Holy wells are places of religious devotion where people come to pray and leave simple offerings. The surviving names of many wells are a direct translation into English of the equivalent in Irish and the term for holy well in Irish is either Tobar Beannaithe, literally meaning ‘holy well’, or Tobar Naofa, meaning ‘saintly well’.
The healing power of water is recorded in the earliest sagas and holy wells were pagan sacred sites which became christianised and the legends associated with the wells were incorporated into the lives of Irish saints. These wells then became the focal point for the celebration of the ‘patron’ or saint associated with a parish or townland. Many legends relating to a particular well tell that the saint linked with the well used the water of the well to baptise converts from paganism to christianity which bestowed a blessing on that well. Days of special devotion were associated with many wells, usually on the feast day of the particular saint, a day which became known as Pattern (Patron) Day.
Many holy wells specialised in the curing of specific diseases and these are often reflected in the names given to the wells: Tobar na nGealt (Well of the Insane); Tobar na Súl (Eye Well) and Tobar na Plaighe (Well of the Plague). At some wells it was traditional to bathe a diseased part of the body with a piece of cloth. The piece of cloth was then attached to a nearby ‘rag tree’ – usually an ash, hawthorn, holly, or oak – in the belief that as the rag rots away, the illness does, too. In many cases, the piece of cloth was red as it was believed that the red colour would defy the power of evil spirits.
A ‘round’ or ‘station’ was also performed in order to receive a requested favour or cure of a particular ailment. This involves particular prayers being said while walking around the well an odd number of times in the direction of the sun, and drinking or bathing in the waters at specific intervals.
Under the Penal Laws, Catholics were forbidden to gather for mass in churches, so altars were erected beside holy wells and mass was said there in secret. In the early 19th century, Catholic Emancipation saw greater religious freedoms given to Catholics in Ireland and resulted in attendances declining at many holy wells in favour of churches. Drunkenness and faction fighting had also become common at holy wells on Pattern Days and both the Catholic clergy and the civil authorities discouraged attendance at wells. The result was a further decline in the popularity of wells. Holy wells are still popular today, people all over Ireland visit ‘shrines’ or holy wells looking for favours, offering thanksgiving, or paying penance.
The old man at the Holy Well
Ireland, 1835. Faction fighting has left the parish of Doon divided between the followers of the Bradys and the Donnellans. Caitriona Brady is the widow of John, the Brady champion, killed two years ago. Matched with John aged eighteen, Caitriona didn’t love him and can’t mourn him. Now John’s mother is dead too and Caitriona is free to marry again.
Michael Warner is handsome, loves her, and he hasn’t allied himself with either faction. But what secret is he keeping from her? Is he too good to be true?
The people of Doon Parish flocked to St Mary’s Well on May Day, where Mass was celebrated. Afterwards, there would be music and dancing, and it was one of the many social events of the summer.
Caitriona was determined to get there early and set off in plenty of time. Leaving the village, she was delighted to see Father Liam and Michael Warner walking ahead of her. She quickened her pace and they turned, hearing someone approach. On seeing it was a woman, both men touched their hats.
“Oh, Mrs Brady, I’m delighted you’re coming this year.” Father Warner nodded at her.
“The past is buried now, Father,” she replied clearly. “It’s time to look to the future.”
“I’m glad to hear that, Mrs Brady, I really am.”
Crossing the stretch of bog and then climbing up a steep slope to reach the holy well field, Caitriona stumbled unintentionally and felt Michael Warner’s hand on her arm, guiding her along. She glanced up at him and smiled gratefully. He returned a weak smile and looked away but didn’t let her go.
Arriving at the well, they saw people doing ‘the rounds’ – walking around it while reciting prayers – while at the other end of the large field, stalls had been set up selling whiskey, ale, and bread.
“They’re supposed to be coming to this well to pray,” Father Warner muttered and exhaled an angry sigh. “I told them all that.” Leaving Caitriona and Michael together, he began preparing for the Mass.
Michael pointed to a flat rock. “Would you like to sit there until the Mass starts?”
“Yes, thank you,” she replied. “I’m a bit out of breath after the climb.”
“Were we walking too fast?”
“No, not at all.” She went to the rock and sat down, making room for him to sit beside her. “I’m just a bit out of practice. Except for the market in Kilbarry every week, I didn’t get out very much these last few months.” She patted her chest. “I’ll have to dance later, and try and get fit again. That’s if your brother doesn’t object.” She laughed.
Michael smiled. “No. I’d even go as far as to say that you’ll be seeing him have the odd glass of whiskey later on, no matter what he says now. He’s not one for the dancing, though.”
“Are you?” she asked and he flushed, turning away as a large group of men passed them, doffing their hats to her but she barely noticed them as she waited for his answer.
“I used to be.” He looked back at her. “I’m a bit out of practice, too. Would you dance with me later, Mrs Brady?”
Her heart leapt and she gazed into his eyes – beautiful and brown. She allowed him to see her blush and nodded.
“I would be very honoured to dance with you later, Mr Warner,” she replied softly.
“Thank you,” he replied, before they turned their attention to his brother who was asking everyone to gather around him for the Mass. He took her arm again and they moved forward, kneeling down to pray together.
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