Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you all! You’re probably well aware of Ireland’s most internationally celebrated holiday, held on March 17th to honor the patron saint Patrick, but what do you know of Ireland’s holy women? Women who slew dragons, performed miracles, and leveled fortresses single-handedly. Such a woman was St. Gobnait, celebrated in the town of Ballyvourney, every 11th of February.
Celeste Ray has spent the past decade studying Ireland’s saints and visiting hundreds of sacred sites associated with them. A recent National Geographic grant allowed her to return to the field once more, on a year-long expedition to learn more of Ireland’s fearless females, many of whom stem from pagan tradition, and to visit as many as 100 their holy wells.
Holy wells are springs, ponds, or even lakes that are the focus of spiritual devotion. Part of local tradition in Ireland for thousands years, wells are each assigned a saint and are the sites of daily individual prayer and annual celebrations.
Celeste sought to map early saint cults in Ireland though enduring well dedications to determine how well female saints have fared the test of time. After the Anglo-Norman invasion, many wells previously dedicated to Irish female saints were rededicated to the Virgin Mary. That practice, combined with the movement of people, changes in land ownership, and religious battles, threatened to erase all trace of the ancient traditions.
After visiting a total of 250 wells, dedicated to both men and women saints, interviewing over 200 individuals and poring over copies upon copies of unpublished primary documents in county libraries and the National Folklore Collection in Dublin, Celeste successfully confirmed her theories on existing wells dedicated to female saints. The result: Women saints are alive and well in the minds and hearts of the Irish, and the location of wells today paints a picture of faith in the past.
Saint Gobnait’s Day
Not much is verifiably known about Gobnait, but she is said to have lived in the 6th century, to have founded churches, and to have kept bees. She is held as a patroness of health and fertility and of bees and bee-keepers. Annually on February 11th a feast day is held in her honor and hundreds of people gather to attend mass, visit her shrine and drink from the holy wells.
In 2011, Celeste attended the annual holiday event. Roughly 120 people gathered for a prayer service and to make the “rounds” on the saint’s day, though many had begun the evening before when the well waters are believed to be most potent. On the eve of the feast day, nine stations are prepared around the holy well and shrine taking about an hour and a half to visit all of them. At each station one says a set of prayers: 7 Paters (the Our Father), 7 Aves (the Hail Mary), 7 “Glorys be to The Father”, and 1 Creed (the Apostles’ Creed).
Pilgrims begin the rounds at a statue of Saint Gobnait standing atop one of her beehives to reflect upon their prayer requests. The participants drink from the well (uncovered in 1952) and proceeds to the cemetery to visit Gobnait’s grave (possibly a prehistoric structure), circling the mound twice while speaking the applicable prayers. The somber crowd then moves on to several other stations to complete additional sets of prayers.
Celeste describes the experience with rich detail: “…the landscape at once vibrates with the clicking of rosary beads and the murmur of voices repeating familiar and comforting words. The sounds coalesce like the steady and intent hum of St Gobnait’s bees.”
Celeste’s project was particularly interested in learning how well certain saints endured this time of tumultuous change. Before the introduction of Christianity, Ireland was largely pagan. However, with the arrival of early Christians, missionaries preached where people already worshiped and folded pagan places of pilgrimage, including holy wells, into a new faith. Saints replaced pagan deities and existing places of prayer were given a Christian flavor.
Despite Anglo-Norman attempts to replace veneration of Irish female saints with the veneration of the Virgin Mary, and later efforts to suppress well-side rituals and beliefs, dedication to the saints persisted, and they remained regionally significant. The endurance of particular saints became connected to the success of dynasties that were attached to certain territories and their endowment of land for churches and abbeys. For example, Saint Gobnait stopped the spread of the plague to her people in Ballyvourney by drawing a line with her staff along the east end of the parish.
Faith and Science
For many wells, their mysticism extends beyond their connection to a saint. Known for their healing capabilities, some wells were believed to specialize in treating diseases such as tuberculosis and whooping cough. Today they are sought out more for maladies like sore throats, head, back, stomach, and tooth aches, warts, and other skin-related problems, anxiety, and even cancer.
To explain why, researchers looked for answers in the water. Their studies determined that some wells are rich in specific chemicals; for example, waters associated with skin remedies are often high in sulfur, an effective ingredient in acne medication. Wells connected with “strengthening weak children” are generally iron-rich. The wells in County Kerry’s “Valley of the Mad” contain lithium and were effective in treating mental illness.
On a Cold Winter’s Night…
While traveling extensively through Ireland, Celeste recounts her experiences frequenting the homes of local families, listening to their stories of ancient Irish lore and observing traditional rituals held on the saint days and saint day eves. On the eve of St Brigid’s Day, Celeste describes the scene at a well on the last night of January:
“…a few hours into the dark of night, an intergenerational crowd encircles a large, smoky bonfire near the sites of two holy wells dedicated to the saint. Just over 100 participants have gathered outside Kildare town for an annual event celebrating both the ancient Celtic holiday of Imbolc (the beginning of spring) and St Brigid’s day (February 1st). Led by sisters of the Brigidine Order, they bring lanterns and candles to welcome “the light of Brigid” and the end of an unusually cold winter.
Quite literally in spite of the cold, the crowd is sprinkled with water from St Brigid’s nearby healing well. A woman sits by the fire and begins weaving a large St Brigid’s cross of local rushes. As the crowd falls silent— her actions are explained as symbolic ritual labor; she weaves into the cross the dreams and worries of those present.
Chanting the saint’s name, the company stumbles along through the dark and someone loudly calls ‘Brigid?’. Thinking it is a spiritual invocation, I am surprised when my nearest neighbor replies ‘I’m here’ then winks at me and adds ‘I’m Brigid, but not an apparition.’ This is not the usual wellside event I had come to expect in Irish fieldwork.”
Celeste’s research in the field of Irish folklore stands to be one of the most thorough in her field. Her work has edged the world towards a greater understanding of Ireland’s traditional knowledge on saint cults, pagan history, and sacred natural sites. Celeste doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon and continues to preserve ancient Irish history with her ongoing research.
Check out Celeste Ray’s interview on National Geographic Weekend!