Holy wells of County Meath

I had a lovely surprise this week,   I received a  gift  from my friend Muireann of a  newly published  book on holy wells called  Meath Holy Wells by Noel French. Holy wells have always interested me. They are really are  special and peaceful places. Given that there are approximately  3000 holy wells  in Ireland  they are many wells scattered around the country that  I am unaware of  and I must confess until now  I knew little of the wells in Meath.

Meath Holy Wells by Noel French

So what is a holy well? A holy well is a natural spring or natural  or man-made hollows ( bullaun stones)  in rock  which collect with water,  deemed to have a religious significance through association with the saint. The history of devotion at holy wells is  complicated,   the earliest references to the Christian use of holy wells  date to the seventh century but   many  are likely to have prehistoric origins and were apropreiated by the new christian church in the 5th and 6th centuries.  I think a small number were originally used for domestic use and developed into pilgrim features in the post medieval period. Without medieval documentation for a wells or excavation the dating of many of these monuments are very difficult, although a dedication to an early medieval saint suggests at least an early medieval date.

St. Lucy’s Well, Killua on the Meath – West Meath Border

Holy wells can occur in isolation but many are located close to ecclesiastical enclosures. There are found in both rural and urban  landscapes.  The majority of literary accounts of pilgrimage to holy wells date to the post medieval period, although a handful of holy wells are named in the medieval literature and its likely the tradition of pilgrimage to the well goes back to prehistoric times.  In many case  usually on the saints feast day there were special religious devotions at the well, people would gather and perform special prayers and rituals  ( rounding of the well ) on what was known as the pattern  day. The word pattern derived from ‘patron’  in reference to the patron saint, so pattern day refers to the patron saints day . There are many account of post medieval and modern pilgrims leaving votive offerings at  wells  such as pins, coins, buttons, holy medal and treads from shawls. Cruthes were left at Fr Moores well in Kildare. Even today at popular well pilgrims leave behind rosary bead,  candles, inhalers etc.

The book, Meath Holy Wells  records approximately 123 holy wells.  The Meath wells are dedicated to a wide range of Irish  saints  such as Patrick , Colmcille, Brigid, Kieran. Universal saints include the Blessed Virgin , Anne, Lucy and Nicholas.  Each well is described  and many accompanied by a  colour photo.  All the  traditions and folklore of the wells are recorded. Like elsewhere in the country many of the Meath wells are associated with healing, the waters of  St Seachnaill’s well,  Dunshauglan were said the cure swelling of any part of the body,  while the waters of St Ultan’s well Ardbraccan were a cure for sore eyes.

I discovered an astonishing  fact in the introduction,   that  the Meath archaeological Survey  ingnored these wells  and the County Development plan lists only 3 wells.  This is shocking when one considers the significance of these monuments.   Holy wells are of great cultural value and as  wells cease to attract pilgrims  they become ever vunerable to  being destroyed.  I was delighted to read that a significant number, such as St Johns well at Warrenstown are still the site of active pilgrimages.  This book  really showcases the value of the holy wells of county Meath and  it will hopefully make the people of Meath aware of their significance and go along way to help in their preservation for future generations.

Pilgrims at St Johns well , Warrenstown

This is really a lovely book and perfect for dipping in and out of . If anyone is  keen to  find out more about the holy wells of Meath, the book Meath Holy Wells – PRICE €15,   is available at Maguires, Hill of Tara, Newgrange, Antonia’s, Trim, Siopa an Caislean, Trim and Post Office, Trim. Also by post from Noel French, Castle Street, Trim  for €15 including postage.