Irish Holy Wells: Sacred Waters

Holy wells were in use long before St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland.  In pre-Christian times, these wells and their spring-fed, sacred waters were associated with a goddess and were considered as entrances to the womb of mother earth.  This association with the source of life as protected by the goddess, was deeply revered at the time.  The pre-Christian, Celtic people practiced a mystical spirituality based on the belief that God could be felt within the natural landscape.  They respected the basic elements of life:  earth, fire, air and water.  The strength of the wind, the power of a wave, the appearance of an animal or the hidden nature of a spring, were all considered mystical and divine in origin.  Honoring the natural world as exhibited by the Celt’s closeness to the land, was a major component of the sacred wisdom associated with Celtic spirituality.   

The Pagan Celts placed great importance on sacred places such as lakes, springs and rivers, as it was believed that these bodies of water were in fact points of access to a another world beyond the physical realm.  These wells became famous destination  points for pilgrims, as news of the water’s curative power to heal the sick, traveled throughout  Ireland by word of mouth.

As Christianity began to take hold among the Irish people, their spiritual connection to the land helped to shape the path by which the Gospel was assimilated into their culture, as well as their hearts.  As the new faith began to take hold in Ireland, baptisms took place at Holy Wells.  The power of a well was believed to increase, when the water was used by a Saint for the purposes of baptizing a convert.  In fact, there isn’t a Holy Well in all of Ireland that is not named in honor of a Saint. Carrying out the sacrament of baptism bestowed an additional blessing on the well and only increased its mystical power among believers.

The power of the Irish Holy Well was held in such esteem that a church would only be founded if such a sacred spring was in the vicinity.  In addition to their function as a baptismal fount, these holy wells were solemn places of prayer.  People often left behind a religious artifact such as a rosary, a statue or a religious medal in gratitude and to increase the power of their prayer.  Another practice was to tie a piece of cloth onto the branch of a tree near the well, as it was believed that when the fabric disintegrated so would the disease or unwanted circumstance.  As was the tradition, taking a drink from the spring to imbibe in the curative water, took place only after a period of prayer. 

During the era of Penal Laws when Catholics were forbidden to hear Mass, Priests would celebrate Mass at these Holy wells upon rustic, stone altars.  This too, augmented the holiness of the well.

In the novel, ‘A Woman’s Equal Share’, Book Two of the Celtic Heart Historical Fiction Series, a visit is made to St. Patrick’s Holy Well in Ballyhaunis, Ireland, near the Knock Shrine in County Mayo.  “The small, rock-hewn cross stood at a tilted angle near the base of the dark-wooded tree.  On low hanging branches, several bits of cloth were tied alongside an occasional rosary.  To the left of the tree was a partially submerged boulder over which a persistent trickle of water fell over the side and into a calm pool.  Hanging from the rock by a chain was a small metal cup that rolled in response to a breeze as it fluttered gently through oval-shaped leaves gracing the sturdy branches of the solitary tree.” (page 32)

Today, hundreds of holy wells remain in use all over Ireland, as it is believed that the holiness from centuries of use, still lingers on.

As we walk through the gentle beauty of a wooded area and come upon a small waterfall or mountain spring, we cannot help but pause and take in the sound of rushing water.  

It is also an opportunity to rest a while and enjoy the peaceful surroundings.  Sit for a spell and appreciate this sacred place.  We engage in more than enough rushing about in life.  Seize the moment and meditate on your blessings in life.  A moment of reflection has presented itself at the water’s edge. What else do you hear and see that captures your attention?  Breathe in the fresh, clean air and feel gratitude for the incredible, natural beauty all around you.  

Celtic Spirituality reveals a simple truth that God can be found in everyone and everything in your world.  Contemplate this wisdom and go within.  In this small measure of time, you can awaken the sacred part of yourself - your soul.  May the beauty of the sacred water flow past your barriers and open up onto the source of life deep within you.  May the inspiration of Angels fill your heart, at the water’s edge, wherever you may find it.

Bridget’s writing career as a newspaper columnist, a web-site contributor, content writer and French language translator has found new expression as a novelist.  Whispers on the Wind, Bridget’s debut novel was the first installment in the Celtic Heart historical fiction series that continues with A Woman’s Equal ShareView more inspirational articles and motivational videos at Bridget’s web-site: 

Paperbacks in the Celtic Heart Historical Fiction Series are available exclusively, here at Desert Rose Books. Visit the Bookstore.

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