Many of this blog’s readers are interested in the holy wells of Ireland. There are many in varying states of repair and disarray. Only this past weekend some friends on a Bards in the Woods walk near Knockvicar in County Roscommon cleaned out a holy well that had silted up. Anyone preparing a trip to Ireland needs to make sure that these indigenous relics of Celtic spirituality are on their itinerary.
If a holy well runs dry for reasons that can vary between changes of water course or engineering works, the healing spirit that holds the well’s cure moves to the nearest tree.
The folk belief that the cure of a dry well is transferred to the nearest tree harkens back to the seven sacred chieftain trees of Ireland. These are oak, pine, yew, hazel, ash, holly and apple. However, the tree most often seen near holy wells and used as the clootie tree is the hawthorn. Along with oak, hawthorn is considered the preferred tree of the fairies. Since holy wells spring from deep inside the earth, the homeland of the faerie, they are also places where you may be lucky enough to contact these earth spirits.
It’s also usual to see offerings at holy wells. The bits of fabric, ribbons, rosary beads are known as clooties and it is a familiar site to see these at some holy wells. However, in some localities the local priest has banned this practice even though the ‘pattern’ of prayers for a cure is still alive and well and usually done either the last Sunday in July or near the feast of Mary, Jesus’ mother’s ascension.
If you see the word ‘Tobar’ on a map then you will know that there is a holy well there. This is the Irish word for well. This sign translates as ‘Mary’s Well.’ My 100 year old neighbour tells me that there was a very old story that Our Lady appeared here many, many years ago.
St. Brigit is associated with holy wells and many are dedicated to her. However, any spring with a ‘cure for the eye’ or inspiring visions is under her matronage.
If you are preparing for a trip to Ireland then you need to include a visit to a holy well – or indeed many holy wells for they are so varied and individual in each locality – that you may want to do a bit of research in advance. I’ve chosen a few of the best as well as some favourites on the Celtic beliefs surrounding trees.