Irish Druids And Old Irish
That so wet a country as Ireland
should have so great a reverence for wells,
is an evidence how early the primitive and composite races there came under
the moral influence of oriental visitors
and rulers, who had known in their native lands the want of rain, the value of
wells. So deep was this respect, that by some the Irish were known as the People
In remote ages and realms, worship has been celebrated at fountains or wells.
They were dedicated to Soim in India. Sopar-soma was the fountain of
knowledge. Oracles were delivered there. But there were Cursing as well as
Wells were feminine, and the feminine principle was the object of adoration
there, though the specific form thereof changed with the times and the faith. In
Christian lands they were dedicated, naturally enough, to the Virgin Mary. It
is, however, odd to find a change adopted in some instances after the
Reformation. Thus, according to a clerical writer in the Graphic, 1875, a
noted Derbyshire well had its annual festival on Ascension Day, when the place
was adorned with crosses, poles, and arches. All was religiously done in
honour of the Trinity, the vicar presiding. Catholic localities still prefer to
decorate holy wells on our Lady's Assumption Day.
It was in vain that the Early Church, the Medieval Church, and even the
Protestant Church, sought to put down well-worship, the inheritance of extreme
antiquity. Strenuous efforts were made by Councils. That of Rouen in the seventh
century declared that offerings made, there in the form of flowers, branches,
rags, &c., were sacrifices to the devil. Charlemagne issued in 789 his
decree against it--as did our Edgar and Canute.
As Scotland caught the infection by contact with Ireland, it was needful for
the Presbyterian Church to restrain the folly. This was done by the Presbytery
of Dingwall in 1656, though even worse practices were then condemned;
as, the adoration of stones, the pouring of milk on hills, and the sacrifice
of bulls. In 1628 the Assembly, prohibiting visits to Christ's well at Falkirk
on May mornings, got a law passed sentencing offenders to a fine of twenty
pounds Scot, and the exhibition in sackcloth for three Sundays in church.
Another act put the offenders in prison for a week on bread and water.
Mahomet even could not hinder the sanctity attached to the well Zamzam at
Mecca. More ancient still was holy Beersheba, the seven wells.
Wales, especially North Wales, so long and intimately associated with
Ireland, had many holy wells, as St Thecla's at Llandegla, and St Winifrede's of
Flintshire Holywell. St Madron's well was useful in testing the loyalty of
lovers. St. Breward's well cured bad eyes, and received offerings in cash and
pins. St Cleer's was good for nervous ailments, and benefited the insane. The
Druid magician Tregeagle is said still to haunt Dozmare Pool. Henwen is the Old
Lady Well. The Hindoo Vedas proclaim that "all healing power is in the
Hydromancy, or divination by the appearance of water in a well, is cherished
to the present time. One Christian prayer runs thus:--
"'Water, water, tell me truly,
Irish wells have been re-baptized, and therefore retain their sanctity. A
stout resistance to their claims seems to have been made awhile by the early
missionaries, since Columba exorcised a demon from a well possessed by it. They
all, however, liked to resort to wells for their preaching stations. In one of
the Lives of St. Patrick, it is related that "he preached at a fountain (well) which the Druids
worshipped as a God."
Is the man that I love duly,
On the earth, or under the sod,
Sick or well--in the name of God."
Milligan assures us, "The Celtic tribes, starting from hot countries,
where wells were always of the utmost value, still continued that reverence for
them which had been handed down in their traditions." This opinion may be
controverted by ethnologists. But Croker correctly declares that even now in
Ireland, "near these wells little altars or shrines are frequently
constructed, often in the rudest manner, and kneeling before them, the Irish
peasant is seen offering up his prayers."
It is not a little singular that these unconfined Irish churches should be in
contiguity with Holy Oaks or Holy Stones. Prof. Harttung, in his Paper before
the Historical Society, remarked of the Irish--"They have from time
immemorial been inclined to superstition." He even believed in their
ancient practice of human sacrifices.
Pilgrimages to wells are frequent to this day. The times are fixed for them;
as the first of February, in honour of Tober Brigid, or St. Bridget's well, of
Sligo. The bushes are draped with offerings, and the procession must move round
as the sun moves, like the heathen did at the same spot so long ago. At Tober
Choneill, or St. Connell's well, the correct thing is to kneel, then wish for a
favour, drink the water in silence, and quietly retire, never telling the wish,
if desiring its fulfilment.
