Holy Wells in Ireland
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales and Legendary Places in Ireland
Mystical places of healing from long ago
Scattered throughout the Irish countryside are hundreds if not thousands of holy wells, almost all of great antiquity, even predating Christianity. They can take almost any form and show up in any place, shimmering in the shadow of engraved stone monuments, in lapping sea caves where the fresh and salt waters mingle twice a day, as natural springs among groves of mighty trees, at the borders of ancient lands, and even in chambers hiding in dark tunnels under city and town streets, or in the depths of the earth.
In ancient times these wells were thought to be entry points from a mystical otherworld, and the wonders associated with them reflected the realm they sprang from. The old people would travel to these wells at important times of the year, and complete a pattern, or walk around a hill or mound next to the well, usually “deiseal”, or the direction in which the sun travels.
Other rituals were said to have an effect, like wrapping a rag called a clootie around a sickly part of the body before dipping it in the well, then tying the rag to an old sacred tree, usually an ash, hawthorn, holly, or oak standing nearby. As the rag rotted, so did the disease or illness.
If there was a large stone with a depression in it near to the well, women would lie there to encourage pregnancy, and there were usually standing stones or statues nearby that were rubbed, the better to awaken the well. Often a coin or pin was thrown in for good measure too, and if you took a drink of a holy well, you'd be cured of all sorts of ailments, although that's not recommended these days.
Tales are told of strange fish unlike any seen in the world swimming in their depths, and if you could catch and eat the fish, you'd gain insight and wisdom beyond this world. Fionn Mac Cumhaill became the wisest man in Ireland after tasting the salmon of knowledge, which swam in the wellspring of the Boyne river.
Visions of Saints and other things could be seen at the holy wells, and the eldritch druids used them to foretell future events. Some say the water from such a well will never boil, nor the wood from its tree burn.
If the water from the well were used for mundane purposes, such as making a cup of tea, legend has it that the well might dry up, or move, or even that the person who used it so might die! And stranger things yet were said to issue from these wells, monsters and great serpents.
From the Dindsenchas, the ancient book of the lore of places, we learn more about these wells. Connla's well is the "well with flow unfailing", named as the source of the Sinann or Shannon river, the greatest in Ireland.
Connla's well, loud was its sound,
was beneath the blue-skirted ocean:
six streams, unequal in fame,
rise from it, the seventh was Sinann.
The nine hazels of Crimall the sage
drop their fruits yonder under the well:
they stand by the power of magic spells
under a darksome mist of wizardry.
The Well of Segais was a secret well:
Nechtain son of bold Labraid
whose wife was Boand, I aver;
a secret well there was in his stead,
from which gushed forth every kind of mysterious evil.
There was none that would look to its bottom
but his two bright eyes would burst:
if he should move to left or right,
he would not come from it without blemish.
In the old Irish language, the name for these wells was Tobar Beannaithe or Tobar Naofa, sacred wells or wells of the saints. They were often associated with a particular disease or sickness, whether that was tooth pain, or troubles with the bowels, or wells like Tobar na Plaighe, the well of the plague.
So famous were these wells that they might lend their names to the surrounding areas, such as Tubbercurry or Ballintober, or Cooltubrid, the glade of Brigid’s well.
When Christianity arrived in Ireland, the wells were consecrated to particular local saints, and churches were usually built nearby. Often they were used for baptisms before a a font was made within the church. While there's no doubt the wells often predate Christianity, they found their best use when providing pure water to the pure souls who helped to spread the faith in this country!
Marked on the map below is Tobernalt holy well, one of many:
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