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Witches in the Woods
Fifty Holy Wells, #4
Derrycrag Holy Well, Woodford, County Galway
Everything changes with the seasons, especially the woods. In the summer, Derrycrag wood - an old deciduous woodland mixed with a modern plantation of pines-for-cash which has been allowed to age - is a riot of greenery. In the winter, all is still. The damp invades everything and the trees look like corpses. We know, because we have seen it so many times, that they will spring to life again, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.
I once had a friend from New Guinea, who fled to Britain as a refugee, escaping persecution by the Indonesian government for standing against their quashing of his people. He arrived at Heathrow airport in the dead of winter, and as he entered Britain - his first time out of his own country - he was shocked to see, in his own words, that ‘all the trees here are dead!’ He had never seen a northern winter before; never known a forest whose trees shed their leaves, only to regrow them again when the year turned.
I visited Derrycrag’s well last January, and took a guest with me. The American journalist Rod Dreher had come to interview me for a book he was (and still is) writing about ‘enchantment’. I thought that if that was his subject he needed to come and see some of the wells. I walked him into Derrycrag wood: down the lane from the road, across the stone stile, over the stream and down the winding path which leads to the little hollow that houses the well. You would never see it if you missed the sign:
The well itself is in a small crevice under a rock overhang, which emerges from the ground beneath a great old oak. Next to it has been constructed a small wooden shrine atop a moss-covered mound of rocks.
Here is Rod, lurking by the waters:
I have visited this well many times. Once, when I was in the midst of my ill-fated foray into Wicca (which I wrote a little about here) our little coven visited this place for a ‘ritual’, which involved, as far as I recall, sitting by the waters, closing our eyes and imagining a descent into the well. The idea, I think, was to see what we found down there. I get very self-conscious about things like this, but I did it anyway. I remember visualising a descent through the waters into a series of underground chambers, and walking through them in search of someone. At the end of a long chamber stood a woman, who was apparently waiting for me. I think she seemed benevolent. She didn’t say anything. Then I came back, and that was it. It was at once underwhelming and oddly real.
I don’t know who that woman was, or if she was anyone at all outside of my imagination. But of course there is always one woman associated with the wells:
The dedications and gifts left here seem to point towards Mary. It could be that this is what is known as a ‘Marian Well’ - a well patronised by the Mother of God. Despite digging around, I haven’t been able to find much evidence of this well’s history, and I’ve come across no other patron saint.
What I have found comes from a source I return to again and again: the Schools History Collection. In the 1930s, the newborn Irish state ran a nationwide project to record the folklore of the country before it was lost to modernity. One aspect of this was to get every schoolchild in the country to write down what they knew about the folklore of their local area, which back then was still very much alive. This has been preserved by the government, and can now be accessed online.
It’s a treat to leaf, even digitally, through these little notebooks full of impeccable handwriting which record the moving diversity of rural customs here less than a century ago. This is what the local schoolchildren wrote about Derrycrag well:
The people in this district visit Derrycragh on the three last Saturdays in July ... People make the rounds and they say their prayers also. This is how the rounds are made. When you would be at the Holy Well you would take off your shoes and wash your feet and your would go around the Holy well three times on your knees saying your prayers.
Rod said a prayer as we stood by the still waters; a Catholic prayer, I assume, in Latin. Appropriate enough for Ireland, and yet the language of imperial Rome felt strangely out of place to me in this cold Irish woodland. I suppose it would be easy enough to say the same thing about my English.
I’ve been to this well a fair few times, but I’ve never seen anyone else here. They still come though. Some of the offerings in the shrine are new, and the rag tree that hangs over the waters is still used. The tradition in Ireland has always been to tie a rag to a branch as a prayer offering. The rag may represent an illness you would like the saint of the well to help you cure. I’ve seen it suggested that this well can heal deafness and blindness. As the rag rots away with the weather, so it is hoped that the illness will disappear from your body.
We may be in the age of vaccines and gene therapy, but we are still, it seems, in the age of the rag trees too. Even in the heart of an Irish winter.
You can follow my ‘Fifty Holy Wells’ series as it develops by clicking on the Holy Wells link on the homepage menu.