The Holy Wells of Ireland

John Healy
The Holy Wells of Ireland | start of essay

The Holy Well of Ballintober, in the Co. Mayo, has been famous through many centuries. Both town and parish took their name from the well, which became in after ages so celebrated that a great abbey of Canons Regular was founded there in the thirteenth century.

But it was known even in pagan times by the name of Slan, or the Healer, and the people worshipped it because they believed a certain wizard or prophet dwelt beneath the rock from which the cooling spring burst forth. And they called it the “King of Waters.”

But Patrick undeceived the foolish people, for he removed the flag from the well, showing them there was nothing beneath it; and then, blessing the fountain, he baptised in its waters his disciple Cainnech, and placed him over the church of Cell Tog, which afterwards came to be called Ballintober.

This shows us Patrick’s procedure in dealing with pagan superstitions, and how the mystic fountains of the old religion became the blessed wells of that new religion of which baptism was the most essential and characteristic rite.

These sacred fountains, called after St. Patrick, are found all over the face of the country, wherever the Apostle preached, and still are justly held in the highest reverence.

One of the most picturesque holy wells in Ireland is that which is known as Tubbernaltha, on the shore of Lough Gill, near Sligo. The well gushes out from the face of the cliff to which it owes its name. The pellucid stream at first lingers under the shade of embowering shrubs, the centre of a scene of enchanting loveliness, and then steals away with gentle murmur to mingle with the waters of the lake. The well has a double sanctity, for it was not only blessed by St Patrick, who, it seems, baptised his converts there on his way southward through Tirerrill, but in the penal days its waters were used in the celebration of Mass, which was solemnised there beneath an aged tree when no priest dare venture into the town of Sligo.

There is another Patrick’s Well on the slope of Tullaghan Hill, in the Co. Sligo. It is said that it sprang up at the prayer of St. Patrick, when he was suffering from thirst through the machinations of one of the she-demons of Croagh Patrick, who had polluted all the wells in her flight from the holy mountain. This well is described in a treatise on the wonders of Ireland, dating from the ninth century, as “a well of sweet water on the side of Corann, the property of which well is that it flows and ebbs like the sea, although it is far away from the sea;” and Gerald de Barri repeats the statement in the beginning of the thirteenth century almost in the same words.

There is a large rock close at hand which is called the Altar, and it may have been used as such by St. Patrick himself. But Dr. O’Rorke, the local historian, denies the ebbing and flowing, and assures us that the water is by no means sweet and pellucid. It had for ages, like many other holy wells, two enchanted trout; and great crowds assembled there on the annual “patron” day to make their “rounds” of prayer, and afterwards enjoy themselves in more mundane fashion.

This led to so many abuses that the local clergy there, as well as in many other places, proscribed the “station,” which has now, we believe, been discontinued.

In the Glen of Altadavin, near Clogher, on the borders of Monaghan and Tyrone, there is another famous Patrician well. It is a small, smooth, circular basin, sunk in the surface of a large rock that stands isolated from and rising over the adjacent rocks. Yet as often as the basin is emptied of its water, it fills again in a short time, although no one can explain how the water gets there, for the rock stands alone, and the well is on its upper surface. No aperture or perforation can be discovered; the basin is “smooth, hard and solid.”

It was in this basin, it appears, the Saint baptised his converts. The chair in which he sat when speaking to the crowds below is close at hand, and the great stone altar where he celebrated Mass stood before him.

The whole glen is very striking, and one might easily fancy the Saint still sitting in his chair of stone, his converts crowding the rocky slopes around, and listening to the words of life that fell from his lips; then the blessing of the rock-basin, and the baptism by infusion from the higher ground, and the wondering crowds on the green sward below watching the Saint, as he offered the holy sacrifice for the first time in the deep shades of that romantic glen, which had hitherto been sacred to the dark rites of Druidism.

No wonder the rock-basin is venerated as a holy well; and the people confidently assure us that, no matter how often it is emptied, the basin will spontaneously fill in some twenty minutes, and “it was never known to continue without water, no matter how great or prolonged was the drought.”

Near Limerick there is another well-known fountain, still called Patrick’s Well, where the Apostle baptised the King of Thomond, as told in the “Tripartite Life.”

