Clare County Library
Clare History
Home | Search Library Catalogue | Foto: Clare Photo Collection | Search this Website | Copyright Notice

The Holy Wells of Ballynacally and Lissycasey by Mary Hester

The practice of visiting holy wells can be found in many parts of the world but it has survived better in Ireland than in much of Western Europe. This custom has been part of Irish tradition from pre-Christian times. The late Prionsias MacCana of University College Dublin spoke of ‘the extraordinary symbiosis’ which occurred in Ireland between Christianity and the ancient religion which it superseded. [1] As Ireland was Christianised the wells were dedicated to local or national saints or to Mary, Christ or God. It was less common to have wells dedicated to universal saints. One finds in Clare many wells dedicated to Saint Senan especially in the west of the county. Saints Flannan, Colman, Cronan, Brecon, Fachtnan, Inghean Baoith, Lachtín, Mochulla, Brigid of Feenish Island, Patrick and John are among the other saints commemorated at wells throughout the county often on a regional basis. The Blessed Virgin is remembered also at sites such as Dromelihy and Lacknashannagh.

Ignatius Murphy writing in The Diocese of Killaloe states that Irish Catholicism in the eighteenth century was not simply a mass-centred religion. [2] There were many other elements. One of these was visiting holy wells and ‘doing rounds’ which was widespread throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The practice declined in the nineteenth century because it became associated with ignorance and superstition. Wells weren’t part of the academic world. Hely Dutton wrote, ‘these wells are little regarded but by the most ignorant people and this Scythian custom will soon vanish’. [3] Clerics, who were then more numerous, opposed practices they considered pagan-like and they attempted to impose uniformity as prescribed by Rome. The gentry and middle class urban dwellers also opposed popular customs and beliefs. People were encouraged to worship in the churches and to adhere to continental models of prayer and practice. [4] Consequently many ancient sites and customs were almost abandoned such as ruined churches, holy wells, cillíní (except for unbaptised babies), the caoineadh at wakes and funerals and smoking tobacco using clay pipes.

Holy wells were generally found in meadow or boggy areas, on the seashore or beside an ecclesiastical site or medieval church. They are also found on islands both offshore and in lakes. Wells are less common in rocky or mountainous areas. [5] A spring, a tree and stones are the three prominent features of holy well sites and each is important symbolically in ancient Irish mythology. However all three features need not occur at every well site. [6]

All of these features are found either collectively or individually in holy wells locally. Eight wells have been identified in the parish of Clondegad Kilchreest. Not all of these wells are now visited on a regular basis but they are identifiable and have been recorded either in the Ordnance Survey maps, by Westropp or in folklore.

St. Martin’s Well, Ballynacally
St. Martin’s Well, Ballynacally

St. Martin’s Well in the village of Ballynacally is the most accessible and consequently the most frequently visited in the parish. A well dedicated to St. Martin of Tours in France may be considered unusual in Clare but is understandable due to the links between St. Senan and Tours. This well is sited in a secluded area in a low cliff overlooking the Ballynacally river as it nears its entrance to the Fergus. Tradition is hazy about the origin of the well. It has been said that St. Senan of Scattery bestowed it on the area. It has also been said that it was the site of a mass rock in penal times. Both of these theories could be true. Mrs. Agnes McAuley Pearce (RIP) of Eastbourne, England who grew up in Ballynacally in the early decades of the twentieth century writes about the importance and influence of the well in her youth:

‘Ever since I remember, the blessed well as it was called played an enormous place in my life. It seems it was always there. The water was only used for drinking as it was believed it would not boil... There was always great devotion to St. Martin of Tours. On Saturday nights lots of people went to the well which was in Murt’s Field... Some people in the village never missed the candle lighting on Saturday night... On St. Martin’s Day, 11 November, we loved it as people came in all sorts of transport to light candles... Then in the thirties, Boss Griffin (RIP) decided that something should be done... so he had a shrine built over the well and a niche for the statue of St. Martin put there. My father, Jim McAuley, designed and built the shrine helped by his brother Joe... Money was scarce then so it was decided that a collection would be made from every house in the parish... Finally the statue was bought and put in place and remains to this day’. [7]

No record of any particular rounds at this well has been found. The Rosary was said. The water held a cure for sore eyes, sore feet and rheumatism. [8] This well is visited throughout the year, not simply at Martinmas. After the death of Michael ‘The Boss’ Griffin which incidentally occurred on St. Martin’s Day in 1942, the well has been excellently maintained by a number of local people – John Hewson in the forties and fifties who had a Lourdes Grotto erected a little way from the well to celebrate the Marian Year 1954, Margaret McMahon, Bill Cusack and presently the O’Shea family. In this century the good work continues. A pathway has been built and fenced in by the FÁS workers courtesy of Paul Cusack, the present owner of Murt’s Field.

