The late fifth century in Ireland saw the beginnings of extensive missionary activity. Saint Patrick, our patron saint is of course the best known of the early missionaries. This was a time of massive social change as pagans were converted to the new and soon to be dominant religion. Pagan customs were adapted and often assimilated into Christian beliefs and the holy well which would have been held sacred in pagan times were blessed by saints. The water in the well was used to baptise pagans who converted to Christianity. Holy wells became places of popular religious devotion where people come to pray and leave simple offerings.
Two stories about Saint Patrick’s holy well
Many holy wells appear to have held cures for specific diseases for example toothache, headache amongst other ailments. There is also a tradition that red rags were tied to the trees at holy wells as it was believed that the colour red would ward off evil spirits. Once the rags had rotted away so too did the illness.
There are two stories about Saint Patrick’s holy well recorded by Liam Price who was a district justice in County Wicklow between 1920 and 1950. Between his visits to the local courts he recorded local history, folklore and antiquities along his travels. He visited Toberpatrick and recorded a story about two trout which lived in the holy well. A local man caught the trout and tried to cook them but when they wouldn’t cook so he brought them back and placed them under a stone. Another story details that the weeds were reputed to be good for curing people and a surgeon in Dublin used them for curing yellow jaundice.
Price also notes that on the feast day of Saint Patrick up to one thousand people would visit the well, times have changes and there are few visitors now. But it is visited by a few whom have left mementos on the hawthorn tree. Interestingly the ‘offerings’ are a mixture of religious and non religious gifts.
If you want to know more about pilgrimage during this era, check out this excellent blog on pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland. This blog contains a wealth of information which Louise gathered whilst doing her PhD thesis. There is a great post written on Saint Patrick by Terry O Hagan blog. Terry is an expert on the saint, so if you want to know more about Saint Patrick check out Terry’s blog post, well worth a read.
Toberpatrick Holy Well Location HERE
The Wicklow Community Archaeology Project is funded by The Heritage Council and Wicklow County Council through the County Heritage Plan Fund.
Corlett, C. & Weaver, M., 2002. The Price Notebooks. Vol. 1 & 2. Dublin: The Heritage Service.
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