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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

Holy Wells – supporting Healthy Water

If you would like to test the endurance of Irish cultural heritage, visit any of the 3,000 holy wells around the country.

I was reminded of this recently when I visited Kilcock in Kildare.

The icon of St Coca (Kilcock means ‘Kil’ or cell of Coca) in both the parish church and the town’s logo show her sitting on the side of her well. The well itself survived in the middle of the town until the 19th century when it was covered over. Now its exact location is uncertain but its memory certainly lives on.

Ireland has the greatest number of holy wells in the world though wells have been reverenced in almost every culture since humans first looked for water.

Water is a ‘natural symbol’, emerging from deep within the earth and forming a link between this world and the other world. Its refreshing and medicinal properties adds to the well’s mystery. Generations of people have turned to such wells for cures (especially for sore eyes), fertility and good fortune. Today you find undertones in the ‘Wishing Wells’ of theme parks and tourist centres. People passing over streams still tend to throw coins into the waters.

Holy wells were smoothly accepted into Irish Christianity as part of its awareness of sacred mystery. They became associated with a saint (such as Coca) and on the saint’s fiesta people came from afar to join in the celebration or ‘pattern’.

This ‘pattern’ (coming from the Latin of ‘patron’) consists of drinking of the water and walking around the well seven times while reciting prescribed prayers. Such practices continue today, often in sites furnished with ‘The Fourteen Stations of the Cross’ and a ‘sacred tree’. They keep alive convictions and practices that have been handed on for thousands of years.

Today you still find Holy Wells in unexpected places and usually well signposted: in fields, on roadsides and even in towns like Kilcock.

Long may they continue! We are reminded regularly that the clean water essential for life is becoming scarcer every day. Respect for its origins and benefits deserve recognition.

(For more information on Kilcock and other ‘forgotten treasures of Ireland’ see the Facebook pages of hugh macmahon.)


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