Chorca Dhuibhne | Dingle Peninsula

The Holy Wells Deep Map

The Significance of Holy Wells in Ireland

The special place of wells is as old as almost any early human cultural memory. Water that appears without any particular origin has always held a fascination for the human imagination. Beyond the more obvious external cleansing of the body, some wells have also had a deeper healing from disease as well as psychological illnesses. They have a long and complex history in Ireland, pertaining to religious beliefs, ritual practices, medicine, mnemonics, and identity. Narratives about wells reveal their perception as miraculous, often supernatural, points in the landscape. It is testament to their ongoing relevance that not only are such stories still told, but new narratives and beliefs continue to be generated by communities who engage with them.

In Ireland’s past, wells, pools, and watery places have been considered as special, as revealed by the archaeological record. The deposition of valuable objects at such locations has its origins deep in prehistory, and there is good reason that this kind of significance formed part of an enduring, if often-changing, perception of freshwater sources. Some sites dating to later prehistory point towards wells as being holy places, where devotees may have engaged in prayer, healing, and divine intercession. Contemporary practices can be found in the Roman world, and in the then-Celtic-speaking parts of western Europe.

In Irish mythology, one of the most important wells is said to be the source of all rivers in Ireland, and contains supernatural powers. It has been called by several names, Connla’s Well, also Well of Coelrind, Nechhtan’s Well, and Well of Segais. Its waters contained a mysterious power, conceived as a blinding luminance, which served as a source of poetic or prophetic inspiration. Similar traditions surrounded wells at the source of the River Shannon and Bush. The source of such wells is underground, in the realm of the Síd, or ‘Otherworld’. This place is said to be inhabited by the Tuatha Dé Dannan, a semi-divine group of immortal beings. Often it is one of these such figures who causes the water to burst forth, and become the rivers which flow through the landscape to this day. The well at the source of the Boyne was surrounded by nine hazel trees, and as the nuts fall into the well, they were eaten by a salmon. This fish then became a repository of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, and the consumption of its flesh bestowed the gift of prophetic poetry, or imbas, upon Finn mac Cumhaill, the exemplary poet-warrior from early Irish literature. It is worth mentioning when considering the relevance of these concepts that these accounts date to the Christian era, and were produced in a floruit of literary tradition that blended ideas from a number of sources. Their usefulness as providing insight into ancient beliefs is debated, but there is general scholarly consensus in support of the idea that they contain kernels of myth, and of wells being sacred in late prehistory.

Given the cultural significance of wells in native tradition, it is unsurprising to see them appearing in a Christian light at the very advent of the new faith in Ireland. Early texts mention them often in a missionary context, with Irish saints utilising them for both miracles and conversions. Baptism was an essential element in bringing the Irish to the new religion, and the powerful image of sacred wells could be easily framed in accordance with Biblical precepts. One reads in the Gospel of John chapter 5: 3. “Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda… 4. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. 4. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 5. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” Here one sees reference to the healing power of wells.

Holy wells, Toibreacha Naofa, must be named after a saint, whereas Toibreacha Beannaithe (blessed wells) may have healing properties but are not associated with a saint. Holy wells were also one of the primary places for pilgrimage and worship in Ireland, and those at monastic centres and churches revered them. They became an important part of the sacred landscape of medieval Ireland, and it is likely that many received their dedication to saints in this era. It should be borne in mind that it is impossible to tell how many wells were in use at any given point in history, and it seems unlikely that the thousands of wells known today were constantly visited for centuries. Nevertheless, it is clear that some at least were in use, and mention of them is frequently made in literature and historical accounts. It may also be this period that some of the common narratives about wells arose, or were employed in novel ways. Legends of water springing up from the spot where a saint struck the ground with their staff are well known from modern folklore, and clearly had their origins in Biblical tradition and the hagiographies of the middle ages.

The importance of wells may have been increased greatly in the post-medieval period, especially during the era of the Penal Laws. The expulsion of Catholic clergy in the mid seventeenth century meant many of the native Irish turned to holy wells as centres of devotion. Coupled with a lack of access to regular professional medical care, they attended wells for healing and prayer. It is following this surge in popularity of holy wells that the large social gatherings, known as patterns, grew, especially as the explicit persecution of Catholicism eased somewhat in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some of these occasions could last for days, and saw tens of thousands of pilgrims gather for not only devotional reasons, but social engagement and merry-making. Indeed, the excess and licentiousness that often accompanied such events often formed the basis for clerical invectives, both Catholic and Protestant. Indeed, it was this condemnation, along with shifting social norms that precipitated in the 19th century, that began their decline. Most of the large-scale events did not survive to the present day.

Many of the customs known regarding wells probably emerge from this post-medieval era. Regularised circumambulations, where pilgrims walk in a clockwise direction around the well a fixed number of times, were known as rounds. They included specific prayers, and often involved dedicants drinking from the well at certain points in the ritual. Likewise, the tying of cloth on nearby trees or bushes, also form a part of the rites at wells. Certain wells are believed to have cures for particular ailments, while others are consulted in a more general capacity. These practices persist to this day at a great number of sites throughout the island.

The Sites and Monuments Record for the Republic of Ireland has close to 3,000 holy wells, while the number in Northern Ireland is fewer than 200. This is more likely to be a result of historical political reasons than any massive discrepancy in actual numbers of wells over time. Despite their ubiquitousness, many have fallen into disrepair and have largely been forgotten. Yet, even still, their relevance persists. An interest in alternative medicine, perhaps driven by disillusionment with the modern pharmaceutical industry, may also motivate people to seek cures. Faith in Christian healing likewise may see people turn to help from holy waters. While holding out any final critique of the healing qualities of holy wells in folk medicine and religion, some recent investigations have discovered that certain wells have contained higher levels of certain chemicals that indeed may be used for medical purposes. In 2012, for example, Dr. Pádraig Ó Domhnaill and Dr. Henry Lyons, a scientist from Tralee, took water samples from Tobar na nGealt, or Well of the Mad, and their analysis found much higher levels of lithium, today used in bi-polar disorders, as well as the salts used for schizoaffective disorder and depression. Similarly, water containing other elements such as sulphur, iron, or magnesium may give support to the so-called folk science of cures, although they are often present in sub-therapeutic doses. Whatever the reality of the situation, these kinds of approaches in seeking to understand cures keep wells in the consciousness of contemporary believers.

In parishes all over the island, communities revere their local wells, or observe the pattern or patron day. This can as often be motivated by pride of place, and a sense of belonging and expression of local identity, as religious devotion. Likewise, in what may be considered for some post-Catholic Ireland, there is still a sense that wells are important places. Some of this may stem from romantic or ahistorical notions to do with their pagan origins, or an increasing influence of environmentalist themes on contemporary spirituality. For others, it is simply the connection to the deep past, real or imagined, that causes them to visit these places.  Thus, holy wells continue to be viewed as sacral places, ‘thin places’ between the natural and the supernatural world.