The Holy Wells of Ireland

From Irish Essays: Literary and Historical by John Healy

"The Holy wells—the living wells—the cool, the fresh, the pure,
A thousand ages rolled away, and still those founts endure."—
FRAZER.

IRELAND from time immemorial has been celebrated for its Holy Wells and Healing Fountains. The "Tripartite Life of St. Patrick" tells us that even in pre-Christian days certain healing streams were greatly venerated by the people. The veracious Gerald de Barri records some marvellous stories of the famous Irish wells of his own time; and any modern tourist can easily find out many holy wells, to which the people pay great veneration, and which they are wont to visit for the performance of certain religious "rounds" or exercises on the feast days of the "patrons" of these holy wells.

In pagan times the sacred streams were certainly the objects of idolatrous worship, and even in Christian times the reverence for them has sometimes degenerated into superstition. But, all the same, it is certain that a lawful and appropriate reverence of a religious character can be paid to the holy wells, especially to those sacred fountains that have been specially blessed by some great saint, or sanctified for the administration of the Sacraments of the Church, or have been instrumental in performing miraculous cures.

Those who regard the Scripture as the Word of God can hardly deny the lawfulness of venerating such holy wells, for we find examples of a similar veneration quoted with approval in many passages of the Bible. Tertullian, one of the earliest of the Latin Fathers, traces the origin of this religious veneration to the fact that the element of water was specially sanctified by God when, as we are told, His Spirit "moved over the waters" of the dark and shapeless void, and brought life and light into the world. The same element of water was constantly used in the ceremonial purifications of the Jews. A brazen sea of purest water stood within the court of the Temple for the purification of the priests, as well as ten lavers for the washing of the victims for the holocausts; and all these lavers were regarded as sacred things which no man dare profane. We know, too, that "he who was not sprinkled with the water of expiation, he shall be unclean, and his uncleanness shall remain upon him" (Numbers xix. 13). Holy water surely this was, and entitled to appropriate religious veneration as a sacred thing.

And was not that a sacred spring which gushed from the heart of the rock Horeb, when Moses, by divine command, smote it with the same rod whose stroke had turned into blood the waters of the sacred Nile? For St. Paul tells that the rock was a figure of Christ, and the fountain was a type of the living waters of the New Law. So, likewise, the Jordan was pre-eminently a sacred stream, whose waters, "swelling up like a mountain" for the passage of the Israelites, heard and obeyed the voice of God. A healing virtue from on high filled the waters of the same sacred river when Naaman, the leper, went down, and washing seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the prophet, "his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was made clean." Truly a sacred wave of mighty power, which became holier still when the Saviour Himself stood in its bed, and the Baptist poured on His head those baptismal waters which, as all the Fathers teach, gave no sanctity to Him, but were for ever sanctified by the touch of His sacred flesh. And so, through all the ages, pilgrims from every land bathed in that sacred wave, and its waters are borne, even in our own unbelieving days, to far distant cities to baptize the children of kings.

Everyone has heard, too, of the sacred pool of Bethsaida, or Bethesda, where, as St. John tells us, "a great multitude of the sick, of the blind, of the lame, and of the withered" lay in its five porches waiting for the moving of the water. "And an angel of the Lord descended at certain times into the pond, and the water was moved. And he that went down first into the pond, after the motion of the water was made, was made whole of whatsoever infirmity he lay under." Truly a healing fountain, just like that of Siloam, close at hand, in which the blind man washed by command of Christ, and returned from the fountain seeing. If these things of old happened in Jerusalem, why not at Lourdes in our own time? And if the Jordan waters and Jacob's Well, from which the Saviour drank, were deemed sacred of old, why may not the fountains blessed by the saints of God, sanctified by their daily use, and employed by them as baptismal waters, be also deemed sacred and holy? If the stream of the Jordan and the Pool of Bethsaida had a healing virtue at certain times, why should it be impossible that the same Divine power should give a similar healing virtue to some of the blessed wells of holy Ireland?

There were many circumstances connected with the early history of our Irish Church which undoubtedly contributed a particular sanctity to our Holy Wells.

