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How many wells of Saint Patrick are there in Ireland?

On the Tochar Phadraig, the pilgrimage to St. Patrick’s Hill, we find at least two of the famous St. Patrick’s Wells –artificial or natural springs deemed as sacred, associated with the life of Ireland’s patron saint. One of these wells is next to the famed Ballintubber Abbey, and the other one is close to the old Aughagower Abbey. There is another well in Clonmel (Tipperary), another one in Dromard and yet another one in Aughris. And one in Ballyshannon. And another one in Belcoo.

In Dublin, at least six “holy wells” are dedicated to Patrick. One of them, interestingly, is next to Trinity College. Jonathan Swift, the famous author of Gulliver’s Travels, dedicated a few lines to this spring, saying that St. Patrick admonished the alcohol-fueled students causing the well to finally dry up.

But not only St. Patrick has his wells: some of these holy wells commemorate St. Fursey, St. Brigid of Kildare, St. Eoin, St. Declan –all of them being Irish saints of the early Middle Ages. All of these wells are associated with miracles, conversions and healings. Some say there are about three thousand of these wells in the country.

St Patrick's well

Why so many?

Medieval Ireland scholars explain these wells had an important place in Celtic, pre-Christian culture. These were places where the divine communicated with the earthly, and people visited these wells in search of both strength and wisdom. The Irish of antiquity and the early Middle Ages went there to cure their physical and spiritual ills.

As a boy, St. Patrick was kidnapped by pirates and enslaved in pre-Christian Ireland in the 5th century. He escaped and fled back to his home in Britania –that is, Roman England. As an adult, he returned to Ireland as a priest and missionary. His success was probably due to his knowledge of the Celtic culture and customs and his ability to relate them to the Christian message.

Thus, the fountains continued to be a pilgrimage destination, but now being used as baptismal pools and places of Christian instruction. Abbeys and churches were built next to them. Since then, it has become a tradition to visit a holy well on St. Patrick’s Day.

A visit to Purgatory

The most famous of these wells is the one in Donegal, on Station Island, in the middle of Derg Lake. It is the St. Patrick’s Purgatory Well. Since the Middle Ages, it has been the stage and destination of what was considered the most physically demanding of all pilgrimages.

St Patrick's purgatory
Pilgrims getting rowed to Station Island on Lough Derg, County Donegal, Ireland.

In the 12th century, an English Cistercian monk named Henry de Saltrey wrote his Treatise on St. Patrick’s Purgatory, a Latin manuscript that contains a unique legend. According to the text, St. Patrick retired to this island shortly after beginning his mission in Ireland, frustrated because he could not get his message accepted by the Irish. There, he asked God to show him what to do. The story goes that Jesus himself took him by the hand, led him into a cave, and showed him a vertical shaft through which one could enter Purgatory itself.

Probably in the 5th century, one of Patrick’s disciples (the Irish saint Dabheog) founded a monastery on the island at the site where Patrick would have had this vision. The cave was shut in 1632 when English Protestants ruled Ireland, as they disbanded the religious orders and banned pilgrimages. Nevertheless, the testimonies and descriptions of many pilgrims of that time have survived to this day.

But restricting access to the island led devotees to “reclaim” the lake’s shore. Today, a remarkable 12-kilometer trail runs along this route. It is a perfect alternative, especially when bad weather prevents navigation.

Today the monastery is a spiritual retreat center run by the Diocese of Clogher and receives about 11,000 visitors a year. The route along the lakeshore is perfectly described by John O. Dwyer in his guide Pilgrim Paths of Ireland.

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