Tag Archives: Irish; Struel wells

Custom demised: Visiting Downpatrick’s wells on Midsummer’s Eve, County Down

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Midsummer is a time often associated with visiting wells. In the July 1817 Hibernian Magazine it is reported:

“At Struel, near Downpatrick, there is a ceremony commencing at twelve o’clock at night on Midsummer Eve. Its sacred mount is consecrated to St. Patrick ; the plain contains three wells, to which the most extraordinary virtues are attributed.”

The account continues:

“Here and there are heaps of stones, around some of which appear great numbers of people, running with
as much speed as possible ; around others crowds of worshippers kneel with bare legs and feet as an indispensable part of the penance. The men, without coats, with handkerchiefs on their heads instead of hats, having gone seven times round each heap, kiss the ground, cross themselves, and proceed to the hill ; here they ascend, on their bare knees, by a path so steep and rugged that it would too difficult to walk up. Many hold their hands clasped at the back of their necks, and several carry largo stones on their heads. Having repeated this ceremony seven times, they go to what is called St. Patrick’s Chair, which are two great flat stones fixed upright in the hill ; here they cross and bless themselves as they step in between these stones, and, while repeating prayers, an old man, seated for the purpose, turns them round on their feet three times, for which he is paid; the devotee then goes to conclude his penance at a pile of stones, named the Altar. “

The report concludes by stating:

“While this busy scene is continued by the multitude, the wells and streams Issuing from them arc thronged by crowds of halt, maimed, and blind, pressing to wash away their infirmities with water consecrated by their patron saint, and so powerful is the impression of its efficacy on their minds, that many of those who go to be healed, and who are not totally blind, or altogether crippled, really believe for a time that they are by means of its miraculous virtues perfectly restored.”

Image result for downpatrick stoole "st patrick's chair"

Francis Dixon Hardy in his 1840 Holy Wells of Ireland provides greater details;

“About one mile and a half to the east of Downpatrick, and within about half a mile of Slieve-na-Grideal, one of the most celebrated of the ancient Pagan high places is a hill of about 150 feet of perpendicular elevation, called Struel Mountain, which remains uncultivated, producing a little mixture of grass and shamrock, with a few hawthorns, and an abundant crop of furze. At the foot of this hill, which is looked upon as holy ground, at about two miles distance, a monastery, built, as it is said, by St. Patrick and St. Bridget, formerly stood; near which is a well, bearing the name of the former saint, and supposed to possess extraordinary virtues, both in healing the diseases of the body, and in cleansing the pollutions of the soul; a sacred stream, supplied by this spring, runs unpolluted by any other stream until it arrives at Struel. It then flows through the consecrated plain, by a channel covered over with flags and large stones, and supplies in its course two of the four wells which it originally fed. Two of these wells, which are in a higher situation, appear to have been formed by hollowing out a little ground near the course of the rivulet; while the water enters the other two by spouts, having a fall of three feet into one, and six into the other. To these there are coverings in the form of sentry-boxes; the covering of the third is of the form and size of a moderate pig-sty; and that of the fourth is a kind of little cottage, consisting of two apartments.”

He continued rather disparagingly:

“To this place about one thousand people resort every midsummer, for the purpose of doing penance. They come from all parts of Ireland, and even from England and Scotland. Besides these, there is always a large crowd of spectators, amounting probably to another thousand. For the comfort and accommodation of both, a number of tents are erected in the plain, where whiskey is sold, and entertainment of every kind is afforded. The ceremonies commence upon the Sunday preceding, and commonly end upon the Sunday succeeding midsummer-day. As it is not necessary, however, that each penitent should continue here during all this period, few remain longer than one half of the week. The latter half seems to be regarded as the more holy; for the place is, during that time, more frequented, particularly on the last day, which is for that reason called “big Sunday.” No one appears to act as a general superintendent, but the multitudes appear to be left to themselves in submitting to the penance, and performing the ceremonies with which it is connected.”

Downpatrick Struell wells By Ardfern – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8104076

He continues:

“This portion of the penance being over, the penitents descend into the plain, where they move round certain cairns of stones, some crawling, and others running, as before. Each individual, however, must here carry a stone, which he adds to the heap. These cairns are in groups of seven and twelve, which respectively denote the days of the week, and the months of the year; or, as some will have it the seven churches and the twelve apostles. Around these they go seven times, or seven times seven, and twelve times, or twelve times twelve – measured as before by their various degrees of criminality. The next part of the ceremony is to proceed to the large well, termed the body-well, or, by some, the well of sins.  Before entering it, however, they approach with profound reverence a flag of freestone, which is placed in the wall, and is possessed of some peculiarly sanctifying powers. This they touch with their fingers, and then cross themselves repeatedly, and thus become prepared for the purifications of the holy wells. If they can afford a few pence of admission money, they may enter the larger well, where they have room to undress if not, they must content themselves with the second or limb-well, into which they are admitted free of expense, being obliged, however, to strip themselves in the adjoining fields. All modesty is here thrown aside. As they approach the well, they throw off even their undergarments, and with more than Lacedemonian indifference, before the assembled multitudes, they go forward in a state of absolute nudity, plunge in, and bathe promiscuously. After such immersion, they go through the ceremony of washing- their eyes, and conclude the whole by drinking from the fourth well, called by some the well of forgetfulness, and by others the water of life.”

Like many customs involving large numbers the side entertainments developed:

“Thus end the ceremonies of the day. Those of the evening follow, and form a remarkable contrast. The employments of the day seem to be considered as the labours of virtue, those of the evening are her rewards, by which they are amply compensated. Their eyes, after having been bathed in the sacred stream, instantly discover the flowery path of pleasure, which conducts them to the tents prepared for their reception, where they are supplied with copious draughts, of which the water of life was but a faint emblem. In these tents, and in the adjoining fields, under the canopy of a pure sky, they spend the whole night, quaffing the soul-inspiring beverage, and indulging in various gratifications to which the time and place are favourable; for it is understood, that while the jubilee continues, and as long as the happy multitudes remain on the sacred ground, they cannot contract new guilt.”

Sadly, no more, the springs remain but few people visit at Midsummer. They continued until the 19th century but a combination of a drop in water levels and prohibition of devotional exercises by the ecclesiastical authorities due to rowdy behaviour meant the custom slowly died out. People still visit the wells but perhaps the springs are now doomed as 2006 Environment and Heritage Service officials stated that the wells were drying up and two no longer contained water.