Ireland’s ‘Holy Wells’

The Sacred Water Tradition of Ireland.

Any observer of Irish history must be reminded by the ruins of castles and abbeys, scattered throughout this nation, of the manner in which the poor of this land were continually exploited by their rulers. In his poem, ‘The Holy Wells’ the nationalist poet John de Jean Frazer argues that one thing cannot be stolen from those poor, and that is the water from a spring. He writes –

                “And while night, noon, or morning meal no other plenty brings,

                No beverage than the water-draught from old, spontaneous springs;

                They, sure, may deem them holy wells, that yield from day to day,

                One blessing which no tyrant hand can taint, or take away.”

                                                                        (Hayes, Ballads of Ireland, P6)

He is praising the power of nature that, alone, sustains the poor and calls these springs, ‘Holy Wells’, and, thereby, links them to a popular religious practice by making them cultural objects. In the Ireland of Frazer’s day, the mid nineteenth century, religion, politics and economics are inseparable, since political authority, the historical suppression of Catholicism, and the control of the land were all by-products of Britain’s rule. In those days the ‘Holy Wells’ were not just places of spiritual sustenance, but also acted as sites of political resistance. Because the ‘Holy Wells’ are frequently found in the ruins of religious sites make them a part of Irish history and, therefore, a symbol of native Irish spirituality and their unquenchable spirit of freedom.

These ‘Holy Wells’ are often dedicated to unofficial and territorial ‘saints’ and preside over magical and wondrous landscapes that incorporate prehistoric sites, sacred trees, and stones as ‘stations’ for prayer. The structured visitations by devotees to these ‘stations’, moreover, were usually accompanied by liturgies that were unique to the physical attributes of each site. These visitations are commonly known as “Paying the Rounds” or “Rounding”, and in practice go against the views normally held concerning the process of pilgrimage.

Holy Well

A ‘Holy Well’ is a water source, most usually a spring, which is a site of religious devotion. These devotional sites may also take the form of a pond, or an entire lake, and are dedicated to an Irish saint. The devotees who visit these sacred sites believe that these waters have been blessed by this saint with a cure for a particular ailment such as, tuberculosis, whooping-cough, and sore eyes. ‘Holy Wells’, however, are not peculiar to Ireland since, in our world, the daily human’s need for water has encouraged a worldwide form of idolatry, and ‘Sacred Wells’ and springs can be found in every continent among a wide variety of cultures and faiths. Water, throughout the ages of the world, has been considered to be the source all possible existence and it is no surprise that early man venerated the sources of water. In Irish bogs, coastal wetlands, lakes and rivers there have been discoveries of stone-like material and human remains apparently deposited there as votive offerings to ancestral spirits, or the Gods. Votive offerings dating from the Iron Age in Ireland have been found at various ‘Holy Wells’ in current use, one of which is St. Anne’s Well at Randalstown, County Meath. (Raftery 1994;182f., 213).

The traditions around sacred water sources in Ireland had been in existence for many centuries prior to the arrival of Christianity, which quickly amalgamated these into Christian rituals which were peculiar to the native Irish. Early Christian missionaries encompassed the traditional beliefs of the people into their teachings and used pagan places of pilgrimage, including ‘Holy Wells’ and ‘Sacred Trees’, as centres for the new faith. In this manner the sacredness of sites and the desire of the native people to access their supernatural power through votive gifts continued unchanged. The sacred places retained their strong religious and spiritual qualities, which continued to inspire, while the presiding spirit now became and intercessor with the Christian God. Ireland continues to be unusual in Europe, in that visitation to ‘Holy Wells’ remains a regular part of Catholic parish life. Although this activity is not as common as it was forty years ago, each county in Ireland has ‘Holy Wells’ that continue to be sites of individual devotion and annual ‘Patterns’ (Patron Days), when the local communities gather for a well-side Mass to honour the saint associated with that well. It is also an opportunity for each person to identify with and renew their membership of that local community.

