The cult of water in Ireland can be traced back to the Bronze Age (c. 2000-600 BC) at least. Many sacrificial deposits have been found in our lakes and rivers dating from that period. This form of religious expression to the gods continued into the Iron Age (c.600 BC – 400 AD). The most spectacular water find from the Iron Age is the Loughnashade trumpets. Four sheet-bronze trumpets were found in Loughnashade lake in County Armagh.
At some point our ancestors began to express public worship at small-scale water shrines known as holy wells. However, their precise origins remain obscure and can be hotly contested. Only a limited number of wells have been excavated and the findings have not shed convincing light on the vexed subject of their origins.
There are more than 3,200 holy wells recorded in Ireland – a staggering total. The eminent folklorist Criostóir Mac Cárthaigh (School of Folklore, University College Dublin) attributes the dense concentration to two factors. The first is the central role of cosmology in Ancient Ireland. Secondly, Mac Cárthaigh points out that the wells were important outposts of religious expression for Roman Catholics during the period of religious suppression in Ireland (late 17th to early 19th century).
Holy wells can have three diagnostic features. They are the divine water, the blessed tree and the stone. The latter may have a functional use in well house construction whereas a single stone may have magical properties defined by its particular shape. The blessed tree can spirit away ailments of the well habitués. However, the diagnostic features of tree and stone do not feature at all wells.
The holy well is a shrine of redemption – both spiritual and physical. People frequent wells for penitential reasons i.e. to seek forgiveness for their sins. Moreover, they visit them to seek healing from various ailments. Individual wells are renowned for cures for specific ailments associated with body and mind including eyes, warts, back, infertility and mental illness.
People also visited wells to socialize. The holy well has been the focus of great outdoor assemblies especially on the feast day of the saint to whom the particular well is dedicated. The dates of these patterns (patrún) most often occur in late July. This period corresponds with the pre-Christian festival of Lughnasa (the god of light) and the celebration of harvest.
The holy well has played a central role in the spiritual and social lives of the Irish for several centuries. The well was an especially important part of agrarian folk tradition in the 18th and 19th centuries. Though well worship is still robust at a small number of sites, the overall picture is one of dramatic decline in the last 150 years or so. Many wells are physically neglected now and the oral lore associated with them is dying with our elders.
One could argue that our ancestors’ instinctive reverence of water is still relevant today as mankind lurches from one water crisis to another.
Text: Tony Kirby / Images: Carsten Krieger