Sunday, 29 May 2016

Sacred water and three thousand Holy Wells.

Well at Cahercrovdarrig, Cathair Crobh Dearg, near the Paps of Anu.

3,000 sacred wells have been recorded in Ireland, although this is believed to be a conservative number. There are numerous others which are undocumented, whose locations cannot be found or have been forgotten over time.

Frequently marked Tobar Naofa on maps, they are the blessed wells, springs and water sources found in every part of the island.

Sign by the Sacred Well on the Hill of Tara.

In countless instances the original Irish names are also lost to us.
Many were re-dedicated to saints of the church by the clergy, others were known by the names of early saints or well known figures, still venerated by local people.

The entrance to the site of St. Brigid’s Well, Liscannor, Co. Clare.
The approach to the well is through a cave-like tunnel with offerings piled on walls and shelves.

Well of St. Inghean Bhaoith, Co. Clare, who has a widespread devotion locally.

There are wells named for their healing properties with cures including those for sore eyes, toothache, arthritis, mental ailments and in the past cholera.

St Cooy’s Well known for it’s eye cure.

Whilst others take their titles from figures and animals of myth or folklore. 

Well of the Fair Women above Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry. 

Each well has it’s own personality.

There are wells housed in stone and maintained by the faithful.

St Anastasia's Well, Co. Clare.

Many lie open to the elements or are marked by a lone tree.

Well near the remains of the church of St. Manman, Co. Laois.

Sacred wells emerge in verdant hollows 

Tobar Mac Duagh, Co. Galway.

and from inhospitable landscapes.

St. Fachtnan’s Well on the Burren.

Water pooled in bullaun stones and in the trunks of trees also offer cures.

City wells, now forced underground, still flow as the modern world flourishes above.

St. Patrick’s Well beneath Nassau St. Dublin.

The liminal places, shores, caves, heights and islands also have their wells.

St. Augustine’s tidal well on the shore of Lough Atalia, Galway.

Chink Well in a sea cave at Portraine, Co. Dublin.
Courtesy of Treasa Kerrigan

The sanctity of these wells comes from the water itself which emerges from the earth as a gift from the gods of the Otherworld. These sources were venerated by the ancient people who built their megaliths close by or incorporated them into the structure. 

A natural spring still rises from beneath one of the huge stones in the passage of Newgrange 
and would have flowed as a small stream across the floor. 
The water from the spring is now re-routed to an exterior sinkhole.

St. Patrick’s Well below the reconstructed Grianán of Aileach, Co. Donegal.

Water has its’ own active life force at sacred wells and to ensure it wasn’t sullied or used for domestic purposes, cautionary tales were passed down through generations about wells which, when offended by humans, protested by moving location.

Áirmid’s Well, now Lady Well, at Slane, Co. Meath. 
Folklore tells how it moved to its present position when attempts were made to seal it.  

Aggrieved wells travelled after midnight, some accompanied by the Good People, in order to punish those who washed clothes or disposed of refuse in their waters. 
Others had the power to curse their transgressors by affecting their health or poisoning the guilty 
and their cattle but in many cases water taken from a holy well to be used in cooking merely 
refused to boil.

Stone by well on the Hill of Tara. Pic ©

Many of Ireland’s sacred wells have been a focus for ritual, veneration and healing for thousands of years, their waters connecting us to deities and spirits. 
Visiting these wells today we are offered a special stillness, a place apart, where quiet reflection surrounded by nature is therapeutic and inspiring.
Whether we find these wells in countryside or town, whether our belief is Pagan, Christian or nothing at all, they continue to fill a deep need in us all.

Michael Houlihan’s book “The Holy Wells of County Clare”  provides a deeper understanding of Irish sacred wells and can be ordered from the author at:

For a fascinating investigation into the sacred wells of Co. Dublin, I thoroughly recommend Gary Braningan’s book “Ancient and Holy Wells of Dublin” available here:

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Bealtaine seduction

I have been led astray by sunlight and deep green shadow.

Beguiled by trails of bluebell, 

blackbird and cuckoo call.

Beside the footstick bridge 

the whispering river carries the coconut perfume of gorse

to lure me away from desk and easel.

Finally seduced by the scent of the dangerous whitethorn 

I surrender. 

I leave early tomorrow for the west. 

Who knows when I will return?

This song captures the coming of summer to Ireland for me.
Close your eyes and walk down the dusty road……..

'The Curra Road' by Ger Wolfe.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

The May bush ribbons dance as the Fairy Host pass by.

My May bush this year, a fallen branch.

Yesterday was Oíche Bealtaine, May Eve, and last night the fairy forts opened and the Good People
travelled across the land. 
At Bealtaine and Samhain They are at their most powerful and in the past people would put up a May Bush near the front door to protect their homes from the travelling Daoine Sídhe.

Recent May bushes in the Slieve Bloom mountains.

The bush itself consisted of a green branch of hawthorn or other tree stuck into the ground or tied to a pole and set in front of the homeplace. 
As well as providing protection against Otherworldly attention, the bush was also believed to also ensure an abundant milk supply all summer long. 

In some rural areas it was placed in the middle of a field and when night fell, set alight, 
in other places branches from the bush were thrown amongst the crops to guarantee a good harvest. 
Here in Co. Laois slips of whitethorn were blessed with holy water and stuck into the earth in
fields to prevent the Good People from harming the new crops.
The May Bush tradition was particularly strong in Co. Wexford where it was stuck on top of the 
dung heap used to fertilise produce.

Hawthorn branch with traditional decorations.

The May Bush was decorated by adults and children with traditional trimmings consisting of ribbons, coloured egg shells, bunches of yellow flowers and strips of coloured paper.

Photo courtesy of Michael Fortune.

The practice of decorating the bush is considered by some to be a survival of an ancient Bealtaine tradition welcoming the summer whilst others believed differently:

Peggy Doyle, Co. Wexford. Taken from James Lawlor, Irish National Folklore Collection.

May bushes were also customary in towns and cities. 
In Dublin it was recorded that rival gangs from north and south of the River Liffey would vie 
to exhibit “the best dressed and handsomest May bush”.

May Bush, Co. Westmeath 1964, National Folklore Commission.

In town and country alike there was often a community May bush, placed on common land or 
at the crossroads and as darkness fell stumps of candles or small rush lights were lit around the May bush as people danced to traditional music. 
These bushes were frequently guarded overnight by locals in order to protect them from being stolen by outsiders whom, it was believed, would steal the year’s luck from its rightful owners.

In some areas the bush was left in position until the end of May, 
in others until the decorations had crumbled and the bush itself was burned.

The importance of the May bush and its’ accompanying celebrations declined over time, especially in towns when, in the 18th century, authorities enacted a number of British laws forbidding their erection on public roads or near houses.
Those who continued the tradition were heavily fined.

May bushes in the Irish Midlands.

Recent years have seen the May bush return to Irish homes and communities as the tradition
is revived and the start of summer is celebrated once more.

Poster courtesy of Michael Fortune & Aileen Lambert. 

Bealtaine ‘May Bush’ Festival at Kinnitty Castle, Co. Offaly, 2014.

Yesterday I put up my own May bush and as the sun set it stood guarding my home.

Later as I slept I’m sure its’ ribbons danced in the darkness as the Fairy Host passed by.

This short film was made by the pupils from St. Ibars NS, Castlebridge, Co. Wexford during 
a two-day visit to the school by Heritage Council Expert, Michael Fortune. 

You can read about another May Eve tradition ‘Welcoming the Summer with flowers’ here: