Friday 4 February 2022

St Brigid's Well in Donegal

Saint Brigid, like many Irish saints, has holy wells dedicated to her throughout the country. These sites were an important part of popular Irish devotion to the saints, and often involved the performance of set rituals on the saint's feast day plus the use of the well water for therapeutic purposes.  These activities could be rather shocking though to observers from outside the rural Catholic communities which practised them. Nineteenth-century writer Mary Frances Cusack (1829–1899), defended holy wells against the charge that their use and the rituals surrounding them were no more than pagan superstition: Ireland, the people happen to believe that God hears the prayers of saints more readily than their own; and acting on the principle which induced persons, in apostolic times, to use "handkerchiefs and aprons" which had touched the person of St. Paul as mediums of cure, because of his virgin sanctity, in preference to "handkerchiefs and aprons" of their own, they apply to the saints and obtain cures. But they do not believe the saints can give what God refuses, or that the saints are more merciful than God. They know that the saints are His special friends, and we give to a friend what we might refuse to one less dear. Lege totum si vis scire totum, is a motto which writers on national customs should not forget

 M.F. Cusack, An Illustrated History of Ireland (London, 1868), p.105.

The article below is from a 1936 Australian newspaper which describes a Donegal holy well dedicated to Saint Brigid. Interestingly, the emphasis here is less on Ireland's patroness and more on Ireland's experience of religious persecution in the centuries following the Reformation. For this well has an inscribed stone recording that "Father James Gallagher said his last Mass in Penal Days at Tobar Brighde." Although the 'Mass Rock' is the most iconic outdoor setting for Mass in the Penal times, holy wells also served this function and form part of its folklore. There are stories, for example, of strange mists descending at wells which hid the celebrants from the prying eyes of the 'priest hunter'. The account below suggests that in 1936 the popularity of Saint Brigid's well was undimmed, with Sunday the most popular day for visiting:



In the heart of the Finn Valley, in Donegal, is the Well of St. Brigid. Eager workers from in and around Clady, the nearby little village across the Tyrone border, have now fashioned a grotto near the Well, and placed there a statue of the saint. Below the grotto, in black letters on a white slab, is the simple inscription: "Father James Gallagher said his last Mass in Penal Days at Tobar Brighde."

This Well links the people of the Valley of the Finn with the not too distant days when the heads of priests were bought for a few pounds and the more distant times when the work of saints like Brigid made possible the triumphant bridge that has been built ever the Penal Days. On Sundays there is a constant stream of visitors, and last Sunday made a record. Motor cars, cycles, and horse-drawn vehicles were parked along the road sides.

A circular wall has been built around the well five feet high, with coping stones on top, set in cement. Over the grotto covering there is a construction of rough stones, and on top a Celtic cross. At one side of the well is the raised grotto containing the Saint's statue, and again on the right is another with a statue of Our Lady. 

LINK WITH PENAL DAYS (1936, December 10). Examiner (Launceston, Tas. : 1900 - 1954), p. 9.

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