Thirty minutes from our house in the Irish Midlands, over the winding bumps of tiny lanes, and endless white stone walls threading soggy sheep pasture, and you come to the townland of Ballyboy, by Abbeylara, and to the ancient ruins of a Cistercian abbey.
And there, nooked away, is one of Ireland’s holy wells with the wonderful name of Tobar Righ an Domhnaigh. It means “The Well of The King of Sunday.”
To the ancient peoples, certain springs were deemed to have healing properties and thus were under divine protection.; Even the standing stones and circles of Ireland and Britain are generally found near wells or running water.
Archaeological evidence suggests it predates the abbey by many centuries, and will probably have been the cause of the abbey’s location in the first place. As Christianity spread, more and more springs were built over with chapels and well houses, and the groves around them removed.
Many such areas were deemed to be troublesome bastions of paganism. In the 5th century, a canon issued by the Second Council of Arles stated:
“If in the territory of a bishop infidels light torches or venerate trees, fountains, or stones, and he neglects to abolish this usage, he must know that he is guilty of sacrilege.”
Yet pagan beliefs proved harder to eradicate than the sites themselves, for in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries a stream of edicts were issued from church authorities denouncing the worship of “the sun or the moon, fire or flood, wells or stones or any kind of forest tree.”
Over time, however, pagan and Christian practices slowly blended together, and holy wells all over the islands were celebrated with Christian festivals that fell on the old pagan holy days. On the Isle of Man, for example, holy wells are frequented on August 1st, a day sacred to the Celtic god Lugh. August 1st is Lammas in the Christian calendar, but the older name for the holiday, Lugnasad, was still in common rural usage until late in the 19th century.
The custom of “well dressing” is another Christian rite with pagan roots. During these ceremonies (still practiced in Derbyshire and other parts of Britain), village wells are decorated with pictures made of flowers, leaves, seeds, feathers and other natural objects. In centuries past, the wells were “dressed” to thank the patron spirit of the well and request good water for the year to come; now the ceremonies generally take place on Ascension Day, and the pictures created to dress the wells are biblical in nature.
The Christian tales attached to springs and wells are often as magical as any to be found in Celtic lore. Wells were said to have sprung up where saints were beheaded or had fought off dragons, or where the Virgin Mary appeared and left small footprints pressed into the stone. Over the Channel in Brittany “granny wells” dedicated to St. Anne (so called because Anne was the mother of Mary, and therefore the grandmother of Christ) were attributed with particular powers concerning fertility and childbirth.
According to one old Breton legend, St. Anne settled there in her old age, where she was visited by Christ before she died. She asked him for a holy well to help the sick people of the region; he struck the ground three times, and the well of St. Anne-e-la-Palue was created.
Up until the 19th century, the holy wells were still considered to have miraculous properties, and were visited by those seeking cures for disease, disability, or mental illness. Some wells were famous for offering prophetic information — generally determined through the movements of the water, or leaves floating upon the water, or fish swimming in the depths. At some wells, sacred water was drunk from circular cups carved out of animal bone. Pins (usually bent), coins, bits of metal, and flowers are common well offerings; and rags (called ‘clouties’ in the West country) are tied to nearby trees, the cloth representing disease or misfortune left behind as one departs.
Places like the Well of the King of Sunday manage to retain a tranquil, mystical atmosphere despite now doing dual duty as a sacred site and something of a tourist attraction. One often finds small offerings in the circle around the well: flowers, feathers, stones, small bits of cloth tied to a near-by tree … are these just the old pagan ways that quietly persist, or something as old as time itself, the recognition of spiritual power, the presence of mystery, the call of eternity
There’s a line from an old song that came to mind this morning:
“God made a song when the world was new
Water’s laughter sings it through…
Teach me the lesson of flowing.”