St. Ruth’s Well, Frure, Lissycasey St. Ruth’s Well, Frure, Lissycasey

St. Ruth’s Well in Frure is situated close to the cillín in Cill Ruadh on the land of John and Anne Kelly. It was restored by local people and FÁS in the 1990s and Mass was celebrated there on 20 August by the late Fr. M. J. Neylon P.P. [9] Folklore tells us that following a dream this well was discovered (found) in the early twentieth century by Michael Kelly, Maggie Carrigg and Michael Sullivan. ‘They found a spot as round as a tub without a blade of grass growing on it. When it was dug the spring burst out. A woman from Cranny had a pain in her leg. She came to the well and sat down and promised to perform a round. When she got up she was all right. There is a graveyard near the blessed well where a great many little children are buried.’ [10] A local man, Jim Glynn, was reported to have had his sight restored there. [11] People came to this well on holy days and did five long rounds and five short. Money was left for candles and pictures. [12] John Kelly, Frure, also remembers visiting this well on holy days of obligation. They came across the bog from north and west Frure. His late father used to put down planks and stepping stones to help them over the river. He also remembers candles being lit on St John’s night. [13] Nowadays, an annual pilgrimage is usually held during the month of May.

St. Sgreabhán’s Well in Clondegad/Lanna was recorded by both Westropp and O’Donovan and is also mentioned by Patrick Logan in his book The Holy Wells of Ireland. This ‘well’ is a waterfall twenty feet high and the ‘bed’ is a recess in the face of the cliff near the well. [14] O’Donovan tells us that an ash tree was growing over Sgreabhán’s bed and that on the opposite side of Abhann Sliabh there were three small wells in the rock called collectively Tobar Sgreavain. The 10th of September was kept in the parish in his honour and a patron (pattern) was held at the well. [15]

While researching for this article, the best description of ‘rounds’ in this parish was found in the Schools’ Collection in relation to St. Sgreabhán’s Well in Lanna/Clondegad. ‘On the north or Lanna side of the river and overlooking the cascade is a rude stone altar. Here the pilgrims kneel and recite five paters and five aves. He then proceeds along the north bank by a boithrín until he comes to where there is a gentle slope down to the river bank. Having reached the river bank about eighty yards below the fall, he crosses over to the other side along an exposed flag which reaches almost to the other shore. Of course this condition prevails only in fine dry weather when the river is at a low ebb. Reaching the other side he travels west along the south bank ‘till he comes to another crossing place about twenty yards on the other side of the fall. Here he crosses once more to his original starting point – the stone altar. This is the first round. A round of the beads is said during each of the five rounds. Having performed his rounds across the river the pilgrim next visits the blessed well. To get to this, one requires a steady nerve and particular care. The path to the well is down right beside the waterfall along wet moss-grown slippery ledges. To miss or slip would mean a nasty fall. Five rounds are made around the well through the water which as I said before always covers the rock. Beside the well on the rock can be seen the impression of a footprint. When making a round, the pilgrim always places his right foot on this impression. The ‘bed’ is next visited. One must cross the river to get there. The entrance to the bed is on the course of the river about one quarter the breadth of the river from the southern bank. One must crawl on hands and knees inside in the bed and five rounds on the bare knees have to be done. The space within which one round is done is not so much larger than the circle a dog makes before lying down. The last act is to leave some token of one’s visit at the foot of the oak tree. Finally the eyes are washed in the ‘eye well’. Probably the difficulty and danger of doing rounds at this blessed well was one of the chief causes why the practice has fallen into disuse.’ [16]

Clondegad, the name of the parish, means the meadow of the two gads or sticks. It derives from the story that St. Sgreabhán and St. Niddán (Fiddan) Feadun quarrelled about the ownership of the area. The dispute was settled by throwing two sticks into the stream and he whose gad went against the stream was the winner. Niddaun lost and he moved to Tubberniddaun where today he is remembered by a well bearing his name located close to a cillín. Agnes Markham in the Pitfield School Folklore Collection describes this well thus: ‘A person doing a round would start in front of the altar by saying five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys. Then he would continue up a hill at the eastern side of the well and down at the other side. During the round a decade of the beads was to be said and five rounds like that were to be done. The round was finished up by praying one round of the beads at the altar.’ [17]

Killea cemetery in Lisheen is located close to a holy well dedicated to Aodh (Hugh). The well is shown on the Ordnance Survey map but gets scant mention elsewhere. Today there are no pilgrimages or visits to this well. However, one lady who grew up in the area remembers visiting this well every Sunday in her youth. She also mentions a cure for sore eyes. [18] It is heartening to see that the local community has recently cleared the area around the well and a stone niche containing a statue has been built. One may now visit the well without difficulty.

