Irish Holy Wells

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER VI....continued

Wells.—Wells have at all times been held in veneration in Ireland by both pagans and Christians; and we have seen that many of the pagan Irish worshipped wells as gods. Some of these were blessed and consecrated to Christian uses by the early saints, of which a very interesting instance is related in Adamnan's Life of St. Columkille. The saint, traversing Scotland, came to a fountain, to which the pagans paid divine honours. But he rescued it from heathenism, and blessed it, so that it was ever after revered as a holy well. In this manner hundreds of the heathen wells were taken over to Christianity and sanctified by the early saints, so that they came to be even more venerated by the Christians than they had been by the pagans. Most of the early preachers of the Gospel established their humble foundations—many of them destined to grow in after-years into great religious and educational institutions—beside fountains, whose waters at the same time supplied the daily wants of the little communities, and served for the baptism of converts.

There are now innumerable holy wells scattered all over the country, most of them called by the names of the noble old missionaries who spent their lives in converting the pagans or in ministering to the spiritual needs of the Christian people of the several localities. In this manner most of our early saints became associated with wells. The practice began with St. Patrick, who, we are told, founded a church at Magh Slecht, in the present County Cavan: "and there [to this day is reverenced] Patrick's well, in which he baptised many."

A well is sometimes met with containing one lone inhabitant—a single trout or salmon—which is always to be seen swimming about in its tiny dominion: and sometimes there are two. They are usually tame; and the people hold them in great respect, and tell many wonderful legends about them. This pretty custom is of old standing, for it originated with the early Irish saints—even with St. Patrick himself. The Tripartite Life states, regarding the well of Aghagower in Mayo, that "Patrick left two salmon alive in the well." The same custom prevailed in the Scottish western islands.

The usual name for a well, both in the old and in the modern Irish language, is tobar [tubber].

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