Sunday, 12 June 2016

By Stone, Whitethorn and Well.

It may have been that sacred springs and wells were understood by our ancestors to originate in the Otherworld, flowing from the earth into this world at special places, bringing healing, inspiration, wisdom and connection to deities.

Gold boat from the Brighter Hoard Co. Derry, thought to be a votive offering to Manannán Mac Lír.

Numerous deposits of votive offerings were made during the Bronze and Iron Ages in the lakes, rivers and bogs of Ireland indicating that water was an important part of ancient peoples’ lives and beliefs.

In Ireland there remain wells that are pre-Christian in origin

St. Mobhi’s Well, also known as Fionn MacCumhail’s Well. 
Photograph courtesy of Gary Branigan - Gary's book is available HERE
The construction has lead archaeologist Geraldine Stout to suggest that it may have been built around the same time as the great mound at Newgrange. 

and famous wells of mythology whose over flowing created the rivers of the island.

 Trinity Well, the source of the Boyne.

One such well was Tobar Segais, said to be surrounded by nine hazel trees.
When the hazelnuts, containing wisdom, fell into the water they were eaten by the Salmon, a creature who appears throughout Irish tradition associated with great knowledge. 

An Bradán Feasa, The Salmon of Wisdom courtesy of Séighean Ó Draoi.
More work by Séighean HERE

The legend of Tobar Segais explains that the only visitors allowed to approach the Well of Knowledge was Nechtan and his three cup bearers.
However, Boann, Nechtan’s wife, defies this taboo and visits the well where she walks around it three times, tuathal, anti-clockwise, against the course of the sun.

Unfortunately Tobar Segais, like most wells, should only be circled in a sun-wise direction and her offence causes the waters to rise up, drowning and dismembering Boann and creating the River Boyne, which bears her name.

Boann - the goddess whose essence forms the river.
More about Boann HERE

We cannot know the ancient rituals or beliefs associated with sacred springs and wells but the spiritual traditions which have grown around them may offer a glimpse into the past. 

Tobar Lugna, Co. Offaly.

With the arrival of Christianity many wells were consecrated by the early saints of Ireland and folk traditions were incorporated into the Christian rituals.
These older folk beliefs are thought to contain traces of much earlier practices of pilgrimage and veneration at well sites. 

Irish Roman Catholicism today includes devotions which take place on the feast day of the patron saint of the parish, these are known as ‘patterns’ and many are linked to rituals at wells. 
Sign explaining the pattern at ‘The City’ and holy well, Co. Kerry. 

Part of these prescribed rituals involved pilgrims ‘paying the rounds’, reciting a rosary whilst circling around the well site a number of times, always revolving deiseal, in the sun wise direction.  

Crutches and circling ritual at Doon Well, Co. Donegal. ©

Often this circling is carried out three times, at others nine, with water from the holy well sipped at the end of the rounds. 
Occasionally holy water was taken away in bottles to be used at graves, in healing or sprinkled at the four corners of the home for protection.  

In the past patterns often ended with drinking, dancing and fighting and were so popular in rural areas that the church began to forbid these gatherings, describing the folk belief in the powers of the wells as pagan.

Bullaun stone at St. Manchan’s Holy well, Co. Offaly where sunlight and shadow creates the ‘mystical fish’.

Some healing wells were understood to contain a mystical fish, often a salmon or a trout, which appeared at certain times when the water was especially potent. 
As a sacred symbol the fish is known in both Irish mythology and Christianity. 

At St Kieran’s Holy Well, Castlekieran, Co. Meath, three trout are said to appear just before 
midnight on the first Sunday of August.
For those seeking to be cured the presence of the fish is taken as a sign that the healing
will be effective. 

Offerings continue to be made to wells, usually after drinking the water, with coins, holy medals, pieces of cloth and flowers left by pilgrims. 
Occasionally a pin or coin is put into the well water itself.

Offerings at St. Fachtnan’s Well on the Burren.

Offerings of daisies and rose petals at Ladywell, Co. Galway.

Another element of many well sites is the presence of a special bush or tree, usually a whitethorn, ash or oak.
Rags are often secured to the branches of these trees as an offering to the well or in the case of healing wells, in the belief that as the cloth rots away so does the illness.

Whitethorn & offerings at one of The Seven Blessed Wells of Killeigh, Co. Offaly.
The well dates to pre Christian times.

Holy wells are not only accompanied by trees.
There are numerous locations recorded as having some sort of stone nearby and this combination of water, tree and stone was incorporated into Christian ritual.

Stone, whitethorn and well at Tobereenatemple, Co. Clare.

Stones found near wells may consist of standing stones, enclosures or natural outcrops. 

The City, Co. Kerry.

The City, Co. Kerry 
The stones may be used as altars or utilised in ‘patterns’ with marks being scratched on the surface to indicate points within the rounds.

It is common to find a boulder with one or more depressions near to holy wells, known as a bullaun stone, although the formation and original function of bullauns is unknown.

Bullaun stone at Saint John’s Well, St John’s Point, County Down.

The presence of a well, a tree and a special stone marks these locations as sacred.

Unlike the great community gatherings at bonfire festivals of the past, perhaps our ancestors also visited these places alone, in silence, or circled sacred wells chanting or murmuring prayers as many do today?

The atmospheric Ráithin Well, Co. Clare.

Sitting by stone, whitethorn and well the modern world drops away and we are left with nature, 
deep peace and the spirits of the place.

St Fachtnan's Well, a place of solitude and silence.

This is the second of three posts about Sacred Water, you can read the first HERE