A Legacy of Folk Wisdom which can be experienced while touring sacred sites of Ireland
Holy wells are springs, ponds or lakes that are the focus of spiritual devotion. Ireland has a particularly high number of recorded wells. Charles Plummer in his study on Lives of the Irish Saints estimated that there are about 3,000 Holy Wells in Ireland. Realistically, there were probably many more of them. They are vulnerable to farming and drainage work so many have fallen into disrepair, became over grown and forgotten. At one time, every parish had one. I have been seeking out the old wells in my community (with the help of the postman).
So what makes a well Holy or special?
The Brenemens (see book reference below) highlight that, at one time, each well was associated with a particular deus loci, or deity of place whose healing powers were intimately connected to the particularities of that place.
The three common elements that make up a Holy Well are the waters, a rock / mound or standing stone and often a very large old tree.
The power of Healing has been attributed to many of our Holy wells in Ireland. In deed we have some scientific research to back up these claims. Studies have determined that some of these wells are rich in specific minerals.
For example, wells connected with ‘strengthening weak children’ are generally found to be rich in Iron.
A well known example is the Holy well known as Tobar na nGealt (the Well of the Mad) located in County Kerry. We have documented evidence of healing that has occurred at this well.
In the Ordnance Survey Letters, O’Donovan writes:
‘They (the locals) give many instances of mad persons who sojourned in this valley and returned home, sane and in excellent health, as of a Mary Maher, who came into it rabidly mad and entirely naked in the year 1823 and who returned home (after spending some months there) sound in mind and stout in health. And of one O’Sullivan who came into it in the year 1839 and returned entirely cured of his lunacy in three days.’
In July 2012, a chemical analysis of the water at this particular Holy Well conducted by a Tralee based scientist discovered that the water contained 55.6 ppb of the chemical lithium. Generally rivers contain only about 3 ppb of lithium.
Lithium, nowadays is used in psychiatric medication to treat major depressive disorders and reduces the risk of suicide. It is on the World Health Organisations List of Essential Medicines.
Here we have a classic example of scientific evidence that highlights the intelligence, knowledge and understanding of our ancestors in regards to plant lore, the healing powers in the land and in the waters.
The well-being and health of the public was taken care of through their spiritual practice. Every year, many pilgrims would make their journey to wells, taking blessings from the water, perhaps unknowingly preventing the onset of certain illnesses, through ingesting quantities of the Holy Water and then filling their bottles to take home. Prevention is easier than cure.
These ritual practices that the people took part in on a yearly basis, most likely contributed to their over all health, maintaining the chemical balance of their bodies and kept certain types of illness at bay.
Is it no wonder the people had such respect for the sacred waters, giving offerings, paying respect, honouring the saint of the well?
Perhaps the parts that make up the holy well…the tree…the stone and the water somehow combine to create a unique mixture of trace elements and chemicals in the water. A cocktail of healing waters that heal certain illnesses. It has been said to me that prescribed Lithium needs to be ingested for a period of weeks in order for symptoms to be alleviated. Could it be possible that the unique cocktail of elements that are particular to Tobar na Gealt create a quicker level of absorption of the lithium?
Sources / Further Reading:
Book: The Holy Wells of Ireland by Patrick Logan
‘Irelands Saintly Women and their Healing Holy Wells’, National Geographic
Walter L. Brenneman, Jr. and Mary G. Brenneman. Crossing the Circle at the Holy Wells of Ireland. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1995.