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.
Still to come