Guest Author - Mary Ellen Sweeney
Holy Wells, or Sacred Springs, are well known in Ireland and the British Isles. Though they are venerated by the Roman Catholic population of Ireland, these wells are known to have been the sites of blood sacrifices in the days B.C.
When the Christian Saints, Patrick and Bridget, arrived, many of the old Druidic ways were adopted into the new faith, a spiritual stepping-stone from the old ways to the new. The Holy Wells then became symbols of the Baptism that saves rather than ancient sacrificial sites.
The Holy Wells are used in traditional Roman Catholic worship in Ireland, with Stations of the Cross, special masses, and other special services at the sites.
The myths and legends surrounding the Wells have their basis in the pagan rituals and beliefs of the Otherworld, the land of the dead and of eternal youth. The Otherworld was thought to be hidden under the earth and protected by the Irish mists. From this mysterious place emanated all sources of power and wisdom, carried by the rushing waters which subsequently were guided to fill the selected sites. Supernatural fish were also said to supply Well pilgrims with the ability to seek out and understand omens with special reference to future events. With the rise of Christianity, the symbols and rituals of the Wells were transformed to represent Christ and His Cross, and thereby became places where His goodness and blessings and guidance could be had by a faithful few.
Today followers of the Wells claim the existence of as many as over 3000 throughout the country. Most of them still exhibit the three-core foundation of early Celtic paganism --- the well and water, the sacred tree and the standing stone. Often women would lie prostrate on the stone wishing to ensure a pregnancy or a safe birth. Tying swaddling cloth to the sacred tree was considered sufficient to transfer illness from the person to the cloth. Coins were also tossed into the well both as an offering and an appeasement to the various deities believed to dwell within. Today, the standing stones bear the “worn away” results of the kissing and rubbing of faithful pilgrims.
As Christianity spread, many Catholic churches were built on the “Holy Well” sites. The water fonts were frequently moved inside and to this day, in most churches, the “Holy Water” font, generally placed close to the entrance, bears the evidence of years of rubbing and kissing. The “holy Wells” customs are still practised by many faithful Catholics, with frequent pilgrimages arranged in various counties. So as you travel the length and breadth of Ireland and should you see a “clootie” (the swaddling cloth) tied to a tree branch, you will know you have entered Holy Wells habitat.