In the early Christian Church, adult baptism, as we know, was generally performed by immersion. It had thus a special significance for the Christian converts, for it symbolised in a very vivid manner the death to sin and the resurrection to a new and heavenly life, which, as St. Paul teaches, was a leading idea in the spiritual significance of the Christian Baptism; and the triple immersion of the catechumen added a deeper significance, for it reminded him of the three days spent by Christ in the grave, as well as of the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity in whose name he was baptised.

So we find that baptisteries for the convenient and becoming administration of the Sacrament by immersion were at an early period constructed close to all the cathedrals of the great cities, like Rome, Milan, Ravenna, and Constantinople. They were, as we know, beautiful buildings, elaborately decorated, and of considerable size; but the soul and centre of the building was the holy fountain itself, surrounded by a balustrade with ascending and descending steps, in which the catechumens stood, whilst the bishop, with his deacons and deaconesses, administered the Sacrament of Baptism by triple immersion, or, as happened in many cases, by infusion—that is, a copious pouring of the blessed stream on the heads of those to be baptised. Everything was done with the greatest regard to propriety. The catechumens were dressed pretty much as bathers are at present, and the holy basin was surrounded by curtains, oftentimes richly ornamented, thus securing, as it were, the privacy of the domestic bath. The ceremony itself was beautiful and significant. It was administered with great solemnity, especially on the vigils of Easter and Pentecost. The catechumens, standing in the water in batches before the bishop and his attendants, first turning to the west, the place of darkness, solemnly renounced Satan with all his works and pomps. Then, turning to the east, to the throne of heavenly light, they stretched out their hands to heaven and made solemn profession of their faith, after which they were baptised by the bishop and his attendants, either by immersion or infusion, as the circumstances of the time and place demanded. These sacred fountains were always solemnly blessed by the Church; and, so far as we can judge, they were completely emptied of water, then cleansed, refilled, and blessed anew, at least once a year, on the vigil of Easter or of Pentecost, or, more commonly, on both days.

And not only were these baptismal fountains kept in the baptisteries, but there was another kind of holy well in the atrium or porch of the church for the use of the faithful when entering the sacred building. Like the lavers in the Temple of Jerusalem, they served to cleanse the face and hands and feet of the worshippers, so that they might, in those hot and dusty lands, approach the holy mysteries with fitting disposition both of body and mind. They were reminded, too, by an inscription over the fountain, to cleanse the conscience with even more care than they cleansed the face:

NIΨON ANOMHMATA MH MONAN OΨIN.

But when St. Patrick came to preach the Gospel in Ireland he found a very different state of things existing. He found a people hungry for the Gospel, who were eager to drink in joy from the fountains of their Saviour; but they were a people very different in many respects from the provincial populations of Imperial Rome. They were a simple people, or, as St. Patrick himself calls them, "barbarous," in the sense that they knew nothing of Roman civilisation. They had neither cities, nor towns, nor temples, nor centralised government; although, in our opinion, they had a written language and a bardic literature of considerable antiquity. St. Patrick had to build his own churches, and to do it hurriedly sometimes, either of turf, or of wood, more Scottorum, rarely of stone, except in those districts where nothing else could be had. And before he built the churches he had to baptise his converts. Baptisteries, of course, were out of the question. But he met the difficulty in another way. He pitched his tent close to a wayside stream, or well, near the dun of a friendly chief. He preached the Gospel; he won over the chief and his friends, and then the whole tribe followed en masse. At once, with their help, he set to build his church; but, first of all, he baptised his catechumens after brief instruction suited to their simple minds. For this he blessed the well, and he placed his converts in batches in the sacred stream, or round about it, baptising them, as we may fairly assume, by infusion, for the number was too great for the more tedious process of immersion. Thus it was, we are told, that he baptised in one day twelve thousand of the men of Tirawley in that fountain of the One Horn which still flows beneath the hillock that gave it its name into the sea at Killala, close to where the railway station now stands. It got its name from the hillock from whose foot it flowed, and might well be deemed holy, because it was blessed by the Apostle, and became the fountain of salvation for so many souls, one of them being a women whom Patrick had raised to life, and then baptised in its sacred waters.

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