Deep & Wide: An Analysis of the Holy Wells of Ireland
The prevalence of sacred or holy wells is common throughout Europe as well as many other places in the world. Perhaps of all locations though, there is no greater concentration of these sites than in the British Isles, particularly in Ireland. Symbols like the feminine principles ofgestation, fertility, goddesses as well as otherworldly realms are associated with Irish wellsAnd while the underlying of symbolism of the well has remained constant, the religious usage and identification of wells has undergone change throughout time.
In the earliest known history of religious well use in Ireland, wells were connected with specific local deities and were utilized in healing, annual ceremonies of sacrifice, and magical rites. As time moved forward, local well deities were renamed as Christian saints, while remnants of pagan ritual lingered on in practice. As more time elapsed, Catholic churches with increasing adamancy sought to claim these sites as Catholic holy wells and to this day, continue to draw crowds of devout worshippers there to be healed. These practices prevail in much the same way today alongside the ancient folk practices. A further development in the past hundred years is an increase in a variety of "new" religious movements who seek to reclaim the ancient methods of well use by gaining an individual connection with the place or looking to literature and folk practices as a guide.
Some of the earliest evidence of the Celtic use of sacred springs or wells can be seen in Danish peat bogs and at Sources-de-la-Seine in Burgundy, France around the first century B.C.E. Literally, thousands of offerings were thrown into the waters to appeal to the gods. The Gundestrup and Rynkeby Cauldrons were found in the Danish peat bogs as well as wood votives and parts of human bodies, particularly the head. Animal motifs were also popular, along with statues and bust of gods. Many of the sculptures showed a combination of Celtic and Roman influence, (Oppida period art, c125-c50 BC, Grove Art).
In Ireland, evidence for early ritual use of wells is also shown in votive offerings such as cauldrons, pins, bronzes, chalices, and flags. Ancient usage is also indicated by stone beds, spiral walkways, and stone hieroglyphs, (Brenneman 17). Prehistoric use of Irish wells can be found in archaeological remains, although it is unclear whether the Goidelic Celts with Gaelic culture were represented or if the remains were left by people who preceded the Goidels, (Haggerty 3).
Irish mythology tells us that the Celts believed that wells originated in the Otherworld and that water from this parallel dimension was sacred and associated with goddesses such as Boannand Sionann, which correspond to the rivers Boyne and Shannon. Connected to these myths were sacred trees like the hazel and its nuts that were supposed to magically bring about otherworldly inspiration. The salmon, trout, and eel were also symbols of deities of knowledge and drinking from the waters could impart insight on the supplicant.
Immersion and circumambulation were other rituals connected with wells and were connected to regenerative powers. Many such rituals were central to the inauguration of kings and queens and rites often took place at particular seasonal transitions like May 1st (Beltaine) and October 31st ( Samhain). In early Celtic history, before the tenth century A.D, no high king ruled over Ireland. Instead, the local chieftain was married to his land which may have been represented by the goddess of the territorial well. Each sacred spring had loric power or power connected only to that site rather than the whole of Ireland (Brenneman 42).
Often associated with wells were sacred trees. One survey of holy wells notes the presence of 210 sacred trees at holy wells. Types of trees include ash, oak, willow, elder, thorn, holly, rowan, alder, elm, yew, hazel, and fir, (Lucas 3 ) Early Celtic worship attests to the use of sacred groves of trees by Druids as well as an ancient Celtic tree calendar. Today, Catholic worship at sacred wells also utilizes the tree. Supplicants tie "clooties" to trees to represent their prayers and hopes for healings. Trees are also important in Christian usage of the wells because they represent the Christ's Cross and the thorns also signify his suffering.
Rocks are also importantly connected with holy wells and there appear to be four main types: stones as tables, stones as heads, egg shaped stones and stones as beds or seats. Ancient Celts venerated the head as the source of knowledge and head stones could be thrown in a well to activate its power. Since Christianity entered Ireland, head stones are often inscribed with crosses, (58). Also, touching the head stone is said to cure headaches. Stones shaped like eggs, known as "serpent eggs" were used to promote fertility. Table stones seem to serve as entrances to the Otherworld and passing underneath heals backaches, bones, and teeth, (65). The stone bed or seat has been used as a birthing bed, a throne or coronation seat for kings and another way to heal backaches.
Women were often priestesses or caretakers of the wells in early history. In recent times, sacred wells were left to be tended by women who were in charge of instructing visitors of the rituals that could be performed there. However, at some wells it was taboo for women to even visit the site due to certain types of knowledge brought forth there which was only reserved to men. On the other hand, this may also represent a Christianization of the wells which sought to suppress certain pagan aspects of ritual (Carmichael 27).
Christianization of the sacred wells began as early as St. Patrick and sought to revalorize the pagan wells in terms of universal symbols of Christianity instead of localized deities. This syncretism functions to combine traditions rather than actually eradicate traces of the former ones. In Ireland, this process began essentially in the fifth century A.D. While many points between the religions correlated, some differences were evident. Christianity is a universalizing patriarchal urban religion. While Celtic practices were not matriarchal, they were somewhat more equalized in their treatment of gods and goddesses. Celtic religions were also moreattuned to localization of clans, deities, and nature in a rural agrarian system. However, in terms of cultural traits, the Celts were essentially a patriarchal warrior aristocracy not unlike the church hierarchy. Christ also was similar to the Celtic hero Cu Chulainn who disappeared into the Otherworld and came back with sacred knowledge similarly to Christ's resurrection from the dead.
