It is pleasing to say that this bi-monthly guest blog post is from Noel French, author of the Holy Wells of Meath, an excellent book on the county’s holy wells.
The introduction is from his book and attached are some very interesting notes of the wells dedicated to St. Patrick. Images copyright noël French
A holy well is a source of water where there is a tradition of veneration or has a religious dedication. They are sacred sites. There are many holy wells in Meath, a good number of them still having a regular pattern or pilgrimage. I have recorded more than one hundred and thirty holy wells and sacred places in the county. Many wells are located in secluded and beautiful areas, well away from the madding crowds of modern life.
Wells had both material and spiritual importance to our ancestors. Water is a basic necessity and while today water is on tap it was not so for our ancestors. My mother had to obtain water from a well for the first five years of her marriage until electricity arrived. Our ancestors made sources of good clean water holy and these wells had to be respected. If something untoward was done to the well it might move.
Holy wells acquire their spiritual importance not only from current and recent worship but also from the pilgrimages made to the wells year after year by generation after generation of ordinary people. These wells have a strong connection to our Faith. Pilgrimages, patterns and holy well are an important part of our heritage.
Holy wells are visited at special times of the year usually on the patron’s day but also on days connected to the major Celtic festivals, in particular the Lughnasa festival in August. This suggests the pre-Christian origin of many of these wells. With the arrival of Christianity the wells were re-dedicated and their water used for baptism and for curing people’s ills. Many Meath wells are dedicated to St. Patrick but many are also dedicated to the other two great Irish saints, Brigid and Colmcille. Many parochial saints had wells dedicated to their honour.
The holy wells were believed to be places of cures, with different wells having unique healing properties. Drinking from one well would restore sight to the blind or cure a headache or bathing in the stream of another would cure ague. In almost all cases, rituals were required in order for the healing to occur.
Visitors to the wells said certain prayers and followed a defined route at the well. The rounds were always made to the right, in a clockwise direction. Patterns involved saying the Stations at the well but there was also a social side of the celebrations and in many cases these non-religious aspects led to the festivities being prohibited by the Church. In the light of opposition by the government, the established church, the Catholic Church, it is somewhat surprising that so many wells have survived and are treasured by their adherents. Holy wells have endured because they were regarded as sacred places by the community.
The wells do not exist alone; they are often associated with a tree and or a stone. The most common trees are hawthorn, ash or oak. The tree may represent the timber of the Cross and the Crucifixion and trees were also worshipped by the Celts. The trees are usually festooned by offerings of rags or ribbons. Leaving votive offerings such as cloth or pins was a common custom and still survives at many of the wells today. This tradition is associated with wells in other countries throughout Europe and western Asia.
The stones at the wells often bear the mark of the patron saint’s knees, fingers, thumb or some other bodily part. Many wells are said to contain a sacred trout.
Many holy wells have slipped into obscurity, having been ploughed over, clogged with rubble, overgrown, or fallen victim to natural erosion. They continue to be lost to farming, drainage work, development or neglect.
The Meath Archaeological Survey does not mention holy wells. There are only three wells protected in the County Development Plan: St. Colmcille’s, Kells, St. Brigid’s, Ardsallagh and Tober Rua, Moymet. In recent years there has been a revival of interest in holy wells and a number have been restored.
The earliest reference to a holy well in Meath is that of St. Patrick’s nephew, Loman, baptising a chieftain’s son at Trim in the fifth century but the well tradition stretches further back to the story of the origin of the Boyne River at Trinity Well. The wells recorded in my Meath book are usually holy wells or have cures associated with them.
St. Patrick’s Wells
There are many wells dedicated to St. Patrick in Meath. The saint’s journey from the sea to Slane, from Slane to Tara and onto Trim may be traced through the occurrence of major and smaller wells. There are also wells dedicated to the saint dotted throughout the rest of the county, each recalling a similar story of how Patrick and his followers became thirsty and the saint struck a rock and fresh cool spring came forth. Many of the wells also have stones marked by the saint’s knees, fingers or handprint.
St. Patrick’s Well (above) is located on the Green at Carlanstown, opposite the National School. The well is recorded on the OS maps from the 1830s. The well is covered by chiselled blocks of granite, forming a dome, and the stones placed so as to form a cross at the centre. Cogan noted the well in the 1860s.
St. Patrick blessed the well at Carlanstown on his journey from Meath to Cavan. The water is cold in winter and in summer. There was a red coloured flagstone in the well and it is said that St. Patrick cut his foot on a stone and this is where the red colour comes from. On another stone there are two tiny holes, one is where the holy man stuck his thumb and the other is where he put his big toe.
There was a story relating to the well recorded in Jack Fitzsimon’s ‘The parish of Kilbeg.’ A Tipperary jobber attended Carlanstown fair, regularly buying and selling cattle. He missed the fairs for a year and was asked why when he returned. He explained he had lost a large amount of money at the previous fair. Having sold cattle he had the sum of 20 sovereigns and placed them on the wall near the well and forgot about them. When he tried to locate his money he could not. Not having the necessary finances to continue to trade he had to leave the profession for a year to raise funds. The jobber showed his audience where he had placed the money at the well. To his and their surprise there were the twenty sovereigns on the wall exactly where he had left them a year earlier.
