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:


  1. I find it very interesting, and very respectful as well - really appreciate the article.

  2. Thank you Martin - glad that you enjoyed it!

  3. Cornelia Hughes30 May 2016 at 09:23

    Fascinating...I have been to a few of the 3,000...though none of the ones here. The Black Isle, in the Scottish Highlands, where I live also has a fair number of holy wells, and there is a now-unnamed one in the garden of the house behind me!

  4. Glad you enjoyed the subject Cornelia. I was on the Black Isle many years ago but didn't get a chance to visit the Clootie Well - beautiful place though. Aren't you lucky having a sacred well so close?!

  5. You just have my heart with your last couple of blog posts.

  6. Thank you Vyviane - that is a wonderful compliment.

  7. This is fascinating, I guess they became sacred because water is so vital to life. There are many villages in the UK that have a well dressing ceremony each year to celebrate the well flowing xxx

  8. Have seen photos of the well dressings and they are very beautiful and a great celebration of the meaning of water in our lives! Thanks for commenting Fran.

  9. A great selection of some our our fascinating wells. I am currently in the process of visiting and recording all the holy wells in Cork - see www.holywellsof I'd love to hear of any you may have visited.

  10. Thanks Freespiral - yes Cork has a great number of interesting wells! If you drop me an email on the contact form below we can have a chat.


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