“This well is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, after whom the church is also dedicated. However, the spring around which the well was built is much earlier than the church, and it may have been a sacred spring renowned for healing powers in pre-Christian times. The present well was constructed in the mediaeval period, and restored in 1902 in celebration of the coronation of Edward VII.”
Back in March I detailed a little known holy well in a county little known for its holy wells, Speen’s Lady Well, a delightful stone built well repaired for coronation of Edward VII back in 1903. Since then I have been fortunate enough to find out more information via Church Warden Mrs Jane Burrell, and obtained some photos about the annual service which is enacted there each here. I thought I would record here the full details of the ceremony for historical reasons.
Every year the service is done near or at the church’s Patronal Festival, this being the 15th August, which is the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. I have been informed that the Lady Well has been blessed annually for decades but how many no one readily appears to know when the custom was founded. As the well itself was refurbished in 1902 to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII, it would be nice to think the celebration dates from then.
It certainly is well reported of late locally. The Newbury Weekly News on the 17th August 2010 stated
“Parishioners of Speen turned out in force on Sunday to continue the traditional blessing of the Lady Well at St. Mary’s church. Around 70 members of the congregation attended. Leading the procession was Rev Canon David Winter, followed by cross-bearer Alan Booth and incense-burner Derek Shailes. Church wardens Jane Burrell and Brian Nobles were also among the procession, which followed the patronal festival service at the church. Around 50 of those who attended also joined for a lunch to mark the blessing of the Lady Well, which is thought to date back before 452 A.D.”
The ceremony begins with a procession out of the church, across the fields with the congregation following a cross-bearer and down the lane to the well. Here the well has been previously dressed with posies and bunches of flowers as shown above. During the service the water sprinkled amongst the congregation. Apparently before the last five years, the liturgy was dependent upon whoever was taking the service now it goes as follows:
“ INTRODUCTION In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. All Amen Our help is in the name of the Lord, All Who has made heaven and earth. The Lord be with you. All And also with you.
PSALM 65 1 Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion: to you that answer prayer shall vows be paid.
To you shall all flesh come to confess their sins; when our misdeeds prevail against us, you will purge them away.
Happy are they whom you choose, And draw to your courts to dwell there. We shall be satisfied with the blessings of your house, even of your holy temple.
With wonders you will answer us in your righteousness, O God of our salvation, O hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.
In your strength you set fast the mountains and are girded about with might.
You still the raging of the seas, the roaring of their waves and the clamour of the peoples.
Those who dwell at the ends of the earth tremble at your marvels; the gates of the morning and evening sing your praise.
You visit the earth and water it; you make it very plenteous.
The river of God is full of water; you prepare grain for your people, for so you provide for the earth.
You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; you soften the ground with showers and bless its increase.
You crown the year with your goodness, and your paths overflow with plenty.
May the pastures of the wilderness flow with goodness and the hills be girded with praise.
May the meadows be clothed with flocks of sheep and the valleys stand so thick with corn that they shall laugh and sing.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning is now and shall be for ever. Amen.”
The blessing going as follows:
“BLESSING OF THE WATER
As St Francis prayed with great gratitude for Sister Water, so we too come in prayer to God today, full of thanks for the life-sustaining generosity of his wonderful gift of water. In her mysterious beauty, water causes the desert to bloom. Each tiny drop among countless thousands of other drops does its work to water seeds and plants, to provide harvests to feed us and all creatures, to quench our burning thirst. Like the body of the earth, our bodies too are over three-quarters’ water. We are a water people. We are a water planet. O compassionate Creator God, whose spirit breathed over the waters at the dawn of creation, we seek forgiveness for our mindless use of water, we beg for wisdom to understand better how to conserve and cherish water, we ask healing for the ways that we abuse and contaminate water. And what we ask for the creation around us, we ask too for our inner lives. We welcome the gentle rain of your grace into our souls. Come free us from hatred, greed, fear and our lack of love for your gifts to us. Refresh us and renew us with your living streams of water that we may flow green and moist with life, hope and love for all that you have made. We make this prayer through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
We bless this well in the name of God, the Father who created us, the Son who redeemed us, and the Spirit who overflows with life within is. Amen”
Then the following hymn is sung:
“HYMN All creatures of our God and King, Lift up your voice and with us sing: Hallelujah, hallelujah! Thou burning sun with golden beam, Thou silver moon with softer gleam: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Thou rushing wind that art so strong, Ye clouds that sail in heaven along, O praise Him, hallelujah! Thou rising morn, in praise rejoice, Ye lights of heaven, find a voice: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Thou flowing water, pure and clear, Make music for thy Lord to hear, Hallelujah, hallelujah! Thou fire so masterful and bright, That givest man both warmth and light: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Let all things their Creator bless, And worship Him in humbleness, O praise Him, hallelujah! Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son, And praise the Spirit, Three-in-One: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!”
All in all a great evocative holy well and it is great to see that it is still celebrated by its community. Hopefully more details of the custom’s establishment will come forward.
Haiti is a fascinating country for those interested in the overlap between pagan beliefs and the Catholic church. This is particularly evident in the beliefs associated with springs and particularly on the island, water falls.
Voodoo or Vodou is a religious practice which origins in the Caribbean from West African slaves under the French colonists adapting Yoruba and Kongo, Taíno (indigenous Caribbean) beliefs as well as Roman Catholicism and even Freemasonry.
One of the most notable features is the association of the springs and water bodies with spirits. One of the most important was Simbi a guardian of marshes and fountains, where he would help those in need of a cure from supernatural illness. However he can be a troublesome character and would kidnap fair skinned children who would come to fetch some water to drink and make them work under the water releasing them years later with the gift of second sight as a compensation!
