Holy wells can be found all over Ireland -- and evoked in our minds, as well. As children, we would pick the daisies and buttercups, and place them by a well. Or, if we happened to be playing in someone’s garden, we would dig a well, and pour water into it, placing the daisy and buttercups by the stones we would place around it -- not even knowing why, just following an instinct to do just that. Was it an inner voice that prompted us, as children, to pay homage to the water in the well, or maybe our subconscious minds had absorbed a conversation we had heard at home, in school, or at church. Whatever the rationale, we just did it.

Later in life, when I learned that water was, in fact, the source of life, I often wondered why children of 6 or 7 years of age would contemplate making a well and placing flowers around it. My conclusion is that some things are just so fundamental to life that children have an innate understanding of all things around them, about danger, risk, water, et cetera.  

Some sources claim that there are as many as 3,000 holy wells across Ireland, and these are said to predate Christianity.  The water that lies in the wells is said to be so pure that it can be drank straight from its source.

For generations, wells have been associated with healing powers, and in a lot of cases, this, of course, could be true, as many of the minerals that lie in holy wells do carry curative properties [Just like the herbs and plants that my grandmother would send us to the woods to find -- to make potions to heal. Read "That’s Just How it Was."]  For some people, these curative properties are attributed to a saint who may have lived in the area or may have been associated with an area. At such wells, there may be rosary beads, a picture of a sick or dead relative, flowers, a garment belonging to a sick loved one in bygone eras, jewellery, food, and all sort of elaborate gifts, left in the hope that an illness or a problem would be solved. Some people have been known to dip a cloth in a holy well, and wrap it around their sick loved one.

In pre-Christian Ireland, pagan Celtic society predominantly revolved around rural life. The close link with the natural world, that is, woods, lakes, the landscape, be it wild or cultivated, the animals that fed them, and not least ‘wells’ [the source of the pure water], all of this only served a simple purpose of ‘prayer' -- not as we know prayer today. They perceived the presence of the supernatural, or, as some sources would suggest ‘deities’ [spirits], as an integral part of their religious concept of their god types, in what we would call  today ‘our religious systems’ [Think of mediums]. For example, when Christians go into a church today, the first thing they do is dip their hand into a font of the blessed water and say ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."  Is this a reflection of all those traditions that have been either handed down by word of mouth, learned behavior, a study of the Scriptures, or is there something else at play in our psyche that is equally fundamental to our inner being, such as breathing -- water and spirit being the operative words here.

Water, as we know it, brings with it us all sorts of emotions. When we get our children baptized, water is poured over them from a font, family gathered all around, pouring love on the child and each other, then the tears flow [more water]. When we get married in church, water is used from the font to bless the married couple, and the priest will then sprinkle the holy water over the wedding party and the tears flow again [more water]. When we wash, bath, shower, swim, or walk in the rain, water is pouring over us in a manner that would suggest being made clean.  

For example, many old churches contain a crypt (grotto) that opens onto a subterranean spring, deep in the earth, which could be perceived as an inner sanctuary, an inner holy well, deep beneath the Church . Many more of these old churches were built near ‘pagan sacred wells,’ and the early Celtic churches used these sacred wells for baptisms, to clean and make sure the baby [or person] could live a clean and pure life.

In Celtic mythology, ‘the Well of Wisdom’ stands at the center of the otherworld [spiritworld] -- for the Celts, it was their way of honoring their ancestors through water, and what they found as a divine way of carrying out their daily tasks and obligation to the deceased loved ones in the Otherworld. [Are we any different in our Christian beliefs -- we, too, believe that we will one day meet and see our loved ones again. I, for one , firmly believe that I will meet all of my deceased loved ones again.]

Pictured, Holy Well, North County Dublin, August 1977, Photo by Gerry Regan

When Catholics were forbidden under the Penal Laws to gather for mass in a church, crude altars were erected beside a well, and mass was said at these wells, in secret. If a priest could not be found, as was very often the case then, the gathered people would, with the help of a lay preacher, continue with their private devotions to the saint that would have been attributed to that particular well, dipping their hands into the well to bless themselves.

More importantly, this water energy is carried within ourselves -- as we all know, all life on earth, particularly human life, is mostly composed of water.

Picture below, a pilgrim's prayer, from St. Brigid's Well, near Buttevant, County Cork, Ireland, July 2006. Wikimedia Commons

Suffice it to say that all of these holy wells in Ireland carry stories that are as old as the Earth itself, so when we walk past, or stand at the holy well, remember to dip your hand. It may just contain healing properties.


