ORIGIN LEGENDS ASSOCIATED WITH CO. WICKLOW’S HOLY WELLS
It has been estimated that there are over three thousand holy wells in Ireland.(1) Over a hundred have been recorded in Co. Wicklow.(2) Most of these are not now visited; indeed some had already fallen into disuse at the time of the Ordnance Survey in the 1830s. Others – for example Lady’s Well, Arklow — are still visited today.
Wells which have not been frequented for many years may be known only as “the holy well” or “the blessed well”. The majority of the wells are however called after saints. Others are named after people who lived near them, priests who blessed them, the townland in which they are situated or natural features of the area.
Formerly “patterns” were held at many of the holy wells on the feast day of the patron saint of the well. On this day people visited the well to pray, to seek cures, to take part in sports, to dance and to sing. Most of the patterns recorded were held between June and September when the weather was warm and the days were long. Drunkenness and faction-fighting were common at the patterns and, as a result, many were suppressed by the clergy.
Cures were sought at holy wells. Some wells contained a cure for a variety of ailments, a cure for a specific ailment was found in others. Ailments cured at Wicklow’s wells included sore eyes, toothache, vomiting, colds, warts, skin diseases, deafness and lameness. The person seeking a cure went to the well, prayed, drank some of the water or bathed the afflicted area as appropriate.
Offerings were frequently left at holy wells. The most commonly mentioned offerings are pieces of cloth or rags. The rags left at the well—tied to the tree or bush nearby—were either those which the sufferer had used to bathe the affected area or a piece torn from the patient’s garment. Other small objects such as medals, crosses, rosary beads, statues and holy pictures were left as offerings. One account of Trinity Well near Ashford (3) says that small crosses were thrown into the well itself. Crutches and walking sticks were also left behind by those who had been cured. It was considered unlucky to remove any of these objects from the vicinity of the well.
Caoimhín Ó Danachair in his article “Holy Well Legends in Ireland” published in Saga och Sed 1959 divides the legends associated with holy wells into seven groups. The first of these is origin legends.(4) The origin legends fall into two classes; those dealing with the first appearance of the well and those which explain how an ordinary well became holy.
A legend associated with St. Patrick’s Well at Arklow Rock tells how the well sprang up when the saint and his followers were thirsty:
ln the year 432 Patrick came to Ireland as a bishop. At that time it took three or four months to travel from one country to another. . . During their long voyage their supply of water ran out. St. Patrick was in much distress on hearing this but to their great relief they sighted land. They sailed towards it and it was the Arklow Rock. St. Patrick was the first to come ashore and where his foot touched a well sprang up. This well is to be seen to the present day.(5)
It is said of a well in Glasnamullen: ‘This well was made by St. Kevin for the purpose of refreshing himself on his journey from the seven churches to Kevin’s Port near Dublin’.(6) The same story is told of St. Kevin’s Well in the townland of Kilmurry. (7) Another well in the same are ‘was made by St. Kevin who was carrying stones on his back from Enniskerry to Glendalough. He laid down the stones to get a drink and a well sprang up’. (8) St. Columcille’s Well appeared when this saint needed some water to cure a man:
The saint when in the locality, was asked by a man, who was afflicted by a terrible disease on the head and face, to cure him. He was blessed by the holy man and told to wash himself in water, but none was convenient; whereupon the saint took a stone from the ground and disclosed a spring and [the man] was immediately cured. (9)
Sometimes the well was already in existence but became holy because of its association with a saint or holy person. Saint Kevin is said to have blessed the well of which he is patron in Dunganstown East ‘while on his flight to Glendaloch’. (10) St. Kevin’s Keeve in the parish of Derrylossary was blessed by St. Kevin:
ln Glendassan river there is a well called the Keeve well which St. Kevin blessed and in which he left a cure. (11)
The saint drank from a well in Ballinastoe and blessed it. It became known as St. Kevin’s Well. (12)
Similar stories are told of St. Patrick. ln the townland of Toberpatrick there is a well called Patrick’s Well. ‘When Saint Patrick was going through Co. Wicklow he went to this well and drank out of it. (13) Then he blessed it. Saint Patrick is reported to have blessed the holy well in the townland of Monalogh. (14) In Tinahely — St. Patrick’s Well — ‘lt is also believed that St. Patrick drank of the well when he was touring Ireland on his great campaign’. (15)