Another water deity was the Damballah, a snake whose lives in the water and the land. He is said not to be able to communicate but create a feeling a comfort, optimism and fertility. Interestingly he is associated with St. Patrick who is of course famed for vanquishing serpents in Ireland.
The most famed spring site is Machann Dessalines, where there is a small cave or gròt, associated with a man-made pool, where Vodou spirits Ezili Freda and Simbi reside giving their healing powers to those who submerge in the pool.
However, the most sacred water place of the Haiti’s is the Saut d’Eau found in the Mirebalais district where physical illness, social and psychological issues can be cured – it is hoped! Why? For it is here that in the 19th century either a vision of the Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel or her Vodou counterpart Lwa appeared in a palm tree nearby. It is recorded that a French priest afraid of the repercussions cut it down. It did not work for the site became the main pilgrim destination on the island. Those Roman Catholic attend the church of the Virgin Mary whilst the Vodou followers bath in the waters of the waterfall. The most important day is during the festival of Our Lady of Carmel, July 14-16th During this period the eucharist is said at the site.
The waterfall is also sacred to Damballah and it is said that its waters also cure infertility and it is said that many women give offerings of underwear. At the time of the festival the waterfall is a great spectacle of people in different stages of rapture taking in the sacred waters. They scrub themselves with soap in preparation for a leaf bath where medicinal herbs are used. They then bath again and after rinsing off the water, the priest and priestesses tell the attendees to them remove their clothes and offer them to the waterfall. By doing so they remove any illness or negativity and are reborn healthier with new clothes. The spectacle of so many people here all hoping for 7intervention from either the deity or the Virgin Mary, in a place where the pagan and Christian combine harmoniously.
Outside the town of Mogenstrup is one of the most famed holy wells of Denmark. A holy well dedicated to a saint whose following spread across the Danish world, a saint still remembered from Orkney’s to Denmark – St Magnus or Mogens, a Danish Royal Martyr. Local traditions believes that the well was a pagan sacrifice site taken over by the early church and dedicated to the saint. When this re-dedication was done is unclear but it was certainly since 1292 as the area around has been called Magnus torp since.
The best time to visit the well was Midsummer by the sick and weak. There were certain ceremonies which had to be adhered to, which ensure the water’s best powers were bestowed, such as the giving of swords, jewellery or even animals. When the church was established they encouraged the giving of money into a box , a block and hence called block money, in the church. This paid for the church, the poor and those who had to guard the spring. It is said that its waters were particularly officious at midnight and that pilgrims were so keen to take its waters that fights would occur. On is recorded between two women in 1670 from Næstved in 1670 who fought to reach the spring first and the fight resulted in a law suit of the 1st July 1670.
Another tradition to ensure that the water was effective was that the applicant should approach the well in silence. Thus, they must not greet people once they had been to the spring, avoid again meeting anyone on a return visit. Of course you could collect water for someone else but it must not be sampled on the journey back or else its power would be lost. It was also thought that the water flowed greatest and was more efficacious at midnight and bowing three times against the sun was also recommended.
The water could be used for internal diseases including cancer, insanity and mental illnesses, or external one which require the area being rubbed. In the donation of money it is said that odd money was needed for external diseases but also rags were would be used where the affected area would be rubbed or tied to and then left at the site. There are accounts of those suffering from arthritis donating their crutches to the church as firewood! Unlike British clouts it is said that the clothes were buried as local people would steal them or burn. Local accounts tell sometimes people came had their sight restored or even their life by virtue of the saint!
The Reformation here too had an impact and in 1536 there are records of the clergy trying to prevent people access the site. However, over a hundred years later, accounts of 1681-86 record that the weak and crippled were still visiting the spring donating 3-5 shillings. There were said to be several thousand at midsummer.
A turnpike was established in 1824 through the woods, the outflow was channelled into a fountain with a lion’s head which itself was restored by 1862 by the owner of a local brewery obviously tapping the water. However, the move was to have a negative impact on the supposed powers of the spring and numbers of visitors dropped.
The holy well still survives arising in a circular basin whose overfull continues to the lion’s head, however the vast concourse of pilgrims have long gone.
“Just over the boundary, in the parish of Wilcote, is an old well of beautiful clear water, surrounded by a wall, with stone steps going down to it. It is called the Lady’s Well, and on Palm Sunday the girls go there and take bottles with Spanish juice (liquorice), fill the bottles, walk round the well”
Violet Mason, SCRAPS OF ENGLISH FOLKLORE, XIX. Oxfordshire Folklore, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec. 31, 1929), pp. 374-384
My first visit to the Lady or Lady’s Well at Fincote was on a misty cold December walking down from the village I was struck by the old gnarled elms which lined the way to the well and the feel of an ancient processional route to it. Back then in the 90s I was unaware of the folk customs associated with it as hinted above.
The well itself is a small affair enclosed as stated above in a high wall. The gate was locked and so sadly I could not access the water directly. However, it followed from beneath the wall and nearby was what appeared to be a trough or perhaps even a bath half sunk into the ground. It is known that the water was used by Wilcote Grange for water and filled a series of ponds nearby now gone. Interestingly there is a Bridewell Farm nearby so was the well originally dedicated to St. Bridget or the pagan Bride? What the well lacks in structure is made up by its association with the curious custom noted above which existed until recently and may still do locally. On the Finstock Local History website it is recorded:
“Mrs. Ivy Pratley, describes the making of the Spanish Water. “On the Saturday evening before Palm Sunday, we children would crush humbug sweets and white peppermints together and to this we would add some pieces of chopped liquorice stick, the mixture was then added to a bottle of water and we would sit around the room shaking the bottles until it had dissolved”.
