Visiting Ireland's Holy Wells
On our tours I takes people to passage cairns, dolmens and stone circles, mostly off of the beaten track where no other tour buses go or can go. There we share the local stories, legends and ancient shaman sciences before the visitors are left alone at a site for their time of personal meditations and take photographs or write notes, even poems, for later memories.
My favourite sites of all are the sacred wells, but of all sites they are facing near extinction.
There are well over 2000 sacred wells in Ireland. There were 1000s more, but they have been filled in with modern farming and building development. Many of the existing wells are either under immediate threat of property development or farming and property development has terminated the flow of water to them so they dry up and merge with the existing landscape, never to be known that there was once a sacred well there.
A few hundred sacred wells have had some care and attention during the past 100 years, but their caretakers have passed on and nobody has inherited the cause. Maybe 100 to 200 of the sacred wells are still visited on Pattern and Saints days, largely supported by the traveller families who regard the sacred wells as their churches and alters. As traveller families have become more settled into permanent homes and more integrated with the rest of the population their attendance and support of sacred wells is dwindling. For one, they are no longer defendant on the water for the wells for their daily needs.
Many of the existing sacred wells are not places of beauty, though they are often in ambient and beautiful surroundings. The wells have been enclosed and protected with a focus on functionality rather than aesthetics. Often they are enclosed with bare cold looking concrete blocks, sometimes within corrugated iron sheds and some even look like large urinals in men’s toilets, even surrounded by traditional Victorian toilet style white tiles. Their past caretakers would not have had the skills, resources and money to make such places appear like outdoor churches, alters and sacred temples. It was the blessed waters that mattered, not what surrounded them. Whatever material that were at hand were used to protect them, even if it was a bunch of leftover white tiles and even chrome railing or two from a wealthier person’s w.c. project.
There are some holy wells in Ireland that are beautiful and moving with their ambience and thoughts for tradition and place in their surroundings. Tobernault Well outside of Sligo and the very famous Brigid’s Wayside Well outside of Kildare are two wonderful examples.
The stone covered mountainside wells such as Columcille’s Wells at Glencolumcille, Co. Donegal and St. Fechin’s Well below the Benbeg mountain on the Mayo and Donegal border by Lough Mask seem the most authentic, a part of megalithic culture going back 1000s of years and are such a wonder to visit. So hidden so few people dare to visit so finding them and honouring them can feel so precious.
It is a dream of mine to one day devote the rest of my life to resurrect these sacred places of water to use the experiences of my stone mason past to create supporting and safe alters, my food science education that focused a lot on water to ensure the wells had safe water without chemicals and farm waste and the guidance of my faith and the faiths of those who visit to secure and enhance their sacredness.
Also I would love to restore the tradition of the ballaun stones and their turning stones that ancient communities depended on for protection of health and healing when health was challenged.
Funding of such a venture is one practical challenge. The other is concern for treading into the faiths of the local people who are connected to the wells, and may be alarmed at seeing their well’s concrete block shelter being removed and altered.
Most folks who join our Ancient Temples and Veil Between Two World tours seek to visit respond to the wonders of seeing magnificent pictures of Newgrange, Drombeg stone circle, Browneshill dolmen and Dun Aengus celtic fortress on Inishmore, Arran Islands. These sites are visited by 100s of thousands each year. They are monuments funded by the Irish Government who spend millions encouraging you to visit them, as governments do all over the world with their own chosen ancient monuments.
However, these publicized places are merely monuments and are usually far too busy to allow personal space for connection and meditation.
During all of our tours I try to take folks to at least one sacred well each day because these wells are not monuments. They are living and connect the ancient past to now and the future.
During 2008 I am seriously considering introducing tours where each day we spend the day providing care and attention to a neglected sacred well. What a joyful rewarding vacation that would be.
We had a little experience of this last year. I was honoured to lead a big bus load of College Of Preachers students on a day tour. A couple of days before I had been disturbed by the neglect of St. Lassier’s Holy Well below Kilronan mountain, by Keadue, Co. Roscommon, more famous for the blind bard, Turlough O’Carolan.
A current caretaking landscaper had donated work to provide pristine care of the nearby mass rock and its cursing stone, taken from the well’s ballaun stone but around the well was neglected. The College Of Preachers group provided sacred songs, poems and prayers around the well and by the time we left the well looked well and truly used and blessed.
If you had bought my 2007 calendar you will actually be looking at pictures of St. Lassier’s Well for this month of April showing it both overgrown and how it looked after the group had used and blessed the well. For one we revealed some beautiful overgrown and covered steps.
I visited St. Lassier’s Well last week, and have never seen it so well cared for. I do believe our presence a year ago last May set off a caring inspiration that now appears to make St. Lassier’s Well one of the best loved, cared for and blessed sacred wells in Ireland.
I wonder if we, as groups, can do this for other wells?
It would be a mission of extreme sensitivity but sacred wells are yet another tradition that is dissolving away but I feel that is is a tradition that should be made stronger and is even important for our future survival.
Ireland is enjoying a long span of warm sunny spring weather