The counties of Ireland are scattered with more than 3,000 holy wells, each attached to their own saints, legends and healing properties.
These holy wells have been sites of worship and prayer for centuries and are still visited today by those who seek the miraculous cures offered by the waters.
Even before the coming of Christianity, the wells were known as sacred sites to those who worshipped pagan gods. They were then blessed and consecrated by the early saints of Ireland such as Saint Patrick.
In modern day Ireland, thanks to Saint Patrick, one doesn’t have to go very far to find a church, but in the saint’s time, Patrick would have had to use the abundant wells and streams that populated the countryside to baptize his converts.
A legend abounds at St. Patrick’s Well in Belcoo, Co. Fermanagh, that the site was once the domain of Crom Dubh, a dark pagan god of harvests, merry-making and human sacrifice, whose altar was struck by the saint’s staff, breaking it into pieces and expelling Crom Dubh thus transforming the site into a holy Christian landmark.
Stories, such as this one, are attached to most of the holy wells in Ireland, showing how the sacred sites of an older religion retained their sacredness but were conveniently converted to a newer faith.
Patrick’s name has been granted to many of Ireland’s holy wells, some of which are said to still hold the power to cure ailments and perform miracles. The celebratory dances and feasts that would have honored these sites have been replaced by the the Christian ritual of the Stations of the Cross and this St. Patrick’s day will see many Irish people visiting the ancient holy wells of Saint Patrick.
The collective holy wells of Ireland were said to cure anything from a headache to mental illness and individual wells had their particular niche however, a lot of knowledge relating to the various cures offered by the holy wells is lost to us now and many are simply said to have healing powers, for example, at at St. Patrick’s Well in Clonmel, Co. Waterford, one of the biggest holy wells in Ireland, pilgrims were said to have descended a flight of steps into the pool to receive a miraculous cure though the nature of the miracle is unsure.
Some local areas still record the history of their wells however. St. Patrick’s Well at Belcoo, Co. Fermanagh reputedly has the cure of stomach and nervous complaints while at
St. Patrick’s Well at the center of Patrickswell town in Co. Limerick was restored in 2002 and it is said by Limerick scholar and historian Caoimhin O’Danachair that the water cured sores, toothache and other pains as well as cattle. It was also sprinkled on crops and churns while medals, rags and drinking cups hung from the great elm tree that stood beside it. Formerly, the well was visited mostly on St. Patrick’s day but devotions ceased about 1890.
When writing about St. Patrick’s Well in Leitrim, Joe McGowan, local historian and native of Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo, reported on a 1938 account of the wells curative properties: “For a cure for sore eyes the water is rubbed on, for a cure for a sick animal it is given to the beast to drink. Numerous cures have been reported. People have been cured of sore eyes, sore throat, toothaches, headaches and many other ailments. Cattle have been cured of murrain, redwater, milk fever, spine disease. Elf-shot cows have been cured and cows with chill or fever. Horses has been cured by applying the water to the affected part.”
Blessings and Curses:
Legend tells us that Saint Patrick himself was known to curse as well as bless. The story goes that as the Saint made his way over the River Duff on the Sligo-Leitrim border, he asked some fishermen if he could have some salmon but they refused him, saying “They’re scarce today”.
Unhappy with the fishermen’s mean reply, St. Patrick answered, “May they always be so”, which resulted in the end of fishing in that region for a long time.
When Patrick asked the same question of the Cassidy fishermen on the River Drowes and was granted his meal, he blessed them with the words “May the Drowes never be without a salmon nor a Cassidy to catch them.” SligoHeritage.com reports that the Drowes continues to be a popular fishing spot and generally produces the first salmon of the year.
Many people are sceptical about the healing powers of the holy wells but those that showed disrespect towards such sites were often left wishing that they hadn’t. Joe McGowan tells of a local story surrounding a well in Templeboy, Co. Sligo, which was filled in by an angry district Landlord, Captain King, after he observed the parish people praying around it. The following spring, each of the Landlord’s mares bore blind foals and he himself was later shot outside the Courthouse in Sligo town.