The correspondent notes that:
“This bottle of liquid was drunk the following day while walking to Ladywell. They also carried with them, in a paper bag, some of the dry mixture, which was mixed with water from the well to drink on the way home. Early on Sunday afternoon the walkers would set off, one group using the footpath by the Plough Inn and another group near the top of High Street using the path to the left of the road about 50 yards east of Gadding Well. The groups then merged to follow the path through Wilcote Field Longcut or the Longcut as it was known locally. Most of the girls were given a new straw hat for the occasion and these were filled with primroses and voilets on the way through Sumteths Copse. They then crossed the field to the front of Wilcote Manor and followed a route past St. Peter’s Church to the Ash Avenue which leads directly to Ladywell.”
The custom was still current when Violet Mason in 1929 recorded it but little beknown to her it was soon to disappear. The Finstock Local History society record that it died out at the outbreak of war in 1939. However, Janet Bord in her excellent Holy Wells in Britain a guide (2008) received correspondence which suggests later. She notes:
“The one-time vicar of Wilcote, J.C.S Nias, informed me that when he first went there in 1956, ‘numerous members of county families used to go to that well in Palm Sunday with jam jars containing crushed peppermint and (I believe) liquorish.”
Interesting the vicar then goes on to suggest what might have been the original reason for the Spanish water:
“they pour water from the well on to this mixture which, they believed, would then be a specific for certain ailments during the following year.”
Another correspondent noted:
“Local historian Margaret Rogers noted in a letter to me in 1984 that ‘local people do not any longer visit it on Palm Sunday’ she added; Occasionally one elderly lady visits it, but way back in 1934 there used of a substantial number of people going down on lam Sunday to make liquorice water.”
Bord’s correspondent may give another reason for the custom’s demise:
“Quite a few elderly members of the village remember with indignation that they did not get Sunday school stamps for going down there.”
Now that’s a way to kill a custom off! Perhaps some people still make their private pilgrimage but whatever there is something otherworldly about the Lady Well. It’s a recommended walk.
Our guest blog post this month is from author Michael Houlihan who has recently published an excellent work on the Holy Wells of County Clare which includes 60 colour plates, maps and invaluable information. Michael completed an MA in Arts (Local History) in 2015, having previously done courses in Archaeology and Regional Studies. He has published two books, “Puck Fair, History and Traditions” (1999) and “The Holy Wells of County Clare” (2015). He is currently working on a book entitled “The Sacred Trees of County Clare” of which this article is a very welcome introduction. A review of his book is coming soon.
When considering writing a piece on Clare holy wells recently, I thought that instead of focussing on the springs I might instead take a look at sacred trees, which form such an intimate part of the holy well space. I am no expert, but it seems to me that these trees seldom get the attention they deserve and are now only recognized as an additional artefact, there to complement the blessed well. Before starting, for those of you who may not know Clare, it is one of the 32 Irish counties, lying in the lower half of the west coast, hemmed in by the Atlantic, the river Shannon to the east and south, and ferocious Galway men (at least when playing the game of hurling) to the north.
Debate on the age of Irish holy wells ebbs and flows. Currently it’s thought that many wells (not all) came into use in the early medieval period. They were in active use for several centuries, faded a bit and were re-invigorated around the late 16th century (possibly prompted in part by Counter Reformation activities?) Sacred trees are generally grouped with the wells, lending both status and sanctity to the holy well site. There is little doubt that during the enormous deforestation that took place in Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries it was a significant advantage to trees to stand within the termonn or protected area of the well. This location also shielded them during searches for kindling or charcoal material in later years, as no sacred wood could be burned.
There is a growing school of thought pushing scholars towards the notion that a very early deep reverence for trees might indeed have been a significant Irish phenomenon. These trees may have been a source of veneration in themselves and part of a belief system at least as old as the sacred spring. There are clues to this in the literature (cf. Dindsheanchais) but perhaps one of the best indicators of an ancient tree custom is the word bile, pronounced ‘bill-a’, meaning ‘sacred tree.’ Anglicised to bella, billa, billy, villa, vella and many other variants, it occurs in hundreds of place-names across the country. A short exercise identified eight bile place-names in county Clare alone. A deeper look would certainly lead to more.
There is no doubting the very early and constant presence of sacred trees in the story of Ireland. Without visiting the history too closely, the earliest written records – transcriptions taken from a long oral tradition – speak of the five sacred trees of Ireland, reaching back to the mythic era. At the beginning of the Christian age a little after 400 AD as writing began to come into use, trees were important to both secular and religious. No king had a cathair or estate without his sacred tree (bile ratha), no inauguration or assembly site was without one or more trees, churches and saints were all the stronger for the presence of trees. The tree as source or symbol was associated with power.
When this age passed, trees maintained their presence at holy wells and abandoned monasteries or were left standing apart in open plains. Many trees stood for centuries. Gnarled and heavy, they finally keeled over in exceptional old age. Even then, lying spent, they were honoured with votive rags or coins hammered into their trunks.
Holy Wells and Sacred Trees: It is generally understood that a tree or bush beside a holy well partakes of the sanctity of the well. Many folktales combine the origins of the holy well and sacred tree. In others the tree came later, or perhaps more correctly, the story explaining the presence of the tree came later. One such tale describes a severe drought on Scattery Island in the Shannon estuary, forcing the sixth century Saint Senan to dig a pit with a hazel stick. When finished he stuck the rod in the ground beside the hole. The following morning crystal clear waters flowed from the hollow and the stick had grown to a full sized tree. Bile cuill (the sacred hazel) is said to have stood beside the well for generations.