A similar holy well, which local tradition connects with the name of our Apostle, is to be seen near Clonmel, the photograph of which is here reproduced.

St. Patrick's Well, Clonmel

St. Patrick’s Well, Clonmel

As a rule, all the Irish Saints have one or more blessed wells dedicated to their memory in the immediate neighbourhood of the churches which they founded. Indeed, for the reasons already explained, the church was never founded except near a well. Pure water was necessary, not only for baptism and for the Holy Sacrifice, but also for the daily needs of the holy men and women whose lives were given there to the service of God. Pure water was for them an urgent need, for they led lives of extreme rigour, hardly ever tasting animal food, except a little fish from time to time.

Bread, herbs, and water were their daily fare; they drank neither wine nor beer nor spirits—nothing but the crystal spring. What wonder these became holy wells—blessed for baptism, used at Mass, giving daily drink to generations of saints, who, with pure and grateful hearts, blessed God who gave them those crystal springs, and blessed again and again the fountain itself that gave its grateful waters to quench their thirst at every frugal meal.

For a somewhat similar reason, we find constant reference to the “blessed trout,” or the “enchanted trout,” that frequented the holy wells. No doubt some of the saints sought to keep fish for their own use in some of these wells and streams, as the religious of mediaeval times certainly did in the larger rivers, nigh to which they always built their monasteries. Then, no true Christian would touch those little fishes which the saint or hermit kept in the stream or well near his church. It would be almost sacrilege to rob the holy man of the little that he claimed as his own, so that the fish, like the stream, would be holy things in the estimation of the people, and came to enjoy a kind of immortal life.

We have a remarkable instance of this at Aghagower, in the Co. Mayo. St. Patrick founded that church for his disciple Senach, who, on account of his spotless innocence, was called the Lamb of God. The church was built on the bank of a limpid river, which still flows as full and clear as in ancient days, although both church and round tower are now in ruins.

Patrick himself loved the place much for its sweet retirement, and was minded to stay there, as he was “weary faring round so many churches, and crossing so many floods.” But the Angel said “No”—it was not God’s will. Whereupon, Patrick left Senach there, and placed in the stream for him two salmon, as the “Tripartite” tells us, that always kept together, and could not be harmed, through the blessing of Patrick, for he left angels to watch over them.

So we are told in this book, written more than a thousand years ago, and the wondrous tale has come down through the ages, and, for aught we know, the blessed salmon are there still at Aghagower, as they are said to be in so many other of the holy wells of Ireland.

This will be more easily understood if we bear in mind that in the early ages of the Church the fish was a very sacred symbol, and as such is constantly figured in the catacombs. The ἰχθΰς or “fish,” was regarded as a symbol of our Saviour Himself, because the letters of the word are the initial letters of the five Greek words signifying JESUS CHRIST, OF GOD THE SON, OUR SAVIOUR.

So Jesus Christ himself was the heavenly ichthus, or fish, and we, His disciples, are the smaller fishes, who, as Tertullian says, are born in the waters of baptism, and caught in the net of salvation by the apostolic fishermen, who thus make us heirs of the heavenly kingdom, “catching us not for death but for life eternal with God.”

Then, again, the miracle of the loaves and fishes gave a eucharistic significance to the holy fish that swam in the holy wells, and both together furnished a vivid type of the spiritual life of man, as it is beautifully expressed in a Greek inscription discovered near Autun in the year 1839:

“Offspring of the heavenly ichthus, see that a heart of holy reverence be thine, now that from the divine waters thou hast received whilst yet among mortals, a fount of life that is to immortality. Quicken thy soul, O beloved one, with the ever-flowing waters of wealth-giving wisdom, and receive the honey-sweet food of the Saviour of the saints. Eat with longing hunger the ichthus, which thou holdest in thy hands.”[1]

The Irish Saints were no strangers to this beautiful symbolism; and if we bear it in mind, perhaps, like them, we may come to be disposed to look with deeper reverence on the crystal waters of the holy wells that symbolise so vividly the ever-flowing waters of wealth-giving wisdom, as well as on the sacred trout that haunt the stream for ever, the living image of the heavenly ichthus who has purchased our souls for God.


[1] Dict. Chri. Ant., vol. i., p. 806.