The well at Shancor (below), Kilmainhamwood, has a number of names and dedications. The well is also known as Kilfannin Well. The well is situated in a beautiful valley on the side of a glen. A tiny waterfall runs near the well and is marked ‘St. Patrick’s Cascade’ on the OS maps. About one mile along the Glen Road on the Bailieborough road from Kilmainhamwood, the well was the scene of a pilgrimage and pattern each year on the first Sunday of August. There was an altar erected near the well. St. Patrick said Mass at the rock near the well. This was also described as a Mass Rock from the Penal Days. There was a prophecy “that the wagons of war would pass by within a pistol shot of the holy well.” This prophecy was deemed fulfilled when lorries of Black and Tans travelled on the nearby road night and day during the Troubles.
At Mosney there is a well dedicated to St. Patrick, one kilometre north of Ben Head. A natural spring, St. Patrick’s Well, is just east of the railway embankment about one hundred metres south of Mosney railway station and on the foreshore of the sea.
In the 1830s John O’Donovan recorded that Julianstown had its pattern day each year on 8 September. The procession began at Moorechurch, passing through Keenogue Cross, Moymurthy and Sarsfield Cross to St. Patrick’s Well. The pattern was last held in 1912.
When St. Patrick was travelling from the mouth of the Delvin River to Tara he dispatched his boats by sea from the Delvin to the Boyne and he himself travelled overland. Between Laytown and Gormanston the saint met a young man named Benignus. The young man fell at the saint’s feet and begged Patrick for permission to be allowed to follow him. St. Patrick baptised Benignus at the well now known as St. Patrick’s Well. Ben Head between Laytown and Gormanston is said to be named after St. Benignus. St. Benignus was the son of the High King of Ireland and later became Archbishop of Armagh and Archbishop of all Ireland. St. Patrick is the patron saint of the parish of Stamullen. The railway bridge near the well is called Peterswell Bridge but there is no record of a well dedicated to St. Peter. St. Peter’s Chapel was in the nearby townland of Irishtown.
Oldcastle and surrounding area
Although the parish of Oldcastle is dedicated to St. Brigid, the main holy well in the parish is devoted to St. Patrick. The well is recorded as far back as the 1830s and was still being visited in the 1960s. St. Patrick’s Well is situated in a secluded valley in the townland of Boolies. A nearby house is named Patrickswell House and is marked on the Ordnance Survey maps. The field in which the well is to be found is called the ‘Door field’. The adjoining field was called Church field and there was a local tradition that there was a church there but no traces remain. Sir William Petty’s map of Meath in the 1660s shows the townland of Boolies and the neighbouring area is labelled Tibber Patrick with the well indicated..
It is said that one night Patrick slept close to this well. While he was sleeping a man came and stole his shoes. The man had no luck during the rest of his life. Another story provided by the School’s Folklore collection said that the day St. Patrick was passing this well on his horse, the horse got thirsty so Patrick brought him over to the well, and the horse knelt down on one of the stones to take a drink. The track of the horse’s knees is still to be seen in the stone. A toothache might be cured by rubbing the stone against your face. People suffering from stomach trouble or morning sickness drink water from St. Patrick’s Well and are cured.
The Hill of Slane is the traditional site for the lighting of the Pascal fire by St. Patrick. In the 1830s John O’Donovan recorded the presence of St. Patrick’s Well midway between the ruins of the seminary and the ruined church. This well had stonework as high as the surface of the ground and was called Tobar Patrick. Its waters ran dry every summer.
A stone covered well (above) stands by the roadside on the eastern slopes of Hill of Tara. This well is one of the sources for the Gabhra stream. The well recently named St. Patrick’s Well was originally a pagan well.
One of the earliest recorded wells in Meath is the one used by St. Loman to baptise Foirtchern at the Ford of Trim in the fifth century. According to the Book of Armagh, which was completed in the ninth century, a well opened in Trim so that St. Loman could baptise Foirtchern. This well was named after Loman’s uncle, St. Patrick.
Today there is a well dedicated to St. Patrick on the banks of the river Boyne upstream from the town of Trim. It is said that the well was originally in the middle of the large field on the Kildalkey Road but that soldier’s wives washed clothes in the waters and the well disappeared only to spring forth near the river. The well had the cure of the headache and pilgrims left behind a piece of cloth on the thorn bush over the well. Sr. Assumpta revived the pilgrimage to the well in 1995 and since that year an annual ecumenical pilgrimage takes place at 12 noon on St. Patrick’s Day.
Happy slightly belated St. Patrick’s Day to everyone – there are two type of people in the world on March 17th – those who are Irish and those who wish they were Irish!
More can be read in Meath Holy Wells by Noel French available from the author. A review is here https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.wordpress.com/book-reviews/