When Saint Finghín’s well was deliberately filled in, water was seen dripping from a nearby tree. Tobercrine (tobar i gcrainn – the tree well) can still be pointed out beside the ruined abbey today. A tree that grew from a stick blessed and planted by St. Feicín at Loughcooter (now Loughcutra) was much venerated (3). St. Muaghan’s tree stood as an emblem of sanctity at Kilmoon holy well in the north of the county until old age caused it to topple in the nineteenth century… and so the stories continue.
Trees are not only cherished companions of the well but also serve as markers around which people move when performing the prescribed ‘rounds’ or ‘stations’ – walking meditations if you will. When prayers are completed, rags are tied to the tree or bush as an offering of thanks and a means of leaving concerns in the care of the saint. One remote Clare well, dedicated to St. Colman Mac Duagh, has extensive offerings on its rag tree. It lies hidden in a grove of hazels for much of the year and contains many of the elements of an early Irish eremitical site – holy well, rag tree, hermit’s cave, 7th century oratory and two leachta (altars), as well as having a significant corpus of stories about its past.
There is one reference from the early 1900’s which might suggest remnants of tree veneration near a holy well, which reads ‘The devotees take off their shoes, stockings, and hats, (or, if women, their shawls and bonnets), and start for the well repeating the prescribed prayers. They climb to kiss a cross on the branch of one of the weird old weather-bent trees in the hollow, and, lastly, pour water from the well on their faces, hands, and feet.’ 4 The addition of a crucifix to the tree here may have Christianized an older practice. However the tree may also have been nothing more than a ‘station’ in the prescribed ‘rounds’ of the well.
The types of trees found at holy well sites vary enormously. The ash seems to have been by far the most important tree in ancient Ireland (not the oak as one might think, even as a leftover of things Celtic – blame Pliny.) A study of 210 holy wells in Cork in the 1960’s found a prevalence of thorns or whitethorns (103), ash (75) and oak (7), with a mixture of other trees making up the remaining 25.5 The blackthorn – small, wizened and nearly indestructible – has always been a favourite as a rag bush, especially on poor land.
Saints, Holy Wells and Trees: Patricius/Patrick, arriving from Romano-Britain in the 430’s with his missionaries started a religious conflagration that, it could be argued, has not yet been fully extinguished. He introduced Christianity gradually to the Irish, permitting the new religion to disseminate slowly, mixing the best of what went before with the new faith. In this context, Christian missionaries recognized the importance of venerated springs and trees to the Irish (or likely already had a sense of these connections themselves?) Patrick re-dedicated former indigenous cult centres to Christianity. From the annals we read that he went to Tobar Slán, a spring venerated by the druids, which he blessed and thus Christianized. Sometime later he “went thereafter to Bile Tortain and near to Bile Tortain he built for Justian the presbyter a church, which now belongs to the community of Ard Brecáin.” Bile Tortain was one of the five great trees of Ireland that stood at Ardbraccan in county Meath. (6) There is a tale about another of the five sacred trees, Eo Rossa, that when it died of old age St. Molaisse divided it among the saints of Ireland. St. Moling of Carlow utilised his portion in making shingles to roof his oratory. This tale might be read as a form of Christian triumphalism or more kindly, an acknowledgement and retention of sacredness in a new role.(7)
A great love of the natural world permeated early Irish Christianity. One has only to read some first millennium nature poems by the saints to see this. Here is a small flavour from a longer piece entitled Atá Uarboth Dam I Caill, translated here as ‘The Hermit.’ The 9th century poem is attributed to Saint Marbáin, in which he describes nature’s bounty at his little hermitage.
I have a bothy in the wood –
none knows it but the Lord, my God;
one wall an ash, the other hazel,
and a great fern makes the door.
The doorsteps are of heather,
The lintel of honeysuckle;
and wild forest all around
drops mast for well-fed swine.*
Trees of apple, huge and magic,
great its graces;
crop in fistfuls from clustered hazel,
green and branching.
Sparkling wells and water-torrents,
best for drinking;
green privet there and bird-cherry
and yew-berries. 8
As well as the cherished trees at holy wells there are several other tree types held in affection across the Clare countryside. These include inauguration and assembly trees, religious trees directly associated with a church, monastery or graveyard, trees found within liosanna or ‘fairy forts’, funerary trees at which a funeral might pause, Mass trees and lone bushes. It is with lone bushes we will complete our story.
Lone Bushes: Lone bushes tend to be in a category separate to the trees we have been discussing, coming from a long-held indigenous belief system that has only recently faded. They are mostly stand-alone whitethorns that grow at a distance from other trees. In Irish the whitethorn is called Sceach gheal meaning bright or shining (thorn) tree, because of its profusion of splendid white flowers in early summer. The single whitethorn is strongly associated with fairy folk who, as people will know, are at the best of times a bit temperamental. Consequently lone bushes are never interfered with; the month of May being the only time some latitude is given. Being supernatural trees they serve as important foci for the Lucht Sidhe (the fairies), particularly before important events. Here our Clare story lies.
In the late 1980’s the main motorway going north from Limerick city (M18) was being significantly upgraded. To facilitate road expansion a fairy tree at Latoon, Newmarket-on-Fergus would need to be destroyed. Local folklorist Eddie Lenihan objected saying that this tree marked territories between two groups of Sidhe (Shee) and was an important assembly point before and after fairy battles. Its removal would not alone be an outrage to folklore and tradition – much worse – should the wrath of the Sidhe descend, it could have serious repercussions for traffic users passing the spot in the future. Whichever aspects of Eddie’s argument were most cogent, he won his case. The route of the motorway was altered and the tree still stands.
