St Colman’s Holy Well, Co Clare | The Wild Atlantic Way

The limestone karst of the burren. A closer look at the clints and grikes.

I love holy wells. There is something magical about them. For me, the best holy wells are the ones which time has forgotten; the undeveloped ones, which still retain a sense of their origins.

These days, most holy wells are built up and named after various Christian saints, bedecked with statues with bland faces, rosary beads and mementos. I like that they are remembered and regularly visited, but I don’t like the trappings which surround them.


For me, the isolated well on a barren rugged hillside that took effort and determination to reach, that’s the one which fascinates me. Getting there is part of the devotion; it feels like you have earned the right to be there, and the healing which may come of being there.

St Colman’s Holy Well is exactly one such place. I mean, just look at it! It’s everything I imagine a holy well would be. Here, the crystal pure waters were said to be restorative for eye afflictions; handy, I thought, as my eyes were sore from the constant wind and stinging from the suncream which had run into them. When I saw the brown sludge awaiting me at the bottom of the well, however, my faith sadly deserted me; I decided I’d rather suffer a bit longer.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of the holy well, let me enlighten you. There are literally hundreds of them all over Ireland, many still in use today. Originally, churches were founded near them, as pure water was needed for baptisms and other religious ceremonies, but also for the daily needs of the men and women of the religious community. However, it is believed that these springs were sacred places long before the advent of Christianity in Ireland.

Each well is generally associated with particular curative properties, ie the healing of warts, eye diseases, rheumatism, mental illness.  Sometimes, this is reflected in the name given the well; Tobar na Súl (the Well of the Eye); Tobar na Plaighe (the Well of the Plague); Tobar na nGealt (the Well of the Insane).

An example of how such healing may occur would be to wet a rag in the water and bathe the afflicted part with it, then tie the rag in a nearby fairy/ rag tree.

Most often, however, the wells are associated with saints, perhaps those who were active locally in the community. Brigid and Patrick have numerous wells named after them up and down the country.

Some wells are quite ornate and visited in droves. Some are more humble and barely remembered. Many have been affected by modern farming or drainage practices, and still many more are long lost.

So back to St Colman. Who was he? He was born c.560AD in Kiltartan, Co Galway, the son of local chieftain Duach and his Queen, Rhinagh. It was foretold that he would grow up to be a man far greater than all others of his lineage. Fearing for her son’s life, Rhinagh ran away but her husband caught her and had her tied to a huge stone and thrown into the Kiltartan River. Miraculously, she survived, and gave birth to Colman soon after.

She took her baby to a priest to be baptised, only to find they had no source of water for the font. As she sheltered under an ash tree, praying, a spring bubbled up from the ground at her feet, and so Colman was baptised after all. Rhinagh then gave her son into the care of the monks, where he would be safe from his father.

Seems to me that the well should have been named after his kickass mother. She sounds like a mighty strong and determined woman who prayed a powerful prayer.

Colman was educated on Inishmore, where he lived as a hermit. Later, he moved to the Burren, seeking greater solitude. King Gaire, the local King, was so taken with his holiness, that he asked the hermit to build a monastery in his kingdom. Colman was then ordained a bishop. He died on October 29th, 632 AD.

Colman was said to have loved animals, and had several unusual pets; a cockerel which was trained to wake him at the same time every morning in order to ring the bells calling the monks to prayer; a mouse which woke him  for Lauds at the same time every night by nibbling his ear, and a fly which marked his place in the manuscript he was reading, if he was ever called away.

At the end of one summer, his pets all died, and Colman was heartbroken. He wrote of his sorrow to St Columba, who replied, rather austerely:

“You were too rich when you had them. That is why you are sad now. Trouble like that only comes where there are riches. Be rich no more.”

There’s nothing quite like sympathy, and that really was nothing like sympathy! Perhaps compassion wasn’t approved of in the church. So poor old Colman realised one can be rich even without wealth.

You can read the Legend of Bóthar na Mias, ‘the Road of Dishes’, and how Colman acquires a feast fit for a King in my post, Legends of the Burren.

