1940s a survey claimed there were as many as 3,000 holy
wells in Ireland - more than in any other country in the
world. On a visit to the little known Blessed Well near
Kilmainhamwood, we made a journey back in time
through myths, legends and religious practices.
If you follow the course of the river upstream from the
village of Kilmainhamwood along the "Line Road"
towards the Kingscourt / Kells road, you may happen upon
the Blessed Well or St. Patrick's Well as it is sometimes
Half a mile before "Diana's Cross" the well is
situated in a wooded area, hidden to the world. Grazing
cattle keep watch over this little jewel in the landscape
of North Meath and East Cavan.
Before delving into the myths and folklore associated with
the well and indeed the Mass Rock, which is located just
feet away, it is worth pondering the significance of the
holy wells of Ireland.
In Irish myth, well and springs are closely associated with
the "otherworld" - that parallel dimension whose
inhabitants have the power to control the natural forces
of this world. From sources in the "otherworld"
water flows into our world to fill springs or gush forth
as rivers such as the Boyne and Shannon.
These bodies of water are closely identified with the goddesses
Boann and Sionann, who are thought to be part of the water's
flow. Such sacred water sources are also often likened to
the fruit of certain trees such as the hazelnut. Perhaps
by coincidence or by the hand of a greater power the Blessed
Well is situated in a small hazel glen!
It was believed drinking from these holy wells or bathing
in them would bestow the power of the "otherworld"
in the form of poetic inspiration, wisdom or healing. Supernatural
fish, especially salmon or trout are still said to appear
in a well's depths to those seeking omens for the future.
Myth dictated that well godesses could take the form of
fish. Salmon were often credited with being bearers of "iomas"
- the insight and wisdom that comes from a supernatural
encounter, rather than the knowledge acquired through conventional
In pagan Ireland holy wells were visited at special times
of the year; Imbolc on February 1, Bealtaiane on May 1,
Lughnasa on August 1, and Samhain on Novermber 1. These
dates were all significant in the Celtic year when the gates
of the "otherworld" were opened. This was especially
true for Samhain, when the veil between the living and the
dead was believed to be at its thinnest.
Many wells consist of three elements: the well, spring or
water source; a scared tree, and a hill or standing stone.
These features played a part in the prescribed rituals for
pilgrims who came to the sites seeking favours. These were
known as "patterns" and almost always included
some sort of circular walk.
The word pattern is derived from the Irish "patrun"
or the English "patron". Most Irish parishes has
a patron saint. On the saint's feast day the parishioners
celebrated what was known as "Pattern day".
In pre-Reformation times, the festivities began with religious
devotions at the Church, but this came to an end when the
confiscation and or destruction of Roman Catholic churches
took place in the 150 years between the 1540- and the 1690s.
By 1700 the devastation was such that very few, if any churches
remained under Catholic control and public religious ceremonies
However, the faithful found alternative ways to celebrate
their Saints feast day. While many of the laity paid
homage at the saint's shrine or in the ruins of their local
church, most devotions took place at the holy well.
In general, devotions at these holy or blessed wells began
with making the "rounds". The people would around
the well a certain number of times while reciting special
Part of the ritual included drinking the water and in some
instances bathing in it. It was said that water from a holy
or blessed well became famous for curing specific ailments.
At the end of their visit, the people usually left behind
a small token - some coins, a piece of cloth, which was
hung up, or any other small token they happened to have
These sacred well traditions, rituals, legends and customs
date back hundreds of years, and were common throughout
Britain long before Christianity came to Ireland, However,
for Irish Catholics, the disappearance of their churches
and the Penal Laws made well-gatherings an important event,
especially on the feast day of their patron saint.
Without official clerical direction, Pattern Days became
noted for unorthodox forms of devotion and often rowdy amusements.
The clergy tried to keep matters under control and at the
Synod of Tuam in 1660 it was decreed that "dancing,
flute-playing, bands of music, riotous revels and other
abuses in visiting wells and other holy places were forbidden."
While the clergy and the Penal Laws did everything to suppress
Pattern day celebrations, it was the Great famine that caused
the custom to almost die out.
The Blessed Well at Shancor fits neatly within the tradition
of holy wells and their associated practices or pilgrimage
and prayer as outlined. A tiny waterfall flows gently over
the rocks in the stream beside the holy well, giving rise
to its Irish name of An Tobar Alt as Ease (Well of the Precipice
of the Waterfall).
The Blessed Well was a place of pilgrimage for centuries.
People gathered on the first Sunday of every quarter of
the year to recite the Stations of the Cross. Pattern day
celebrations were held on the first Sunday in August and
cattle were driven from neighbouring parts of East Cavan
and North Meath because it was believed the well water had
Tradition has it that Mass was celebrated at the ancient
Mass Rock in the penal days. The secluded setting, half
a mile from the road, made it an ideal location for this
clandestine practice. It is said a large tree once grew
in the centre of the holy well field and was known as the
watch tree where sentries were placed to keep
watch while Mass was being celebrated.
The tradition of Pattern Day on the first Sunday in August
died out in the 1880s but was revived in 1932. The following
year Rev. Fr. Small P.P. had a small a small cross erected
next to the well.
A surviving hand-written programme for the Pattern Day celebrations
that year on Sunday August 6th, suggests a rich and varied
programme of sports and entertainment, alongside the traditional
religious practice of recitation of the rosary.
That weeks Meath Chronicle mentions the Pattern Day
celebrations at Kilmainhamwood in the same sentence as celebrations
at St. Ciarans Well, Carnaross, giving weight to the
suggestion that it was quite an event. Pattern Day celebrations
at Shancor died out again by the end of the late 1940s.
It was revived again in 1983, the fiftieth anniversary of
1933 and lasted for a few years.
The Blessed Well is one of those half-forgotten places engrained
in the history of North Meath and East Cavan. Rumour has
it that a cave is located close to the Blessed Well, which
runs all the way to Newtown, some three miles away across
country, but evidence of the caves existence is hard to
find. However, rumours persist and some locals are convinced
of the caves existence.
Unlike many blessed or holy wells dotted around the country,
the Blessed Well lies on private land some distance from
the road. So if you have a mind to make a pilgrimage, bear
in mind you would need the permission of the landowner,
Taken from Royal County