|Above: Lady's Well, Athenry, Co. Galway (author's collection)|
Some Holy Wells near Athenry
From earliest times, Irish people have believed in the healing powers of sacred well waters. In fact, religious cults associated with water date back to the Late Bronze Age. Though holy wells appear to be Christian monuments, many rituals including special days to visit wells and leaving gifts like coins in appreciation display strong pre-christian elements.
Nowadays, most locals frequently light candles and recite the rosary while walking around the wells referred to as ‘doing the rounds’.
While all of us cherish our local heritage, in truth there are as many as three thousand holy wells throughout Ireland which were / are used for religious pilgrims, or visited for cures of ailments. In his book, Holy Wells in Ireland, the historian Patrick Logan demonstratesthat the custom of visiting the wells is likely very old, and in many cases confirms pre-Christian in origin.
The custom of leaving offerings is just as old e.g. in Lady’s Well (Athenry) votive offerings such as medals and rosary beads surround the statue of the Immaculate Conception to this day.
Logan highlights that the ‘Custom of visiting holy wells is mentioned in our oldest literature. There is the reference to the healing well which was prepared by the legendary physician of the Irish, Dian Cecht, and was used by him to treat the wounded at the Battle of Moyture.
Chritianised version of archaic stories about these wells can be found in the ‘Lives of the Irish Saints’, generally written before the thirteenth century. Types of plantation regularly found nearly holy wells are whitethorn, hazel, ash, and formerly oak, but holly, rowan and yew are also found near wells. In a few cases the ‘well’ is found in the stump of a tree.’
At one time the Catholic Church did not approve of pilgrimages to holy wells, but this attitude changed over time with some holy wells still known for curing eyesight or the senses. In truth, a virtual industry for the church was build around some sites.
According to Logan – the pilgrimage of the holy well generally took place between the 15th of August and 1st of November, and when seeking a cure or making any special request, people visited them three times. One of the senses to be cured by the holy wells was the eyes which may have been due to people living in smoky cabins creating inflammation of the eyes.
Lady’s Well, Athenry
This is one of the most famous wells in the county. Interestingly, according to the archaeological survey the well is located at Baunmore GA084-02200. However to many of the people in the Athenry locality and google search of location of the well is located at Kingsland/Kingsland South.
Reviewing the ordance survey map of 1883-1913 there is well called Toberblanra (see image below) is well there just at tip of Baunmore townland and the entrance today is a the Kingsland side.
However, some of the Ordance Survey maps may not be right e.g. on one of the 19th Century O. S. maps one of the town gates the Spittle Gate shows it is located North West of the town (up by Brady's field opposite the Roman Catholic church St. Mary's Church of the Assumption, Athenry) when the Spittle Gate is actually located opposite Joyces Shopping Centre beside the apartment blocks. It would make an interesting historical geographical discussion on proper locations of monuments in Galway at some stage.
The date for the Marian apparition there is generally given as 15 August 1249 (though clearly we do not have any formal documentation to substantiate this claim). There was firsty the ancient tradition that the this event took place on the 15th August after ‘The Battle of Athenry’, and secondly an ancient account in the Annals of Iar Connacht that a major battle took place in Athenry on 15 August 1249. This battle is not to be confused with the later and more famous Battle of Athenry which was fought on 10 August 1316.
The annals record that the Normans, within the town, beseeched the attacking Irish not to dishonour the feast by attacking on that day. The Irish did attack and were defeated. Tradition / legend states that the Marian apparition appeared to some of the defeated soldiers as they were retreating from the battle. We can be quite certain that the promotion of Marian devotion would have been a very important priority for the New Dominican order whose Priory had just been built in the town (1241) since their founder Saint Dominic (1170-1221) was a great apostle of the Rosary.
At least two monuments at the well date from the medieval period. While one cannot be certain that the well was the original location for either of these, the fact that they have been located at the well for at least three centuries shows a continuity of the tradition honouring this location as a place of prayer.
Firstly, the Celtic Pieta, which at present is set in the outer wall of the well, dates from the 14th century. Until the recent renovations it was placed in the inner corner where the statue now stands. It is unlike the continental pieta in style as the mother holds the body of the dead Christ not cradled in her arms, but in an almost upright position and tradition here suggests that it was defaced by soldiers during the Cromwellian Wars. Secondly, the ‘Headache Stone’, a large rectangular stone with the cavity in the centre was a socket for a medieval cross. There is a very strong tradition of personal healing associated with this stone.
In summary, this well has been a major centre of pilgrimage for generations. In the last century it was a place of pilgrimage for people from all over Southern Connemara who came in thousands each 15th August. While devotion to the place weaned somewhat in the 1950s and 1960s, it was always a place of prayer for the people of Athenry and in recent years is growing again in popularity. There is also a pilgrimage on 8th September but this tradition is not as popular as that of the 15th August.
Saint Dominic's Well, Esker
|St. Dominic's Well, Esker, Athenry.|
There are very many wells in Ireland dedicated to Saint Dominic. One such well dedicated to Saint Dominic is located at Esker Monastery which was founded in the 18th century after the Dominican Order were evicted from the Athenry Dominican Priory (monument number GA096-174, Esker townland). According to the Esker Monastery Booklet, it is a powerful spring at the foot of the 200 ft. high Dominican Hill.
At midday on the January 5th, there is a vigil of the Epiphany with water from the well put into a stone trough and blessed with the ordinary blessing of holy water. For those interested in detail of their own holy wells, look no further than the 1937 national school’s folklore. Extracts from the www.duchas.ie website of the children in Presentation Convent National School for example provides considerable detail on the wells in Athenry. Tobar Crónán Mannin townland (GA104-198). O’Donovan (1838) confirmed that stations were ‘performed at this well’.
Tobar Crónán, Ballymana, Craughwell, Co. Galway
Mannin townland (GA104-198). O’Donovan (1838) confirmed that stations were ‘Performed at this well’. In the early to mid nineteenth century. The following is the folklore detail on the holy well from the school’s folklore (Written by; Nora Ballanan, Mannin with Information obtained from Nora Connolly, Mannin.). Below also is the 1840 OS map with the well in the south-east of same.
Above: OS Map of the location of Tobar Crónán, courtesy of the South East Galway Archaeological and Historical Society.
'In the parish of Ballmana, a holy well is situated. It is called Tobar Crónan. Tradition has it that this was once a holy well, and several people were cured. It is sheltered on either side by hawthorn bushes and ash trees. The water is pure spring and holds its depth in winter and summer. It is also surrounded by numerous rocks some of a huge size. The water rises beneath the bushes and forms into a pool. Then it gradually expands itself and at length flows, and forms a stream. After about half a mile of a course it adjoins the well in two but nobody seems to interfere with the water on the upper side. It is believed the water would not boil, but nobody tampers with it. The water which flows through the wall supplies the inhabitants of the village, and in summer, people travel several miles to obtain some. It is said to be one of the finest wells in the county. No fish us ever seen in this well, but it is covered over with water - cress.'.