The following legend is told of Tobernacargy which is situated in the townland of Kelshamore in the parish of Donaghmore:
St. Patrick, on his journey through West Wicklow came to Donard. But as St. Palladius had already been there, and as there was a number of Christians, and a church in the place, the Saint continued his journey. He went over the hill to Donoughmore, where he built a church. On his way over the hill, he became very thirsty, and was very glad when he came to Tobar na Carraige. He took a drink, and was so refreshed that he blessed the water of the well, and prayed that the water of the well might cure man of his ills. (16)
In Donard reference is made to the above-mentioned Palladius. The well in Doody’s Bottoms was believed to have been blessed before St. Patrick came to Ireland to preach Christianity:
This well marks the site, according to tradition, of St. Palladius‘ Church. It is the proud boast of the people that there was a church here before the time of St. Patrick and that Palladius baptised three hundred people at the ‘Holy Hill Well’. (17)
St. Nicholas‘ Well in Tornant was also used as a baptismal well. Legend says that St. Nicholas used the water from the well to baptise converts:
St. Nicholas’ Well is situated one mile to the south of Dunlavin. A sycamore tree is the guide to the well, as it is under its widespread branches. The well and the tree are there a very long time. . . About one hundred yards from the well is a moat on which was a ‘Dun’ in the time St. Nicholas arrived in the neighbourhood. He used the well to baptise a king and all his followers who lived there at the time, which was about the year 460, shortly after the conversion of Ireland by St. Patrick.
St. Nicholas converted the king but he could not find enough water to baptise the king’s followers. He told the king of his difficulty and the king ordered his followers to dig a water-hole which proved to be the origin of the present well. (18)
According to legend the well in Bolinass became known as St. John’s Well when it was blessed by a local priest whose name was John:
Saint John’s Well is in Bolinass. This well is in the third field from the road. Father Hickey blessed this well, when he was a curate in Ashford, about thirty years ago. There is a big white flagstone at the side of this well, where the priest knelt when he was performing the ceremony. Before the well was blessed it used to run dry nearly every season, but since it has been blessed it was never known to go dry. (19) (1937-8)
St. Boden’s Well in Lacken was also known as Father Germaine’s Well. Lord Walter Fitzgerald recorded the following story of how the well became known by the priest’s name from a local man, Pat Carr:
Some years ago as Father Germaine, the Parish Priest of Blackditches, was driving in the locality on a perfectly calm day, his hat was suddenly lifted off his head, as if by a gust of wind, and was carried away, leaping the hedges and ditches as it went. Father Germaine, dismounting from his car, went off in pursuit, leaving instructions with his man to bring his car round by the bog road in the direction the hat had taken. It appears the Priest’s hat never stopped its steeplechasing until it reached St. Boden’s Well; and when the car eventually came up, Father Germaine was discovered kneeling at the well, reading his breviary. Before driving off again he blessed the well, and hence it now goes by his name. (20)
This well was in the area flooded when the Electricity Supply Board formed an artificial lake by damming the River Liffey at Poulaphouca. In 1939 when Seán Ó Súilleabháin and others sun/eyed the Lacken area (21) they were told that Father Germaine had blessed all the holy wells in the parish. More recently St. Boden’s Well, Lacken became the focus of national attention during the summer of 1978 when, because of the extremely dry weather, the level of water in the reservoir dropped and the well appeared once more. Traditional practices were revived and thousands of people visited the well before it was reclaimed by the waters of Poulaphouca Lake. (22)
On the Green Hill Road overlooking Wicklow town there is a well called St. Patrick’s Well. An origin legend associated with this well tells how St. Patrick triumphed over pagan magic and christianised the well:
