Holy Wells and Sacred Trees: Interference with the natural world

While legal and religious factors have long guided our moral compass, our traditional code of right and wrong has also been informing individual conduct for a considerable amount of time. In oral tradition, particular behaviours deemed to be unacceptable are often followed by examples of what happens when this code is ignored. Among the prohibitions listed by Seán Ó Súilleabháin in A Handbook of Irish Folklore, there are objections to interfering with holy people or places, keeping late hours, using forbidden speech, as well interfering with the natural world. Disrespect for the natural world, including the desecration of wells and particular trees, and interference with particular animals, may result in unfortunate outcomes for those who do not abide by this popular belief.

Wells in Irish folklore are often spoken of as though they are sentient beings, who will move or dry up if they are abused or offended. Washing your clothes in them, misbehaving near them, removing the fish from them, or trying to fill them in are causes for the well to dry up and move places, appearing elsewhere and making a statement to those who use the well to be careful with their actions, for the well is in control: what it provides, it may also take away.

Spring wells are akin to but not the same as holy wells, and do not always share the same rules. Spring wells are meant to be used as drinking water, holy wells are associated with a particular saint, and therefore the water is curative and the well is a place of devotion. But both have the ability to change location, which is its main form of agency. Human activity is dependent on its beneficial powers: that of water to drink, or that of water to cure.

The idea of a curative well goes back to before Christian times and stories of healing baths that resuscitated the dead or streams strewn with herbs wherein heroes were laid to recover are widespread in the ancient manuscript literature of Ireland. When St Patrick travelled through Ireland, he is said to have caused wells to spring forth, peppering the island with holy wells having curative powers. Some wells have stones in front believed to have the imprint of the saint’s knees, or head. Devotees of the well with the imprint of a saint’s head would place their own head there to be cured.

Stories of people washing their clothes, body parts, or butter cloths in the wells are common, thus offending the wells (and dirtying the water), causing the well to dry up and change places. This careless behavior might be done innocently and could be a cause of a well to feel insulted and move. This may have provided an alternative explanation for wells that mysteriously dried up due to natural causes, seeming to appear in another place when changes in water drainage or other reasons created new watery areas.

There are also stories of people purposely desecrating the wells, either by dirtying them or filling them in, to keep other people from using them. For example, there are many stories of religious conflict involving holy wells on land owned by certain Protestants who were against the Catholic devotees ‘trespassing’ onto their lands to perform stations at the wells, which were sometimes filled in. In some cases, the wells enacted their vengeance by erupting in the offending person’s house, until they were uncovered again. 

 Other means of dirtying a well and offending it and its users, or to keep others from using it, were washing feet or clothes in it, or ‘making a nuisance’ in it. In some cases, the stories end with this backfiring on the person desecrating the well. Either the well moves so far away as to make it harder for the offending person to use it, or they suffer some calamity such as loss of cattle, paralysis, or death. Sometimes it is the characteristic nature of the person who performs the action that offends the well, rather than the action itself. For instance, in one story there is an evil woman’ who washes her child in the well, thus causing it to dry up and move.

After a well has been offended or covered up, in some cases, if a priest is asked to bless it, this will remedy the well and cause it to flow again, or restore its curative powers. Sometimes objects that are near it are removed and this can cause the well to dry up as well. For instance, St Naail’s Well in Donegal went dry after the covers and pillars of the well were removed. The water returned after its adjoining chapel was consecrated to the saint.

Another thing that can offend a well is when a person or animal drowns in it. This causes consternation to the people who use the well, as it contaminates the drinking water, if it is a spring well, but also, it is emotionally distressing and might be looked at as a cause of misfortune.

One of the most interesting characters in the stories about wells are the fish and eels that may inhabit them. Not every well is said to contain these magical creatures, but the ones that do act as guardians or caretakers of the well, so much so that an injury done to them is done to the well itself, and can be reason for the well to move. The fish are usually taken innocently by people in the stories, then released back to the well when some misfortune has been noticed as a result of it, or at times appear back in the well miraculously. This comes to light when the water from the well will not boil, or the food will not cook. The fish or eel is then returned and all is well. However, the ‘enemies’ of the well (often portrayed as British soldiers or Protestants) sometimes took these creatures on purpose to weaken the power of the well, and tried to cook them. Usually, the story goes, the fish gets away and appears back in the well but with the mark of the grid-iron on its side forever.