A holy well in the townland of Caherea is marked on the 1841 OS map sheet 41 and is also remembered in folklore but is not a place of pilgrimage nowadays. It was dedicated to St. Brigid. [19] The fifteenth of August was the annual pilgrimage. Mrs. Mary Enright, Ardnagla who was reared nearby remembers her late father preparing the area for ease of access on that day by putting down straw and planks. [20] A scribe in the Fergus View Schools’ Folklore in the 1930s relates that there was a big tree growing near the well with pieces of rags tied to it. People brought flowers with them on pilgrimage. Once again there is a description of what the round entailed and again there is a mention of five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys and a round of the beads while doing five rounds barefoot. When this was completed the pilgrim went towards the well on his knees, had a drink of the water and washed his eyes. It is also recorded that there was a cure in the moss growing near the well. [21]

Coney Island and Deer Island in the Fergus Estuary also have wells. The well on Coney Island is marked on the 1841 OS map and Westropp tells us that it was dedicated to St. Brigid, the abbess of Feenish Island. [22] It is overgrown presently. According to O’Donovan one of the followers of St. Senan caused a spring well to spring up on Inis Mór (Deer Island) near the monastery which was called Tobar Libern – the well of St Liberius. [23] No trace of it or the monastery were visible at that time. In the Ballynacally National School folklore collection, Frank Tuohy writes that there was a well near his house known as Tobar an Caisleán which was not regarded as holy but once had a cure for sore eyes. [24]

Wells in neighbouring parishes were also attended. Island people visited St. Senan’s Well on Low Island which is marked on the OS map. Pilgrimages were also made to Our Lady’s Well in Lacknashannagh, St. Brecan’s Well in Crovnaghan and St. Ruadhan’s/St. Martin’s Well in Cooga, all in Kiladysart Parish. The latter was restored by Jack Cleary, Lisheen, in the 1970s when a proposed holiday village was to be built in the area. The remains of a stone cross were to be found on top of the well. St. Brecan’s Well was restored by John Meere. [25] Inhabitants of the Ennis side of the parish went to St. John’s Well in Killone to celebrate St. John’s Day. One person remembers having a great day going with her neighbour to Killone by ass and cart. [26]

While researching the local wells it became clear that many of the wells had a cure for sore eyes. It has been suggested that sore eyes were a result of ‘insanitary conditions and the smoke filled atmosphere of cabins’. [27] The cult of holy wells provided an outlet for people’s religious feelings but visiting a well on a particular day was also a welcome diversion from the drudgery and hard work that previous generations had to bear. The last century saw a decline in the custom of visiting holy wells but the 21st century has seen a renewed interest in this ancient custom. The wells may not now be visited by the huge crowds of previous generations but there is an awareness of their place in our tradition. They are mentioned in our oldest literature. Through the centuries, they have been frowned upon by the authorities both secular and religious at various times. The rituals associated with them were often regarded as superstition. The surprising thing is that they have survived and they now link us to our Celtic tradition.

1 Patrick Logan, The Holy Wells of Ireland (London, 1980) p. 13.
2 Ignatius Murphy, The Diocese of Killaloe in the Eighteenth Century (Dublin, 1991), p. 175.
3 Hely Dutton, Statistical Survey of County Clare (Dublin, 1808) p. 31.
4 Gillian M. Doherty, The Irish Ordnance Survey (Dublin, 2004) p. 130-131.
5 Liam Downey & Muiris O’Sullivan, ‘Holy Wells’, Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 20, No. 1, (Dublin, Spring 2006) p. 35.
6 Ibid, p. 36.
7 Ballynacally Lissycasey Parish Magazine , 1994-1997, No. 7 (Ennis, 1997), p. 103.
8 Irish Folklore Commission, Schools’ Collection (1937), MSS. 605, p. 616. (Hereafter IFC).
9 Ballynacally Lissycasey Parish Magazine No. 7, 1994-1997 (Ennis, 1997) p. 103.
10 IFC MSS. 606, p. 379.
11 The Clare Champion, 26 September 1997.
12 IFC MSS. 606, p. 379.
13 In conversation with John Kelly, 2 March 2012.
14 Patrick Logan, The Holy Wells of Ireland (Buckinghamshire, 1980), p. 88.
15 John O’Donovan & Eugene Curry, The Antiquities of County Clare Ordnance Survey Letters 1839
(Ennis: Clasp Press, 1997) p. 164
16 IFC MSS. 606 p. 104 – 106.
17 IFC MSS. 606 p. 136 – 137.
18 In conversation with Mrs. Sheila Hehir Kelly, 17 July 2012.
19 IFC MSS. 606.
20 In conversation with Mrs. Mary Enright, 2012.
21 IFC MSS. 606 p. 499.
22 T. J. Westropp, Folklore of Clare (Ennis: Clasp Press, 2000) p. 50.
23 John O’Donovan & Eugene Curry, The Antiquities of County Clare (Ennis: Clasp Press, 1997), p. 164.
24 IFC MSS. 604 p. 96.
25 In conversation with Tom Kelly, Ballylean, 17 July 2012.
26 In conversation with Kitty Keane, 2012.
27 Alf MacLochlainn, ‘Social Life in Co. Clare 1800-1850,’ in Irish University Review, Vol. 2 (Shannon, 1972).

This article was first published in The Other Clare Vol. 38 (2014). Clare County Library is grateful to Mary Hester for donating this article.