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Pagan Christianity – The Holy Wells of Ireland

Illustration: Joe McLaren, from Ireland’s Forgotten Past (Thames &  Hudson).

Return to Contents of Ireland’s Forgotten Past

 

‘Believe that a further shore is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells.’
Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy

 

Humans have always sought the curative qualities of water. The legends extol sacred rivers like the Boyne and the Shannon for bestowing life, wisdom and beauty on the warriors and queens of old. Wells and other springs of pure-water were likewise deemed to bubble up from the Otherworld. They were often dedicated to pagan deities like Bríd, or Brighid, the Celtic goddess of inspiration, healing, and smith-craft, or Annu (Danu), a goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

Wells were of paramount importance to the people of Ireland who flocked to them for supernatural protection, respectful of the water’s ability to alleviate toothache and gammy eyes. The sick and the wounded were brought to these hallowed springs where their afflicted bodies were rubbed with rag-cloths soaked in the holy water. The rag was then tied to a nearby tree, the concept being that the malady would now politely exit the body and resettle in the cloth.

There must have been endless disappointment but, nonetheless, the early Christians adopted these wells which were, in time, rebranded as ‘holy wells’ (Tobar Beannaithe) or ‘blessed wells’ (Tobar Naofa). Wherever there is a holy well in Ireland, you can be sure a monastery of some shape or other once stood in close proximity.

The Republic of Ireland’s National Monument Service has a record of almost 3,000 holy wells, based on the Ordnance Survey’s findings between 1824 and 1846, while the Northern Ireland Sites and Monuments Record (NISMR) clocked another 187. As of April 2023, the website townlands.ie has at least 330 townlands with ‘tubber’, ‘tober’ or ‘tobar’ in their name.

It’s likely there were far more wells a thousand years ago.[1] Although some are natural, the majority are manmade. They sprawl upon hilltops and waysides, sink deep within forests and plains, and lie buried on hillsides and remote islands. At least 330 holy wells have been documented in County Clare, with 40 lying amid the cavernous limestone region of the Burren. Another 128 wells have been identified in County Dublin, of which about one hundred survive in one form or another.[2]

Under the Christians, most wells were rededicated to a particular Irish saint, such as St Brigid, who was assigned all of those wells where the goddess Bríd had been worshipped. Annu, whose day was celebrated in May, likewise metamorphosed into St Ann. Aside from St Brigid, St Ann and the Virgin Mary, the saints ascribed to holy wells were predominantly male, with St Patrick inevitably topping the charts by some distance.

When it came to a particular saint’s feast day, the multitudes would assemble by the well for what became known as the Pattern, from the word ‘pátrún’, meaning patron saint. Our word ‘holiday’ also comes direct from these ‘holy days.’ For some, the Pattern involved circum-ambulating the well an odd number of times (usually 3, 7, 9 or 15), in a clockwise direction, while reciting devotional or penitential prayers and charms. These were the ‘stations’ (or ‘turas’); people kept count by dropping pebbles on a pile each time they completed a round. To boost your chances of having your sins remitted, you could increase your pain levels by doing it all barefoot or on your knees. It was also whispered that if you reversed the direction of the stations, you could inflict a curse on an enemy, but you were warned that the jinx could backfire if God deemed your curse unjustified.

Others came to be healed, just as their ancestors had done thousands of years before. In the thirteenth century, many holy wells were dedicated to St John the Baptist, whose priory-hospitals and infirmaries were often established beside such springs. And the waters could heal – sulphuric waters for skin, iron for anaemia, magnesium for muscle function and the heart, sodium chloride for eyes reddened by the constant smoking of turf-fires and pipes in homes of little or no ventilation. Some wells were considered especially good for specific ailments such as rheumatism, worms and anxiety. The waters of Ballintubbert near Stradbally, County Laois – now known as St Bridget’s Well -were renowned for soothing poorly feet and appears on numerous early maps of the area. In a further nod to pagan times, the supernatural rag tree also continued. Tellingly, many Patterns took place in August, formerly the month of the pre-Christian festival of Lughnasa.

For many, the Pattern meant party-time. So much so that in 1660, a dour Synod of the Catholic Province of Tuam outlawed ‘dancing, flute-playing, singing in harmony, intermingling and other such abuses … during the visitation of wells and other holy places.’[3]

In 1703 one of the anti-Catholic Penal Laws confronted ‘the superstitions of popery’ which, the act held, were ‘greatly increased by the pretended sanctity … of wells to which pilgrimages are made by vast numbers.’ Under the terms of the act, ‘all such meetings and assembles shall be adjudged riots, and unlawful assemblies, and punishable as such.’ Those who breached the law were hit with a ten shilling fine, or twenty if caught selling ‘ale, victuals or other commodities.’ Anyone you didn’t have the money to pay up could be subject to a public flogging. None of this stopped 10,000 pilgrims turning up at St John’s Well by Warrenstown, County Meath, on St John’s Day, 24 June 1710.

Four years later, the High Sheriff of County Wicklow gleefully described the fate of a similar pilgrimage to Glendalough when his men ‘destroyed the wells’ and ‘demolished their superstitious crosses.’ Just two of the holy wells at Glendalough have survived to the present day. [4] In his 1794 book ‘A Practical Treatise on Planting; and the Management of Woods and Coppices’, Samuel Hayes lamented the destruction of a great yew adjoining one of the seven churches at Glendalough with a trunk girth of 16 foot. Its branches had provided shade for pilgrims until “a gentleman… who pleaded the authority of an agent” of the bishop had them all cut off in the 1750s.

