“The simplest definition of a holy well might be that if people thought it as such, and treated it as such, then it was a holy well”
Bord, Janet. 2006. Cures and Curses Ritual and Cult at Holy Wells. Heart of Albion.
Holy wells can have three diagnostic features. They are the divine water, the blessed tree and the stone. The latter may have a functional use in well house construction whereas a single stone may have magical properties defined by its particular shape. The blessed tree is believed to spirit away ailments of the well habitués. However, the diagnostic features of tree and stone do not feature at all wells, whereas the water is of course a constant. (2006, O’Sullivan and Downey).
O’Sullivan M. and Downey L. (2006). Know Your Monuments Holy Wells from Archaeology Ireland Spring Edition. Wordwell.
REASONS FOR VISITING
The holy well is a shrine of redemption – both spiritual and physical. Penance was one of the two principal reasons for well visitation, the other being folk medicine (Harbison 1991, 231).
Individual wells are renowned for cures for ailments associated with body and mind including eyes, warts, back, infertility and mental illness, amongst many others.
The faithful also visited wells in the past to socialise. The holy well has been the focus of great outdoor assemblies on the feast day of the saint to whom the particular well is dedicated. The saint’s feast day was often celebrated in late July/early August, (though this may not have coincided with his/her actual feast day). In an example of the merging of traditions, this period corresponds with the pre-Christian festival of Lughnasa, (the god of light), and the celebration of harvest
Harbison, P. (1991). Pilgrimage in Ireland The Monuments and the People. Syracuse University Press.
Kelly argues that the holy well tradition in Ireland may have been a cultural over spill from Britain in the centuries leading up to Christianity’s arrival in Ireland. (2002, 25-28). However, though holy wells in Ireland may well have pagan origins, “it seems certain the vast majority of holy wells are much more recent” according to O’Sullivan and Ó Carragáin (2008, 317).
The pioneer monks most probably adopted the “pagan” holy well as part of their own ritual landscape in an act that was part of a wider context of the merging of traditions. The merging involved the pragmatic absorption of pre-Christian phenomena in to Early Christendom.
Other phenomena which were adopted include pagan idols (the most noted example being the Christianised goddess Brigid) and rag trees which are often an intrinsic part of the well ritual. This pragmatism on the the part of the Christian pioneers meant that the move from pre-Christianity to Christianity in Ireland was a smooth affair.
O’Kelly, E.P. (2002). Antiquities from Irish Holy Wells and Their Wider Context from Archaeology Ireland Summer 2002. Wordwell Books.
O’Sullivan J. and Ó Carragáin T. (2008) Inishmurray Monks and Pilgrims in an Atlantic Landscape. The Collins Press.
EARLY MEDIEVAL TIMES – c.400 – late twelfth c. AD
Early Medieval communal pilgrimage was choreographed by the monks. The more charismatic monks were the “tour guides” interpreting the ecclesiastical landscape for the pilgrims.
The “tours” were ideologically skewed as they emphasised the exemplary life story of the saint. Most of the ideological work was already done for the monks through the monuments at the site including church, shrine, well…..
Each monument acted as a prompt for the recounting of an episode of the life story of the saint. The phenomenon is known as “spatialisation of charisma” (Ó Carragáin 2008, 329-330).
Invariably the saint would be credited with some miraculous intervention at the well and it (the well) would have been an important focus of ritual during the pilgrimage.
O’Sullivan J. Ó Carragáin T. 2008. Inishmurray Monks and Pilgrims in an Atlantic Landscape. The Collins Press.
“EFFLORESCENCE OF HOLY WELLS”
The Protestant Reformation was introduced to Ireland in the 1540s by the English Administration at the behest of Henry VIII. Monasteries were dissolved, relics destroyed, crosses smashed and churches stripped of their materials (Whelan 2018, 52).
By 1660, there were no more than 500 to 600 priests remaining in Ireland (Gillespie 2007, 206). Many adults did not know the apostles’ creed, the Lord’s prayer, the 10 commandments or the number and nature of the sacraments. (Mc Mahon 2013, 105).
Despite the zealousness of the Reformation, the Irish continued to adhere to Catholicism. The clerically, church-based Continental practice was replaced by largely non-hierarchical religion which mixed official and vernacular practice.
Emphasis switched primarily to the holy well in the landscape. Kevin Whelan notes “a remarkable efflorescence of holy wells” in the 1600s. He lists and dates several well houses constructed in this period. (2018, 51-52). An example of a 17th century well house in our study area is St Fachtna’s in Kilfenora. The inscription states that the well house was built in 1687.
Whelan, K. (2018). Religion, Landscape and Settlement From Patrick to Present. Four Courts Press.
Gillespie, R. (2007). Seventeenth Century Ireland : Making Ireland Modern. Gill and Mc Millan.
Mc Mahon, M. (2013). The Parish of Corofin A Historical Profile. Michael Mc Mahon.
This colourful folk religion (and medicine) declined to a large extent in the 19th century. Resurgent institutional Catholicism presaged a “devotional revolution” spearheaded by Dr Paul Cullen (1803-1878).
Historian Jeanne Sheehy estimated that 1805 churches were built between 1800 and 1878. Most of the faithful were eventually shepherded away from the well to the chapel…from informal, open-air ritual in to the newly built churches.
Moreover, three million Irish disappeared on foot of the Great Hunger of the 1840s. One million died and two million emigrated. The collapse of vernacular culture (including folk religion) went hand-in-hand with demographic collapse.
Ireland was transformed from a rural, Gaelic speaking and oral tradition pre-Famine to an urban, English-speaking and literate society post-Famine.
The adverse priest-faithful ratio had been dramatically reversed. By 1900, there were 14,000 men and women in the diocesan clergy and the many religious orders and institutions. (Smyth 2012, 12).
By the start of the 20th century “the globalisation of God” was almost complete.
Smyth, W.J. 2012. The Story of the Great Irish Famine from Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Editors Smyth, W.J., Crowley J. and Murphy M. Cork University Press.
Holy well worship is still robust at a small number of “big ticket” sites like St Brigid’s in Liscannor, County Clare. The well is located a couple of kilometres south of Ireland’s second most visited tourist attraction, the Cliffs of Moher.
However, the overall picture is one of decline of well visitation in the last 150 years or so. Many wells are physically neglected now and oral lore associated with them is dying with our elders.
On a much more positive note, there have been some exceptional projects and publications completed in recent years with a view to conserving holy wells and their history. We will dedicate a page to listing as many of of these projects and books as possible.