Gleninagh Castle

Still to come
Corcomroe Abbey
Newtown Castle
Gleninagh Castle

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43 Comments on “St Colman’s Holy Well, Co Clare | The Wild Atlantic Way

  1. Pingback: Legends of the Burren | Newtown Castle, Co Clare | aliisaacstoryteller

    • You are so right about that… they really are all so different! You have inspired me to visit more. I have really enjoyed the atmosphere of the few I’ve been to. For me, they are a lovely connection to Ireland’s distant past, and the people who used them down through the ages.


  2. Pingback: Susan’s Burren | Roaringwater Journal

  3. Pingback: Legends of the Burren Gleninagh Castle, Co Clare | aliisaacstoryteller

  4. I love the way you bring the mystery and stories of the past to life with your words Ali ~ you say the best holy wells are the ones which time has forgotten as if they are unchanged from when they were used…comfortable in their natural settings. And it is in these settings you see the stories come to life, to be told and to be read/heard. You link us up to the past, such a valuable gift 🙂


  5. The Burren rocks. Sorry. Bad pun abuse there. But I would say that anyway, being from Clare. Your well is much more impressive than the Holy Stone of Clonrichert in Father Ted. I just love that Ted’s explanation for it is “I don’t know, it’s just really, really holy”.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Ali,
    A bit behind here, sorry! Fantastic post. I agree, the well should have been named after his mother, or at least she should have had one of her own. Seems like she’s the one who knew something about miracles! Good call on leaving the well water alone, sludge is never inviting. I did at least put my hand in the water at Brighid’s well, but didn’t touch my eyes afterward and probably most importantly couldn’t see what might lie below the surface. 🙂


  7. Goodness, what a thing to survive. Tied to a rock, while pregnant, and thrown into the river. Never knew what Holy Wells were, Ali. We may have some in Wales. There’s certainly lots of springs around the Brecon Beacons. Still discovering lots about Wales.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. We visited a holy well in Ireland a few years ago – it was quite simple, surrounded by stones and among trees, which was quite nice, and from memory it was supposed to cure eye afflictions. I love the idea of holy wells too, and the one you visited is quite gorgeous,up in the hills. I agree with the idea that, if you have to struggle a bit to get there, you’ve earned the visit 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Helen. I think there are holy Wells in the UK too, although I don’t think they are associated with Christianity. I visited one once called Chalice well that was associated with Arthurian lore.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s the one at Glastonbury, right? I think there are a few saints wells over here, but for the most part they do still seem to belong to an older time. Which is quite nice 🙂


  9. I agree the well should have been named after the Mam. I love holy wells too and the ones which are hard to get to, or find, are often the ones that still hold the magic of the old ones. btw have just started reading Conner and The Fenian King, I love it.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. No, don’t worry, you didn’t come across as critical and I know what you mean. I’m not religious either. It’s actually the new-agey deposits at prehistoric sites that I still can’t come to grips with (coins and tokens at stone circles, etc)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I actually like the statues and rosary beads – they speak to the faith that people bring to their visit. It’s a form of folk art. It’s the sheer variety of holy wells that is so fascinating – from your isolated mountains ones to the painted and manicured town well.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sorry. That wasn’t meant as a criticism. I’m not religious, so those symbols aren’t important to me, but I know they are to others, I was just expressing my personal taste. I like things simple rather than ornate. I too love that they are still visited and loved, and it really contributes to the atmosphere of the site. Last year on the Burren trail I visited the holy well of Mary of the Gael. It was as different from St Colmans as chalk and cheese! It’s also on the blog. Its popularity did not detract from its atmosphere and beauty, although I have to say, it did look a bit tacky in places, hinting at a stop-off for coaches of tourists rather than a place of healing and prayer, and that sullied it a little for me personally. It was still a spectacular site, though.


  12. Thanks for this information, Ali. As I have traveled Ireland, I’ve run into a variety of “St. Patrick’s ” wells, and I know that’s not the truth of it. I would love for you to write more about wells in future.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. It’s so cool that you get to actually visit these places. Have you ever considered a modern story where one of these forgotten wells changes someone’s life?

    Liked by 2 people

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