Holy Wells

Interview with Olive Keane, talking to Phil Dunphy OSi

Originally a native of Fermoy Co Cork, Olive Keane attended school in Carrick-On-Suir and studied at University College, Cork, where she was awarded a BA in Irish and Archaeology. In 2014, Olive retired from teaching in Ardmore Co Waterford.

Olive has for several years been interested in folklore and has completed a UCC diploma in local history. She kindly visited the offices of Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSi) in Cork, where I had the opportunity to discuss her particular interest in holy wells. Her insight is deep and thought-provoking. When I asked her what I considered was a straightforward opening question, her reply put me back on my heels, and set the tone for a stimulating conversation. I asked her “What makes a well holy?”

Stone Circled Holy Well

Shallow sacrificial well

Olive: My favourite definition comes from Janet Bord, who maintains that if people considered a well to be holy and treated it as such, then it was a holy well. So I suppose what makes a well holy is the people’s belief in it.

Phil:   How did you first become interested in holy wells?

Olive: A friend of mine was a student of Irish folklore and invited me on a field trip, which I was happy to do. My friend was doing a project on ancient pre-Christian culture, which involved visiting and recording holy wells, which were considered sacred in pre-Christian cultures. It wasn’t long before I became absorbed in the subject myself.

Phil: So you visit the wells?

Olive: Loads of them. I started by researching them on the internet, and finding ones near wherever I happen to be. There are many websites dealing with wells. I must say that Ordnance Survey Ireland’s website has a brilliant asset there, with its free map viewer of historic 25-inch and 6-inch mapping dating back to the early 19th century. I’ve used this to find so many old and forgotten well sites. Once I find my well on the old map, I can toggle onto OSi’s current mapping to find my way! (That facility is now available on www.geohive.ie.)

Also, you should go to www.archaeology.ie and look at the National Monuments Archaeological Survey Database. This is the official state database of the National Monuments Service, on an OSi mapping platform, and is brilliant for locating even obscure holy wells, and other archaeological artifacts.

There has been an explosion of interest in these topics, holy wells and other related topics such as pilgrim paths, Mass Rocks, and so on. Local communities and tourist bodies are beginning to develop them into something to stimulate local economies.

Phil: How far did you go to find them?

Olive: Well, initially I started traveling around County Clare, as that region suited me at the time. Now, I concentrate mostly on County Waterford, where I live. One of the first wells that really interested me was St. Brigid’s Well, near Liscannor. St. Brigid has many wells dedicated to her around Ireland, as a reflection of her importance to early Christianity. This, in turn reflects her pre-Christian importance, St. Brigid having assumed the persona of the pagan goddess Bríd, or Brigid. Brigid was the Celtic Goddess of inspiration, healing, and smith-craft with associations to fire, the hearth and poetry, honoured by the springtime feast of Imbolg, one of the principal pagan festivals. This well as it exists today, is covered by a stone well house. The actual well area is enclosed by an iron gated fence.

Old Map showing Holy Well

OSi Historic 25” mapping, near Ardmore, Co. Waterford

Phil: That well seems quite ornate. Is that what attracted you to it?

Olive: Initially, perhaps because it is well known and easy to find. Oddly, I actually prefer seeking out forgotten or overgrown wells now.

Phil: Some sort of explorer instinct?

Olive: Not really. I get a great sense of community by visiting local areas, staying locally, and talking to local people in order to find the well.

Phil: Surely people have forgotten about most of these old wells now? Dead history?

Olive: I’m always amazed how much people know about their local well. Sometimes, when I knock on a door looking for directions, the local person seems a little shy or hesitant to admit they even know the location of the well, but if we get chatting, that usually changes; if a cup of tea is offered, I know I’ve hit gold! Usually, the local customs and ‘piseógs’ begin to come out, often a little embarrassed at first. But as the tea flows, so does the information, and the shyness becomes pride and a clear respect for the legacy. Again and again the stories refer to cures, blessings, rituals, and dire consequences if any disrespect is shown!

Phil: Are these customs all of Christian origin?

Olive: Some are perhaps, but many share a commonality of Pagan/Christian beliefs of the curative and restorative powers of pure clean water, and recognise water as essential for new life and growth. Today, too, so many of us take for granted our access to clean safe drinking water. To see it literally springing out of the ground must have seemed invaluable, even spiritual, to our ancestors.

Phil: I suppose that the sense of respect that you mention is confined to older people; younger people probably would not have much time for ‘heritage’?

Standing Stone and Holy Well

Covered Well with Engraved Standing Stone

Olive: That is not the case at all. For example, one day I met two teenagers in the throes of leaving cert exams (eating ice-creams, one still in the pyjamas!). I asked them if they could direct me to an isolated well in their locality. They knew all about the well, and told me they had visited the well before the exams started. They brought me there, and told me about how their granny had shared the folklore about the well, but sadly she had recently passed on. While talking to me, the teens were almost absentmindedly ‘tending’ to the well, pulling a weed or two and removing dead leaves; I felt I was witnessing an innate sense of ownership and connection. I found it quite moving.

Phil: So the old customs are safe for another generation?

Olive: And some new ones! Shortly after meeting them I read that, when their exams were over, students have taken to leaving their exam pens at holy wells as a form of offering for good results. I have seen pens and witnessed this practice myself at a few wells now.

Phil: Finally, any advice for readers?

Olive: Sure. Get an OSi Discovery map, mark a few nearby wells on it from the historic map viewer on GeoHive, and head out! You’ll discover your own heritage, get some fresh air and meet local people who are always happy to share their local knowledge. Magical!

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