In truth most landowners turned a blind eye when people gathered at these spiritual wells. With Catholic churches effectively outlawed, holy wells remained the place to go for prayers, ritual observance and, indeed, dancing throughout the 18th century. In 1813, the antiquary Thomas Crofton Croker attended a Pattern Day in Kerry where he observed:

‘After having satisfied our mental craving, we felt it necessary to attend to our bodily appetites, and for this purpose adjourned to a tent where some tempting slices of curdy Kerry salmon had attracted our notice … After discussing the merits of this salmon, and washing it down with some of “Beamish & Crawford’s Porter” we whiled away the time by drinking whiskey-punch, observing the dancing to an excellent piper, and listening to the songs and story-telling which were going on about us.’ [5]

However, the Catholic church itself became increasingly hostile to holy wells during the nineteenth century. In part, the hierarchy was uneasy at the fragility of the Christian veneer on the island’s pagan roots but they were also appalled by the boorishness and drunken brawling that was so often on display at Patterns. Moreover, after emancipation in 1829, the increasingly educated Catholic populace were eager to worship in the handsome new Catholic churches rather than meet by the same old wells. The church wrestled control of the Patterns, which were reformed as officially approved parochial festivals, including St Patrick’s Day, Easter and Christmas.

Only a handful of local saints are still commemorated in 21st century Ireland. Of Northern Ireland’s 187 wells, just twelve were still used by 2021. The ever-dwindling crowd that visit St John’s Well at Warrenstown every 24 June will not have taken heart from the startling removal of its’ surrounding wall and steps in 2018. The cult of holy wells has likewise all but vanished although one still sees the occasional rag tree, its branches emblazoned with sweet wrappers and modern-day rags, or wells sprinkled with fresh (or plastic) flowers, pebbles and rosary beads.

 

Further Reading

 

  • Branigan, Gary, ‘Ancient and Holy Wells of Dublin’ (The History Press, 2012)
  • Carroll, Michael P., ‘Irish Pilgrimage: Holy Wells and Popular Catholic Devotion’ (JHU Press, 1999).
  • Clarke, Amanda, ‘Holy Wells of County Cork’ (Wildways Press, 2023), here.
  • Croker, Thomas Crofton, ‘Researches in the South of Ireland’ (London: John Murray, 1824).
  • Logan, Patrick, ‘Holy Wells of Ireland’ (Colin Smythe, 1980).
  • McQuinn, Christopher, ‘St. Fortchern – Patron of Tullow’, Carloviana 2011.
  • Misstear, Bruce, ‘Wells and Wellbeing: The Hydrogeology of Irish Holy Wells’ (Geological Survey Ireland, 2023)
  • Ray, Celeste, ‘Holy Wells of Ireland: Sacred Realms and Popular Domains’ (Indiana University Press, 2023).
  • Ray, Celeste, ‘The Origins of Ireland’s Holy Wells’ (Archaeopress Archaeology, 2014).
  • Ancient & Holy Wells of Ireland Facebook Group.

 

Acknowledgments

 

My thanks to Michael Brabazon, Gary Branigan, James O’Higgins Norman and Chris McQuinn for improving my ability to spot wells.

 

[1] The holy wells are often accompanied by a cross-inscribed pillar, a cairn or a bullaun.  The latter are stones, hollowed out by either man or nature, that collect rainwater; the water was considered curative but the bullaun could also be invoked when someone sought to place a curse.’

[2] There were at least seven pre-Viking wells in the city – St Michael’s Pipe at Christchurch, St Patrick’s Well at St Patrick’s Cathedral, St James’s Well at St James’s Gate, St Maighneann’s Well (later St John’s Well) at Kilmainham and  St Francis’s Well near Francis Street. With such a large river flowing through, and all its tributaries, its assumed the area was inhabited before the Vikings came and there were certainly many pilgrimage sites in a small area a thousand years ago.

Curiously James Hardiman’s ‘History of Galway’ lists just seven holy wells in Galway – “St John the Baptist’s on Lough Athalia; one dedicated to the Blessed Virgin on Lough Athalia; and one dedicated to St Augustine on Lough Athalia. The last three were all above the high water mark, and on his 1818 map, Logan attributes all three to St Augustine. O’Donovan’s Ordnance Survey Letters refers to a stone with a cross cut out on each of these three wells.”

[3] Michael P. Carroll, ‘Irish Pilgrimage: Holy Wells and Popular Catholic Devotion’ (JHU Press, 1999), p. 45.

[4] Michael P. Carroll, ‘Irish Pilgrimage: Holy Wells and Popular Catholic Devotion’ (JHU Press, 1999), p. 20. St Kevin’s Well still exists and, although the local church cut all the branches off the rag tree to stop the ‘pagany’ practise, all the other nearby trees have taken on the role. Gearóid Ó Branagáin and some friends also re-discovered another lost Glendalough holy well by the name of Eeshert Well, hiding in plain sight just beside Reefert Church. Just a few hundred yards from Myles Keogh’s home at Valleymount, on the Glendalough side, there is a place called Wooden Cross. It is not clear when the last wooden cross was here but there is a large stone in a nearby ditch with a Christian cross carved on it. The village of Roundwood is known as Togher in Irish and was probably on an ancient pilgrimage route

[5] Thomas Crofton Croker, Researches in the South of Ireland (1824)