Unfortunately, these pilgrimages--often to wild localities--are attended with
characteristic devotion to whisky and free fights. At the Holy Well, Tibber, or
Tober, Quan, the water is first soberly drunk on the knees. But when the whisky,
in due course, follows, the talking, Singing, laughing, and love-making may be
succeeded by a liberal use of the blackthorn.
In the story of the Well of Kilmore is an allusion to
mystical fishes. An old writer says, "They do call the said fishes Easa
Seant, that is to say, holie fishes." In the charming poem of Diarmuid,
there is an account of the Knight of the Fountain, and the sacred silver cup
from which the pilgrim drank.
Giraldus, the Welsh Seer, beheld a man washing part of his head in the pool
at the top of Slieve Gullion, in Ireland, when the part immediately turned grey,
the hair having, been black before. The opposite effect would be a virtue.
Prof. Robertson Smith, while admitting Well-worship as occurring with the
most primitive of peoples, finds it connected with agriculture, when the
aborigines had no better, knowledge of a God. The source of a spring, said he,
"is honoured as a Divine Being, I had almost said a divine animal."
"Such springs," remarks Rhys, "have in later times been treated
as Holy Wells."
River-worship, as is well known, has been nearly universal among rude
peoples, and human sacrifices not uncommonly followed. The river god of Esthonia
some times appeared to the villagers as a little man with blue and-white
stockings. Streams, like wells, are under care of local deities. Even our river
Severn was ado in the time of the Roman occupation, as we know by Latin
Wells varied in curative powers. St. Tegla's was good for epilepsy. Rickety
children benefit from a thrice dipping. Some, by the motion of the waters when
something is thrown in, will indicate the coming direction wind. Some will cure
blindness, like that at Rathlogan while others will cause it, except to some
Offerings must be made to the spirit in charge of well, and to the priestess
acting as guardian. If in any, way connected with the person, so much the
better. A piece of a garment, money touched by the hand, or even a
pin from clothes, is sufficient. Pins should be dropped on a Saint's day,
if good luck be sought. As Henderson's Folklore remarks, "The
country girls imagine that the well is in charge of a fairy, or spirit, who must
be propitiated by some offering." Some well-spirits, as Peg O'Nell of the
Ribble, can be more than mischievous. Besides the dropping of metal, or the
slaughter of fowls, a cure requires perambulation, sunwise, three times round
the well. On Saints' day wells are often dressed with flowers.
Otway has asserted that "no religious place in Ireland can be without a
holy well." But Irish wells are not the only ones favoured with presents of
pins and rags, for Scotland, as well as Cornwall and other parts of England,
retain the custom. Mason names some rag-wells:---Ardclines of Antrim,
Erregall-Keroge of Tyrone, Dungiven, St. Bartholomew of Waterford, St. Brigid of
The spirits of the wells may appear as frogs or fish. Gomme, who has written
so well on this subject, refers to a couple of trout, from time immemorial, in
the Tober or well Kieran, Meath. Of two enchanted trout in the Galway Pigeon
Hole, one was captured. As it immediately got free from the magic, turning into
a beautiful young lady, the fisher, in fright, pitched it back into the well.
Other trout-protected wells are recorded. Salmon and eels look after Tober
Monachan, the Kerry well of Ballymorereigh. Two black fish take care of Kilmore
well. That at Kirkmichael of Banff has only a fly in charge.
"The point of the legend is," writes Robertson Smith, "that
the sacred source is either inhabited by a demoniac being, or imbued with
demoniac life." It is useful, in the event of a storm near the coast, to
let off the water from a well into the sea. This draining off was the practice
of the Islanders of Inn is Murray. The Arran Islanders derive much comfort from
casting into wells flint-heads used by their forefathers in war.
Innis Rea has a holy well near the Atlantic.
What was the age of Well-worship? The President of the Folklore Society, who
deems the original worshippers Non-Aryan, i.e. before Celts came to
Ireland, identifies the custom with the erection of stone circles. The
scientific anthropologist, General Pitt-Rivers, tells us, "It is impossible
to believe that so singular a custom as this, invariably associated with cairns,
megalithic monuments, holy wells, or some such early Pagan institutions, could
have arisen independently in all these countries."
Enough has been said to show, as Wood-Martin observes, that
"Water-worship, recommended by Seneca, tolerated by the Church in times of
yore, is a cult not yet gone out." But one has written, "The printer's
blanket somehow smothers miracles, and small pica plays the very mischief with