Sláinte!: Holy Wells
The sacred nature of water was revered by our ancestors for its healing powers.
It always amuses me when a phone call with someone on the East Coast includes the question: “How’s the weather in LA today?” Answer: “We don’t have weather. We have sun.”
Precipitation is so rare in bone-dry Southern California that rainfall measured in quarter-inches is cause for rapture among romantics, non-stop ‘breaking news’ reports of probable mudslides, and more than usual snarled traffic. If we’re fortunate enough to get a real storm, the brown hills turn timid chartreuse overnight. Such is not the case on the Emerald Isle, where rain is plentiful and the shades of green are numbered at forty.
In these days when ever-increasing signs of Global Warming threaten a possible apocalyptic future and nations around the world are stricken with unprecedented drought, Ireland remains blessed by abundant watery weather. Along the coasts, heavy morning fogs roll in from the sea, and inland evenings are frequently shrouded in a soft mist. Rain can come as a languid, lazy, day-long drizzle, a divine code of sun and showers, or a torrent pouring from the heavens.
All that rain makes Ireland one of the greenest places on the planet. The water seeps into the earth, through purifying strata of sand, shale and limestone, then percolates back up again in streams and rivers that crisscross the island. And in almost every county, natural underground cisterns feed thousands of crystal-clear pools that for eons the Irish have revered as Holy Wells.
In prehistoric times, pools of water appearing without a seeming source were thought to spring from the Otherworld, the land of eternal youth, a place of power and wisdom. A well in the palace courtyard of Manannan Mac Lir, the faerie king, was encircled by nine magic hazel trees and inhabited by a large salmon, which ate the hazelnuts and acquired the wisdom of the ages. From the well flowed five streams representing the five senses through which knowledge is obtained. In Echtra Cormaic Maic Airt i Tir Tairngiri (Cormac Mac Art’s Adventure in The Land of Promise), third-century A.D. King Cormac Mac Art meets Manannan MacLir who explains that only someone who drinks from the streams can attain true knowledge. In the Fianna Cycle which recounts the adventures of Finn Mac Cumhaill, Mac Art’s son-in-law, Finn catches and eats the salmon and becomes the wisest of men.
Despite the myriad technological wonders that fill our modern lives, we persist in calling the natural world Mother Nature, a holdover from prehistory when all things natural and unexplainable were thought of as feminine, a belief no doubt inspired by a woman’s ability to give birth and suckle the newborn. As sources of precious life-sustaining fresh water, sacred wells were presumed to be the abodes of powerful goddesses. In Echtra Mac nEchach Muigmedoin (The Adventure of the Sons of Eochaid Muigmedoin), Niall and his four brothers are tested to determine which of them is best suited to become king. One by one they go in search of water and find a well guarded by a hideous hag who offers to exchange a drink of water for a kiss. Only Niall accepts the challenge and kisses the hag, whereupon she transforms into a beautiful goddess who names him sovereign of the land.
In addition to power and knowledge, the sacred wells were believed to be places of healing, with different wells having unique healing properties and specific methods of employing the water, often as teas steeped with herbs. Drinking from one well would restore sight to the blind or lucidness to the insane; bathing in another would cure gout or arthritis or bestow fertility on a woman who had long been barren. In almost all cases, rituals were required in order for the healing to occur. Making the Rounds, which consists of walking around the well three times deosil – left to right, the same path taken by the sun – has its roots in Druid ceremonies.
Rag Trees are another indication of the Druidic origin of Ireland’s sacred wells. Frequently a tree with magical properties – oak, holly, rowan or hazel – was planted beside the well to serve as its guardian. Hundreds of years later, the trees now tower over the water and supplicants still tie bits of cloth to the branches, trusting that as the fabric disintegrates so will their ailments diminish.
With the coming of Christianity, the sacred wells of antiquity were consecrated and saints’ names replaced the Druidic place names. As the wells had long been ceremonial gathering spots, churches were built at the revered sites. The Druids’ wells then became the Christian baptismal fonts, and the cures brought about with the wells’ water were called miracles.