A last word on an important aspect of holy wells and trees not yet mentioned is the modern pilgrim. A cohort of people across county Clare, mostly made up of the very young and the no longer young maintain the wonderful tradition of holy well visitation, including interacting with the bile, especially on the saint’s patron day. For them the well is a living entity, to be honoured and enjoyed. It’s a day of rosary beads and prayer, flasks of tea and sandwiches, small courtesies and chats with fellow pilgrims, with plastic bottles of blessed water being filled for friends at home. Later they will return to help maintain the holy well site or perhaps cajole their sons to fix a damaged wall or fallen stone. Whether they know it or not, and I think they do, they are the last remains of a vast tradition.
1 Irish Folklore Collection, Ms. 466, p. 398.
2 Daniel Mescal, The Story of Inis Cathaigh, (Dublin 1902), p. 65.
3 Irish Folklore Collection, Journal 12, p. 73.
4. TJ Westropp, recorded on a visit to what is now St. Joseph’s Well, Kilmurry Ibrickane, in Limerick Field Club Journal. Vol III No 9 1905 p 15.
5 A.T Lucas, ‘The sacred trees of Ireland’ in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, (JCHAS), lxviii, (Cork, 1963), pp 16-54.
6 The Tripartite Life of Patrick, 9th Century, CELT, (UCC, Cork) p. 185.
7 J. F. M. Ffrench, ‘St. Mullins, Co. Carlow’ in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, Vol. ii, No. 4 (Dec., 1892), pp 377-388
8 James Carney, Medieval Irish Lyrics, The Dolmen Press, (Dublin 1967), pp 67-72.
Available from Limerick & Clare Books
The Holy Wells of County Clare
County Clare contains one of the greatest concentrations of holy wells in Ireland. While most wells are associated with local saints, some have earlier origins and different affiliations. In this book, Michael Houlihan tours these wells, examining their long history from earliest times and reviewing their unique traditions. The defining characteristics of native wells and their distinctive physical features are explored along the way.Holy Wells have been of service to generations of Irish people. In spite of repeated waves of invasion and suppression, followed by political and religious strife, over 3,000 wells still exist in Ireland today. They once proved a centre for religious expression when no other existed, offered shelter in Penal times and served as a focus for communal solidarity. In Clare, participation was strongest in the decades before the famine, when venerated springs made a huge contribution to local communities. They performed a key role in village healthcare systems and erased the pain of bereavement, especially involving infants. Te continuing loss of the Irish language and the slow attrition of long-held folk beliefs, also at this time, deeply impacted daily life, including holy well usage.
The great holy well patterns of the late 18th century, once the high point in the rural social calendar, are discussed, including those in Clare on Scattery Island and Inis Cealtra and at Killone. When the Catholic Church began reasserting itself, aided in part by Daniel O’Connelll’s in the 1828 Ennis by-election, the Patron Day gatherings and other aspects of folk life were slowly surrendered, as the last vestiges of the old Gaelic world slipped away. The Famine compounded these changes, with congregations forfeiting the fields and wells for the new chapels.
The holy wells story continues into the presentm including its occasional high points in the twentieth century. Ten contemporary Clare wells are visited, from the popular St. Brigid’s at Ballysteen to others since fallen out of favour. A final section discusses the health of the holy well tradiiton in the county today.
The book contains nearly 60 colour photographs from across the county, with some basic maps and tables for those interested in doing their own exploration. While Clare’s holy wells have long been associated with peace and health, they are also an archaeological and historical treasure trove waiting to be rediscovered. This book will help those who want to better understande a neglected feature of the landscape while catching up on a lost part of Clare’s social history.
€ 9.15 Save €0.85 (RRP €10.00)
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2016 is a 1000 years since the death of St. Walstan. Now he may not be a very familiar saint and one that you may not think is readily associated with holy wells, however he is. Furthermore, he is unusually associated with three holy wells, in an area not always readily associated with such sites- East Anglia – which in itself is a rare occurrence. Not only that, however, unlike other multiple applications these wells are said to have a direct connection with the saint’s life and death.
Who is St. Walstan?
St Walstan was according to most accounts an Anglo-Saxon prince, the son of Blida and Benedict. Most accounts place his birth at Bawburgh (more of this place later) and his life appeared restricted to the west of Norwich. Despite being a royal he forsook the crown and all its privileges to become a simple farm labourer, giving whatever wealth he had to help the poor. After his death a localised cult developed, which grew and grew and in a way outlived the Reformation, as a saint for farmers and animals.
Three holy wells
In 2016 I decided to seek each of these wells and follow as close as possible the journey that St. Walstan is said to have made which resulted in these springs – Taverham, Costesssey and Bawburgh. Already I have tried to locate the first at Taverham’s and found the restored site at Costessey, now the easiest to find – that at the location of the saint’s shrine church, Bawburgh.
This is the third well of the saint in the English Life but the second in his Latin Life. In St Walstan Confessor, de sancto Walstanus confessore notes:
“The bulls went down from that place with the precious body towards the vill of Bawburgh. When they had come almost to the place where the body now lies buried they made another stop in a certain place, where the love of St. Walstan the divine piety made another spring of wonderful power against fevers and many other infirmities, which is still there today.”
The English Life adds:
“ye other ox staled; a well sprang anon next beyond ye parsonage”.
What is interesting is the use of the word, stalled which may be O.E for ‘come to a halt’ or with one l, staled meaning ‘urinated’! The later perhaps recording a more significant role for the white oxen.
