In light of the visit of Pope Francis to Ireland recently, it may be worthwhile to look at the religious topography of the county, in particular at some of the many holy wells located around Sligo.
Holy wells tend to date from pre-Christian times and were places where people used to pray and leave simple offerings. Many were also noted for the healing powers associated with the well’s waters, and some came to be known for their connections with local saints.
Some of these holy wells are located on private land, so will require the agreement of the landowner before visiting them. There is a wealth of information on the internet on how to access them, some of it quite complicated due to their location, so we would ask you to find directions online should you decide to visit one.
Below we describe four holy wells, but there are many more around the county, over 100 in Co. Sligo alone, so you may find one near you that you didn’t know about.
Thanks to Tamlyn McHugh of Fadó Archaeology for providing help and information on their background. You can find Holy Wells of North West Ireland on Facebook, where you will find a wealth of further information both on these and other holy wells, and directions to them.
Tobernalt Holy Well – Carraroe
Probably Sligo’s best known holy well, located just a few kilometres from the town itself. Tobernalt predates the arrival of Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century. Tobar is the Irish word for Well, Alt translates as Joint, so it may be that there were curative links to the well here from early times. During penal times, when the celebration of mass was prohibited, the faithful came to places like Tobernalt to celebrate mass, under constant threat of persecution. In modern times, commemorations take place here and at many other holy wells on Garland Sunday, the last Sunday in July.
St Farannan’s Well – Easkey
Located in the townland of Doonalton, near Easkey in West Sligo, St. Farannon’s Well is in a very beautiful, peaceful setting in woodland along the Ballymeeny River, with a stunning waterfall and in close proximity to the sea. Also known as St. Ernan’s Well, the access path leads from the river up the steep slope to the well and passes a natural rocky shelf, which according to tradition, is known as the ‘Saint’s Bed’, where the hermit saint is said to have slept. Offerings such as coins, holy statues and a water rolled stone could be found on this rocky shelf.
On the other side of the river is a natural rock outcrop with a flat slab which was used as an altar.
St Colmcille’s Well – Doonierin
Colmcille, or Columba, has close ties with north Sligo, and the church in Drumcliffe is among several to bear his name, as patron saint of the locality. This holy well is situated in sandflats along the shore at Doonierin in Drumcliffe Bay is St Colmcille’s Well. This miraculous well springs up from the seabed and is enclosed by a low stone wall with a small gap to allow access to the emerging spring water. The seaweed covered well is only visible and accessible during low tide. The only clue that it is there during high tide is a stick that protrudes from the sea to indicate its location. Seashore wells were often covered by the tide, with some consisting of tidal water gathering in a hollow in the rocks. Other wells are in coastal sea caves that are inaccessible at high tide. At low tide on June 9th on the saints feast day, pilgrims perform rounds at the well in bare feet before drinking from the spring water bubbling up from the sand.
Tullaghan Hill Well – Coolaney
Also known as the Hawk’s Well, this is located in a remote part of the Ox Mountains. It sits within a wall of stones, and along with a nearby penitential cairn, is positioned inside a cliff-edge fort. For many years its abandoned look would suggest it was of little importance, but according to the voicesfromthedawn.com website, for many generations, pilgrims travelled to the site of this well is search of the curative powers derived from the well’s waters. Some consider the Tullaghan Well as initially the site of a pagan Celtic festival to the Goddess Áine, a place that has been sacred for at least two thousand years.