Yesterday I attended a very unique pilgrimage at Esker, Co Galway. Each year on the 5th and 6th of January vast numbers of people from east County Galway attend the blessing of the waters at St Dominic’s holy well.
Unlike many other holy wells, St Dominic’s well is not associated with healing or penance. The pilgrims who come here do not come say prayers or to leave offerings they come to collect the holy water from the well to take home to bless their fields, farmyards, homes and animals. The water is taken because it is believed to have special powers of protection and healing through its connection with the saint.
St Dominic’s holy well is located beside the Redemptorist monastery in the townland of Esker a few miles east of the town of Athenry, Co Galway. The Redemptorist are very much involved with the pilgrimage and I have no doubt their interest and support over the years has done much to promote the continuation of this tradition.
History of the well and nearby monastery
Like many holy wells we know very little about the history of St Dominic’s holy well. The well is dedicated to St Dominic the founder and patron of the Dominican order. The Dominican’s first came to Ireland in 1224 initially they founded monasteries in Leinster and Munster and they establishment of their first house of the Order in Connacht at Athenry (dedicated to St Peter and Paul) in 1241 . The Athenry priory
… escaped suppression in the Dissolution of Henry VIII, thanks to the Intervention of Deputy Anthony Sentleger who in a letter dated the 7th of July 1541 stated that as it “is situated amongst the Irishry … our saide sovereign lord shoulde have lyttle or no profit”, despite which the custos of the friary Adam Copynger, and his fellow-friars had to agree to change “their habit and wedes of a ffriar into a secular habit”. In 1574, however, Queen Elizabeth 1 granted the friary buildings and lands to the provost and burgesses of Athenry for 26/6 (£1.35) yearly.
In 1627 Charles I granted the priory to four Galway merchants as assignees of Sir James Craig (a Scotsman associated with the Plantation of Ulster) to hold it for the king. These merchants, however, were well-disposed towards the friars and the Dominicans were therefore able to re-establish themselves in Athenry in 1638. There followed a brief period of restoration work, the sacristy and perhaps the hagioscope/’leper squint’/ penitent’s cell’ in the south wall of the nave apparently being additions dating from then. In 1644, during the period of the Confederation of Kilkenny, the priory of Athenry was erected into a University for the Dominican Order by the decree of a General Chapter held in Rome.
Disaster befell the monastery in 1652 when Cromwellian soldiers wrecked the buildings, a record of which is to be found on a carved stone plaque dated 1682, now mounted in the north wall of the church (Rynne 2000).
Following the destruction of the priory by Cromwell’s forces the surviving Dominicans left Athenry and came to Esker. While in hiding here they continued to minister to the local people of the area. Following the relaxing of the penal laws they built a monastery a short distance from the holy well. The monks were gifted land by local landlord Daly of Dunsandle of 150 acres to help support them and their charitable works.
Stratford Eyre, of Eyrecourt, wrote a letter dated 3rd March 1731-2, to Primate Boulter which stated
“The friars of Athenry live at Esker near two miles from the Abbey on the estate of Thomas Power Daly, a Papist… The Protestants of this County are in by means of the power, influence and strength, the number and intolerable insolence of Papists who possess entire parishes and not one Protestant family in some of them” (Anon. no date).
The Dominicans remained here at Esker until 1896 and the monastery passed to the Diocese.
The Dominican’s were only in the area for 300 years but the townland of Esker was often refereed to as Eiscir na mBrathar- Esker of the Friars and a hill overlooking St Dominic’s holy well and the monastery is known locally as Dominic’s Hill.
In 1903 monastery was granted to the Redemptorist and by this time the modern traditions of the well were firmly established. Through the years the Redemptorist have continued to support the well as the Dominicans did before them, and today they still providing blessings of the waters both the 5th and 6th of January.
The well is a small spring and surrounded by a circular stone wall. The interior is accessed by a number of steps and two walls extend beyond the entrance. In the 1930’s a doomed roof was added to the top of the earlier structure. A large stone trough sits in front of the well.
