donovan J. & Curry E.  ‘Wells, Graves and Statues: exploring the heritage and culture of pilgrimage in medieval & modern Cork City’ Nugent L. & Scriven R. 2015 Cork County Council.   This information is available at this link: http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/history/intro.htm

Bibliography

[i] Holy Wells in Ireland (https://www.holywell.seomraranga.com/) [assessed 11th April 2020]

[ii] Holy Wells Places of Pilgrimage (https://irish-memories.com/history/) [assessed 13th April 2020]

[iii] Pilgrimage in Ancient Ireland (https://pilgrimagemedievalireland.com/) [assessed 11th April 2020]

[iv] Ireland’s Wonderful Holy Wells https://www.theirishplace.com/) [assessed 13th April 2020]

[v] Holy Wells in Ireland (https://www.holywell.seomraranga.com/holywel) [assessed 11th April 2020]

[vi] Holy Wells in Ireland (https://www.holywell.seomraranga.com/) [assessed 11th April 2020]

[vii] Holy Wells Places of Pilgrimage (https://irish-memories.com/history/) [assessed 13th April 2020]

[viii] Holy Wells in Ireland (https://irelandsholywells.blogspot.com/2011/10/) [assessed 13th April 2020]

[ix] Holy Wells in Ireland (https://irelandsholywells.blogspot.com/) [assessed 11th April 2020]

[x] Holy Wells in Ireland (https://irelandsholywells.blogspot.com/) [assessed 11th April 2020]

[xi] Ogulla Holy Well Tulsk (http://www.megalithicireland.com/) [assessed 12th April 2020]

[xii] Ogulla Holy Well (https://pilgrimagemedievalireland.com/ ) [assessed 12th April 2020]

[xiii] St. Colmán’s Well (https://pilgrimagemedievalireland.com/) [assessed 12th April 2020]

[xiv] Tobernalt Holy Well (https://sligohub.com/tobernalt-holy-well/) [assessed 13th April 2020]

[xv] Tobernalt Holy Well (https://www.theirishplace.com/ ) [assessed 13th April 2020]

[xvi] Tobernalt Holy Well (http://www.megalithicireland.com/) [assessed 13th April 2020]

[xvii] Tobernalt Holy Well (http://www.holywellsligo.com/) [assessed 13th April 2020]

[xviii] St Patricks Holy Well (https://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/) [assessed 13th April 2020]

[xix] The Holy Wells of Ireland (https://www.libraryireland.com/) [assessed 13th April 2020

[xx] Castlebar Co. Mayo (http://www.castlebar.ie/mayo) [assessed 13th April 2020]

[xxi] Ball Áluinn Schools Collection (https://www.duchas.ie/) [assessed 13th April 2020]

[xxii] Sacred Sights (https://sacredsites.com/europe/ireland/) [assessed 13th April 2020]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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