( Nicholson 74). Furthermore, the symbol of the fish as Christ corresponds well with the salmon, trout, and eel symbol of Celtic sacred wisdom. Also, in baptism, Christians are born again and in essence become the "bride of Christ". Thus, in both traditions the sacred well is seen as a place for the regeneration of spirit.
It is not surprising with all the common ground between Celtic and Christian practices that St. Patrick (as legend states) was able to easily convert and rededicate the sacred wells to Christian saints. Systematically, he went to each well and purified them from hags, snakes, and underworld creatures (all symbolic of Celtic deities). One widespread example of a transformation of well identification began with the Celtic fertility goddess Brigid which was changed to St. Brigid and later to the Virgin Mary. One effect this had upon the wells was thatthe Catholic clergy monitoring the site would build upon the older walls of the well with alcove shrines encased with statues of saints, crosses, and plaques. Sometimes the added decoration would become very elaborate. Examples of highly developed Catholic well shrines in Ireland include: St. Margaret's Well, Co. Clare; Father Moore's Well, Kildare Co.; St. Brigid's Well, Liscannor Co.; Well of the Wethers (a St. Patrick's well), Co. Kerry, (Brenneman 56-116).
Detailed examples of Catholic usage of holy wells have been preserved in records from the nineteenth century. Phillip Dixon Hardy wrote The Holy Wells of Ireland in 1840 as a witness to pilgrimages of the day. While he wrote from a biased and indignant Protestant perspective, much of the information he recorded is of historical importance:
The cell at that time was a dark cavity, covered with flags and layers of turf. At one end was an altar, raised by one or two steps from the earthen floor; and at the other a small hole, through which the dim light struggled, serving to show the rude structure in all its uncouth and naked simplicity - bare earthen walls, through which the damps oozed and trickled down in sundry places and in others settled in mildews and blackness. He further went on to report that Catholic well use was a "heathen" remnant and that pilgrims would hang garlands on trees and leave offerings of wine, milk and honey to appease "those inferior deities," (98).
Hardy also reported on the Festival of St. Declan, at Ardmore, County Waterford at a sacred well. He described masses of Catholics in tents camped out who would pass half-nude under a holy rock of St. Declan as if they were swimming. Their intention was to experience miraculous powers. Later, a human skull representing the saint was placed on his tomb at the site and was bowed to in veneration.
Often stones and the heads of saints at well sites were rubbed or kissed to obtain blessings. Clooties or strips of cloth were hung to drive illness into the cloth so that the malady could be left behind. Catholic priests would also place the Stations of the Cross around the well site (similar to deosil pagan circumambulation) would proceed clockwise to each station. Also, many early wells and springs became the sites for Christian churches and baptism was often held at the waters until baptismal fonts became more prevalent (MacCulloch 59).
Just as in past centuries, holy wells are still in rigorous use in Ireland. Catholics visit these sacred sites in much the same way as they always have. One Irish Catholic sixth grader named Maureen Berry wrote of her experience: We go to holy wells in the summer and in the winter. We go to pray for other people and for ourselves. Holy wells are very special. Some wells are very important to other people, too. The names of the some of the wells we visit are St. Ann's Well in Killanne in Wexford and Our Lady's Well up the Half-Way Road outside Bunclody, St. Kevin's Well in Wicklow, St. Patrick's Well in Rathvilly Co. Carlow, St. Bridget's Well in Myshall Co. Carlow and St. David's Well in Oylegate in Co. Wexford.
God blesses Holy Wells. Sometimes you can see visions in the well. Lots of people go to visit them a lot of time. We don't have special prayers for each well, we just go to pray if something is gone wrong. Holy wells are called holy wells because Saints are seen there. And some people go to pray when things go wrong for them.
The holy water from some of the wells cures people. My sister's hair began to fall out. She went to St. Kevin's Well and now her hair is all grown back. My aunt had a problem. She went to Mt. Mellary and her problem was solved.
In many places, rags, handkerchiefs or clothes are tied to the trees above or around the well. The idea about this custom is that as the rag rots away, so does your illness, (Nicholson 6)
In recent times, non-Catholics have also begun to visit the holy well in search of healing or a revitalization of the ancient Celtic practices and folk customs. New religious groups like neo-Druids, Wiccans, and other nature oriented devotees go on pilgrimages there to identify with their understanding of the place through literature or direct inspirationalexperience. Not much research has been directed to this last phenomenon, but it certainly may be fertile grounds for future investigation.
Retrospectively, sacred wells in Ireland have maintained a continuity of tradition within a series of transformations that continues to take place even in modern times. Prehistoric beliefs about the sacredness of specific springs and wells fed the customs of Celtic and Roman traditions and those lingered on in folk practices and Catholic rituals. While specific names of wells and rituals have changed, the underlying significance and symbolism has essentially remained the same. Perhaps this is due to the natural or universal human inclination to see the properties of water as a fertilizing and nourishing agent as well as the feminine nature of the well as container or as a doorway to another world.
Brenneman, Walter and Mary Brenneman. Crossing the Circle at the Holy Wells of Ireland. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 1995.
Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gadelica Ortha Nan Gadheal. Edinbourgh: T and A Constable, 1900.
Dixon Hardy, Phillip. The Holy Wells of Ireland. Edinburgh: Fraser and Co., 1840.
Haggerty, Bridget. "The Holy Wells of Ireland," Irish Culture and Customs 7 December 2005.
Mac Culloch, John. The Religion of the Ancient Celts. Edinbourgh: T and T Clark, 1911.
Nicholson, Francine. "The Holy Wells of Ireland" Celtic Resource Center
7 December 2005. "Oppida Period Art, c 125-50 BC." Grove Art 7 December 2005. =art.015157