The Holy Wells of Ireland
The existence of holy wells in Ireland today offer an opportunity to witness sacred sites and rituals that have continued since prehistoric times. Where once a sacrifice may have taken place, today a bride might look into the waters for inspiration or good luck; a cripple might bathe in the waters in search of a cure. Often the stations of the cross are prayed or a special Mass is said. A ritual practice dating from prehistoric times and continuing today is that of circumambulation, or making structured rounds of the well, always in a clockwise direction.
The Celts, a grain-cultivating, cattle-raising people, had a strong religious influence on the native Irish. One of the features of Irish Celtic cosmogeny is the power of place. This, to an earth-centered religion (i.e. goddess as opposed to the god in the sky), means that certain places possess power that is curative and regenerative. This power of place in Ireland is an essential element of the sacredness of the holy well.
Many myths surround the sacred springs or holy wells, including the theme of erotic love, intoxication as wisdom, the location of such springs as being in the Otherworld, which can mean both the land of the dead as well as the land of eternal youth. The Otherworld is perceived to be a source of power and of wisdom and is thought to be located under the earth, hidden in a mound, beneath the sea, in the far west, on a plain hidden in a mist. These elements can be found in the Fianna Cycle, the Brown Bull of Cooley, Niall and the Hag at the Well among others. Always, the emphasis among the Celtic peoples (earth-centered culture) was of cyclic regeneration rather than the linear movement or evolution of the historical culture. Even today, the "rounds" made at various of these holy wells has tradition rooted in antiquity. For example, the Well of the Wether's, a St. Patrick's well in Ardfert, Co. Kerry contains an altar showing "saints" heads worn from rubbing and ritually incised for healing. St. Ciaran's Well at Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly contains three stone heads that are routinely kissed and marked as pilgrims make their rounds or "patrons." A Booley stone activates St. Erc's Well at Listowel, Co. Kerry, a well marked by a pre-Christian standing stone.
There are different types of wells, briefly one might say that prior to the coming of St. Patrick, the sacred springs reflected the Celtic earth-centered spirituality. After Patrick, there occured a shift to "Christianize" the pilgrimages and practices associated with the wells. So the loric phenomena associated with many of the wells was revalorized in terms and by symbols universally understood in Christianity--a crossing of the boundary between the two cultures. The pagan tree took on the symbolism of Christ (i.e. the cross) and there sprang up throughout the country St. Patrick wells, St. Bridget wells.
Another crossover symbol between the ancient Celtic culture and the new Christian culture is the fish. Many wells are said to contain a sacred trout or salmon who may or may not be the saint for whom that well is named. As there was a shift from the ancient Celtic sacred springs to St. Patrick wells, so was there a shift from Brigid wells to lady wells. Before St. Bridget was canonnized, there was an earlier Brigid in Irish folklore who was a daughter/lover/wife of the Dagda, one of the Otherworld lords. Thus she was the Otherworld queen regarded for her powers of fertility and healing. She was especially identified with milk, dairy products, and the cow, also her patronage of the smith's fire.
The subject of holy wells is too vast to be covered in detail in this overview, however, many book are available for an in depth study.
Holy wells exist in most counties of Ireland. Cork, Kerry, Clare, Kildare, Sligo, Meath, and Roscommon have many. Should you wish to visit, here are some locations.
Until next time.
Copyright © 1997-2013 Suzanne Barrett and licensors. All rights reserved.