By Tommy McGrath
Traverse the desert and then ye can tell
What treasures exist in a cold deep Well
Sink in despair on the red parched earth
An then ye may reckon what water is worth
(Miss Eliza Cook)
I started by drawing a line from Doonbeg bridge to Moyasta bridge and from there to Loop Head. I discovered 12 Holy wells clearly marked on the ordinance survey map discovery series H63 4th edition. With the help of local people and the folklore department of UCD I got a little history on each site as I located the sites and put the information together I got more and more taken in as these are the some of the oldest known monuments that are slowly slipping away if we let it happen.
In early pagan times the people believed that the earth was the centre of the universe and the Gods existed in the centre of the earth so water that flowed from lakes, streams, etc. had little value. Water that sprang from the earth came from the Gods and had divine and healing qualities, therefore were places of worship. When St Patrick came to Ireland in 432 this practice was easier to incorporate into the Christian religion so he blessed the springs and called them Blessed Wells. Many churches and grave yards were constructed close to or around Holy Wells.
The popularity of visiting Holy Wells remained constant over the centuries. During the enforcement of Penal Laws in the 18th century when church and prayer houses were closed and the persecuted Irish people were forced to visit alternative places of worship so the remote Holy Wells were an escape from sectarian assault. Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Emancipation saw greater religious freedom for Catholics in Ireland this resulted in a decline in the attendance at many Holy Wells in favour of churches.
The accepted term for Holy Well in the Irish language is either ‘Tobar Beannaithe (meaning Holy Well) or ‘Tobar Naofa’ (meaning Blessed Well). The surviving names of many wells are a direct translation into English from the Irish language after the pagan times. They were named after local Saints in West Clare example St. Senan, St. Martin and St. Cuam. It is thought there were thousands of Holy Wells in Ireland, natural springs, stone monuments, sea caves, etc. that have the power to cure illness through ritual and prayer. It was also believed that on special dates the power is strongest on the Christian or Pagan calendar.
The ritual is different for each well which involves walking around and praying an odd number of times in the direction of the sun and drinking, bathing or removing the Holy Water on completion of the ‘Rounds’ and finally a small piece of clothing or rag from the sick person is placed on a tree or bush close to the well or left in a crevice on the well and held in place by a small stone.
It was also believed that near every Holy site Satan or the Devil are present and if you wanted to put a curse on somebody you would complete the round in reverse taking the cloth and some water first, while cursing on an outward circle and finally discarding of the water and rag away from the Well. It was believed death or serious injury could fall on a person that performed such a round if the cursed person was not deserving of such an act. The use of water was strictly forbidden for domestic and agriculture purposes, in pagan tims if deliberately used it was believed the well would dry up or mysteriously move to another location and the sacred fish or eel would disappear and all healing powers would disappear with it.
We know that Water Worship and Water Cults have existed in Ireland since pagan times through references in ancient manuscripts and stories in Irish mythology. We know not only did Holy Wells exist at that time but were and continue to be very important to the Irish. Eugene O’Curry, our famous West Clare Professor of Ancient Folklore and History wrote in 1838 on the ordinance survey letters from Co Clare describing the Holy Wells in West Clare. James Frost in his “History and Topography of Co Clare 1893” also spoke about the existence of all the known wells of West Clare. Of the 12 Wells I visited, St. Martins in Querrin, Our Saviours Well in Killard, St. Kees Coast Road and St Senans of Kilkee are the best preserved while St Senans Well in Kiltenane and St Credauns in Kilcredaun are also well maintained. Our Wells are rarely visited today and because of coastal erosion and neglect some will be gone and lost forever very soon. I believe that between church and state the exact sites should put pressure on the powers that be to at least mark the locations for future generations.
Our Saviours Well
Killard Doonbeg Parish
The Irish name is Slanatoir An Domain – Saviour of the World which is unique as it is the only well in West Clare not called after a Saint.