“The Rounds”

The visitation to ‘Holy Wells’ involves the devotee performing folk liturgies, or ‘Rounds’, which are prayers and other actions that are undertaken in a set order, and from which the pilgrim should not deviate. These practices are accepted by the pilgrims as being effective in obtaining the desired result because generations have repeated them, who would not have done if there was no successful conclusion.Although they may lack official sanction from the religious authorities, these folk liturgies often take place in the open air and are considered as being a means to grace (sacramental). For the most part the folk liturgies are highly structured and are much more focused on ‘magic and mystery’ than the official practices because, in these liturgies the ordinary people are able to express their understanding of venerating the saints and other blessed persons, pilgrimages, shrines, holy days, and religious assistance to the deceased. So, unsurprisingly, almost every organised faith has folk rituals that exist alongside, and occasionally in contravention of, what the official religious practitioners approve. These rituals, however, affirm the faith in the cultural context of a person’s community, family, or life experience. But place-specific ‘Rounding’ traditions at the ‘Holy Wells’ encourages the continued veneration of ‘Saints in the Irish Tradition’ who were never officially canonised, but whose stories and sacred landscapes add to local popular belief in the divine.

A proper visitation may require a devotee to make certain preliminary movements around the ‘Stations’, while reciting a set number of prayers in a prescribed order unique to the site. While individual prayer is usually considered to be non-liturgical, those individual devotees ‘Rounding the Stations’ are performing a folk liturgy. Praying at each ‘station’ and then at the well, or saying one set of prescribed prayers while walking around the well, constitutes one ’round’ in the pilgrimage. A single ’round’ might be sufficient for devotees engaged in meditative prayer, or a daily spiritual exercise, while those who pray for a special intention or specific petition might be required to undertake multiple ’rounds’. ‘Doing the Rounds’, therefore, can take hours to complete, or may be fulfilled in part on successive shorter visits. In these ways a ‘payment’ of prayers can be offered by a devotee to the well’s presiding saint in thanksgiving for interceding on the supplicant’s behalf, or directly to God. After these folk liturgies are completed they usually approach the well and may drink from the water, normally three sips, or dip their fingers in the water and bless themselves by making the sign of the cross, flicking the water around their bodies three times in the name of the Trinity, or anointing an ailing portion of the body. If, after performing the rounds, one sees a fish in the well it is taken as a sign that their request will be answered favourably.

“The Stations and The Pattern”

The Pattern

The ‘Rounding’ process is also known as ‘The Pattern’ and the course that a devotee follows is known in Irish as “An turas” (a journey or a pilgrimage). ‘Stations’ may take a variety of forms and trees are often used as ‘Stations’ because they are traditionally considered ‘sacred’ by the local community since time immemorial. The most common of well-side trees, the ‘Whitethorn’ (Hawthorn), Ash and Holly, are often called ‘Rag Trees’ because they receive rags and ribbons on their branches both as votive offerings and as ‘containers’ for the illness or anxiety that brought the devotee to the sacred site. These trees have come to perform the sacrificial act of bearing the devotees’ concerns, and further enabling the ‘Holy Well’ to offer them grace. To many the well-side tree is considered a ‘Station of Riddance’ in contrast to the giving waters of the well where the devotees linger for a while. Because ribbons or cloths, or other votives, tied or hung to the trees are thought to be the storage places of the angst and disease brought by devotees, and many well visitors are very careful not to touch those of others when they leave their own.

‘Stations’ may also include pre-Christian monuments such as megalithic court tombs, Ogham stones, or unusually formed stones. ‘Bullauns’, which are considered to be stone querns from the ‘Bronze Age’, also serve as ‘stations’ and are often called ‘wells’ themselves because they can hold rainwater and dew. ‘Mass Rocks’ from the ‘Penal Days’ and oddly formed boulders can serve as ‘stations’, which, in conjunction with the well, offer particular cures. Some wells lack any built structures or adornment and associated stations, if any, may be hard to locate without guidance from a local person, or the presence of the votives. Other ‘Holy Wells’, however, are located within large elaborate complexes, complete with signage that offer pilgrims optional directions for full or abbreviated ‘Rounds’.

