Holy Wells in Britain and Ireland

By Byrne, Garreth | Contemporary Review, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Holy Wells in Britain and Ireland


Byrne, Garreth, Contemporary Review


HOLY wells have featured for many centuries in the folk religion and social customs of Christianity in Britain and Ireland. Sometimes it has seemed difficult to separate the primordial pagan origins of holy well veneration in specific localities from the orthodox church-approved beliefs and devotional practices. Priests of the Roman Church have in past centuries found themselves, sometimes under episcopal direction, in earnest battle against perceived local superstitions and impious social customs connected with holy wells. In Ireland during the nineteenth century priests actively clamped down on the drunkenness, gambling, raucous singsonging and caterwauling offensiveness that accompanied traditional annual pilgrimages to holy wells in the parishes. They often did this by banning the annual pilgrimages altogether.

After the Reformation, puritan and broad church Protestant clergy often looked askance at localised holy well piety. Concepts and devotions such as 'holy water', ritual prayers or symbolical icon veneration were regarded by suspicious clergy as being too close for comfort to the vestiges of 'Romish superstition'. Popular hopes and claims for supernatural cures for medical ailments and diseases also troubled the dispassionate sensibility of Protestant rationalists. Until late in the nineteenth century holy well customs persisted sporadically in the Established and Nonconformist Churches of rural England and Wales. In Scotland too, holy wells in remote places attracted the attentions of Presbyterian devotees, often despite the baleful stares of ordained Kirk ministers.

Piety and faith healing, within approved ecclesial limits, are found in other contexts than holy wells to the present day among parish members of the Reformed and Roman traditions. Such spirituality has scriptural roots.

This short article seeks to give an overall view of holy well devotion in a spirit of understanding rather than denominational nit-picking and proselytism.

The number of holy wells in the British Isles runs into many thousands, including those still in use, those in assorted states of neglect and dilapidation, and those which have disappeared from view. One estimate for Wales at the end of the nineteenth century put the number of holy wells at 1,200, either functioning as sources of good water or abandoned and vanished. Estimates for England in the mid-twentieth century have ventured anything up to 8,000. On the island of Ireland it is believed that there are more than 3,000 holy wells.

Statistical estimates merit a wary response because they are based on a number of plausible factors. Firstly, old maps in dusty archives can contain indications of holy wells by means of symbols and/or words. But a small cross symbol might sometimes stand for a local well only used for household requirements -- such water sources were widespread in Europe before the advent of modern state piped water schemes. Secondly, placenames often suggest the existence of ancient wells e.g. Elmswell (2 places), Harwell and Pedwell in England, or Patrickswell in Ireland. Were they functional domestic water sources, or did they have religious purposes too? Thirdly, local legends, often embroidered over the mists of time, testify to discarded or existing religious customs pertaining to wells in a vicinity. Amateur cartographers often relied on hearsay; they could value aesthetic appeal above geographical reality.

Many putative holy wells have disappeared for geological reasons - changes in groundwater flows due to limestone erosion; or depletion of the water table arising from climatic alteration; or the impact of modem drainage schemes. Other holy wells, like ancient streams, have been built over with the expansion of cities. In London, for example, a holy well associated with St. Chad was covered over in the late nineteenth century during the construction of St. …

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