The saint’s body was transferred through a special opening made in the north wall of the church and this arch can still be seen, now blocked up. His shrine was then established in the north transept of the Parish church of St Mary the Virgin, since then known as St Mary and St Walstan, as a separate chapel. The saint was canonised by the diocesan Bishop, who visited the site, with a large procession of priests, and hearing of his holiness:
“The bishop gave an ear and hearkened sore, And allowed him a Saint evermore.”
From this point on the well and especially the saint’s shrine was the goal of pilgrims, first from neighbouring villages, and then from Norwich (along Earlham Green Lane), and then after the news of its powers spread across England from farther afield. In particular farmers would bring their sick animals to the well to have them cured. In fact the well and shrine were so popular that a college of priests were established to control and administer the large numbers of pilgrims.
However, although it was apparently the shrine which was the goal, of the eleven medieval miracles associated with the saint, only two are associated with the holy well. One being that of Swanton’s son and the other of Sir Gregory Lovell. In the former, a man called Swanton had a lame son. Together they prayed to God and St Walston and bathed in the water from the Holy Well. The son recovered and ‘now goeth right up and his health hath’.
Nearby lost settlement of Algarsthorpe appears to have been given as a pitanciary to the Monks of Norwich as a result of the other miracle from the holy well. A Sir. Gregory Lovell who was cured of:
“Great sickness and great bone ache by water from St. Walstan’s Well”
According to the English Life of the saint:
“It happened by means of Walstan and God’s grace, To muse in mind upon a night, A mean make to holy Walstan in that case, For water to his well he sent as tyte, Therewith him washed and also dyte, And remedy readily should have anon, by the grace of God and holy Walston.”
Unfortunately as with most shrines the Reformation had a destructive effect, and the shrine was dismantled, its relics scattered over the fields and lost forever. Sadly his shrine lay in the north side of the church and was destroyed in the purges of Henry VIII and his relics burned. The removal of the chapel meant that the north side had no supporting side and hence a buttress had to be placed there!
Yet despite this wanton destruction, it appears St Walstan’s Well continued to be visited, and even through the Commonwealth period, superstitious farmers would visit the well collecting its healing waters for their sick animals. As Twinch (2015) astutely notes:
“The Bawburgh well is an integral part of the later medieval story but it assumed greater importance post-Reformation, after the tomb and chapel was demolished. The emphasis seems then to revert almost to the pre-1016 era of folk lore and water worship”
This has continued until recent years and even in recent times local farmers believe in its livestock curing properties. In 1928 the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological society during an excursion to Bawburgh were told by the Revd Gabriel Young of the story of a local farmer and churchwarden, who had recently died, called Mr. James Sparrow of Church Farm who had a sick mare. The mare was so inflicted with sores that he had to have her put down, at which point a farm boy asked if he could treat her with the well’s water. This is apparently he did and after 10 days of the treatment was cured. The farmer apparently put its powers down to chemical or vegetable substances, rather than miracles, although no chemical analysis has been able to identify these.
This revival in the importance of St Walstan’s Well can be traced back to the 1790s when an anonymous letter on the subject of wells and baths in the September of Gentlemen’s Magazine:
“My business has very lately obliged me to make a tour through this country, at all the market towns and even at every village I stopt at, I was informed of its wonderful efficacy in curing all disorders. The resort to this spring has been very great all this summer. I was assured by a person who was on the spot, that there were frequently 2000 people there at a time, particularly on Sunday mornings; and that the spring was frequently emptied, not so much by the quantity drank on the spot, as what was put into bottles, casks, and barrels, to be transported to the remotest parts of the county.”
As Twinch (1995) notes 2000 people is a lot to assemble around the well, and hence there is doubt in this description. However Husbenbeth (1859) wrote recording around the end of the 18th Century partly collaborating this:
“An old man died not long ago at Babur, who was known to the writer, and in his younger days kept an inn there, which was frequently by crowds of visitors to St Walstan’s Well.”
The Norwich Gazette noted that these crowds often resulted in trouble, and in 1763 it reported that: ‘much confusion ensued …..and many heads were broken in the scuffle.’
Its water was so pure that it was sold in the streets of Norwich. However religious pilgrims only begun to return en masse to the well in the 19th Century. This appeared to be the result of a number of miracles associated with the distribution of its water. The earliest recorded of these involved a Francis Bunn. In 1810 he had joining the militia, but was within five years discharged suffering from ‘incurable ulcers.’ Hearing St Walstan’s well in 1818 after moving to live at Costessey, he walked the three miles to the well to apply the water to his leg. Remarkably his wounds were healed and Husenbeth recorded that they continued to heal up to Bunn’s death in November 1856. The next miracle involved Sister St John Chrysostom, of the Hammersmith Convent. She fell ill in 1838, and was so close to death that the Mother Abbess suggested that she should seek a cure through the moss of St Walstan’s Well. However she disagreed and preferred to put her faith in the healing power of her medallion of the Virgin Mother. Incredibly it is said that as she held this medal to her stomach it was heard to say: ‘drink some water poured from the moss from St Walstan’s Well.’ Taking this as good advice she did so at once, and upon swallowing this moss exclaimed that she was cured!
In 1868, A Revd Benjamin Armstrong noted that one of his five Roman Catholic parishioners had taken some of the moss and:
“applying it to a bad sore overnight, she found it completely healed in the morning, leaving a scar, as from an old wound.”
