The Living Water
Fifty Holy Wells: an introduction
For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.
- John, 5:4
There are, it is said, over three thousand holy wells in Ireland; this is probably more than in any other country in the world. Most long pre-date any written records. How many of them there once were, how many have fallen out of favour, how many have changed their use or story, precisely how or when or why they were first regarded as sacred places: we will never know any of this. What we do know is that this land out on the western edge of Europe, even as it globalises and modernises and worships all things shiny and Machine-shaped, remains patterned with a mosaic of ancient water shrines, many of which are still venerated and visited today.
All of this is good news if you’re the sort of person who gains pleasure from digging around in strange, eccentric, marginal places, and delving into forgotten histories overgrown by rushes and sedge. Luckily for me, that’s my idea of a hobby.
Nobody, as far as I know, has ever produced a comprehensive list of Ireland’s holy wells. There are books and there are websites, some of them official and some of them personal projects. But there is no compendium. Maybe such a thing would not even be possible. That, too, is part of the attraction that I have developed, since moving to this country, for these intriguing, modest, half-explained places.
Last October, I turned fifty. I spent the eve of my birthday sleeping in a wet cave by a holy well - also my idea of fun - and that gave me an idea. To mark my fiftieth year, I declared to myself, I would make a pilgrimage to fifty holy wells. I would photograph them, make notes about them and then write about them in some form. There would be no particular rhyme or reason to the project beyond those criteria. I would seek out wells wherever I went, and I would see what I found when I got there.
Nearly a year on, I have visited 41 wells, and the remaining nine will be pinned down, God willing, before my birthday in just over a month’s time. This little project has taken me all over Ireland, and further afield. I have seen wells in cities and on mountains, in fields and under trees and in the hollows of stones. I have seen dry wells and forgotten ones, and I have seen wells freshly painted and dolled-up with public money. I have found wells in peoples’ farmyards dedicated to saints I had never heard of. I have read handwritten accounts by schoolchildren from the 1930s of their local well traditions. I have heard legends of holy fish and immortal frogs. I have got a lot of bramble scratches. I’ve had a good time.
Over the next fifty weeks, starting next Sunday, I’m going to post a weekly report here from each one of my well visits. This regular Sunday pilgrimage story will be free for all of my subscribers. To introduce the project here, I want to dive deeper (sorry) into the story of the wells.
‘Those Crystal Springs’
Water has been sacred forever. Watery places are liminal ones, and archaeology has shown us enough offerings cast into lakes, rivers, bogs and wells over millennia to demonstrate the spiritual significance of fresh water. The place where a spring emerges clean from the ground has an obvious imaginal power. Clean water emerges from darkness: dirt and sickness are washed away; nature provides; life springs eternal from the underworld.
Ireland’s holy wells are Christian sites today, but this was not always the case for some of them. Studies have suggested that approximately a third of Irish shrines - holy wells included - were once possibly pre-Christian sacred sites1. The figure for the rest of Europe is only 5%. In the sixteenth century Life of St Colum Cille (the saint better known as Columba), we find a story which specifically relates to the Christianising of a pagan well:
If anyone washed hands or feet or drank the water he became blind, deaf and afflicted with leprosy, or paralysis, or other foul distemper. The druids and devils did it, and people honoured the well. When Columcille came to the well the druids were glad because they believed it would harm him. St Columcille blessed the well, and washed his hands and feet in it, and drank the water, and ever since the well hath healed every malady and distemper that hath drawn nigh it.2
We should be careful, though, not to buy into the notion that every holy well is the result of a ‘Christianisation’ of a previously ‘pagan’ site. There is a long-fashionable idea, which can be traced back to occultists and Romantics of the last century, that Christian sacred sites in natural places result from the ‘appropriation’ by a colonising church of previously sweet-and-innocent sites of bucolic nature worship. A holy well, in this reading, is really a pagan shrine rebadged by Christian bullies. You’ll hear some Christians singing along with this neo-pagan hymn for their own particular reasons. Christianity, they all seem to suggest, is something that should take place in a church building. The natural world is the realm of pagans and/or demons.
I think they are wrong. Even the figures quoted above suggest that two thirds of Irish Christian sites had no pre-Christian religious use, and that figure is higher elsewhere. Rather than seeing places like holy wells as ‘pagan’ sites which have been ‘appropriated’ by cunning or naive Christians, I see them as naturally sacred places, which attract the religious mind. Christians can as legitimately lay claim to these places as anyone else. The symbolism of water, after all, is deeply woven into the fabric of the Christian story. This is a faith in which spiritual rebirth is obtained through triple immersion in a river; in which holy water can bless and protect people and places; whose scriptures are replete with images of springs in the desert, wells and rivers; whose founder healed a blind man by sending him to bathe in a sacred pool. The church was born in the Jordan. A Christian, if you ask me, has as much business praying at a holy well as anyone else.
