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Holy Wells in County Clare


Location County Clare
Categories Social practices, rituals and festive events
Keywords Crafts, religion, performance
Contact organisation Michael Houlihan, Local Historian

The tradition of Holy Well visitation is still strong throughout Clare. It is now mostly continued by an older generation of Catholics, though its origins may precede that of Christianity, when certain waters were held precious. Clare has a majority of indigenous saints (5th-8th centuries), and to a lesser extent universal saints honoured by Holy Wells.

Typically, on the feast day of the saint (the patron or pattern day) people visit the well in large numbers. Some wells will have Mass performed at the well. There is an etiquette to be observed while there.

There are also many private visits to wells during the year. Many wells will have tokens left behind from a visitor – religious medals, prayers cards, coins etc.


Background information

In essence, the Holy Well visitation is an opportunity to visit sacred waters in a townland or parish to pay homage to the local saint. Many well spaces arose spontaneously at a time that religion was suppressed. They were not church or state controlled.

The Holy Well tradition continues to be strong. At some locations, the wells are regularly ‘teemed’ – cleaned out, painted and refreshed. In other areas, the Holy Well tradition has been re-established lasting for many years. A few wells are getting a bit unkempt for lack of maintenance.

Pilgrims will usually commence with ’the rounds,’ a prayer cycle performed while circling the well within the termon or sacred space. Occasionally the prayers are specific to well or saint, occasionally also they may be in Irish. On the rounds, there may be defined stops – stations – where prayers are said beside a tree or stone. On completion of the rounds, depending on the well, people may place a mark on a noted stone or place some pebbles on a small pile.

People will finally approach the well to give their thanks or make their request of the saint/well. Some sites have a rag or clootie tree where pilgrims tie a cloth (the sacred tree). At many but not all wells, people will fill a bottle of the well water to take home.

A typical example of a well that has a very long tradition is St. Brigid’s at Liscannor, north Clare, which folklorist Maire Mac Neill determined was a Lughnasa site. Lughnasa was part of the harvest tradition each August and can be traced back to the Iron Age deity Lugh. Interestingly there are also a number of non-religious blessed wells that bestow health but are not associated with any saint.

Irish Holy Wells differ greatly in layout and practices from those in Europe.

Practice and practitioners

Generally managed by small groups or individuals within the community. The Roman Catholic Church may take an interest, depending on the local priest. Most wells are considered cultural items and marked on the Archaeological Survey of Ireland Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) maintained by the National Monuments Service, and under the guardianship of the State.

Few are actively damaged but some are neglected.

Development, transmission and safeguarding

Local priests and community leaders are probably the main promoters of Holy Wells sites in their area. The Holy Well tradition is a custom that has been performed for many years and is generally passed on by families and parishes. While strong and vigorous in some areas, it is weakening elsewhere. With the many societal changes and falloff in formal religion it’s hard to know how long it will continue. There are also concerns with some remote wells getting overgrown and becoming too difficult for older people to get to.

Local historian Michael Houlihan wrote a book entitled ‘The Holy Wells of County Clare’, and has spoken about it to many History Societies with large and interested audiences.

In the past local church and community energies were enough to maintain the wells, now however with emigration, migration, long working hours and ‘busyness’ the wells are falling off. They need better profile and local engagement.

Contact person

Michael Houlihan, Local Historian