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Representation of an Irish holy well. Source: Michal / Adobe stock

Believers Flock to Irish Holy Wells Seeking Solace From Pandemic

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The coronavirus pandemic has led many people to seek comfort in a variety of ways. Some have returned to traditional customs and beliefs. In Ireland many people are making a pilgrimage to holy wells as the water from these is believed to have healing properties. A number of wells dedicated to St Fíonnán have seen an upsurge in pilgrims in recent weeks. This Christian saint is believed to protect people from the plague, sickness and misfortune.

There are many wells or springs that are believed to be sacred in Ireland and a recent project has mapped some 1300 of these sites throughout the island. These wells are often associated with Christian saints and people have been making pilgrimages to them for over a millennium.  Pilgrims drink their waters because of their supposed healing powers and often perform rituals, which are believed to help them receive the protection or favor of a saint.

Seomra Ranga states that “at some wells it was customary to bathe a diseased part of the body with a piece of cloth.” Many people still take water from the well or spring and keep it in a bottle and drink it when they felt ill or bring it to those who are in hospitals.

Holy Wells Inspired By Pagan Origins

Many of these wells and the rituals associated with them, date to pre-Christian times. According to the Irish Culture and Customs website “elements of pre-Christian Celtic religion persist in the configuration of holy well sites and the practices that have been performed for generations.”  These bodies of water were seen as gateways to the Celtic Otherworld. It appears that the Christians took over these pagan sites and often built churches in their vicinity.

The custom of making pilgrimages to holy wells has declined in popularity in recent years. However, many people during the coronavirus crisis are now visiting a number of holy wells in the picturesque Iveragh Peninsula, Co Kerry, on the west coast of Ireland. They are dedicated to the 6 th century St Fíonnán and according to RTE “he is said to have saved his people from a devastating plague by offering them sanctuary.”

St Fíonnán preaching to his pupils, depicted on a stain glass window in the Church of St. Finian at Clonard. (Andreas F. Borchert / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

St Fíonnán preaching to his pupils, depicted on a stain glass window in the Church of St. Finian at Clonard. (Andreas F. Borchert / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE )

Protection from Plague

The wells have been visited by those who sought the protection of the saint. A local historian Paddy Bushe is quoted by RTE as stating that “St Fíonnán had the reputation of being a sheltering figure, a protector of his people from cruel rulers, from weather that would destroy crops and, significantly, from the plague.” According to local folklore and a 17 th century Gaelic poem he was credited with saving the people in the area from a terrible plague.

There are a number of wells dedicated to St Fíonnán in County Kerry, but the most popular is one on the western tip of Iveragh Peninsula. It overlooks the famous Skellig Michael Island , which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many locals claim that St Fíonnán founded the now abandoned monastery on the island. In addition, Skellig Michael appeared in two recent Star Wars movies.

Skellig Michael Island or Great Skellig, home to the ruined remains of a Christian monastery and scenes from two Star Wars movies, Country Kerry, Ireland. (MNStudio / Adobe stock)

Skellig Michael Island or Great Skellig, home to the ruined remains of a Christian monastery and scenes from two Star Wars movies, Country Kerry, Ireland. ( MNStudio / Adobe stock)

Healing Waters Providing Solace

For generations local people have sought cures at the well. A local resident, Mícheal Ó Braonáin whose family have lived in the area for generations told RTE that “it’s believed there’s a cure for sickness in the water here, not only in the well itself, but also in the sea-water below in the strand.” Many people are now visiting the well, as they seek some solace during the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown.

The well and the pilgrimage is clearly helping people in these most difficult of times. Local man Carl O’Connell told RTE that “it was firmly believed that St Fíonnán set up these sanctuaries as a haven for people to save them from the plague.” Most people who visit the wells these days are seeking spiritual comfort.

Coincidence Adds More Fire

There is no scientific basis for the belief that the waters from these sacred sites can heal people. However, many believers note a curious coincidence. Mr. O’Connell told RTE that “the first of the COVID-19 restrictions announced by the government were imposed the week leading up to 16 March, the feast-day of St Fíonnán.” Some believe that this is somehow significant and shows that the saint is still protecting them from coronavirus. The recent increase in interest in these wells may help heritage groups to map the remaining sites and help in their preservation.

Top image: Representation of an Irish holy well. Source: Michal / Adobe stock

By Ed Whelan

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