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Centuries of Belief: Evidence in the Irish Landscape

Ireland has a predominantly Catholic population. The religion is understood to have been brought to Ireland in the early fifth century by the country’s patron saint, St. Patrick. Prior to the introduction of Christianity, the Irish people had a very different belief system of which little is now known. Although Irish people accepted Christianity, they were slow to give up their old beliefs entirely. We can see vestiges of these old beliefs across the Irish landscape in the form of holy wells. These wells were considered sacred places to the pre-Christian Irish and so were amalgamated into the new belief system. There are an estimated 3000 holy wells in Ireland, many of which have had a shrine to the Virgin Mary added to Christianise the site. 

 In a testament to the longevity of the collective memory of the Irish people, there are still many, arguably pagan, rituals carried out at these sites. Rags are often tied to nearby trees as a sort of votive offering, others, such as Tobarin Sul at Lough Ine in West Cork, are known to have specific healing powers and are visited by the sick. These wells are still very much in use in the twenty-first century and have annual religious ceremonies led by local priests.

A particularly picturesque and historically significant well is Tobar Ciaran in Cape Clear Island, eight miles off the West Cork coast. The well is named after Saint Ciaran, who was born on the island and is overlooking the North Harbour. It sits next to, what is thought to be, an iron age standing stone, engraved with the Catholic cross as well as a large grotto which includes a statue of the Virgin Mary. This site clearly illustrates how early Irish beliefs have been kept alive in parts of rural Ireland. 

By Erica McCarthy – Blogger & Archaeologist 

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