Sunday, June 18 has been declared 'National Holy Wells Day'. I had the chance to visit a holy well in County Down yesterday and now mark this day with an 1884 paper by Father John Healy, later to become Archbishop of Tuam. He had a keen interest in the Irish saints and published a number of books and articles on the Early Irish Church and on Saint Patrick. In this paper on holy wells he defends the expressions of popular devotion these sites enjoyed, something with which other churchmen were not always so comfortable. He begins by attempting to place the Irish tradition of holy wells in its wider Christian and scriptural context before moving on to give us some examples from this country:
THE HOLY WELLS OF IRELAND.
BY REV. J. HEALY, D.D.
"The holy wells, the living wells, the cool, the fresh, the pure,
A thousand ages rolled away, and still those fonts endure,
As full and sparkling as they flowed, ere slave or tyrant trod
The emerald garden set apart for Irishmen by God."
— J. D. FRASER.
THERE have been holy wells and sacred streams in every country and in every age. Sometimes amongst Pagan nations they have been the object of idolatrous worship; sometimes, too, in Christian countries they may have been unduly and superstitiously reverenced.
But it is also certain that a lawful and becoming reverence of a religious character may be paid to those sacred fountains whose waters have been instrumental in performing miracles or have been specially sanctified by the Church's use, or by the blessing of some great saint. There is no other country in the world where there are so many of these truly holy wells as in Ireland, or where they are still so much reverenced by the people. We propose to explain the origin and the motives of the religious reverence which is still justly due to the holy wells of Ireland.
Tertullian, the first of the Latin Fathers, who flourished towards the end of the second century of the Christian era, tells us that the element of water was specially sanctified by the Spirit of God, who "moved over the face of the waters." Not only amongst the Jews but even amongst Pagan nations the living stream was regarded as the most fitting symbol of spiritual life; and the purity of heart that befits the ministers and servants of God, was fitly typified by the limpid water whose lustrations cleansed and cooled and refreshed the bodies of the worshippers. So God Himself commanded that water should be used in the legal purifications of the Jews; and a brazen sea of pure water stood within the court of the temple for the purifications to be performed by the priests.
There were, moreover, holy wells and holy streams in Palestine, Everyone has heard of the sacred pool of Bethsaida, where our Saviour performed the great miracle so often represented in ancient Christian art. St John (v. 2) tells us that amongst its five porches
"lay a great multitude of sick, of blind, of lame, of withered, 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 unto the pond after the motion of the water was made whole of whatsoever infirmity he lay under." A holy well, in sooth, a second Lourdes, of marvellously miraculous virtue, which not even a Protestant, if he be a Christian, can safely sneer at.
Then the Jordan was pre-eminently a sacred stream. For its waters heard the voice of God " and came down from above, and stood in one place swelling up like a mountain," so that they were seen from afar until ail the people passed over through the channel that was dried up. At the word of the prophet, too, the same stream was filled with healing efficacy, so that when the leper Naaman, "went down and washed in the Jordan seven times according to the word of the man of God, his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child and he was made clean." But more than all was the Jordan sanctified when our Saviour Himself stood in the stream, and John the Baptist poured upon his head the baptismal waters that gave no sanctity to Him, but were, as all the Fathers teach, sanctified forever by contact with his saving flesh. In after-times a large cross was erected upon the spot, a great monastery was built nigh to it, and pilgrims from every land came to bathe in the sacred stream, and its waters were borne over all the earth and were used at the baptism of the children of kings.
Jacob's well near Sichem in Samaria, where our Saviour asked the drink of water from the Samaritan woman, not unnaturally became also a holy well; and a great cruciform church was built round about, so that the well was in the very centre of the church. A pilgrim bishop, Arculphus by name, in the eighth century, saw the church with his own eyes, and drank of the waters of the well, as he himself told our great countryman, Adamann, abbot of Iona, who mentions this as well as many other interesting facts in his celebrated tract on the Holy Places.
