Ireland’s “Holy Wells”
By “Awake!” correspondent in Ireland
THE old man trembled slightly. His hand shook as he cupped it, scooped the water from the well, and rubbed it on his weakened ankle. He had come, like many others, to try to counteract the ravages of age by invoking the powers of this “holy well.”
The well, situated among some peat bogs in Donegal, Ireland, is one of Ireland’s 3,000 “holy wells.” According to the guidebook, pilgrims come to this spot “hopeful, lifting and using the blessed water as a means of spiritual betterment.” But they come for more than spiritual betterment. The booklet goes on: “Down the years countless stories have been told of cures effected to all sorts of ailments at the spot and of how disabled or crippled pilgrims were able to leave behind them their sticks, crutches and bandages.”
We did not doubt that the pilgrims were both devout and hopeful. But the sight raised questions in our minds. How much “spiritual betterment” did a pilgrimage to a “holy well” really bring? If any miraculous cures really happened, were they from God?
Watching the old man praying at the well, we also wondered if he was aware that what he was doing had been done by his ancestors for thousands of years. Belief in “holy wells” is very old in Ireland, going back to the religion of the pre-Christian Celts.
The Pre-Christian Celts
The Celts came to Ireland centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ. They were very religious, and central to their worship was a belief in the sanctity of rivers, springs, and wells. They felt that their gods and goddesses could be called upon there to effect cures.
Anne Ross, a respected authority on the subject, describes the beliefs and practices of the Celts: “The priests, the Druids, were believed to have carried out their ritual practices and to have made offering to the gods only in natural places, without structures—in groves of trees made sacred by long association with the gods, for example, or beside sacred wells whose waters contained distinctive virtues and through which access to the patron deity could be gained.”—Everyday Life of the Pagan Celts, page 136.
We could picture those pagan Celts gathered at such a spot seeking favour from their gods. But the people we now saw considered themselves to be Christians. What were they doing here?
From Druids to “Christians”
Originally, the authorities of the early Catholic Church in Ireland tried hard to stamp out those old pagan beliefs. But eventually their approach changed. Anne Ross explains: “Later, under the aegis of the Christian Church, these local divinities were replaced by local saints, often bearing the same name as their pagan originals; and the well-worship continued undisturbed.”
Another noted writer on Irish traditions adds this comment: “Many of these superstitions are so deep-rooted that centuries of opposition from the Christian Church have failed to suppress them, and while it has driven some practices into secrecy it has been forced to take others under its protection. This applies, for instance, to the cult of holy wells.”—Irish Heritage, by E. Estyn Evans, page 163.
Thus, the Catholic Church ended up absorbing these ancient superstitions. Anne Ross explains: “The cult legends continued and the old gods and goddesses, now worshipped perhaps surreptitiously, or only commemorated in tales told about the fireside, were converted by a [now] sympathetic Irish Church into heroes and heroines and the devils of the valleys and the air, and with these slight modifications the old cult legends were perpetuated.”—Pagan Celtic Britain, by Anne Ross, page 384.
What Would They Think?
What, we wondered, would these present-day pilgrims make of all of this? Would they be shocked to know the pagan roots of what they were doing? Would these sincere pilgrims who left coins or other offerings in or near the well be surprised to know that they were copying the ancient practice of leaving votive offerings to the Celtic gods?
What of the two middle-aged women who had travelled over 60 miles (95 km) to visit this spot—a trip they had made many times over the years? Were they aware that as they made their circuits of the well in a clockwise direction, following the direction of the sun, offering their prayers as they went, they were reenacting what their non-Christian Celtic ancestors had done for centuries before the birth of Christ? And the mother of a young child that we saw just a little distance from the well, saying her prayers as she walked around an old thornbush that was covered with pieces of clothing, bandages, and other mementos of previous requests by pilgrims—did she know that the thornbush was sacred to the pagan Celts?
Author Patrick Logan commented that such wells “often retain evidence of prechristian beliefs and practices, and sometimes the Christian veneer is thin.” (The Holy Wells of Ireland, page 62) But the question arises, Does it matter? As one of the pilgrims said to us in his attractive Irish brogue: “I have come here for many years, and it hasn’t done me any harm!”
If there was no harm in them, why did the church originally try to stamp out such practices? Perhaps church leaders in those days were familiar with Jeremiah’s words when he spoke about the practices of pagan nations around Israel: “Do not learn the way of the nations at all.”—Jeremiah 10:2.