Views: 2305

Tags: Faith, Folklore, Holy Wells

Founding Member
Comment by John M. Walsh on November 8, 2015 at 7:07pm

Mary, My parents often referred to holy wells in Clare and Galway.  Your essay filled in the historical and mythic gaps which I would never have pursued.  Thank you.  John Walsh

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on November 9, 2015 at 6:08am

It was interesting for me to research John. Know now why we as children  wanted to play at making 'holy wells' ... It is that innate need in all of us !

Comment by Trek Ireland on November 9, 2015 at 7:22am

Hi Mary, thanks for posting about Ireland's Holy Wells, it gives me a shiver of delight when I come across them on me travels. Hidden sanctuaries that show another side to life that's almost continually forgotten about these days. You might enjoy this short walking video I made of St. John's Holy Well in Kilmurry, Dingle Peninsula this summer.


Comment by Gerry Regan on November 10, 2015 at 10:01am

i similarly experienced a startling visceral sense of exploration and connection to the spiritual Ireland as I watched this video, Jake. Trek Ireland seems to go from strength to strength with these videos. Bravo, and go raibh maith agat!

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on November 11, 2015 at 5:39am

Thank you Trek Ireland for that insight into St. Johns Holy Well . The are all indeed hidden gems in our countryside. I always stop at any well I come across , whether I know it has a personal Saint attached to it or not. its about that inner need wanting to be a part of 'that something' that is at the heart of our very being

Thank you. 

Comment by michael dunne on November 29, 2015 at 1:55pm

Am very interested in Moydore Well which is now covered in. It was part of the Moyderwell Primary and secondary School Tralee Co Kerry. Dean Swift mentions a moydore in one of his works. The moydore, of Portuguese origin, was the most commonly used gold coin in Ireland during the 18th Century. Boherbee (An Bothar Buí) is nearby. This was a celebrated seasonal place under pagan seasonal cycles like Lughnasa and Samhan. It was the highest point of the seasonal festivities where nomads and their cattle would gather. The wells, aside from cattle requirements, were also sa cred and respected as any natural resource should be. One account mentions steps descending to the well where a moydore was found. People sometimes threw money into wells as a sacrifice for the good intentions of a relative that might be ill or otherwise troubled. The Griffith Valuation completed as part of the British tax system throughout Ireland in 1857, shows Moydore Well Lane leading from Boherbee towards the location of the well and towards Ballymullen. So the question also needs to be asked if gaelic names were put on places that may have been anglicized for a century or more.

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on November 30, 2015 at 7:18am

In my youth, michael  , growing up in Ireland , all of these superstitions prevailed from throwing 'coins into a well to make a wish ' for whatever cause or reason , to blessing oneself with the water from the well. My research into Ireland's Holy wells , has greatly enhanced my knowledge of why we as children done this. 

In Pagan times, water was revered, with some old churches containing a crypt (grotto) that opens onto a subterranean spring, deep in the earth. There were steps going down into Grotto's, which would no doubt have been well worn, pardon the pun. And yes, the pagans did gather at these wells, as that was their festival time. Just like Catholics go into a Church and dip their fingers in the Holy Water - so too did the pagans revere the Well. 

The Portuguese was the first seaborne warriors of the world, who left their trademarks in many countries, not least Ireland, and the mark of that was the moydore, only minted between 1660 – 1733, it was noted for its sheer vastness of circumference. It soon lost its appeal when it began to be associated with Piracy, but continued to be legal in vast swaves of the Western World. It usually took on a form , not unlike many early coins in Christendom which had the coat of Arms of of Portugal  on the front and a crucifixion  with the inscription ‘IN HOC SIGNO VINCES’ [ by the sign that thou shall conquer] on the reverse side .

Last but nor least , to my knowledge , when Dev Valeria got elected into High Office in 1932.......... he set about dismantling  any an all things that could be construed as British. So without doing any finite research on this particular subject, he did banish all English names places  and replaced them with Gaelic names .... Just like schools were instructed to teach Gaelic   

I marvel at the knowledge and insight that my Wild Geese friends  have,  into all these historical article’s that we all write. Only wish there was a Club that we could all attend. !!! 