There were many circumstances that combined to lend a special sanctity to the holy wells of Ireland. In the earlier centuries of the Christian era adult baptism was almost always performed by immersion. Hence we find that a baptistery was nearly always constructed in the immediate neighbourhood of the great cathedrals, as at Constantinople, Rome, Milan, and Ravenna. These baptisteries were separate buildings, although in connection with the church, and were frequently constructed of considerable size and elaborately ornamented. In the inner chamber of the baptistery there was always a large pool of pure water, surrounded by a low wall with two or three ascending and as many steps descending to the water. This wall was again surrounded by rows of columns sometimes of richest porphyry', from which depended curtains that served at once for the purpose both of ornament and propriety. The catechumens, on the great festivals of Easter and Pentecost, descended into the pool in batches, and were baptized by the officiating minister. Standing in the water, almost in the same costume as is worn now by bathers, they first turned to the west, the place of darkness, and solemnly renounced Satan; then turning to the east, the throne of light, and stretching out their hands to heaven, they made solemn profession of their faith and were then baptized, sometimes by immersion, and sometimes by infusion, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
Now these fonts were always solemnly blessed before use with prayer, and invocation, and insufflation of the minister; and the waters were commingled with the holy chrism. We are informed, too, that it was a common belief that the moment the font was blessed an angel of God came down from heaven to purify the waters, and guard them from diabolical profanation, and thus he became the guardian angel of the holy spot.
But the font was not the only sacred fountain near the church in those early centuries. In the porches of the larger churches there were cisterns of water for the use of the faithful. Such a basin was erected by St. Paulinus of Nola in the atrium or porch of his church of St. Felix. This fountain, too, was blessed as well as the font and had its temporal advantages as well as spiritual significance. In hot countries, especially, it was a great benefit for the worshippers who sometimes travelled long distances to be able to wash the face, and hands, and feet, especially when going to partake of the sacred mysteries. And an inscription in the porch reminded them that they were to cleanse their consciences by penance as they cleansed the face with water before admission to the sacred mysteries.
St. Patrick, during the years of his sojourn in Gaul and Italy, witnessed these observances; and knew that at least a suitable baptismal font was a matter of obligation wherever it could be had. But when he came to preach the Gospel in Ireland there were neither churches nor fonts of any kind; yet, of course, the people were to be baptized, that the living stones of the spiritual edifice might be ready when the material edifice was built to receive them. We know, too, that the primitive churches in Ireland were very small, and oftentimes of the rudest materials, so that baptisteries of the continental style were altogether out of the question. On his missionary journeys in this country the saint found it necessary to act as the deacon St. Philip did with the Eunuch from Ethiopia, and baptize his converts in the wayside wells and streams.
We can easily gather from the early lives of our great apostle how he usually acted on these occasions. When the converts of a certain district were sufficiently instructed, he selected a suitable site for the future church. That site was generally near a well or stream of pure water, which might serve as a baptistery for the new congregation. The rude little church of stone, or timber, was easily built by willing hands, and when the Catechumens were instructed the apostle prepared to baptize them in the well. But it must first be blessed, for it might have been profaned by evil influences, or it might have been a stream which the Druids held sacred to their gods. It was then, of course, all the more necessary to bless it by exorcism, and prayer, and invocation of the Holy Spirit of God; for the Church nearly always thus blesses whatever is to be used for the purposes of divine worship. Then the Catechumens, as they were ready, were brought in batches, made to stand up to their knees in the well, or stream, and the apostle and his assistant priests pouring the living stream on their heads, ransomed them from the powers of darkness, and made them heirs of the kingdom of light. And undoubtedly the stream thus blessed by St. Patrick, and used by him and by succeeding ministers as a baptistery and font for the faithful, became in very truth a holy spring and had its own guardian angel; and besides its sacramental efficacy, there was a virtue in its waters derived from the prayers of the Church, and the merits and prayers of the great and holy men who sanctified its waters.
