Another St Patrick’s Day has slipped by, and I am reminded that although there are several wells associated with saints in and around Galway city, St Patrick, on his many journeys around Ireland, notably in Mayo, passed Galway by.
The principal Galway Patrician site is Maam Éan, the only pass through the Maumturk Mountains which stretch from Killary Bay to a north-west inlet of Lough Corrib. Without this pass (a pleasant walk signposted from the main Galway/Clifden road, or from the other side of the mountains, signposted on the Maam Bridge/Leenane road ), it was a long way round for drovers and shepherds, travellers and pilgrims.
An attractive statue ‘St Patrick the Shepherd’ by Cliondhna Cussen marks the place where St Partick is believed to have blessed the well there, and spent the night on a rock bed, all of which are visible today. There is a small oratory where Mass is celebrated on March 17 and on the last Sunday in July which marks the ancient pre-Christian festival of Domhnach Chrom Dubh or Garland Sunday. There is a strong tradition that the saint climbed to the pass from the Joyce countryside.
Other Galway wells associated with our national saint include Tobar Pádraig at Kiltormer, St Patrick’s Well at Templetogher ( with its interesting flagstone called ‘The Knee’ ), and Tobairín Pháraic, near Milltown where tradition again tells us that St Patrick stopped and prayed on his way to Kilbennan.
Wells were revered in pagan times, and valued for their purity. Later it was customary for Christian saints to bless wells, and to baptise converts with the water of ‘new life’. Many of these wells became associated with cures of one kind or another. the well in Galway city most closely associated with a cure for eye ailments (and other illnesses which I will mention in a moment ), is St Augustine’s Well on the city side of Lough Atalia, recently renovated and clearly marked by the Galway Civic Trust.
Traditionally, and tradition is everything in the Christian church, it is believed there were two other wells on the Lough Atalia shore dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and to St John the Baptist respectively. So why has only one survived today? Local historian Peadar O’Dowd in an article in the recent Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society Journal (Volume 60: 2008 ), tells us of his attempts to find out where they have gone. He notes that in James Hardiman’s famous history of Galway the three wells are classed simply as ‘St Augustine’s wells.’ An Augustinian friary was founded on the hill looking down on Lough Atalia in 1508. Because the location also offered a commanding view of ships approaching the harbour, Elizabethan authorities took over the friary and changed it to a garrison which today is still known as Fort Hill..
A well was discovered more than 30 years ago when CIE converted a large field to the north of the present Forthill Cemetery into a rail goods siding, but it was covered up again. There is no present day record of a third well. But why is the present ‘St Augustine’s Well’ so far from Fort Hill? The antiquarian scholar Máire Mac Neill* writes that either the original Augustinian friary stretched further along the hill than the site at Fort Hill suggests; or that there was probably an earlier religious house on the site. Furthermore, she believes that the three wells were established before the friary was built, and the surviving well adopted the name ‘Augustine’. Mac Neill suggests that it was probably an attempt to replace a pagan Domhnach Chrom Dubh site with a Christian name.
Whatever its origins, the present St Augustine’s well was long a place of pilgrimage and veneration. Mac Neill tells us that during the Cromwellian régime, a crowd of pilgrims at the well were, by the governor’s orders, fired upon. Some of them were severely injured while others were stripped of their clothes and goods, and taken into prison.
The other great Galway historian, Roderic O’Flahertty **tells us of the miraculous cure of Patrick Lynch, the 14 years old son of a merchant, at St Augustine’s Well on the feast of St Barnabie, June 11 1673. The poor lad hadn’t eaten since the previous Easter, having been stricken by a vomiting disease. His family despaired of saving his life, and in desperation he was brought to the well, and totally submerged in the water. He was taken out and wrapped in a blanket by Mary Burke, where he fell asleep. After a quarter of an hour his mother woke him only to be scolded by the boy who wept and said that he was enjoying a dream of ‘our Lord Jesus Christ and his blessed mother and a multitude of brave winged birds’. The boy asked for a cup of water, from which he drank three times in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Then he got up and walked around the well telling his mother that ‘he was advised’ to visit the well every day for nine days and to drink its water three times a day.
Since that day young Patrick was cured of his vomiting disease, and “douth eath and drinke ever since with a grat apetit and desire, and douth slipe well”. His cure was witnessed by an impressive list of worthies including the warden of Galway, priests, and leading trading families.
In recent times, however, the water from St Augustine’s Well has been associated with a cure for eye ailments. But it is rarely visited for this reason. I suppose the growth of such businesses as Specsavers and the care of ophthalmologists has lessened our need for a ‘cure’. But we all like a little magic. Peadar O’Dowd includes a recent list of witnesses who remember either going to the well as children, or watching others do so in the hope of a miraculous cure,
* The Festival Of Lughnasa - A study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the beginning of the harvest, by Máire Mac Neill, first published 1982.
** West or H-Iar Connaught published 1846.