The Irish Church prior to the Norman invasion and up to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries held historical accounts of ‘Rounding’ and ‘Pattern Days’ that emphasised a penitential dimension about them that is much less prevalent today. The ‘Pattern Days’ of old were an annual cleansing with trembling, remorse, and fasting before ‘Rounds’ that were performed on bare knees, but were followed by an evening, or several days, of celebration and flamboyant sinning. Such things are not, of course, so common these days and the demise began with the emancipation of Catholics in 1829, when the focus of the Church fell on restoring the authority of the priest and the importance of Confession. The sites for such acts of devotion moved from the open air and into the church buildings. The ‘Great Famine’ saw the devotion to the official practices of the Church superseded the folk practices. Since those times, however, popular devotion at ‘Holy Wells’ and other sacred sites have regained some popularity, especially over the last few decades since ‘Vatican II’. Pilgrimages today are associated more with thanksgiving rather than with punishment. Many describe ‘Holy Wells’ not as places filled with guilt but as scenes of calming and restoration, where they feel thankful and very much at peace.

“Votives”

Votives

For many of those devotees who visit the ‘Holy Wells’ the ‘Rounding of the Stations’ is their offering. Less frequent visitors, or those pilgrims with a particular burden, might offer votives in addition to prayer, or they may a serve as a means of shortening the ‘stations’ by having to recite fewer prayers. The regular visitors might make a grand gesture of leaving a religious statue as a votive offering, or undertake to complete some renovation work on the site, while the less frequent or one-time visitor might leave a less valuable and impromptu gift. In all cases the depositing of the votive offering usually takes place near the end of the visit to the ‘Holy Well’ and is usually accompanied by an additional and personal prayer. As well as rags and ribbons, Rosary beads are common offerings, but a shell, pebble, button, shoelace, or anything that has been in with the visitor’s person is appropriate. Tokens that a specific to certain prayer requests are common, such as lighters from a smoker who is trying to quit the habit. To cope with anxiety sufferers might drive nails or coins into a well-side tree, but this practice can eventually lead to the death of the sacred tree. Those who leave worry and disease-infected offerings on the trees or by the side of the Well already feel that the environment in which they are praying is a ‘giving’ one, in which the natural or divine power within the site is provided to all visitors without condition,

“Conclusion”

Some estimates suggest the number of ‘Holy Wells’ in Ireland to be at least three-thousand, while others argue that this figure is an under-estimation. But many Wells have been lost and continue to be lost to man’s progress in farming techniques, stock raising, forestry, road-building and widening, and the building boom that began in the five or ten years prior to the new millenium. Destruction of the historic record in Ireland has been generally accelerated by those affluent sections of the community keen on developing rural areas of the country, and the loss of ‘Holy Wells’ has been a subject of contention in many areas. The disappearance of the Wells unless as a result of supernatural provocation, has more usually resulted because of the gradual erosion of local pilgrimage and place-lore. When the devotees stop visiting the site quickly falls into disrepair and the stories about the sacred place and its benevolent gifts disappear, causing the ‘Holy Well’, ‘Sacred Tree’, or ‘Sacred Stone’ to vanish from our memory and the record.

Rites of passage and events within the community become wound up in the stories of the sacred gathering places, and become associated with the presiding saint’s benevolence. Much of the conversation among the people at these Well gatherings tends to revolve around memories of community figures, which ties these sacred places to past generations and the older members of a community. In the last thirty years the social norms that dominated Irish society for generations fell apart with unexpected speed, especially among those devastated by years of investigations into child abuse by individual clerics and institutions run by religious orders. Many have abandoned the Church, or at least its buildings, with greater numbers undertaking regular engagement with the open air folk liturgies. Such has the popularity grown, in fact, that many priests throughout Ireland have renewed well-side gatherings in an effort to attract parishioners back into the congregation.

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