It is possible there may have always been a holy well at Esker and when the Dominicans arrived it was rededicated to St Dominic. It is also possible that the well may have only come into existence following the arrival of the Dominicans. While many wells have medieval and prehistoric origins this is not the case for all,for example Fr Moore well in Co Kildare came into existence in the 19th century. So could the well date to the time of the Dominicans or has it more ancient origins? We many never know the answer to this.
It is interesting that despite it dedication devotion at the well takes place not on the feast of Dominic the 8th of August but the feast of the epiphany. No one is sure why the devotion at the well takes place in January or when it first began but having spoken to a number of people in their 80’s on my visit here on the 6th of January of this year, they remember their parents and grandparents having come to the well at this time of year. This suggests the well and its current tradition was established at least the middle of the 19th century, if not well before (excuse the pun). One lady I spoke with told me that local folklore told to her as a child, stated that the famine had not been as bad in the area as elsewhere and that the people believed that the water from the well had kept them safe.
Modern Pilgrimage 6th of January
The traditional time for visiting St Dominic’s well is any time from 12 midday on the 5th of January until midnight on the 6th of January. Very few people venture here during the rest of the year.
On the morning of the 5th additional troughs are placed beside the well and along with the original stone trough they are filled with water from the well.
On both pilgrimage days a mass is held at the church in the Redemporist monastery at which many people attend. Following mass there is a procession from the monastery to the holy well.
The procession heads out of the monastery and along the main road for a couple of hundred metres. This year the procession was lead by Fr Michael O’Flynn.
The procession then turns in to a large field were the well is located and along a gravel path to the well.
Having arrived at the well the people wait until everyone has gathered. A number of short prayers are said and the well and its waters are blessed by the priest. This year the blessing was performed by Fr Seamus Devitt. As there were so many people present I was not able to get close enough to photograph the blessing of the well.All the pilgrims present brought plastic bottles and containers with them and following the blessing they filled these container with the blessed water from the well.
A number of people I spoke with told me they had brought extra bottles with them to distribute between friends and neighbours who could not come along on the day. Many pilgrims do not attend the masses or blessing of the waters and turn up in there own time during the day.
About half an hour after the blessing the crowd dispersed and the large stone trough in front of the well was all but empty.
This troughs and some of the others, had to be refilled several times during the day. This shows the volume of people and the amount of water taken throughout the day, luckily the monastery has organised the water levels to be monitored and refill the troughs as needed.
The 6th of January was an exciting day for this years pilgrimage as the television station TG4 attended and recorded the event which featured that night on Nuacht at 7pm.
It is difficult to know how many people came to the well over the two days but they must have been in their high hundreds. I noticed a constant stream of people come and go on the 6th. As soon as one car left another arrived.
Having collected the water many go straight home but a sizeable number of people drop into the church to say some prayers and visit the crib.
I was very luck to speak with a large number of people during the day and to discover how people use the water when they get home.
On returning home the water is sprinkled in the farmyard and fields, in cow sheds, much like Easter water is spread on the fields on May’s eve. The remainder of water is kept throughout the year and used for sick animals and for cows and sheep during calving and lambing. A number of people told me of what they believed were cures of animals due to the waters of the well. Others sprinkled the water during planting and harvesting of crops. Many people will use the water on farm machinery, cars, out buildings and homes. One elderly gentleman I spoke with told me when he was young he remembers people using the water to protect their farm/land and animal from curses.
I would just like to say a big thank you to everyone who took the time to share their stories of the well and to all in the Redemptorist monastery especially Fr Seamus Devitt and Patricia Wade for their kindness, generosity with information and very welcome cups of tea.
Anon. (no date) Esker http://ams2-aai-web-1.anu.net/reading-room/history-heritage/heritage-towns/athenry/esker/index.xml (accessed 7/01/2015).
Maguire, S. (no date) ‘Athenry’ http://places.galwaylibrary.ie/history/chapter10.html (accessed 7/01/2015).
Rynne, E. 2000. ‘Dominican Priory History’, http://www.athenryheritagecentre.com/index.php/athenry-history/dominican-priory-history (accessed 7/01/2015).
Redemptorist website http://www.redemptoristsesker.ie/
Link to the TG4 player containing film of the blessing of the waters Link will only be live for the next 30 days