Situated beside the graveyard in Killard overlooking the White Strand. The late Margaret Hastings (nee Normoyle) my neighbour in Farrihy was born and reared only 200 yards from Killard Holy Well, she described when she was young how her father would take them to the well to say three rosaries, 5 joyful on the outer circled, 5 sorrowful on the centre circle and 5 glorious decades while walking around the well for each decade. After the 15 rounds you could take or sample the holy water and it was believed your request might be granted. Holy Thursday, Easter Sunday and Christmas Day was the time of year to “do the rounds”. She also described a steady stream of people attending the holy well over Easter and had to queue out along the graveyard road.
St Senan’s Well
Kiltenane, Bansha Doonbeg Parish
This is very well preserved and looks the same today as it did 200 years ago. The rounds were performed by going around the graveyard 9 times and then around the well 9 times while praying in no particular pattern. It was famous in the local farming community for the prevention of slugs in vegetables, wire worms on potatoes. If the head of the family took the water and shook it in the 4 corners of your corn field it was expected to have a great crop.
St Brendans Well
Farrihy Shore, Kilkee Parish called after St Brendan the Navigator
Unfortunately now this Well is in disarray but was once a famous place of worship for fishermen and farmers. I remember when locals would gather to clean and white wash the well each year and say a rosary when they finished. Each Curragh would have a small bottle of St Brendans water hung from the bow of the canoe to protect them out at sea and if the sea got rough they would hang the bottle on the outside of the boat tipping the waves to help calm the seas. Water from St Brendans well was used in every house in our area. Shaken over a sick animal or person going on a journey or even just the kids going off to school each morning.
St. Senan’s Well
St Senans well is very well known and is located at the end of the well road that runs by the Victoria stream near the West End of Kilkee. Drinking water was sourced from this well with the overflow stored in water tanks where the women could wash clothes, etc. as shown in the 1800 photo. Today it is unchanged with a protective rail around it and is visited by locals as it is still an important site in Kilkee’s history.
St. Kees Well
Coast rd. Kilkee Parish
Legend has it that a holy hermit Saint Kees lived in the area and the monastic ruins on Bishops Island could have been his hermitage home. All the area around St Kees well during the 18th and 19th century was regarded as sacred ground. St Kees possibly preceded St Senan of the 6th century who is known as the patron saint of west Clare with his famous settlement in Scattery Island. Today St Kees well in the coast road is still visited by locals and tourists alike and many cures have been associated with the well. Also our town Kilkee gets its name from St Kees which its Irish is Cill Chaoi.
St Fiachra’s Well
St Fiachras well in Kilferragh is located 1 km from Kilferragh church and graveyard. Local history is not very clear but Francie Scanlon who lives next to the well, has no recollection of his parents talking about any religious visits related to the well. His only memory is one of his father telling the story of a severe drought in the early 1920s where the well was sunk from 2ft deep to 14ft and people came from Kilkee for their drinking water.
St Martins Well
Querrin Carrigaholt Parish
St Martins Well is the best kept Well in West Clare. It is clean, flood lit and well maintained with accessible parking. It is the most visited during the feast of St Martin in November. Rounds are walked in three circular footpaths, five rounds and a decade of the rosary during each round. Holy water from St Martins Well is in most homes in West Clare. An overflow trough of holy water is also adjacent to the well where offerings of money are thrown in which is now more commonly known as a wishing well.
St Martin was born in 316AD and lived to 397 he followed his father’s footsteps as an officer in the Roman army. He found himself attracted to a new cult called Christianity and one very cold day he found a shivering beggar man on the road. He put his new religion into practice and cut his cloak in half and gave half of it to the grateful beggar. It is believed that God was so pleased he let the sun shine warmly for several days until the army replaced his cloak so today the few fine warm days in early November are called St Martins summer. His saintliness attracted a lot of attention and very soon he was designated Bishop of the Diocese of Tours. He was so alarmed by his new role that he hid in a barn to avoid the call but was given away by a noisy goose who attracted the churches pursuants to his hiding place. After his discovery the new bishop showed a vengeful streak by having the interfering goose killed and served for dinner establishing the tradition of eating goose on the feast of St Marin in 11th November.