A long time ago when St. Patrick came to Wicklow, there was a woman who sat on a stone in a field up the Green Hill Road. She had a cup, one side of it was magic, anyone who asked her for a drink she gave them this side and he or she died immediately. St. Patrick heard of it, one day he went up, and asked for a drink, she gave him this side but he said “No thank you” and he hit the cup with a stone. After that it was called St. Patrick’s Well about 1506 years ago. Now it is owned by the Dominican Convent. You can still see the water running in the field in the Green Hill Road. (23)
Eugene Curry writing from Rathdrum on January 24, 1839 gave the following account of Tubbar na Buadh in the parish of Drumkay:
There is a holy well on the lands of Newtown, which they call Tubber na Buadh, i.e. the well of the victory, which it got in this manner. There was a great battle fought between the Irish and the Danes; one of the Irish champions had his hand so much swollen from excessive fighting that he could not get it out of the hilt of his sword; though he found himself unable to use it any longer. In his predicament he left the field in search of some water to bathe the hand in, and as he left the field he met a grey old man of whom he enquired if a stream or well of water was near him; the old man pointed to this well, to which the soldier bent his way, and on wetting his hand in it the sword not only dropped off, but the arm at once regained its vigour and strength, whereupon he returned to the battle and dealt such havoc amongst the ranks of the enemy that they soon dispersed before his single arm; by which he was left master of the field. The well was never seen before in the place and it has remained there ever since, an infallible cure for all sorts of sores, pains and aches to those who believe in its virtues.(24)
The origin legends associated with Co. Wicklow’s holy wells outlined above give some indication of the importance attached to these wells up to the middle of the twentieth century and, to a lesser extent, today. As would be expected St. Kevin of Glendalough features prominently in these legends as does St. Patrick who, according to tradition, landed at Arklow when he returned to Ireland to preach christianity. The origin legends told of Co. Wicklow’s holy wells would appear to be representative of those associated with holy wells throughout the country.25
Notes and References
1. C. Ó Danachair, “Holy Well Legends in Ireland”, Saga och Sed 1959, 35.
2. One hundred and sixteen holy wells have been extracted from the following
Ordnance Survey Name-book, Co. Wicklow.
Ordnance Survey Letters, Co. Wicklow.
Ordnance Survey 6″ Maps, Co. Wicklow.
Manuscripts from the Irish Folklore Collection (IFC), Department of Irish Folklore, University College, Dublin:
IFC 468, IFC S 912-928, 1127.
3. Personal communication from schoolgirl, St. Joseph’s N.S., Glenealy in 1976.
4. C. Ó Danachair, op. cit., 37
a. The origin of the well. b. Preservation of the well; the consequences of injuring it. c. Respect for the ritual; regard of devotion and punishment
of abuse. d. Signs presaging future events. e. Wonders wrought at the well. f. Supernatural phenomena. g. Treasure hidden at the well.
5. IFC S 923: 185-6.
6. Ordnance Survey Letters, Co. Wicklow, 81-82.
7. IFC S 927: 61-2
8. IFC S 917: 247.
9. E. O’Toole, ‘The Holy Wells of County Carlow’. Béaloideas 4, 22.
10. IFC 468: 77.
11. IFC S 917: 327.
12. IFC S 918: 24.
13. IFC S 920: 3.
14. IFC S 923: 36.
15. IFC S 920: 6.
16. IFC S 914: 558-9.
17. IFC S 914: 558.
18. IFC S 914: 78-80
19. IFC S 927: 133.
20. Omurethi, ‘Father Germaine’s Well at Lacken, Parish of Boystown (alias Baltyboys), in the County Wicklow’, Journal of the Co. Kildare Archaeological Society 5, 203.
21. For a report on this survey see S. Ó Súilleabháin; ‘Beneath the Poulaphouca Reservoir’, Folk and Farm, C. Ó Danachair (ed.), Dublin 1976, 200-7.
22. G. McClafferty, ‘On the Well which Arose and was Visited by Many’, Sinsear 1, 28-32.
23. IFC S 926: 115.
24. Ordnance Survey Letters, Co. Wicklow, 139.
25. C. Ó Danachair, op. cit., 37-8.
The majority of the legend versions from Co. Wicklow given above are taken from the 1937-8 folklore collection by national schoolchildren which is in the Archives of the Department of Irish Folklore, University College, Dublin. The legends told about holy wells appealed to the children and, although they were contained in general essays on holy wells, many contained quite a lot of detail. An account of the 1937-8 schools’ collection is given in S. Ó Catháin, ‘Súil Siar ar Scéim na ScoI 1937-1938’, Sinsear 5, 19-30.
Did you know that on August 7th 1920 the Minutes of the Town Commissioners record that the following proposed name changes take place :-
Wentworth Place — Patrick Pearse Place
Quarantine Hill — Connolly’s Hill
Batchelor’s Walk — Con Colbert Parade
Summer Hill — St. Oliver Plunkett Hill
High Street — Parnell Street
Market Square — O’Byrne Square
and last but by no means least:
Rockey Rd. — Gallows Lane