Holy Wells have been village centres for centuries in Ireland. Well until they paved paradise, and put up a parking lot. But some of these wells still exist around the traps. Historian Gary Branigan fills us in on some that are still in existence.
There are approximately 100 surviving Ancient & Holy Wells in County Dublin, including natural springs, elaborate stone monuments, sea caves and hidden sites in tunnels under the Dublin streets. A Holy Well is a location where water issues from the earth and where the site is a focal point for supernatural divination. Holy wells are also thought to have the power of the curing of illness through ritual. They also are associated with the cursing of third parties, and/or the veneration of early Christian Saints, Pagan Deities, or elements of nature.
Hydrolatry, or water worship, and water cults have existed in Ireland for hundreds and likely thousands of years. Through references in ancient manuscripts and stories abound in Irish Mythology, we know that not only did Holy Wells exist at that time, but they were, and continue to be, very important to the Irish. Many Holy Wells are located in areas of natural beauty, often in groves of trees, hollows in the landscape, the edge of waysides, or at points where borders and boundaries run or meet. Others are located hidden in darkness in mysterious underground tunnels, chambers, or caves, and others again at the edge of the sea, where the salt water mixes with the fresh water twice each day.
The waters of Holy Wells are associated with the power of divination and attributed to the cure of specific or general disorders. It is believed that this power is strongest on the Pattern Day, usually a significant date on the Pagan and/or Christian calendar and different for each well. A certain ritual, known as a ‘round’ or ‘station’ is performed in order to receive a requested favour or cure of a particular ailment. This involves particular prayers being said while walking around the well an odd number of times in the direction of the sun, and drinking or bathing in the waters at specific intervals. To complete the round, a rag, symbolising the ailment, is tied to the sacred ‘rag tree’ – usually an ash, hawthorn, holly, or oak. If the round is completed in reverse in the name of a third party, a curse is placed on that person, but worse consequences are reputed to befall the person who performs such an act if it is not deserved. It is believed that a sacred or supernatural fish (usually a salmon, trout, or eel) resides in the well and is the guardian of that well. The sight of it either demonstrates the successful granting of a cure or request, or alternatively, the death of the person who sees it. It is generally reported that the water from a Holy Well cannot be brought to boil, and the wood from its sacred tree cannot be made to burn.
The use of water from a Holy Well for domestic purposes has traditionally been strictly forbidden. The consequences of using the water for domestic use include the drying up of the well, the well moving location, the disappearance of its sacred fish, the loss of power of the well, or the death or injury of the perpetrator of the water misuse.
It is interesting to note that many of these practices, rituals, and associated legends have strong pre-Christian characteristics, not the mention the very pre-occupation with water as a supernatural medium. From at least the 5th Century onwards, Christian missionaries began to visit Ireland from overseas to commence the process of converting the resident populace to the new faith. In an effort to appease local sensibilities and give credence to the new belief system, existing centres of pagan devotion, particularly Holy Wells, were re-named and altered to better conform with Christian beliefs. In addition, folklore and legends surrounding these sacred sites were amended to attribute the supernatural origin or powers thought to exist there to a local saint or holy person. Subsequent centuries also saw the building of stone religious houses close to these ancient sacred places, further enhancing the optics of compatibility of the new religion with the old.
The popularity of visiting Holy Wells remained constant over the centuries, but particularly during the reign of Henry VIII in the 16th century. Popularity was also high during the enforcement of the Penal Laws in the 18th Century. During these periods in particular, religious houses were closed and persecuted peoples were forced to visit alternative places of worship where fear of sectarian assault would not be a substantial concern.
In the early 19th century, the successes of Catholic Emancipation saw greater religious freedoms for Catholics in Ireland. This resulted in attendances at many Holy Wells declining in favour of churches. In addition, excesses had also crept in, and extreme drunkenness and violence became common sights at Holy Wells on Pattern Days. It was deemed such a concern that the matter was brought up at Parliament, and both the Catholic clergy and the civil authorities discouraged assemblies at these places. The result of this was yet a further decline in the popularity of wells as spiritual centres.
