ANCIENT AND HOLY WELLS
Our parish is dotted with springs and wells but few of us need to visit them now on a daily basis as earlier generations needed to. While water is a basic necessity, essential for our own needs, our animals and crops, modern amenities, water piped to every home means that our attitude towards it has changed drastically from attitudes of even fifty years ago.
On average, a household might require up to ten gallons of water a day every drop of which had to be carried in buckets, this could mean a number of trips to the well each day and then on washdays and bath days further trips would have to be made. But what one would have considered drudgery, walking to the well, bailing the water and the journey back again, was re-counted by many as a very pleasant experience, and the memory of that clean, ice-cold water is a taste that still hasn't been forgotten. But now these wells once considered vital for the community have fallen into disrepair and are forgotten and unwanted.
Water was a very strong symbol in Celtic lore, purifying and regenerating and was seen as a great healer. Belief in the power of water was very strong for both spiritual and physical needs.
With the coming of Christianity to Ireland, water worship and all other forms of pagan worship was not tolerated. It would have been an impossible task to forbid this form of worship and so the policy was to convert rather than destroy, so when people came to worship their devotions were re-directed to the true God.
Water is also a very strong symbol in Christian Rights, it is used in Baptisms and hand washing and by using the well water in this way the pagan gods were pushed out in favour of Christian Saints.
John O'Donovan in 1840 gave us a brief description and location of many of our named wells in the parish, these sites have been revisited 150 years later. Prayers and ceremonies have been performed at many of these wells up to fairly recent times, and some were famed for curing particular ailments.
Rag well or Tobar na gCeirteach in Kilmoylan Upper was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and a pattern was held there until 1798. It was also known in recent times as St Winifred's well and visitors left badges and medals there to obtain favours. This is in fact a bullan, a hollow in a large rock at the base of an oak tree. The water collected in this hollow is believed to cure warts, and the well received it's name from the numerous rags and cloths left tied to the trees and bushes by it's visitors as memorials.
Kenny's well in Gortavalla East had devotions performed at it, mainly on Saturdays and it had a pattern until about 1800. Prayers were usually said while making the "rounds" that is while walking around the well to obtain favours or in thanksgiving. The number of prayers and rounds varied according to the needs of the individual pilgrim, in Kenny's well the tradition was three rounds to obtain a cure.
The prayers were usually counted on the Rosary beads or fingers, and the tally of the rounds kept mentally, or by taking a number of small stones, corresponding to the number of rounds, in the hand and throwing one away as each round was completed.
The rounds were always made to the right, in a clockwise direction, rounds made "tuathal" or anti-clockwise were believed to bring evil results.1
The custom of holding a "pattern" on a day of special devotion was observed at Tobar Fiontan in Kilmoylan on January 3rd. This was a day for making a visit to the well, resulting in almost a public holiday, with sports and games and usually a very large crowd attended. This could lead to drunkness and fighting and was never encouraged by either landlord or clergy. Indeed in this diocese Archbishop Dr Bray suspended and condemned these gatherings in 1797.
St Fintan our most celebrated saint lived and worked in Doon at the latter half of the sixth century. He is believed to have been of a noble race. His arrival to Doon was prophesised by St Congall in the Leabhar Breac, translated by John O'Donovan:
"My little foster - son shall obtain the fortress.
Fintan by whom the dun will be obtained;
His city of sacred protection shall be
That which is called Dun-Bleisc."2
The site of St Fintan's monastery is not known today, but his well is situated in Kilmoylan Lower. It was described by John O'Donovan in 1840 as "about 2 feet in diameter, of spring water, and is situated in a grove of fir trees." 3
"The people often made use of it's water in cases of sickness. On the feast day the peasantry were accustomed to assemble and pray beside St Fintan's well."4
There is a clear connection between the patron of the well and
the dedication of the Christian Brother's school and various organisations and
clubs within the parish. In the last century the Rev Father Hickey PP and Fr.
O'Dwyer CC had a great devotion to St Fintan and before his death Fr. O'Dwyer
had expressed an intention to ask permission from the Archbishop "to have St
Fintan's festival observed as a half holiday in the parish of Doon."
Earlier still in 1703 during the reign of Queen Anne 3rd an Act was passed under which severe penalties were to be inflicted on those who took part in pilgrimages to Holy Wells, resulting in heavy fines and public floggings. An order to demolish all crosses and inscriptions was also made this could also have destroyed any features of that kind that may have existed at the wells.
It is interesting to compare the location of some of our well sites, many are situated in solitary nooks, shaded by trees, near ring forts, close to churches or old ruins.
"Tobar Geal, White Well, Situated in the centre of the townland of Lisowen was so called because of the purity of it's water. It is a spring well, from which flows a small stream through the townlands of Toomaline Upper and Lower and falls into the Carnahalla River."5
The area about the well has deteriorated but the springs can
still be seen coming up through the ground.
Tobar na Heila, in the south end of Coolnamona and near the bank of the Dead River is a short distance from Killarragon a small burial ground. John O'Donovan in 1840 described it "as a spring well, about 3 feet in diameter," 6 today it is completely destroyed.
Tobar na Muice, Well of the Pigs near the centre of Carrigbeg townland. "It is placed in a cultivated field under shadow of a Hawthorn, but of the origin of it's name there is no account."7
Near by, in the south end of Carrigmore is Tobar na Gurraun, Well of the Reaping hooks. "This well may have been a favourite resting place at mealtime for workers in the field, who would leave their reaping -hooks in it's proximity and hence it's name."8
In the townland of Curraghakimikeen near Cummaun Bridge is Tobar na Gummaun, well of the hurling sticks. John O'Donovan reported that it was anciently a holy well, but the cause of it's discontinuation is unknown. It is a spring with a hawthorn bush growing near it and can still be seen today.
Spa Well in Clonlusk, placed in low, miry ground, is 2 feet in diameter, said to proceed from iron.
There are many legends and stories associated with these wells. Kenny's Well is supposed to have moved because an infant was washed in it. Another story is of a poor woman and her family living in
Gortavalla, her children were hungry and though her husband repeatedly asked her to send the children to the soup kitchens she never gave in. One day while at the well she found half a crown, locals believed she was rewarded for her bravery and her family never went hungry again.
St Fintan's Well, was believed to have been originally in Bottle Hill, also moved when clothes were washed in it. Kilmoylan House is said to have flooded when the owner ordered the well to be closed, when it reopened the water subsided.
It was believed that water taken from the holy wells would never boil, though up to the beginning of the century well water was kept in bottles in many houses to treat all sorts of ailments.
Today, though wells have little relevance in most of our lives, some are still quietly visited. These wells form a valuable link with our past, as a result of new found interest in St Fintan's well it is being restored and will again play an important part in the life of our village. What our wells need is caring owners, to peel back the choking ivy and weeds, to re-set the stones and allow the water flow clean and fresh again and preserve them for future generations.
1 The Holy Wells of Co. Limerick - Caoimhfn 0 Danachair
2 John OTDonovan's Survey for Co. Limerick 1840
4 The Lives of Irish Saints, OUanlon
5 John OTJonovan's Survey for Co. Limerick 1840