The association of Christianity with natural sites, and the natural world, is also traceable to the beginnings of the faith. The difference between a Christian and a ‘pagan’ relationship with such sites is what happens there. ‘Paganism’, insofar as it can easily be defined, is at root the worship of the immanent. It is devotion towards creature rather than creator. In pagan religions, nature itself is often an object of worship, whilst specific sites are associated with specific ‘gods’, or otherwordly beings such as fairies, elves or spirits, which must be propiated, worshipped or bargained with.
Christianity overrides all of this. There certainly are beings which can reside in such places, but they are not to be worshipped or bargained with. The spirit of the creator, however, can be seen weaving through these sites, as through all of nature. To a Christian, God is neither entirely transcendent nor entirely immanent but rather, in the words of the common Orthodox prayer, ‘everywhere present and filling all things.’ Let a nineteenth-century Irish Archbishop, the Reverend John Healy, explain what Ireland’s wells really meant to him and his parishioners in this regard:
As a rule, all the Irish saints have one or more blessed wells dedicated to their memory in the immediate neighbourhood of the churches which they founded. Indeed, the church was never founded except near a well. Pure water was necessary, not only for Baptism and for the Holy Sacrifice, but also for the daily needs of the holy men and women whose lives were given there to the service of God. What wonder these became holy wells - blessed for Baptism, used at mass, giving daily drink to generations of saints, who, with pure and grateful hearts, blessed God who gave them those crystal springs.
We believe that some of their (ie the saints) ancient holiness still lingers round our blessed wells, that their holy patrons still pray for those who frequent them in a pious and confiding spirit, and that God often hears those fervent prayers and grants special requests to the faithful supplicants through the fervour of their faith and the merits of the saints.3
To a Christian, God is not nature, and nature is not God - but God can be experienced through His creation, and, it seems to me, frequently is. In Ireland, the holy wells are place-based, community-sanctioned focal points for connecting with the saints, with Christ himself, or with the Theotokos - or ‘Our Lady’ as she is commonly referred to in Catholic Ireland. Any gifts of healing that the waters are associated with are the result of prayer and the intercession of the well’s patron. Pray to St Finnian at his well for relief of your troubles, and the saint may help relieve you.
It’s worth saying something about those healing gifts. In past centuries, with poverty widespread and effective healthcare rare, the healing powers of a well or its saint - the line between the two was often blurred - were valued enormously. Prayers said to a well’s saint, or the healing power of the waters themselves, were said to help with everything from cancer to childbirth, as well as potentially bestowing health on farm animals and the land itself. Ireland’s wells are sometimes categorised according to what their waters were said to heal - eye wells, wart wells, headache wells and the like - and the action of praying at the well, drinking the water and leaving an offering was believed to protect the pilgrim from both physical and spiritual assault. When a Catholic priest in the 1840s asked Owen Hester, an old Roscommon native, why he visited his local well, he had it explained to him simply:
His answer, and the answer of the oldest men, was that their ancestors always did it; that it was a preservative against Geasu-Draoidacht, i.e the sorceries of the druids; that their cattle were preserved by it, from infections and disorders: that the daoini maethe, i.e the fairies, were kept in good humour by it.4
This explanation shows how blurred the line could be, down at the level of the people, between ‘pagan’ and Christian expressions of faith. Fairies, well spirits, sacred fish and eels, healing stones, sacred trees, offerings and landscape rituals all formed, and occasionally still form, a part of Christian practice in this land. This is not to say that these wells are anything but Christian shrines. It is simply to say that a priest and a peasant may have different ideas - and experiences - of what is going on in the landscape, and the correct form of engagement with it.
Father Charles O’Connor, who interrogated Owen Hester, clearly disapproved of the well rounds, the rag trees and the attempts to buy the co-operation of the fairies, but he seemed, too, to acknowledge that he was powerless to do much about it:
So thoroughly persauded were they of the sanctity of those pagan practices that they would travel bareheaded and barefooted from ten to twenty miles for the purpose of crawling on their knees round these wells, and upright stones and oak trees westward as the sun travels, some three times, some six, some nine, and so on, in uneven numbers until their voluntary penances were completely fulfilled.
This kind of thing is the reason that the Roman Catholic authorities frowned on the existence of the holy wells for a long time. Protestants, meanwhile, were frequently driven to near apoplexy by the very existence of such ‘Popish superstition’ and ‘idolatry’. But what looked like ‘paganism’ to some church authorities was more like a form of Folk Christianity, a phenomenon that finds different expressions across the Christian world. In Orthodox and Catholic countries it can still be seen, especially in the countryside, while in Protestant lands it is rare. In my own homeland, England, a once-Catholic country scoured out by fanatics during the misnamed ‘Reformation’, we live amongst remnants of what once was. A few wells and shrines remain, but most were destroyed, Taliban-style, centuries ago. The holy landscape of England has been replaced by a wholly profane one. Whitewash is our inheritance.
