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 of Wells.
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 Blessing wells.
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., sacrificed 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 the 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 Winifred’s of Flintshire Holywell. St Madron’s well was useful in testing the loyalty of lovers. St. Broward’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 to still to haunt Dozmare Pool. Henwen is the Old Lady Well. The Hindoo Vedas proclaim that “all healing power is in the waters”
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,
Is the man that I love duly,
On the earth, or under the sod,
Sick or well–in the name of God.”
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.”
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 around 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 the care of local deities. Even our river Severn was ado in the time of the Roman occupation, as we know by Latin inscriptions.
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 favoured mortals.
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 is 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 Sligo.
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 demonic being or imbued with demonic 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 sanctified wells.”