The fish or eels are sometimes thought to be an indicator of the potential efficacy of the cure on the patient, and a cure is sought. If the fish appears, it means the patient will recover. Sometimes it can mean the opposite, depending on the local tradition. In one instance, it was said that if the fish appeared dead at the surface during the stations — ritualized actions and prayers performed at the well — the patient would die as well. The story went that the woman whose son was sick saw this and scratched the fish to see if it would revive. She returned to perform another station the next day and the fish was still dead at the surface and had grown brambles from the place she had scratched him. Her son still died, just as the fish had. Other signs of recovery as a result of prayers recited at the well could be the sound of a flapping of doves’ wings, or the sight of a white butterfly over the water. This lets the petitioner know that their prayers have been heard and their wish will be granted.

The wells do not resign themselves to abuse: they persist, they change, they innovate. Drying out on their own and moving in a show of defiance and resilience also hints at the supernatural qualities of the well, qualities that cannot be controlled or understood. As with the veneration of wells, trees of particular importance have long been respected in Ireland. In a 1999 interview, Professor Dáithí Ó hÓgáin of the then Department of Irish Folklore, UCD, explains the early roots of Ireland’s sacred trees. Professor Ó hÓgáin touches on early Christianity in Ireland and how tradition held that God built the house of the world on four giant trees. It was also held that because trees grew from the ground upwards, they connected heaven and earth together. The ‘bile’, or the sacred tree, is also mentioned by Ó hÓgáin. These large, important trees are commonly connected to graveyards and holy wells and to cut them down would lead to severe consequences.

In A Handbook of Irish Folklore, Seán Ó Súilleabháin explains that ‘some bushes or trees, especially those which grew conspicuously alone or near wells or in forts, were looked upon as sacred or privileged, and those who interfered with them suffered in consequence.’ As holy wells are often connected with saints and forts, which are often connected with the fairies, the disturbance of such places could bring forth consequences for those who failed to recognize the sacredness of the space. In an account from Co. Leitrim, we find an example of a man who has a fort on his land and decides to cut down trees from the fort because his turf is bad and he needs fuel. We are told that after he cut down the trees in the fort:

 ‘All went well until he had the last of them out. Next morning he found two calves dead. Soon after a cow died and everything seemed to fail with him. He fell into bad health, and he was changed from a prosperous farmer into a poor man.’ (NFCS 197:39)

The man comes to ruin because of his failure to respect the realm typically associated with the fairies. In some of the more serious cases, the desecration of the tree costs lives. In another example from Co. Galway, a man cuts down a lone bush despite being warned not to. As a consequence concerning his actions, it is said that ‘a month later his hand got paralysed, and he sickened and died in a few months’ (NFC 815:76). We often see that destruction of property, injury or sickness follows the destruction of the tree, and the consequences often continue until they bring ruin or even death to the unfortunate trespasser.

Other examples of the disturbance of sacred trees tell of warnings given to those who are in the act of cutting down or uprooting them. One example of this would be a tree known as the ‘Mass bush’, which is supposed to be a place where St Patrick himself knelt and left imprints of his hands and knees underneath. The story says that some men tried to move the bush but as it was being uprooted, a great storm arose that frightened the workmen. Once the men put the bush back again, the storm immediately stopped, and all was well. A very popular theme concerning the elements and disturbance of scared trees is seeing your home on fire. A story from Co. Carlow tells of a man who tried to cut a bough off an ash tree. Whenever he began to cut, he would see fire set to his home but when he would return to the house, there was no trace of fire. This happened three times, which ultimately leads him to give up his task. In both of these accounts, the men heed the supernatural warnings and avoid the terrible consequences of their counterparts.

Though the consequences of these actions may seem extreme, trees are places where offerings are left for saints, contain curative properties, and once served as sites of inauguration for the kings of Ireland. Likewise, holy wells offer a sanctuary for devotion, and act as retreats for many, whether or not they contain curative properties. Spring wells also provide important sources of water. As such, their desecration can cause serious effects, and so, it is unsurprising that it is met with resistance. To read some of the examples quoted above, as well as more examples from the National Folklore Collection, you can read this project on Holy Wells and Sacred Trees created for Heritage Week 2021.

  • This post was researched and written by Josie Weatherford (MA, Irish Folklore and Ethnology, 2021) and Brenda Quiroga (MA, Irish Folklore and Ethnology, 2021).

Further Reading:

The Holy Wells of Ireland, Patrick Logan and Jim O’Callaghan, 1980.

Sacred Trees of Ireland, Christine Zucchelli, 2016.

NFC 466, NFC 467 and NFC 468 – Questionnaire on holy wells issued 1934, available online on dúchas.ie.

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