There are several incidents narrated in the lives of the early Irish saints which furnish abundant proof of these statements. We are told, for instance, that when St. Patrick, having crossed the Shannon, came to the Royal Palace of Rath Cruachan, in Roscommon, where the daughters of King Leoghaire were being educated, as he approached the palace at early morning he met the two royal maidens, Fedelm of the red-rose cheeks, and Ethna of the golden hair, at Clebach's fountain on the southern slope of Cruachan, where they were wont to take their morning bath, according to the simple customs of those early days. There before them sat the saint, a "king-like presence, fronting the dawn he sat alone," and his monks stood nigh to him. The wondering maidens gazed upon the venerable stranger, and questioned him much as to who he was, and whence he came, and what king he served. Then Patrick told the lofty message which he bore, and: —
"As he spake the eyes of that lovely twain
Grew large with a tearful but glorious light;
Like skies of summer, late cleared by rain,
When the full-orbed moon will be soon in sight."
At the same moment God touched their hearts with his grace, and, believing with the fulness of a perfect faith, they were baptized, even where they stood, by the margin of Clebach's fountain; not, however, until he had first blessed the stream:
"No word he said,
But three times made the sacred sign;
At the first men say the demons fled;
At the third flocked round them the Powers divine, unseen."
And then the maidens fair were robed in white, and begged the Eucharistic Bread Divine and prayed that they might be united to their Spouse and King for ever. The saint, as was the custom in those days, gave them the Holy Communion after the baptism, and lo! the flush of health faded from their brows, and they calmly sank to sleep in death, and side by side at Clebach well were laid to rest. But their souls went up to heaven, to their Saviour and King, and the fountain became one of the holy wells of Erin, long celebrated in history and in song.
We are told in the same "Tripartite," which is one of the earliest and most authentic lives of St. Patrick, that when the saint was at Aghagower, near the modern Westport, in the county Mayo, he built a church there, and he set over it the Bishop Senachus, whose innocence and holiness were so great that Patrick called him God's lamb. And Patrick loved much the beauty and retirement of this spot, so well suited for heavenly contemplation, and longed to remain there as long as the constant care of the churches permitted. " Nigh to the little church of Senachus there was a large fountain of wondrous efficacy, wherein two fish might always be seen swimming, and nothing could destroy them. This immunity from death, which the fish in the sacred spring enjoyed, was," so the writer of the Life tells us, "believed to be the fruit of St. Patrick's blessing." This is probably one of the earliest of many similar stories told of fish that lived for ever in the blessed wells. It must, however, be borne in mind that the "fish," especially in those early days, was a Christian symbol of most sacred significance. The name ichthus which is the Greek word for fish, and the fish itself are of constant recurrence amongst the sacred symbols of the early Christians in the Catacombs. The letters of the Greek word formed the initial letters of the sentence: "Jesus Christ, of God the Son, our Saviour." The heavenly Ichthus, then, was Jesus Christ, and we are the smaller fishes, born in the waters of baptism, as Tertullian says, caught in the net of salvation, and thus made members of the heavenly kingdom. There is a reference in the same symbol to the Holy Eucharist, with which the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes had such intimate connection both in point of time and significance. On a tablet found, in 1839, near Autun, in France, there is a Greek inscription, of which the following, amongst other words, can be clearly discerned: "Offspring of the heavenly Ichthus, see that a heart of holy reverence be thine, now that from the divine waters thou hast received, while jet among mortals, a fount of life that is to immortality. Quicken thy soul, O beloved one, with the ever-flowing waters of wealth-giving wisdom, and receive the honey-sweet food of the Saviour of the saints. Eat with longing hunger the Ichthus which thou boldest in thy hands." (See Smith's "Christ. Ant," p. 806, vol. i.) Remembering this beautiful symbolism of the life-giving waters, and the heavenly Ichthus, we shall be disposed to look with greater reverence on the crystal waters of the holy well and the sacred fish, on which the prayers of Patrick are said to have bestowed immortal life.
Another fact is narrated in the life of St. Patrick, which shows that he regarded a spring of water as a matter of necessity near a church, for the purposes already indicated. When the saint was not far distant from Rath Cruachan, he received from the converted druid, Ono, a suitable site, [whereon he built a church, which was called Ail-finn (Elphin), that is the rock of the clear stream. The rock was there already, and St. Patrick one night caused a miraculous fountain of limpid water to spring from beneath the rock, as Moses did at Horeb. That copious fountain is still flowing before the gate of the Protestant church of Elphin, which is built on the site of the old cathedral founded by St. Patrick for his beloved disciple, Asicus, the first bishop of Elphin, who made for Patrick his chalices and patens and the quadrangular covers for the sacred books.
