The Holy Wells of Meath: Folklore & History

The information on the lore and history relating to holy wells in county Meath which appears here is drawn from a series of articles titled The Parish History of Meath by Mrs. Margaret Conway, N.T., Moattown, Kildalkey and Secretary of Meath Archaeological and Historical Society. They were published in The Meath Chronicle in 1957.

In the first article on wells Mrs. Conway recounts the legend of Nuada-Neacht, a poet-king of Leinster in the first century, who possessed a secret well from which no-one but himself and his cupbeareres were allowed to draw water. If anyone defied the ban, the well water would surge up and blind the thief. Boan, the queen, defied the ban and when the water blinded her, she fled towards the sea at Inver Colpa and was drowned. So goes the legend of how the Boyne made its way to the sea in pursuit of a queen and of how its waters spring from a lost well.

Throughout the articles Mrs. Conway makes regular reference to the work of Rev. Anthony Cogan, Dean of the Diocesan Seminary at Navan. The publication to which she refers is his Ecclesiastical History of the Diocese of Meath Ancient and Modern compiled from original documents and other authentic sources, in three volumes, first published in 1862. The manuscript of the first volume was supervised by Eugene O'Curry (1796-1862), Esq., M.R.I.A., Professor of Irish Archaeology in the Catholic University.

Most authorities believe that pagan rites were originally celebrated at the sites of the holy wells, and that Patrick blessed them and christianised their use as sources of water for baptism. The descriptions in early records suggest that baptism by immersion was common in the early Irish Church.

There is an old belief that if a cure is effected or a prayer answered, the pilgrim will see a fish in the bottom of the well - in some places it is said to be a trout, but an eel is also mentioned. This sounds pagan in origin but some writers maintain that the monks used to keep a fish-pond within the enclosure to maintain supplies for their meatless meals, and that simple people regarded the monks' fish as sacred creatures.

Pilgrimages to holy wells was a feature of country life a century ago. At some wells there were 'rounds' - circuits of the well - made, with special prayers to recite; at others the prayers were chosen by the pilgrim. The Patron, or, as it was pronounced, 'Pattern', Day was not a wholly religious occasion. Drinking and breaches of the peace were known to occur, and recruiting sergeants were known to try to induce young men to enlist. For these reasons clergy discouraged visits to holy wells, and, as a consequence, many were forgotten.

Until very recent times the custom of leaving votive offerings at holy wells survived. Commonly, if a tree overhung the well - and almost always there was a sacred tree - the pilgrim tied a scrap of his clothing to it. The best known of these 'rag wells' was at Clonfad, where the Bush was a well-known landmark.

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