The accepted term for Holy Well in the Irish language is either Tobar Beannaithe, literally ‘Holy Well’, or Tobar Naofa, literally ‘Saintly Well’. The surviving names of many wells are a direct translation into English of the equivalent in the Irish language. However many names can also bear little resemblance to the original name for a number of reasons, the most common being the full or partial phonetic Anglicisation of the original, or other corruption due to misunderstanding.
The names of many townlands, thoroughfares, houses, fields, and more recently, apartment complexes and housing estates have been attributed in varying forms with the names of wells that have been of some significance to the locality in the past.
Here is a selection of sites taken from the book Ancient & Holy Wells of Dublin, ready for people to rediscover their local holy well.
Latitude, Longitude: 53°29’8.84″N, 6°6’9.57″W
Grid Reference: O 25940 50069
Access rating: 4/5
Chink Well is located in a small dark sea cave on the shoreline south of Tower Bay on the peninsula of Portrane is a small wonder of nature. There is a high density of unusual geological features in the immediate vicinity, and this attracts much interest. The cave is fully inundated by high tide twice a day, and access can only be gained at low tide by climbing down a rocky cliff face and walking along the small cove to the cave. Once there, a series of natural calcareous basins, or ‘rimstone pools’, greet the visitor. These are filled with cascading spring water, and the surrounding rocks sheen deep purple and ruby red when lit. Of interest within the neighbouring cave is a large hand cut alcove situated above high tide mark, this is known as the Priest’s Chamber and is the location where priests hid during the time of persecution when the Penal Laws were being enforced in the 18th Century.
Chink Well was resorted to for the cure of whooping cough, previously known as chin cough (hence the wells name). Pieces of bread were left as offerings, and it was necessary to visit the well before sunrise to obtain the cure but only deemed successful if the bread was witnessed floating out to sea at the next high tide. Other general offerings left included buttons, rags, and other small objects.
St Doulagh’s Well And St Catherine’s Pond
Tobar Dhuileach agus Lochán Chaitlín
Latitude, Longitude: 53°24’56.11″N, 6°10’43.34″W
Grid Reference: O 21088 42148
St Doulagh’s Well and St Catherine’s Pond are located adjacent to the stone church of St Doulagh near Balgriffin. They are considered to be two wells, but it is likely that St Catherine’s Pond is only filled via an overflow from St Doulagh’s Well. St Doulagh’s Well is a cut stone circular well, approximately 3 foot deep, located within a stone built octagonal baptistery, the only free standing baptistery remaining in Ireland. It was used for the baptism of boys. It once held plaster frescoes on each of the four walls, with images of St Patrick, St Brighid, St Colmcille, and St Doulagh, with a further fresco on the ceiling depicting the descending Holy Spirit. In addition, it held a marble plaque with an inscription in Latin, but the translation into English is as follows:
“Bethesda’s sacred pool, let others tell,
With healing virtues, let her waters swell.
An equal glory shall Fingallia claim,
Nor be less grateful for her blissful stream.
Thy prayers, Doulachus, mounted up to Heav’n,
Thence to Thy will the mighty power be given.
To drive the fiery fever away,
Strength to replace and rescue from decay,
In every malady to life a stay.
The cherub, wondrous, moves his wat’ry sphere.
The Saint beholds, who stirs the fountain here.
Hail, lovely fount! If long unsung thy name,
It hence shall rise above the starry frame.”
All of these were destroyed by a Cromwellian Officer, Richard Bulkeley, in a ‘fit of iconoclastic zeal’ on his return to Dublin from the Battle of the Boyne in 1650.
St Catherine’s Pond is a subterranean stone built tank which is fed from an outflow of St Doulagh’s Well. It was this well that was resorted to for the cure of disorders of the eyes and it was also here where girls were baptised. A large Pattern was held here but suppressed due to the abuses that occurred. Unfortunately, the level of water in both wells is much reduced and the widening of a road in the vicinity is blamed for this.