We might give many other instances from the lives of our Irish saints to show that it was customary from the earliest times to baptize the faithful in the wells near the churches, which thus not unnaturally acquired a character of special sanctity. We are told, for instance, that the great Saint Columba was baptized at Temple Douglas, that is, the Church of the Black Stream — it was sometimes darkened by the floods — which flowed quite near the sacred edifice. We are told in like manner that St. Finnian of Clonard, the "tutor of the saints of Ireland," was baptized by St. Abban at the place where the streams of two fountains met, and on account of the limpid purity of the water, he was baptized by the name of Finnlach, the Child of the Limpid Fountain. (Col. xxiii. Feb.)
But there were other reasons that moved our Irish saints to bless the holy wells, and our faithful people to reverence them. It seems that with the Celtic tribes, as, indeed, amidst most of the Pagan nations, idolatrous worship was offered to certain fountains which were regarded as gods, for Satan always seeks to have that reverence paid to himself, as if he were lord of the elements, which is due to God alone. We have related, both by Tirechan in the Book of Armagh, and by St. Evin in the Tripartite — a fact which fully explains St. Patrick's mode of dealing with these superstitions, and, no doubt, accounts, too, for the origin of several of our holy wells. The following is a literal translation of the Tripartite account: — "Now, when the holy man was travelling through this same region (of Mayo), nurturing and watering the seeds of the divine word, he came to a certain fountain in the plain called Finmagh, which the credulous people named the King of Streams, and from the virtue which they believed it possessed they also gave it the name of Slan, or the Health-giver. The foolish people believed in this fountain, or rather regarded it as a god, and hence they called it the "King of Waters, and worshipped it as a god. Now, the fountain was formed of a quadrangular shape, and a large stone of the same shape closed up its entrance. An encouragement, if not the foundation, of the popular superstition seems to have been derived from the fact that a certain magician who worshipped the water as a propitious deity, and regarded fire as a hostile one, when dying ordered his body to be buried under the stone, within the fountain. When Patrick ascertained the nature of the superstition, he explained to the people, whom he rebuked for their errors, that neither that fountain nor any other creature, but God alone, was the Creator of the elements, and King and Lord over them, as well as over all other creatures. Moreover, he ordered the stone to be taken from the mouth of the well; but as they could not by any means be induced to comply with his request, making the sign of the cross, he himself easily removed the stone, and baptized St. Cannech in the stream, and furthermore enriched that saint's offspring with the perpetual inheritance of his blessing. This St. Cannech was afterwards the ruler of St. Patrick's monks, became a bishop too, and built a church in that same region of Corca-Themore, which was called Kealltag." This is the place since called Ballintober, but known in our native annals as Ballintober Patrick, the Town of Patrick's Well, but the fame of its ancient holiness has departed, for although it is still called Tobermore, the Great Well, it is no longer deemed a holy one. (See Joyce, vol. I, p. 436).
There was yet another cause that sanctified many holy islands and holy wells in Ireland. In the century, especially that succeeded the death of St. Patrick, the Irish saints loved to seek out some desert spot altogether cut off from the habitations of men, where they might give themselves up exclusively to the service of God. Some made their hermitages in the uninhabited islands of the ocean, especially on the wild western coasts of Ireland; others sought out islets in the great lakes, like Corrib, Bee, and Derg; others, again, retired into mountain valleys, or sought some lonely cluain, or meadow island, in the midst of woods or marshes, where the wild boars freely roamed. The lives of these hermits were appallingly austere.
