Emerald Isle

Sacred Dwellers in the Deeps

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland

Some fish should not be caught

Throughout Ireland can be found many holy wells and blessed springs, most of which predate the arrival of Christianity on the island, but which were consecrated by the Church to the service of Christ. Within some of these wells and deepnesses, the old legends tell, swim sacred guardians and fish of strange repute!

To this day the people of Ireland still make pilgrimages to these holy wells. It is considered that their prayers are most effective when there is a sacred fish present, usually a trout, salmon, or eel, all of whom travel across the boundaries between salt and fresh water, perhaps representing a passage between this world and many others.

Often visitors might drop in a piece of bread or other morsel for the fish in the hopes that their petitions might find favour with these eldritch messengers, such as happens at the blessed well near Skibbereen. On the 29th of June each year, on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, hundreds gather and tie wish-rags to a nearby whitethorn bush and peer into the well to catch a glimpse of the two eels said to swim in its gloomy depths.

In Ballykine in County Wicklow, there is a brawling silver stream that feeds into the Aughrim river, and close to that can be found the three wells and their guardians, six trout, two in each well. They are said to have lived there from before the time of the icy Cailleach's shadow, and there they will live until the end of the world.

No more than two are in each well, and no less than two have appeared at any time.

Many are the tales of misfortune which befalls those who meddle with the sacred fish! Not far from Temple Mologa is a spring well believed to be sacred by the people who live nearby, only to be used for drinking and healing, but a certain English lady decided she would cook her husband's dinner with water drawn from it.

Well the logs were piled on and the fire burned high up the chimney, and so hot was it that none could even stand to close to it in the kitchen, but still the water in the pot remained cool! Her husband grew angry waiting for his dinner, so he made his way to the kitchen and found to his surprise that not only was the water cool, but there was a beautiful trout swimming in it without any sign of harm!

Struck with astonishment, he asked the local people who worked in his manor for advice, and they told him to put the water, trout and all, back into the well, or his troubles were only beginning! He did so without delay and was even more surprised to see the trout vanish before his eyes when the water in the pot returned to the spring.

Such stories did not always have such a happy ending however, as a woman who drew water from St Mary’s Well in Cork discovered. Much like the lady in Mologa, she found that not only would the water not boil, but there was an eel in it too! When her husband returned, he likewise put the water back in the well, but the well dried up soon after and has remained dry to this day, sitting between two other wells which still flow fresh and free.

There is a legend of a priest who grew weary of the veneration accorded to a local well by his parishioners, not to mention the wild hoolies they would throw around the spot, and so he cursed the well. No more patterns were held at that place, and the people cooked, cleaned and washed their clothes with the water, coming to no harm.

Sometimes the presence of an eel in a holy well needed no supernatural explanation, as the locals would put one in there to feed on the various flies, mites and grubs that might otherwise fester about the place. The old monks might also occasionally keep fish for their Friday dinners in these wells.

Not all of these eels or other fish were of a kindly nature, as it is said of Abbey’s Well, in Kilshannig. If a trout is seen by those doing their rounds of the well, it was a good omen for their intentions, but if an eel poked his head out instead, bad news was the invariable outcome.

These are very ancient legends, going back to the time of the Tuatha De Dannan, when Nuada himself had a secret spring of peculiar virtues that nobody but himself and his cup bearers were allowed to drink from. If anyone defiled the dweller in the well, water would burst up and blind them! The only one who tried to do so was Queen Boann, and when the ripping currents took her eyes, she fled wildly away to the ocean, followed by the raging river which we today call the Boyne, in her honour.

The Druids and their precursors held convocations around these wells and drew magic from their dark rippling waters under the smiling yellow moon.

Kilshannig can be found on the map below.

Further Folk and Faerie Tales of Ireland

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