St Patrick’s Well
Townland/Ward: College Ward
Latitude, Longitude: 53°20’34.62″N, 6°15’27.84″W
Grid Reference: O 16042 33919
St Patrick’s Well is an interesting site for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is located in complete darkness, at the end of a short tunnel in the Provost’s Garden in Trinity College. The well is actually located beneath the footpath on Nassau Street, however, it previously saw the light on day when it was at ground level. However when the mound, which held the remains of the Thing Mote (Viking Parliament), was disassembled in the 17th Century and spread along Nassau Street (then known as Patrick’s Well Lane), the well was forced underground. It is a 40-foot-deep draw well but heavily silted up and now only 4 foot deep. Archaeologists have assessed it on numerous occasions but no excavation has ever taken place here. It is generally thought that the celebrations held on St Patrick’s Day originated in the form of the Pattern held at this well, and it is thought that St Patrick first baptised the Dublin Pagans here. Legend holds that St Patrick was implored by the local people to do something as the water in the area was brackish, so he struck the ground here, and fresh water sprang from the ground. It is also believed that frogs were first brought to Ireland when frog spawn was put into this well.
Appointments (with reasonable notice) can be made with the Provost’s office to visit this well.
St Brighid’s Well
Townland/Ward: Brideswell Commons
Latitude, Longitude: 53°18’55.82″N, 6°23’43.50″W
Grid Reference: O 69360 30644
St Brighid’s Well is located on Lilliput lane, just off Boot Road in Clondalkin. It is situated in a large enclosure that is maintained in very good order and includes a statue of the saint and highly festooned rag tree of ash. It is believed that St Brighid baptised local Pagans at this well in the 5th Century. The stone structure around it dates from 1761, and the railings were donated by workers from the local Paper Mills in 1940. The well is resorted to for the cure of disorders of the eyes, particularly on 1st February, and three visits are required for it to be successful. The cure is particularly effective for young girls. It is traditionally believed that there is a cillín (little church or burial ground) at this site, either in the raised grassy area behind the well chamber or on the green space to the immediate north-west. Unfortunately, during road widening operations in the 1990s, the source of the well was severed and it dried up for the first time. It was then connected to the mains water supply and it is this that flows at the site.
St Mobii’s Well
Townland/Ward: Donnybrook East
Latitude, Longitude: 53°19’10.18″N, 6°14’5.51″W
Grid Reference: O 17622 31360
St Mobii’s Well, also known as St Broc’s Well, is located on a small green area in the estate of Eglinton Square, Donnybrook. It was previously situated in the kitchen garden of a large house called Ballinguile, now demolished. St Mobii (not to be confused with St Mobhi) was a nun who settled in the locality. The well house is a free standing rustic cupola of mortared local stone with a gate attached. Unfortunately, the well has been dry for many years. It was resorted to for general healing.
Latitude, Longitude: 53°15’47.59″N, 6°15’9.77″W
Grid Reference: O 16591 25057
Site No 126, Grumley’s Well, is located on scrub land adjacent to a property known as ‘The Well’. This is private property, so please be respectful in this regard. The entire area abounds with springs, and this makes it extremely muddy and difficult to approach. The well is a small structure with a flag stone covering it. Around the year 1900, a carving of the letters ‘I.H.S.’, a cross, and two chalices was carried out on the lintel over the entrance, although a thick layer of moss now obscures this from view. It was resorted to for the cure of general ailments, and rags were hung on the surrounding bushes.
About the Author
Gary Branigan has been a Local Historian for many years. A native of Dublin, he has a keen interest in the history and sociological past of the County he calls home, and is involved in the research and documentation of lost history and historical monuments. He specialises in the subject of Holy Wells and associated sites. He maintains the growing Facebook Community Group ‘Ancient Wells of Ireland’ and ‘Ancient & Holy Wells of Dublin’ where various people post information and photographs of their local sites, and where others find information on their local places to visit.
You can buy the fascinating book here.