An account in the Eastern Daily Press of 1913 dubbed it A Norfolk Lourdes and recorded the cure of a London Catholic who had been suffering from eye troubles for some time. It is reported that he saw a number of specialists and was told than the man was likely to loss his sight altogether. The apparently the man remembered the moss he had taken from the well the year before, applied it to his eye using the well’s water. The following day his eye sight was restored. The doctor pronounced him cured. He is said to be determined to join 300 other Catholics from congregations in Norwich, Costessey and Wymondham to give thanks.
Compared to Tremeirchion the provenance for St. Beuno’s Well at the fascinating Clynnog Fawr is much better. After following King Cadwallon from Holywell to Caernarvon, he was offered land here by his cousin Gwyyddaint after a falling out with the King! It is said that this was his final resting place, where he built his last cell, a chapel said to have been located at the site of the church. Thus in the seventh century a monastery was established which was destroyed in a 10th century Viking raid. Nothing is left from this period the present Chapel and church dating from the sixteenth century but excavations within have revealed earlier buildings.
A substantial well
St Beuno’s Well is of a style commonly met – a quite substantial well. The spring arises to fill a large rectangular bath surrounded by stone seats. The whole enclosure being walled around and raised above the roadway presumably to prevent animals reaching it and soiling it. Although the main road now thankfully bypasses the village and the well, the roadway was and still is, the pilgrim route down the Lleyn peninsular to the sacred isle of Bardsey beyond (a fact emphasised by the presence of a stamp collection for pilgrims)
A healing well
Here we come across a more confirmed usage of the well. This was mainly for children suffering from epilepsy and rickets for also conversely was linked to curing impotency. Scrapings from the pillars in the church were mixed with the water to cure sore eyes. An even more fascinating the tradition was that the bather would then visit St. Beuno’s chapel and laid on a bed of rushes upon a stone called Beuno’s tomb. A good night’s sleep procured a cure. I was denied even an attempt at this as the Chapel a unique side chapel reached by a small walkway was locked! However, I am not sure how good my cure would be as the stone itself was only a fragment of its original being removed in 1856. The practice itself was still being undertaken long after the reformation as accounted for by Thomas Pennant:
“and I myself once saw on it (the tomb) a feather bed on which a poor paralytic from Merioneddshire had lain the whole night after undergoing the same ceremony.”
A pagan tradition?
What has been related so far is strongly suggestive of some long lost pre-Christian tradition. Indeed today by the door is a large sarsen stone possibly part as perhaps Beuno’s stone, of a megalithic monument. What is even more curious is the tradition of St Beuno’s cattle. These were cattle with ear markings which were slaughtered and offered to the saint to ensure well-being of the stock. This was later replaced by monetary offerings based on the sale of livestock and the chest, Beuno’s cyff, remains within the church. The money being used for the poor. The ‘sacrifice’ of stock is clearly very resonant of pre-Christian practises and perhaps the area was dedicated to a deity visited for such wishes.
Holyrood Park has a number of notable sites. St Margaret’s Well is a strange and possibly unique hybrid. The spring itself is a holy well, called The Well of the Holy Rood or St. David’s Well and dates from 1198, the well head was but the well house was re-erected from St Margaret’s Well at Restalrig. This was when this site became derelict once land nearby was to be built over by the North British Railway depot. This resulted in the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland removing the structure brick by brick and resurrecting it over the Holy rood site.
The spring itself of course is the reason why the park is called Holy rood, for legend has it that King David after mass decided to go hunting in the area and was thrown from his horse by a giant stag which was then carried the king, him holding for dear life onto a cross between its antlers until it stopped at the spring. In thanks for his deliverance he built the Abbey of Holy Rood there.
The well house is a delightful structure, Gothic in nature and dating from the fifteenth century with an internal width of sixth feet and around five feet in height with a central pier with a carved hear which is provided with a spout through which the water flows.
There is something delightfully mysterious about St Anthony’s Well. Despite being traipsed across by hundreds of people on a daily basis, this spring is still difficult to find, the very essence of being pixyled. It can only really be seen from the ruins of chapel said to be a hermitage for it arises beneath a large boulder and fills a small trough. I cannot find any information about its origin but it is said that on May morning ‘youths and maidens after wash their faces in the dew on Arthur’s seat nearby come down and drink from the well.’ However every time I’ve seen it is has been dry.
In Liberton, perhaps in the most incongruous of situations, a Toby Carvery, but at least it is now easy to find and get to. This is the Balm Well or St. Katherine’s Well, a delightful little pitched roofed well house, which once had small pinnacles on its structure but these had gone when I visited and looks a little forlorn. However, this recent bit of neglect is nothing compared to what happened in the 17th century when Roundheads filled it with stones and defaced it. The present structure dates from 1563, but the site has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries by the Scottish kings, until James VI built this well house. Its waters are said to have arise from Queen Margaret dropping some oil accidently which she had obtained from Mount Carmel or Sinai and the spring arose. The waters thought to good for rheumatism is still oily, its origins thought to have derived from coal strata.
The final spring, is in the Dean village part of the city beside the Water of Leith, being the imposing St. Bernard’s Well, a temple like building with a statue of Hygeia and a pump room. Although it is said to be named after the Abbot of Clairvaux who is said to have drunk here preaching the Second crusade. However, this may be a back derived story as it was latterly discovered in 1760 and in 1789, Lord Gardenstone erected this structure over it and it became a popular spa.
From the car park one has an evocative if a little muddle journey to the ruins of Hollinshead Hall and its so called Holy Well, although it is well worth it. My knowledge of this curious well being drawn by an excellent article by Cramshaw in the now defunct Source. The house has virtually been raised to the ground all bar a few foot high walls criss-cross the field they lie and by far the most substantial remains is the holy well. As such it is the largest holy well in the county yet for certain is known regarding it.
