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Irish Gravestone Inscriptions, Tracing your Irish Ancestors: Holy wells
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Folklore in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs

Holy wells


Many of these older churches and graveyards are associated with holy wells. They are too numerous to mention them all, but the supernatural powers these wells were believed to possess cannot be overlooked. Indeed, such wells are guarded jealously. In the parish of Ballynascreen there was only such well near the R.C.chapel of Moneyneany, and this well was defended by a magician known as Sir Volvet. The magician was so possessive of the well’s properties that he kept an earless dog no less, chained to the well, the better to prevent other inhabitants of the area from benefiting from the water. Through time this well became known as ‘Tobarawathymeel’ or ‘The Earless Dog’s Well’. Magical powers were not restricted to this individual, tradition says that the townland of Moneyneany derived its name from the fact that its valleys were a favourite place with the old Irish warriors to learn their exercises and also to perform great exploits and tricks by magic. It was consequently called ‘Meen-na-neenthus’ or ‘The plain of wonders’.


The majority of the holy wells were revered for their healing properties and were very often associated with a famous saint; St. Patrick, St. Columbkille or St. Aidan (of Iona and Lindisfarne) whose remains are said to lie in the graveyard of Tamlaght Old Church, and close by his grave is a holy well dedicated to the man. Moreover, the well was often testimony to the benevolence of the saint. The town of Maghera is said to owe its prosperity to St. Lawrence who was abbot in Maghera in the 12th century, ‘. . .about that period he caused that ancient spring well, which is the chief support of the town, in a miraculous manner to force or gush from the surface, as a great scarcity of water at that time prevailed in the town. The well is dedicated to his name and called in the Irish language ‘Tobbarnieve-Lourass’ or ‘St. Lawrence’s Well’.


Some wells, like that in the parish of Ballyaghran, about half a mile north-west of Ballyaghran Church, are the consequence of a saint having visited the area. It is said that ‘St. Patrick, when journeying through this country, drank the water in this well and afterwards blessed it, and from him it derives its healing properties and its name- ‘Tubber Patrick’. Not surprisingly, this is not the only Tubber Patrick to be found in the parishes. They can be found at Dunboe Old Church and Dungiven Abbey, and in the parish of Tamlaght Finlagan where ‘back-going children are washed in the well and immediate restoration of good health is the result’. Here also, as with many of these sacred sites, votive rags are hung from trees, in this case ‘an ancient hazel bush that overhangs the well’ further indicating the sacred nature of the spot. It is the miraculous healing properties of the wells that set them apart, and the Ordnance Survey Memoirs are full of references to this effect. At Aghanloo Old Church there are two such wells where children who were not thriving were brought.


And at the foot of the hill on which Bovevagh Old Church stands is a well known locally at St. Ringan’s Well. The memoir describes how ‘Delicate children are brought on New May Eves and Midsummer Eves, and stations are performed to effect the return to good health. The children are dipped three times into the well as soon as the stations are performed.’ The memoir also relates how a young boy’s sight was restored after visiting the well, and how one farmer was blighted for abusing the sacred properties of the well. This farmer was burdened by a blind horse and in an attempt to improve his fortunes led the animal to the well. There, he washed the horse’s eyes with the well water and miraculously its sight was returned. However, no sooner had this miracle occurred than disaster struck – the farmer lost his own sight and the well dried up. Some days later the well forced its way to the surface ‘some yards from its original place, where it still flows’. The farmer was not so fortunate.


Healing properties were not limited to wells only. In the graveyards of Ballyeglish Old Church in the parish of Artrea, are the remains of the Reverence James Mackel, who officiated as curate and parish priest in the area for over forty years. During his time as priest in the parish the Rev. Mackel became renowned for his ability to cure people from a variety of diseases. Better still, this much loved and revered priest did not discriminate on grounds of denomination, but shared his gifts equally with all. The man’s renown did not wane after his death, as the memoirs tell us, ‘. . . even after his demise, his grave is repaired to by hundreds of persons from various parts of the counties of Derry, Antrim, Tyrone, Down and Donegal, and after some ceremony of prayer be observed . . .an parcel of earth is taken from his grave, its tea subsequently given as drinks to the patient and the clay afterwards applied to the part of the body complained of or afflicted.’ Pilgrims to the grave testified confidently that the cures were as effectual as when the priest was alive. Furthermore, the Revd. Mackel’s grave became such a popular site for pilgrimage that ‘at present there is scarce a covering left on his coffin’.

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