Comment by michael dunne on November 30, 2015 at 9:57am

Thank you for this interesting and well researched response to wells and perhaps superstitions. Also de Valers's wish to gaelicize all English name places in 1932, His retirement from politics was as President...Uachtarán na hÉireann was in the Phoenix Park, a bastion of British Empire for centuries until 1922. So the name Phoenix Park had to go and was cleverly replaced with a similar sounding but Gaelic version Páirc an Fionnuisce. (Meaning the park of the clear water). I dont think Dev's efforts were complete by any standards. for instance in Tralee Co Kerry I believe (without proof) that the name places there were a policy of replicating empire by examples such as Waterloo Lane, Edward Street, Denny Street, but one clear example where the name was changed was Nelson Street...now Ashe Street (after Thomas Ashe) Strange that perhaps the most despicable of British PM's Lord Sir John Russell was the worst example from an Irish perspective and the one who sided with the mercantile interests during the Famine contributing to the deaths of a million Irish and a legacy of emigration and impoverishment that continues even today. It is remarkable that with the Centenery of 1916 about to dawn that this street name remains.

As a child when money was scarce. I often reflected longingly at all the sixpenny bits and occasional shillings that would have been randomly scattered inside the wrought iron fence around the front of the grotto of our lady. I never succumbed to the act,but committed the sin of thought and how I could have retracted the nearmost coins with a long stick. As an adult I have come to learn that its also a sin to put opportunity as a temptation before people. What ever happened to all this money? I never saw it collected. come to think of it churches were open all day in those times and never interfered with. Maybe the Moydore left in the well in Boherbee Tralee was donated by a conscience smitten Irish pirate or just a wealthy man who was approaching the end of his days. Today we have similar examples pof people leaving their wealth to the church or equally sadly to the cats and dogs home.

Thanking you and Mary Thorpe for this fine outlet and wish her the best with her book "That's Just how it Was" which should be an excellent Christmas read. Its a book that perhaps should be on the bookshelves of museums and libraries. Looking forward to the read.

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on December 1, 2015 at 7:39am

No I agree with you michael dunne --- Dev Valera did not by any means dismantle all of the English names on our streets, townships, etc.  into Gaelic , he did however have a pretty good try . Even successive governments, have either been ‘not interested enough’ or it would have been too disruptive for people, or too expensive. Either way; it has not happened, so I guess we are stuck with the English version of our Towns and streets. ! All of the names you have listed below are defiantly British name. And while I also agree with you that Lord Sir John Russell was a despicable man, certainly with regard to his management in Ireland, he did however get Peel to appeal the Corn Laws. But it was Trevelyan who was the most vile of people, who mocked the Irish and remarks such as ‘they have brought this on themselves’. ‘ it is Gods’ way of punishing them’

Phoenix Park was the hub of all things British, that’s where all the attacks 1897 were committed. I would hazard a guess that Dev Valera knew his religious history and that Páirc an Fionnuisce. [meaning the park of the clear water]   was not name  that was just picked out of a hat , therefore it was a name that spoke to him, of his religious insights into our Christian and Pagan past.

Whoever left that Moydore iin the well in Boherbee , I suspect they did it for all the right reasons, his conscious got the better of him , he wanted forgiveness for ‘whatever’ , but more importantly he believed in the spirit of the well, !

As a child michael dunne, I was of the same opinion as you, how to get my hand in far enough to get some of this money, that my family so desperately needed. And as a good Catholic child; this was a sin, in mind if not in practice and I was forever telling this sin in confession…………..  No I do not ever remember it ever being collected; do you think that maybe someone did act on their thoughts …. And not like us, who left it ……… Oh the days of my youth……….  

I do hope you enjoy the book ; its a family story, walking my Grandmother through the preferential of history , just remembering all the stories she told me. 

Comment by michael dunne on December 1, 2015 at 9:18am

Perhaps another subject for your research would be Liam Lynch. Lynch was Chief of Staff of the Anti Treatites when the split came and the following Civil War. Sadly he too was killed as a young man of 33 dying from his wounds in an ambush the same year 1923 and not too far from the revered and romanticized Michael Collins. No bouquets of flowers adorning his graveside no feature films no Hollywood versions. The legacy of this Civil War was severe on the anti treatites, their families  and in particular on  Eamon de Valera. His not being executed is incorrectly attributed to his American citizenship, Thomas Ashe and 97 other Republican prisoners were sentenced to death and also reprieved, Because de Valera lived to such a fine age he was seen to be beyond his 'sell by' date. Such is the short memory of the public.


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