The more I think about this - and observe its impacts - the more I understand the importance of the sacred manifesting in the landscape itself. In his book on the holy wells of County Clare, Michael Houlihan describes how, until the Great Famine, ‘all topography was viewed by the Irish as sacred.’ From a Christian perspective, this means that the place itself was a manifestation of its creator, who, along with His saints, could be communed with through the creation. Strip out that belief, as we have done, and the landscape becomes, instead, profane: simply a ‘resource’ to be utilised for the forward progress of the Machine.
In Ireland, though, the scouring of the land was never as complete as it would be in England and other ‘advanced’ countries. In fact, during what are commonly known here as ‘penal times’, the period in the 17th and 18th centuries when the Catholic faith was outlawed by the British authorities, place-based folk religion was paradoxically strengthened. Prevented from attending church, Irish Catholics would instead gather at ‘Mass rocks’ and holy wells in remote places, far from the prying eyes of the authorities, and attend Mass there. The faith became localised, self-sustaining and community-focused:
In the absence of regular church ceremonies, a huge wealth of folk prayers in the Irish language emerged and people became self sufficient in a faith that centred on the home and village. Prayers were formulated for every daily activity from stoking the morning fire to preparation for sleep. Everyday conversation was peppered with short prayers and blessings. The waking day was voiced as a continual liturgical prayer for many.
Part of this rich tapestry of prayers was used at the holy well, a place that facilitated public expression of this localised Catholic faith.5
Or, to put it another way: people, place, prayer.
Remnants of this everyday folk prayer still remain in the language of the elderly around here. Sometimes, the Mass is still said at the wells, and on some of those Mass rocks. But from the late nineteenth century onwards, with the return of a newly-centralised church to the centre of Irish life, and the end of the penal laws, Christianity, in Michael Houlihan’s words, ‘was brought indoors from the fields and wells to be absorbed into new devotional practices. It has not re-emerged since.’6
Needless to say, I would like it to. And something tells me that it will.
Today, as that Folk Christianity dies back amongst the older generations, some of the wells are dying too: overgrown and unloved, they fade back into the land. But not all of them. Some wells, in fact, are better tended than in the past, and some pilgrimages that were declared dead in the 1830s have returned nearly two centuries later. In the depths of the reign of quantity, something is stirring.
It is not only stirring amongst Christians, of course. In these post-Christian times, the neo-pagans are busy trying to rebadge the wells again, much to the annoyance of some of the elderly guardians of those sacred places. It’s increasingly common to see St Bridget of Kildare, or even Mary herself, reimagined as a feminist pagan ‘goddess’, or to hear of Wiccans attempting to contact their ‘Great Mother’ at a well site. I even heard one story of a group of neo-pagans making an offering to the ‘spirit of the well’ by pouring milk into its crystal waters.
Such idiocy, if the old stories here are to be believed, has consequences. Wells have a tendency to dry up or move location when offended by such behaviour. Sometimes, they even enact revenge on the miscreant. A story from County Cork tells of a protestant minister who regarded well devotion as pagan nonsense, demanding to be brought water from the local holy well to make his tea. When the locals refused to bring it to him - nobody wanted to offend the well by engaging in such domestic profanity - the minister took action himself:
In a rage he snatched a can and brought a supply of water which he placed in a pot and hung over the fire to boil. Although under the influence of much heat the water remained quite cold while the minister waited his long overdue meal. Finally, his patience being exhausted he poured the water into another vessel and declared he would wash his feet in it. Witness his consternation and suffering when he touched the water his feet were immediately scalded and blistered as from a boiling heat7.
The punishment for a shamanic drum circle and ayahuasca ceremony doesn’t bear thinking about.
There is some need, I think, eternally within us, to connect to the divine through the natural world. I have had it all my life: a deep, sometimes incoherent desire to move, in the words of Orthodox Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, ‘through creation to the creator.’ The well houses and streams and rag trees and remote mountaintop springs and hermitages fed by still pools: all of these weave us into the energies of God, abroad on the wind, stirring up the waters. If they die out - if the Folk Christianity at the margins is smothered by the Ecclesiastical centre - something deep is lost.
I am not suggesting that there should be no centre, by the way, or that we should all wander into the hills and invent our own Christianity. The build-your-own-Jesus thing has been tried and found wanting since the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. We don’t need New Age Christ; we need to go back to our roots. We need, I think, both the sacred landscape and the Holy Mysteries. The centre and the margin, the altar and the wells, the scripture and the spring - they both need and feed each other. That’s how it seems to me, anyway.
But that’s enough for now. I have fifty weeks-worth of stories to tell you about these places. I’ll begin next week.
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Cited in Michael Houlihan, The Holy Wells of County Clare, 2015
Quoted in Patrick Logan, The Holy Wells of Ireland, 1980
Rev. John Healy, The Holy Wells of Ireland, 1884
Quoted in Logan (see note 1)
Houlihan (see note 1)
Houlihan (see note 1)
Quoted in Amanda Clarke, Holy Wells of County Cork, 2023