A pilgrimage for farmers : the blessing of water at St Dominic’s holy well at Esker, Co Galway.

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.

Esker 3

Location map of St Dominics Holy well and the Redemptorist monastery (taken Google Earth)

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.



Dominic’s Hill Esker.


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.


View of the Redemptorist monastery from St Dominic’s holy well.

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.


St Dominic’s holy well Esker.


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.


Troughs of water at St Dominic’s well on the morning of the 6th of January.


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.


Church at the monastery

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.


Fr Michael O’Flynn leading the procession to the holy well.

The procession then turns in to a large field  were the well is located and  along a gravel path to the well.


Pilgrims walk along the path to the holy 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.359All 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.



Photo of the pilgrims taking water from the troughs in front of the well immediately following the blessing of the waters (photo take Redemptorist website)

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.


The trough was full of water before the blessing of the water.

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 troughs being refilled in the afternoon of the 6th of January.


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.


Máire Ní Dhuibhire  being interviewed about the well  by TG4

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.


Pilgrims arriving in the afternoon for water from the well.

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


8 comments on “A pilgrimage for farmers : the blessing of water at St Dominic’s holy well at Esker, Co Galway.

  1. Kay says:

    Another very interesting tradition. Weather seemed pleasant too!

  2. Excellent piece, they were well prepared with the extra tanks!

    • Thank you so much. When I got there first I thought it was overkill on the troughs of water but so many people came to the well throughout the day and most people brought away a large volume of water in bottles and containers so it got used up really quickly.

  3. Maryann Hoppe says:

    Thank you very much for taking the time to share this interesting story with us.

  4. A very interesting history of the well and the Redemptorists at Esker.

  5. One reason why the well is blessed on the Feast of the Epiphany is probably this. The Epiphany was a baptismal feast in the early church – that is a day on which baptism is celebrated. In the Byzantine Rite, as celebrated by Russian, Greek, Ukrainian and other churches, one of the highlights of the feast is the blessing of water. In Russia this is often the blessing of a river or lake into which a cross is thrown and the hardy young men dive to find the cross. Nothing so spectacular in Esker but it is very likely that there is a connection between the two and that baptism should be remembered by all who use St Dominic’s water. b

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