Their home was a cave or a hut of wattles, or of loose stones, through which the rain and the wind freely entered. They wore the same coarse clothes until they fell to pieces from their backs; their food was a little corn with roots and water from the spring — this last was not unfrequently their only drink. Hence, wherever the hermit lived, he always had his cell nigh to some fountain: and that fountain was blessed by his prayers, and doubly blessed by his use. He not unfrequently, too, knelt or stood knee-deep in the cold stream whilst he recited the entire psalter, for this was a favourite mode of penance with our Irish saints. Then his secret was found out: men came to see his grotto, his little church, and the holy spring which gave him half his nourishment. And so it came to be regarded, what in very truth it was, a holy well; and when the saint had gone to his reward, the devotion of his disciples brought them year after year to the same holy spot to perform their devotions, especially on the feast-day of the patron, and to secure themselves the strong protection of his prayers.
Sometimes, too, it would happen that in their journey through the country the missionary saints, like Bridget, Patrick, and Columbkille, tired and foot-sore, sat down, like our Saviour at the well of Samaria, to refresh themselves at some way-side fountain: and they blessed the grateful stream, and that was a fruitful and abiding blessing long remembered by the people, who, of course, came from all the country round to drink of its waters, and carry home the saving stream. Thus it came to pass that we have not only at the old churches, but also by the way-side, in almost every parish in Ireland, some Toberpatrick, or Bride’s-well, or Columbkille's-well; so that the blessings of God's saints has remained upon thousands of the wells of holy Ireland.
There are persons who deem any reverence paid to these holy wells to be superstitious; they sneer at the simple faithful who perform their devotions at the holy spring, and in their own great knowledge and superior Christianity pity their ignorance and folly. If these people are Protestants we cannot argue with them now; those who will not reverence the cross of Christ, cannot be expected to venerate holy wells. They are, at least, very inconsistent; for the men who themselves venerate the statues, the monuments, and other memorials of their statesmen, warriors, and poets, cannot blame us if we should pay, at least, an equal reverence to the memorials of the saints of God, to anything blessed by their prayers and hallowed by their daily use.
With Catholics, however, who talk in this fashion, as they sometimes do, we have less patience: we must take the liberty of telling them that the due veneration of these holy wells is not superstition; that prayers to the saints, in any spot hallowed by their abode, their miracles, or their labours, is all the more likely to be efficacious; and that the Church has no sympathy with the hollow smile and frozen sneer of their scepticism. They do not understand the things that are of the Spirit of God. If they were alive in the apostolic age they would, no doubt, sneer at the foolish woman who, in her simple faith, thought she might be cured by touching the hem of our Saviour's garments; and at the still more foolish people who, as we are told in the Acts of the Apostles, " Brought forth their sick into the streets, laid them on beds and couches, that St. Peter's shadow, at least, might overshadow them, and that they might thus be delivered from their infirmities." Equally foolish and superstitious, no doubt, from the scientific point of view were those who brought to the sick the handkerchiefs and aprons of St. Paul: yet we are told on high authority, that these same handkerchiefs drove away the disease, and the evil spirits, from the bodies of the possessed.
With this doubting faith and false science we have no sympathy. It is the mongrel offspring of ignorance and pride — pride in its own petty wisdom, and ignorance of the wondrous ways of God. For our own part, we believe in the ancient sanctity of these holy wells; we believe it lingers round them still, that a virtue still abides in the sacred stream, and that the saints who hallowed them of old, by their works and prayers, still look down in benignant mercy on those who worship God, and ask their prayers on the very spot that was so intimately connected with their own earthly pilgrimage. If abuses arise let them be corrected; if they cannot be corrected, and the evil is greater than the good, then let the pilgrimage be stopped. But, meanwhile, call them not superstitious — the men and women of simple faith and loving hearts who still go to the holy places where dwelt the saints of God, to ask their prayers, and call to mind the bright example of their virtues and of their lives. "Are not the rivers of Damascus," said the Syrian leper, "better than all the waters of Israel, that I may wash in them and be clean? " But they were not, and Naaman could only be cleansed in Jordan's holy stream. Is there any virtue in these holy wells more than any other spring, say the Naamans of our time? Yes, if you go at the word of the prophet, if you go in the spirit of faith, and say your fervent prayers by the sacred stream, and drink of its waters; it may do you quite as much good in this world, and certainly more in the next, than to go to the rivers of Damascus — to Buxton, Harrowgate, or Lisdoonvarna.
Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2017. All rights reserved.