The sacred and the body politic at Ireland’s holy wells

International Social Science Journal (Chinese Edition)
No.1, 2013
The sacred and the body politic at Ireland’s holy wells
Celeste Ray
Holy wells are springs or other water sources that are foci for spiritual devotion, and as the archaeological record indicates, have remained such for millennia though the religious beliefs celebrated wellside have come and gone. The Irish economic boom of the 1990s and agricultural reforms have resulted in the destruction of many wells. Others remain sites of daily Catholic devotions and of annual “patterns”, or Patron days, honouring locally- or regionally-venerated saints and affirming community identities. Known for healing properties, a well’s association with specific ailments attracts particular pilgrims who perform syncretic folk-liturgies in a clockwise circuit and often deposit votive offerings. Wellside liturgies have been alternately encouraged and suppressed over the longue durée. Today, the increasing presence of international spiritual tourists and neopagans, and their introduction of new types of wellside rituals, contests the sacrality and community ownership of these numinous landscapes. For Irish families who have ritually maintained particular wells for generations, landscape, liturgy and identity are all mutually constitutive. These family stewards worry that “inappropriate” visitation and rituals may cause wells to lose their thaumaturgical power.