Visiting a holy well was high on the must-do list for my mystical, mythical tour of Ireland. Some sources indicate as many as 3,000 holy wells exist in Ireland—more than in any other country in the world. Ireland’s Holy Wells has mapped at least 524 of them. I found one—and directions to it—conveniently close to where we stayed in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, in Northern Ireland.
Ever since bubbling to the surface millennia ago, this holy well has been revered by pagans and Christians alike. Not only does it percolate within the convergence of three streams (that number being archetypically powerful), but it also features ancient stones with mysterious indentations, and a sacred ash tree.
Located near the village of Belcoo, Holywell is the mythic home of Crom Cruaich, a Celtic god of the harvest. Archeological research documents that Celts and other pre-Christian Irish have made offerings to gods and goddesses at such places since 8000 BC.
Legend has it that St. Patrick expelled Crom Cruaich from this spot in the late fifth century AD. Even with its name changed to St. Patrick’s Well, however, pilgrimages based on pre-Christian rituals continued through the centuries, even when English rule forbade it.
Measuring about 40 feet by 20 feet, Holywell is large, but not even a foot deep. About 600 gallons per minute flow through it into two opposing streams. Filtered through gravelly soil, its water is remarkably clear, allegedly the coldest in Ireland, and touted for curing digestive and nervous disorders.
Getting there was not easy. Never mind driving on the left. GPS doesn’t tell you, for example, that the curvy and hilly roads are barely wide enough for one car. And the directions, while accurate, were not precise. You know, at the roundabout, take the second exit onto Sligo Road. Go 8.2 miles, take a right on Boho, then a left on Holywell. Arrive at your destination.
We found Holywell Road, but not the well. After following the road for about a mile, we came upon St. Patrick’s Church, a lovely country church established in 1828—new by Irish standards—and surrounded by a graveyard that was probably established centuries before that.
“Here,” Bob said. “A holy place named St. Patrick’s.”
“It’s not the well.”
“It’s named St. Patrick, isn’t it?”
“It’s not the well.” I knew we were close. I wanted to stop and take pictures, but I didn’t dare.
He sighed, grumped, and kept on until we arrived back where we began. We had done one complete holy circle, which is actually what you are supposed to do when you visit a holy well. But on foot. Barefoot, preferably. Not in a car.
Being a good sport as well as a good driver, Bob took a deep breath.
“Okay, read the directions again. We’ll try it one more time.”
That’s when I saw the sign in front of us.
“I can’t park the car here.”
We were in a driveway. The road was barely wide enough for one moving car, let alone a parked car, a moving car, and a driveway.
“You get out,” Bob said. “I’ll go find a place to park.”
While I thought some holy water might relieve his anxiety, I instinctively knew what he really needed was a little decompression on his own terms.
I crossed the road. Noting the steep and wet stone stairs descending about 8 feet—with no railing—I opted to remain on higher ground. Although I had wanted to tie a clootie—a small strip of cloth that embodied a prayer—to the tree on the other side, I feared falling more.
Dabac Pádraig, the nearby plaque read. Dabhach, I later learned, means vat, pool, or well. That I even made it to Pat’s Vat was enough.
Reading further, I learned that, “Pilgrams [sic] unable to go through the water in bare feet may say the prayers at the ‘Eye of the Well,’ i.e., the starting point.”
Having already circled the well—in a car and with feet shod—I knew I belonged at the starting point.
The plaque went on to say that this was a place of pilgrimage for locals who perform penitential rituals during the Celtic feast of Lughnasa.
While I continued to read, two such locals appeared, almost as if they were faeries who had materialized on a cloudless warm day. Like Bob, they had parked a few hundred feet away. I never heard their approach.
Annette and Oliver were from the neighboring County Cavan. Annette wore a pretty sundress that accentuated her honeyed-auburn hair. Tall, solid, and beyond middle-aged, Oliver wore a religious talisman on his shirt pocket and bore the aura of a holy man, a brother perhaps. After a short homily about the well and Patrick’s history with it, Oliver concluded by invoking the saint and asking for his blessing in the world today.
“Amen,” I said. After pausing, I asked, “So, are you St. Oliver?”
He smiled and simply shook his head.
Annette exclaimed otherwise. “You have no idea.”
I wanted an idea, but I respected their silence. Instead, I asked Annette, “Are you his disciple?”
“No,” she replied. “Just a good friend.”
With that, she walked down the steps to the water, dipped her right hand into the spring, and blessed herself.
When she ascended, I asked for a few drops so that I could do the same. I explained that I was concerned about falling and dared not go down myself.
She immediately returned to the well and scooped up a double handful, which she then poured into my cupped hands.
I anointed myself and then walked over to the car where Bob waited. “Close your eyes,” I said. “Don’t ask any questions. This water has the power to relieve anxiety.” He complied, and I dribbled the remaining holy water on him.
When I returned to the saint and his disciple, Oliver asked if I had a strip of cloth or a ribbon. I said I did, and started back for the car.
“No need,” he said. “I have one right here.” He held out a narrow strip of muslin, a clootie! I clasped it in my hands and closed my eyes. He took my hands into his and said, “Pray your intention.”
I did. After a moment, I opened my eyes.
“Your sorrows will be lifted,” he promised. My sorrows? My intention had nothing to do with sorrow.
“It may not be immediate,” he assured me, “But you will know when it has been lifted.”
Well, okay, then. Who am I to doubt the holy man Oliver? At a holy well?
With that, he took my clootie and in a few giant steps strode across the small stone dam that separated us from its destination.
He closed his eyes in prayer, then tied my intentions to the branch of an ash tree already laden with devotions.
He paused for another minute before crossing back.
“Where are you headed?” Annette asked in a conversation that hinted at being pilgrims on divergent paths. I said that our original intent was to visit Donegal and Sligo before ending up in Galway that evening for a couple of nights. But given the roads, we would probably just head to Galway.
“That’s a good plan,” Oliver concurred solemnly. “If you’re not accustomed to these roads, travel can be difficult.” He wished us a safe trip.
I thanked them both and walked over to where Bob waited. No sooner had I opened the car door when he flicked his head to the left. “Here comes your friend.”
Annette approached and handed me a small plastic vial, a faded flower the only adornment on what was probably once a container for hotel shampoo. It now held ancient water. Holy water. From Holywell. Oh, Well!