St Senans Well
Tarmon East Kilkee Parish
This is one of the most interesting wells in the circuit. Local folklore states that St Senan’s father who was a farmer from the Killimer area also had land along the Estuary in Tarmon. During a very dry summer streams had dried up and cattle were very short of water. While helping his dad round up the stock a young St Senan looked around the area and at a chosen spot pulled up long grass and cleaned around an area with his hands and water started to flow. Hundreds of years later it is still flowing. In early 1940 a local farmer Thomas Murray mounted a pump in his backyard and fitted a pipe from St Senans well to his yard but because it was twice daily tidal the water got contaminated. In order to combat this he built a concrete tank around the well 10ft long x 6ft wide x 6ft high and it supplied water for the rest of his life Today as you can see from the photo it is quite crude but has lasted the test of time. The water still flows over the top of the tank and out to the estuary. If folklore is true and St Senan stood on this spot then it should also be highlighted.
St Credaun’s Well
Kilcredaun Carrigaholt Parish
Tober-Credaun was called after St Credaun, a disciple of St Senan and one of the most famous of the West Clare Wells in the last century. Pilgrims sometimes stayed the whole night with ailments from sore eyes to bad bones and deformities in children. Eugene O’Curry wrote in his 1838 Ordnance Survey Letter from Clare describing St Credaun’s Well as one of the most popular in Ireland with cures for eyes and limbs. Small stones and rags were used as offerings along with rosary beads and religious medals which were left on the blessed bush on the cliff top. Similar to the Well in Tullig it is tidal and as the tide goes out fresh water again begins to flow.
St Cuan’s Well
Kiltrellig Cross Parish
This well is called Tober Cuam after St Cuam one of the nine saints associated with St Senan of Scattery, that is said to be buried nearby in Ross adjacent to the old church in that area. The well is on the right hand side of the road that leads to Kiltrellig graveyard. Its water is believed to have powers to cure eyesight and skin ailments although it is walled in, it is in decline and no longer visited for favours by locals.
St Senan’s Well
Kilclogher Cross Parish
A small well on the cliff face between Kilclogher Point and the Grave of the Yellow Men. It is in a poor state and not easily visible because of coastal erosion. The cliff face has filled the well and slowed the water flow. According to local historian, Martin Roche, who was born and lived all his working life 200 metres from the Well. He remembers locals taking water from it, he said if you had a mare foaling, a cow calving or a woman due to give birth a sprinkle of St Senans water insured a swift and safe delivery. Because of coastal erosion and the dumping of earth the cliff face has filled the well and slowed the water flow to a trickle.
St Leonard’s Well
This well is in the townland of Oughterard and is known locally as Tullig Well. It has a reputation to destroy wire worm, leather jacket and other parasites in crops. It was widely used by farmers near and far but with modernisation of agriculture it is almost impossible to find but for a cross on top of the cliff edge. The well is in a recess at the bottom of the cliff face that is tidal and as the tide goes out fresh water again begins to flow. The water from this well has to be used on nine rogation days and if you miss one day you must start from the beginning again.
Water is the universal sign and symbol of life in the cosmos. In scientific terms water may be the very source of life. It stretches beyond the visible world and into the shadows where we are all heading. Every county in Ireland is peppered with holy wells and now our masters want to control and payment for every drop of water. Our humble holy well will eventually be metered and the cost of a cure could be quite expensive.
This project was completed with the help of people like my good friend Paddy Nolan who has always been a wealth of local knowledge that will never be surpassed. The late JJ Downes of Bealaha who travelled with me locating some wells. Gearoid Green and Damien McInerney who had stories from their fathers, Francis Scanlon, Thomas and Mary Ann Haugh, Pauline Barry and last but not least Patrick Keating, Paddy while still young has a good knowledge of local history and folklore in the Loop Head area and assisted me with the wells in Cross and Kilbaha.
I must stress these are the oldest known local monuments dating back beyond Christianity and today they are only a stone throw away from the wild Atlantic Way they should be at least signposted with a little plaque explaining their history.
Adolf Hitler when asked by one of his generals why he did not use Ireland as a platform to invade England he said “if Ireland had as many oil wells as holy wells he would have annexed it years ago”.