People worship by visiting a holy well and such beliefs are a major part of faith for those of a Catholic background. But actually very few holy wells are part of established religion. They are cast as folk religion, and accepted as truth by zealous believers.
The Holy Well of St. Augustinians on Lough Atalia is a local example. This is from back in the days when An Roinne Mór was a Gaelic speaking area…
Nothing causes an upsurge in mystical practices like apparitions. A few, such as the Emmanuel House of Providence and Christina Gallagher among others, making a controversial name for themselves and quite a handsome living from donations by avid followers.
Former times of trial such as the famine, Penal Laws and economic hardship galvanised the folk faith of the locals who lived in the area. They attended the patterns of these wells, leaving votive offerings.
The Holy Well and Pattern (Patron) Days are a hangover from pagan times, when a policy of syncretism was followed, in that an existing practice was Christianised, so the pilgrimage continued but it was now in worship of the new God as opposed to the old.
The leaving of votive offerings at the holy well is a folk practice noted in cultures far beyond the Celtic sphere. From Bulgaria to India, at an area associated with a God, holy person or spirit, people left votives as we do at a holy well. The votive’s varied from medals, to pieces of cloth of the sick person, to humanoid shapes, fertility rites being the main cause of the latter.
This drove the reformers mad, not having any significant depth of vision. They objected to pattern days and visiting a holy well. They saw and see things more literally, down to objecting to the crucifix or praying to the saints.
Between the times of St. Patrick and the Reformation, we went through a silly period of our own, when drawing icons, in common with the Orthodox and Coptic churches to this day. Faces were drawn in two dimensions rather than attempting any level of realism, so as not to make it a graven image.
Lough Atalia – patterns, tragedies and miracles
The attack ordered on the pilgrims at Lough Atalia Holy Well by the then Cromwellian regime in the city left many wounded. The remainder who were captured were thrown in jail – for praying at a holy well!
In later, more tolerant times, the city fathers and the religious fathers investigated reports of a healing of a Lynch boy. They concluded it was treatment with cold water that cured him after being immersed in the holy well. They said it was not an act of God, to spite the boy’s vivid description of a vision he had while passed out on the banks of Lough Atalia.
The patterns to Lough Atalia holy well happened on the last Sunday in July or the first Sunday in August, where the existing holy well dedicated to St. Augustine was one of three, the other two being nearby and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and St. John the Baptist. The latter two have disappeared in the last few centuries.
Where did the other holy wells go?
A holy well being here today and gone tomorrow is nothing new. Folk belief was that, if desecrated, a holy well would disappear and spring anew elsewhere. This was said to happen in Ballycumber in Offaly in the ‘Cruel Landlord’ story.
Desecration could be accidental, or malevolent and the purity traditions around wells is interesting in preserving old notions of sanitation, hygiene and piety among the people of the day.
How did the wells get dedicated to which saint?
Why the wells got dedicated to these particular saints I do not know, though it is known the surviving well had an attachment to the friary in St. Augustine Street.
Perhaps the cure that was allegedly in the well was matched with a patron saint of that ailment or the saint of the season in which it was initially dedicated. The answers are lost in the mists of time. I am left wondering what the well was known as before its original dedication…