It can be described as being built in the same sandstone rubble as the hall with a stone slate roof. The building a single cell is built into a slope from which the spring arises and is encapsulated by it. Either side a high walls creating a sort of forecourt with side benches with inward-facing chamfered piers with ball finials at the ends. The well house itself is quite an attractive building and is certainly not thrown up, having a symmetrical facade with chamfered unglazed widows which are fitted with spear-headed iron bars and clearly the building has never been glazed. The gable end has a large oval opening with a matching one at the rear. In the centre is a heavy board door with a chamfered doorway. This doorway unfortunately is locked baring any entrance to the well house.
Peering in through the windows one can see how strong the vaulted roof is, adorned by a pendent ball in its centre. The spring’s water flows from a crudely carved lion’s head, either side of a reredo of Ionic colonnettes, with a sunken stone tank beneath and each side a rectangular recess which enclose rectangular pools. There is a diamond-paved floor with a central gutter draining from this well or trough at centre of rear wall:
Abram’s “Blackburn (1877) is perhaps the first to state that the water was curative. However, anonymous quote in Nightingales History of Tockholes describes the well as:
“Here no less than five different springs of water, after uniting together and passing through a very old carved stone representing a lion’s head, flow into a well. To this Well pilgrimages were formerly made and the water which is of a peculiar quality, is remarkable as an efficacious remedy for ophthalmic complaints.”
Post-Reformation holy well or is it a diary or grotto
Local tradition accounts that there was a site here from Medieval times and indeed, that the name Hollinshead was derived from a version of holy well although O.E hol, for hollow is more likely although there is a Halliwell Fold Farm nearby being derived from O.E halig for healing. The pool with steps down above the well house may be the original well of course. The discovery of a hoard of medieval coins in 1970s would support the date and perhaps they were an offering. Another tradition is that the site was a resting place for pilgrims to Whalley Abbey and that the trough was used as baptistery, however, this would be more likely to be the spring above the well house.. It is probably a springhouse, a structure built over a natural source of water for the storage of dairy products and other foods that needed to be kept fresh.
Reculsancy, that is practising Catholicism in secret, was very prevalent in Lancashire and the well house does the bear the coat of arms of the Radcliffes . It would suggest why the structure is so ornate and suggest a 1600s date although many authorities suggest an 18th century origin. The site would be a secret baptistery and its design as a dairy ,would also help as well as being still function, certainly the presence of benches suggest this functionality. It appears to be too close to the house to be a garden folly such as a grotto! The suggestion of stained glass in the windows suggests something more significant discovered during the present stone roof’s construction. Indeed, the choice of the lion’s head is possibly that of the ‘Lion of Judah’, meaning Jesus providing rich and valuable water, although this is a common motif on many drinking fountains of course! Interesting, Cramshaw tells us that the site was in the 1980s the site of a well dressing, although what type is unclear and no other author has mentioned it as far as I am aware. Perhaps we shall never know the real origin of this delightful building.
Picture the scene, waiting at the church with fresh buckets in hand, a collection of faithful villagers. The clock strikes 12 O’clock, it’s New Year’s and the race is on….to get to the holy well to draw what was called the Cream of the Well….the most valuable water available at that time of the year… In Northumberland, Birtley’s Crowfoot well was one such site and the water was to be kept in a bottle, and as well as giving good luck was believed to stay fresh throughout the year. Three wells at Wark on Tyne taking the first draft would allow a person to fly or pass through a keyhole!
Mackinlay (1893) notes that the tradition in Scotland, where it may have been stronger, where there was considerable rivalry between farm girls and on their way they would chant:
The flower o’ the well to our houses gaes, An I’ll the bonniest lad get. (This term flower of the well I shall refer to in a moment.)
In Wales the lucky lady was called the Queen, and this may perhaps indicate some pagan association with the tradition. The Welsh had a similar tradition and the water best between 11 and 12 on New Year’s eve was sprinkled into houses. Here it was known as the crop of the well and often a box covered with mistletoe or holly was used to contain it. Unlike that of Northumberland, the water would lose its powers until the next New Years although in some sites it would turn to wine. On the Isle Of Man, it is reported by Roeder (1904) of the quarrel between neighbours over the Cream of the well:
“Such as were envious of their neighbour’s success, and wished to draw away their prosperity, creamed the well they drew water from. This act was believed to be particularly cacious in ensuring a rich supply of milk and butter to the one who had cows, and performed the act on the well of those who also owned cows. All the utensils used in the dairy were washed with part of the cream of the well, and the cows received the remainder to drink. It was gone through in some districts on the last night of the year.”
The tradition was also undertaken in fishing communities where a handful of grass was plucked and thrown into the pail containing the water. This appears to be related to the related custom of Flower of the well, where it is said that by throwing a flower or grass on the spring to tell others that you had got their first. The furthest south example appears to be a Alconbury in Herefordshire where the St Ann’s Well, although the date has slipped. Here it was thought to be more effective in curing eye problems in the water being drawn from the well after midnight on Twelfth Night. The spring was said to produce blue smoke on this date.
The tradition does not appear to be noted further south than the Herefordshire example above and mainly in areas affected by neighbouring Celtic areas such as Wales and Scotland. Similar traditions occur at Beltaine/May day further south indicating that the 1st of January was a rather unEnglish tradition. New year was more often celebrated in the spring in the South, although even in Scotland at some wells, the cream of the well could be obtained on the first Sunday of May..however this is another tradition to discuss at a later day.
For those interested in old customs and ceremonies would be interested in a new blog I am starting in this January, Traditions ceremonies and customs in which every month I hope to cover a surviving ancient custom, a lost custom and a revived custom.