At many Irish holy wells particularly can be found stones typified with depressions within them, which are often water filled. These depressions often have round stones within them. What are they?
Wilde (1955) makes a mention in his book on Loch Corrib, a stone called Leac na bPoll:
“takes precedence of all other stones in Cong. It is a large triangular red grit flag, two feet thick and eight and a half feet long in its greatest diameter, from under which a never-failing limpid spring issues. Its upper surface is hollowed out into five basin like smooth excavations, averaging twelve inches wide and four and a half deep and usually known as Bullauns from the Latin bulla a bowl; and which from their being invariably found in immediate connection with the most ancient church and may have been regarded as primitive baptismal fonts.”
This description neatly sums up the use of bullaun stones. In some cases the water collected in the bullaun hollows was rain filled and in the main said to cure warts, although St Kieran’s Well, Kilkieran has one for headache.
Noted bullaun and holy wells
Glendalough has the greatest amount around 40 but many are disassociated with holy wells. However, bullauns are found across the Irish countryside from St Gobnait’s holy well, Cork to St. Machan’s Well, Lemanagham Offaly, from St Berrihert’s Kyle and Well, Glen of Aherlow, Co Tipperary to over the border to St. Patrick’s Well, Aughnacloy Ulster Tyrone as well as Ullard’s well, Leinster, Kilkenny and St Attracta’s Well, Ballaghdereen, Connacht, Roscommon, but of course this list is nowhere near exhaustive.
Origins of bullauns?
The origin of these impressions is debatable. Folklorically, reasons have been given. A story is given of the 6th century Bishop St Aid who at birth is said to have hit a stone making a hole whose rainwater cured all illnesses. Realistically, they may have been natural features exacerbated by rain or in some cases the action of those stone within it. One idea was that they were primitive baptism fonts as suggested by Colby (1837) in Ordnance survey of the county of Londonderry:
“that stones of this description are found in the vicinity of most of the Irish churches, and usually bear the name of the founder, or patron saint: they are always held sacred, and the rain-water, deposited in their hollows, is believed to possess a miraculous power in curing various diseases.”
However, this must be discounted as there are around 40 in the area of Glendalough, Wicklow, alone. Certainly there associations date back to the 11th century and appear associated with the recanting of saint’s lives as above. Another theory is that they begun as corn grinding basins or more likely herbs whose healing properties may compliment the spring water.
It appears that the main theory is that they may be cup and ring marks which are found throughout northern Europe, but bar some found in Scotland, Sweden, Lithuania and France, they are lacking in much of the area where cup and ring stones are found..so why bullauns are found in some areas and not others we may never know.