For most of the last ten thousand years, the people of Ireland have depended for their fresh water on access to lakes, streams and wells. The essential importance of water to physical survival was reflected in the spiritual importance attributed to the source of the water.
Votive offerings – the ritual sacrifice of valuable objects – have been found in water everywhere across the country: in the Corrib in Galway; in Loughnashade in Armagh; the Bronze Age Dowris hoard found near Birr; and, of course, the fabulous Iron Age Broighter hoard, thought to have been deposited in Lough Foyle in Derry. Wells, fed by underground springs, were especially venerated. The emerging water originated in the otherworld; not only did it preserve life, special healing powers were often associated with it. Even with the conversion of the populace to Christianity, belief in the supernatural qualities of the wells remained strong.
Now renamed in honour of local or national saints, the magical irish waters were credited with curative properties for healing ailments from headaches to rheumatism. In virtually every townland, we can find a St Bridget’s Well, perhaps known for curing sore eyes, or a St Patrick’s Well, for curing toothache, or a St Molaise’s Well, for lingering ailments. At some of these wells, ‘patterns’ are again (or still!) being held or mass celebrated annually. The pattern (derived from ‘patrun’ or patron saint) can yet retain vestiges of the pagan past – walking three times clockwise around the well while reciting particular prayers, for example, and tying scraps of cloth to an adjacent tree.
I haven’t heard of any recurrence of those less religious aspects of the rituals illustrated by a decree issued at the Synod of Tuam in 1660: “Dancing, flute-playing, bands of music, riotous revels and other abuses in visiting wells and other holy places are forbidden…” Unfortunately, a lot of our ancient wells have been destroyed in recent times (all too often by neglect or by development), but enough have survived to allow anyone to visit a holy well and travel back through time, past the penal laws, past the early saints, past the druids and myth-makers, past the ancient tomb-builders, right back to our earliest ancestors….