Christianity did not alter the people’s belief that the wells had healing powers. The great 19th-century Irish playwright J.M. Synge, while living in the Aran Islands, wrote Well of the Saints, a comedy based on accounts of miracles that occurred at Tobar an Ceathrar Alainn (Well of the Beautiful Saints), which is found on Innishmor just a few meters from a church dedicated to Saints Fursey, Brendan, Conal and Bearchan. In the play, Martin and Mary Doul, a blind beggar couple, believe themselves to be beautiful until a friar restores their sight with water from a holy well. No longer disabled, they discover they are not only common looking but now have to work for a living. When they become blind again and the friar attempts to restore their sight a second time, Martin knocks the holy well water to the ground, choosing blindness and a beggar’s life, having ‘seen’ enough human cruelty.
Many of the ancient sacred wells are still the sites of annual pilgrimages, especially at the Midsummer Vernal Equinox (June 21), a chief ceremonial day of the ancient Celtic solar calendar, and on Pattern Days, the feast days of local patron saints. Many more Holy Wells have slipped into obscurity, been plowed over, clogged with rubble, overgrown, or fallen victim to natural erosion. With civic, historic and spiritual mindfulness as its mission statement, a formally registered Irish Charity (CHY 14794) entitled Slaine (healthfulness) is endeavoring to rediscover, document and regenerate Ireland’s Holy Wells. For more information see: http://www.slaine.ie
A folktale tells of a vile ruler who once defiled the guardian damsel of a sacred well, and as a result the well dried up and the country suffered a severe drought, causing it to become a wasteland. Fresh pure water is vital to the survival of all life – plant, animal and human alike. With urban sprawl encroaching on all the wild lands and toxic pollution an ever increasing threat to water tables the world over, it behooves us to reconnect with the sacred nature of water that was so fervently revered by our ancestors and do all things possible to protect its purity for future generations. Sláinte!
Herbal teas, known as ‘tisanes,’ have been used as healing agents since prehistoric times. The following combinations are from The Cookin’ Woman: Irish Country Recipes by Florence Irwin. In all cases, it is best to use pure water without chemical additives.
To Soothe Nerves
Wash and shred one head of lettuce. Place in a pot, cover with 1 1⁄2 pints boiling water and steep for 30 minutes. Strain and either sweeten with honey or add a pinch of salt.
For Gastric and Chest Troubles
Place several rosemary leaves and flowers in a heated teapot. Add 1⁄2 pint of boiling water and steep for 10 minutes.
To Relieve Headache
Crush 1⁄4 ounce anise seeds and place in a heated teapot. Add 1 pint boiling water and steep for 10 minutes.
To Treat a Cold
Boil 1⁄2 ounce of dried elderflowers in 1 quart milk. Strain and sweeten with honey.
To Combat Insomnia
Place 7 camomile flowers in a heated teapot, add 1⁄2 pint boiling water and infuse for 10 minutes. Sweeten with honey and drink hot just before bedtime.
To Aid Digestion
For every cup of tea use 4 mint leaves. Infuse in a heated teapot for 10 minutes. Drink hot after meals.
Put 1 ounce fresh young dandelion leaves in a pot, add 1 pint boiling water and steep for 10 minutes. Strain and serve with an equal part of hot milk. Sweeten to taste with honey.
A List of Holly Wells:
Clare: St. Brigid’s Well: Liscanor. Magh Adhair: Quin. Eye Well, and
Tooth Well: Burren. Margaret’s Well: Ennis.
St. Augustine’s Well: Kilshanny.
Cork: St. Olan’s Well: Aghbullogue. Tobrid Well: Millstreet. Sunday’s Well & Mary’s Well: Walshestow. St. Finbar’s Well: Gougane Barra.
Kerry: Well of the Wethers: Ardfert. St. Dahlin’s, and West Lady Well. Ballyheige. St. John’s Well: Dingle. St. Erc’s Well & St. Eoin’s Well: Listowel. St. Michael’s Well: Ballymore.
Kildare: Earl’s Well, St. Brigid’s Well, and Father Moore’s Well: Kildare.
Meath: Tobar Patraic: Ardmulchan. St. John’s Well: Warrenstown. Tara (Neamnach, Toberfin and Leacht): Castlebye
Roscommon: Tober Oglalla: Tulsk. St. Lassair’s Well:Lough Meelagh. St. Attracta’s Well: Monasteraden
Sligo: Tobernault: Sligo.
St. Brigid’s Well: Cliffony. Tullaghan Well: Tullaghan. St. Patrick’s Wells: Dromard and Aughris. The Bog: The Culleens.