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Holy Wells and Trees

Ireland is full of water – enormous tracts of it are loughs, lakes, and bogs. Water comes out of the land in thousands of pools and springs. The ‘wells’ come in every conceivable shape and form – from very large pools to modest flows, springs on the sea shore and on mountain tops, some not much more than a sequence of drips. There are a huge number (3000 is one estimate) of them, though far fewer now the trees that stood beside them.

Many peoples have revered the deities of wells and trees from prehistoric times to the Romans. Many places where water appears are, on any reckoning, mysterious places. It is not surprising the ancients thought that there they were faced with ‘another world’, in some places – with the ‘under-world’.

To watch water bubbling up in the pool of water in a remote spot at Kyle in Co Tipperary and other places is, for the Christian, to be reminded instantly of the Pool of Siloam. That Christ should be associated with pools like this is an easily understandable application of symbol and reality. Christ heals, not least in baptism, and he uses water to do so. The saints who preached the Gospel blessed the waters of wells and used them for baptism, and often the local church he founded lay nearby. St Columba alone is reputed to have blessed over 300.

Many today would reject claims of healing. They were often of common minor complaints like sore eyes, headaches, toothache, sore throats, indigestion, back pain, warts, whooping cough and rheumatism. But there is evidence enough that they took place. People suffered from chronic malnutrition and impaired health, want and famine were common. We do not always appreciate just how much in need people were in times past. They had to survive in a harsh climate and had such a short life expectancy. Given the suffering to be endured, recourse to the local holy well and to the prayer of the saints is understandable.

‘Holy trees’ were taken over with the wells. They are often called ‘rag’ or ‘cloutie’ (another word for ‘rag’) trees because rags were tied to trees, or objects left there, in the belief that, while they remained, the prayers were still effective. But the idea has no small reason to be respected when one realises that pilgrims might walk 50 or even 250 miles in order to pray there. But some things are left in remembrance of healing received.

The legends connected with holy wells are as innumerable as the wells. It is impossible for us today to take in the legends. It is too extensive, too varied, too deep, stretching into a past which we neither know nor can reconstruct. But they localised both the activity of God and the saint – which they believed anyway. The tales and legends reinforced what the people experienced – that the supernatural was as close as the air they breathed. In comparison with that, history as information and analysis was something dry, not alive, and therefore of no interest. This perspective prevailed in Ireland to very recently – till the prevalence of hard-nosed historicism has tried to do away with it all.

The issue whether healings of any sort take place is a religious issue, a matter of faith. We can acknowledge that many healings appear peripheral and it is wise not to make too much of them. But for all that, the blessing of the waters, the drinking and sprinkling of waters, not to mention bathing in them, is still normative in Orthodox Christianity. The living and unbroken tradition of the Church’s faith and practice, and not just legends, is very consistent in this respect and has a long history which cannot be brushed aside so easily.

In this tradition Christianity, as we said before, is seen as rooted in the Incarnation. There is a strong and unambiguous belief that the very physical elements of the creation have been taken by Christ himself into his person and thereby into the work of God in creation. Spiritual realities are not seen apart from material things. Some forms of Christianity have however divorced the two. They lack the experience and appreciation of God using body, form and matter in his healing love of humanity.

In any culture the move from magic to trust in grace has always taken time. The process is one of growth which cannot be hurried. The Irish kept their wells and their trees. They also developed the practice of doing the ‘rounds’ of prayer very early on, from 500-700. Through them the church was able to remould hearts and minds to the new reality. From the 7th to the 9th century, the church was able to make that fundamental transition from the edge to the centre of society.

The need to prolong time in prayer has always been a human need. The rounds do this as effectively as any other means, as, say, the recitation of the psalms. A complete (and typical) description of modern, admittedly cleaned up ‘rounds’ can be found, for example, at Holywell nr Belcoo (Co Fermanagh) Everything is set out: the well-known cultural antecedents in well worship, sun worship, stone worship, sacred trees, rags and even sacred fish found in wells, as well as the timing of the festival of Lughnasa. I have attended when the whole village has done the rounds and without doubt nothing in the slightest untoward was being done by these devout Catholic villagers. We must avoid that well-known fallacy that if you know a thing by its past, you know everything about it in the present. Such a view has an unwarranted a priori exclusion of change. As for doing the rounds in bare feet we have to realises that until recent times shoes were unknown and people walked everywhere without them.

Agricultural societies have always had to be acutely aware of times, seasons and days, in order to sow and harvest different crops. Church would have been quite irresponsible to have suppressed such knowledge. When the church put new names to the old days, that does not mean the people were ‘still keeping pagan festivals’.1 That is another instance of the fallacy noted above. Rather the existing culture and that of Christianity grew together in a new symbiosis, one which breathed life into what was believed already but in hitherto new dimensions.

‘Together’ does not mean syncretism. As Delany says, ‘Christianity offered everything the Celts already had – and more’. What is that ‘more’, we may ask. ‘What precisely was the appeal of Christianity?’ The appeal of the Gospel was the strong personal and ethical challenge to live a life of union with God in the present, not in the modern sense of ‘doing good’, but with a God who ‘had become man that man might become God‘. Powerfully enhancing this sense of union in the present was the knowledge it also continued beyond death – because the God-become-man had overcome death and himself had risen from the dead. Today we scarcely appreciate the force of this appeal to a people whom death stalked at every turn. Christianity offered the Irish purpose and security at the point of their greatest need. Christianity further enhanced the need of tribal society to be assured of the communion of the living and the dead. The church was the communion of the saints in heaven and on earth, all alike united and made alive by and in the Risen Christ. What is more, this gift was open to all – rich and poor alike. Today we say things like ‘no big deal’. In those days it was simply astounding. It is no wonder the Irish became Christians quickly. As Delaney says, ‘many of the impulses and symbols of Celtic paganism received answer in Christianity.’

In early Ireland the keeping of saints’ days was never a mere piece of religious cult, certainly not in agricultural societies where the sense of community was strong. If people suspended the normal round of daily life to come together they met to do everything that was needed; yes they prayed to the Saint who was their ‘patron’ in heaven but they also conducted all the other necessary affairs of communal life, such as making decisions (assembly), selling produce and animals (commerce), sealing deals (contracts) (yes, over a drink), making or keeping up with friends (relationships), as well as finding partners (marriage). 2 There are times for fun too, even if fun is conceived far differently from ourselves – for example the local lads having fisticuff fights! Much of the criticism levelled at such things is an aspect of how in more recent times we have lost touch with how agricultural societies work.

1 The classical instance of this is the complaint that on December 25 we are still keeping the Roman Festival of “the birthday of the unconquered sun”.