St. Brigid and the Holy Wells of Ireland

John Healy
The Holy Wells of Ireland | start of essay

After St. Patrick, the greatest missionary saints of Ireland were Brigid and Columcille. St. Brigid, “the Mary of the Gael,” was a woman, not only of great holiness, but also of great zeal and energy in doing the work of God. She made missionary journeys throughout various parts of Ireland. She founded many churches, and nigh to her churches we find the holy wells that still bear her name, and are still held in great reverence by the people.

Brigid was venerated at Cam, west of Athlone, quite as much as she was in Kildare. Her comarbs, or successors, were entitled to collect the baptismal penny from all the men of Hy Many, and the holy well close to her church, in which they were baptised by her clerics, is still one of the most celebrated of those beyond the Shannon. It is yearly frequented by great crowds of pious pilgrims, who perform the station there on the Saint’s feast-day, and leave many votive offerings behind them to testify to the efficacy of her prayers on their behalf. It is called Bride’s Well, and has been thus frequented from time immemorial by all the men and women of Hy Many.

So it was, likewise, with Columcille. He founded, before setting out for Iona, many churches and monasteries in the northern half of Ireland, especially in Donegal, Derry, Sligo, and Meath; and at all these foundations we find some reference to the holy wells blessed by the prayers and the daily use of the Saint and of his companions.

Like St. Patrick, he was a great traveller, and on his missionary journeys went mostly on foot. Hence it came to pass that, often tired and weary, he sat down by the wayside to rest and refresh himself with a draught from the pure waters of the cooling fountain. Then he preached there, and baptised those who flocked to hear him, and if the place were otherwise suitable, he chose it as the site of a church, or hermitage, or monastery, for, although most of the monks lived in community, others preferred a solitary life, and sought to serve God in some deep mountain valley, or lonely island, or pathless wood, where they might live alone with Him, far removed from the distractions of the world.

Such a wild mountain valley is Glen Columcille, at the base of Slieve League, in the Co. Donegal, cut off, as it then was, from the world, and looking out over the wild western sea. But Columcille loved it for its very loneliness; and his holy well on Slieve League is still greatly venerated by the men of Tirconnell, who confide in the Saint as their special patron and protector.

Holy Well, Slieve League

Holy Well, Slieve League

Then every diocesan patron, and almost every parochial saint, had his own holy well, of which the memory is now sometimes lost, but in very many cases is still fondly cherished.

The Wedder’s Well, in which St. Brendan was baptised, is greatly venerated, and votive offerings still hang round it on the bushes that grow on its margin.

Another famous well was St. Mullin’s, near New Ross, but we believe its ancient celebrity is now waning.

Many holy wells were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, like that near Athenry, which is still much frequented by pilgrims on the eve of the Assumption, for it is believed to possess great curative virtues. Even in remotest Connemara we find a Tober Muire, or Mary’s Well, in the townland of Kilbride, in the barony of Ross. This shows that the church was dedicated to St. Brigid, and perhaps the well, too, for she is often called the “Mary of the Gael.”

There are, however, many other Mary’s Wells throughout the country, which certainly bear the name of the Blessed Virgin, most probably on account of cures believed to be wrought there through her intercession.

There was a celebrated holy well near the monastic Church of St. Augustine in Galway, at which some wonderful cures took place. One of these has been formally attested by more than a dozen of the first citizens of Galway, both clerical and lay. It was in the case of Patrick Lynch, and took place on the 11th of June, 1673. He himself deposed on oath, and his deposition was confirmed by the oaths of the witnesses, that he was visited by “a most grievous, desperate, dangerous disease, and given over by all doctors to be incurable, and could not eat one bite since Easter last.” But when brought to St. Augustine’s Well on the day named, and “totally dipped therein, and having also drunk a cup of water out of the well three times in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” he at once got up of himself and walked about the well, and recovered his strength and his appetite, and “doth sleep well as before, for which” the deponent piously adds, “the eternal God be glorified and praised for the same for ever.”

It is not the well of itself, but the mercy of God and the prayers of St. Augustine to which he attributes his cure, through the instrumental agency of the water of the well, just as the Jordan’s waters healed the Syrian leper, who went to bathe in them by command of the prophet of God. Similar cures, but less formally authenticated, are said to occur every year at some holy wells.

There are certain superior persons, even amongst Catholics, who deem any religious reverence paid to those holy wells to be superstitious; and they are inclined to sneer at the ignorant piety of the simple faithful who perform their devotions at the sacred springs, or attribute any healing efficacy to their waters. They say in effect, like the Syrian leper: “Are not the rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel, that I may wash in them and be made clean?” “Would it not be better for these foolish people to go to the doctor than put faith in prayers and blessed wells?”

But the waters of Jordan alone could cleanse the leprosy of the scoffing Syrian, and so we can hardly blame our poor people, who, in their strong and simple faith, believe that the prayer at the blessed well and the washing in its waters have more value than the doctor’s medicine.

With non-Catholics, who do not reverence even the Cross of Christ, we do not reason here. But Catholics ought to know better than regard all these observances as superstitions. It is true they may sometimes degenerate into superstition; but the Catholic instinct that shows reverence to the relics of the saints, and venerates the holy fountains which they blessed and used in the service of the Church, is not superstitious. We may, indeed, well venerate them, for some of the ancient holiness lingers round them still, and it is not too much to hope that the saints who blessed them may still look down from their high place in Heaven on the faithful souls who so lovingly cherish their memories in the scenes of their earthly pilgrimage, and ask their strong prayers before the great White Throne in Heaven.

This is not superstition; and the Church has no sympathy with the hollow smile and frozen sneer of those superior persons who, with all their wisdom, do not understand the things of the Spirit of God. This same spirit would sneer at the poor woman who touched the hem of our Saviour’s garment that she might be healed, and would have no patience with the superstitious people of the Apostolic Age, who brought forth their sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, “that St. Peter’s shadow at least might fall upon them, and that they might thus be delivered from their infirmities.”

And what would such people say of the folly and superstition of those foolish people who brought to the sick the handkerchiefs and aprons of St. Paul, which yet were powerful to drive away disease from the sick, and evil spirits from the bodies of the possessed?

With this half-sceptical faith and sneering piety we have no sympathy. We believe that some of their ancient holiness still lingers round our blessed wells, that their holy patrons still pray in a special manner for those who frequent them in a pious and confiding spirit, and that God often hears those fervent prayers and grants special requests to the faithful suppliants through the fervour of their faith and the merits of the saints.

No doubt there have been abuses. Let them be corrected, and if there is ignorance, let it be enlightened. But do not brand as superstitious those pious practices which in themselves are not only blameless, but laudable; for surely it is nothing else but laudable to visit in a spirit of prayerful faith those sacred scenes and places hallowed by the footsteps of the saints of God, where every memory moves the penitent to ask their prayers with confidence, and recalls to mind for their own imitation the bright example of their lives.

Let the sceptic go to Bath, Buxton, or Harrogate to have his disorders cured, but let not our poor faithful people be blamed too much if, in their own hearts, they prefer the sacred streams of the Jordan to all the rivers of Damascus.