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  • Revisiting the Holy Well
  • Diarmuid Ó Giolláin (bio)

The pattern is a patron saint's festival celebrated at a site that usually includes a holy well and other features. Its complexity as a subject for research is due in large measure to the richness and diversity of sources. The saints to whom the wells are dedicated are mostly Irish. Abundant medieval writings in Latin and Irish link them not only to the story of early Irish Christianity but also to mythology, in which the origins of many of them are to be found. The special competence—not least linguistic—that this aspect of the work requires is considerable. But the patterns are also part of the history of Catholicism, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, Tridentine reform, and the "devotional revolution." They are also part of the history of the Irish Catholic community in general, whose fate in some ways is mirrored in the story of the patterns in the modern period, from acculturation to dominant Protestant cultural patterns, to self-confident renewal, to secularization. There are also exceptionally rich sources on the pattern in the oral tradition, specifically in the archives of the Irish Folklore Commission, the largest single resource for the study of popular culture in Ireland's recent past. The sources also make specific demands on the scholar in terms of language—the greater part of the material is in one or other of the dialects of modern Irish—and of wider interpretation; the material cannot, for example, be fully understood without an awareness of the distinctions of genre in oral tradition. Finally, the pattern is a vibrant living tradition; as such, ethnographic field work is an essential method for studying it in the present. [End Page 11]

In the last ten years at least six books and a few articles have been published on Irish holy wells or patterns.1 This reflects an increased level of interest given that, to the writer's knowledge, only one book on holy wells was published in the twentieth century until then. Many articles appeared in that period, but they were descriptive rather than analytic. With the exception of two lavishly illustrated coffee-table books, all the recent publications have been analytical, and their perspective can be read to a large extent in terms of the disciplinary backgrounds of their authors. The study of the pattern has thus benefited from the application of the methods of anthropology, archeology, comparative religion, folkloristics, history, and sociology.


In the second half of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries patterns were among the phenomena of popular culture most often described by travelers. Among those who left vivid accounts were the Breton Chevalier de la Tocnaye, in his account of a walking tour through Ireland in 1796; the Cork-born antiquarian Thomas Crofton Croker, in Researches in the South of Ireland (1824); and the English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, in The Irish Sketchbook (1842).2 A Protestant propagandist, the Rev. Philip Dixon Hardy, published a booklet on patterns in 1836 in [End Page 12] order to draw attention to what many contemporaries of his social class considered to be their scandalous nature.3 There are many other such accounts.

The site of the pattern most often includes a holy well, a tree, cairns or mounds of stones, ancient ecclesiastical buildings, and sometimes other "stations" to be visited in the course of the pilgrimage. Michael Carroll has reviewed the estimates of the number of holy wells and suggests that the often repeated figure of over three thousand is a fairly uncritical acceptance of a rough estimate of the archeologist and antiquary W.G. Wood-Martin. Wood-Martin reported 59 in County Sligo and 92 in County Clare, while other surveys identified 123 in the diocese of Ossory, 24 in County Louth, 28 in County Carlow, 106 in County Donegal, 18 in the barony of East Muskerry, County Cork, at least 134 in County Limerick, at least 70 in north Kerry including the Dingle Peninsula, at least 89 in County Dublin, 72 in County Kildare, and 83 in County Meath. Still, based on the surveys published to date, Carroll considers the number plausible...