In Honour of Nature: The Sacred Well in a New Time
By Mary Shanahan
Ballyheigue, Co. Kerry: Lumenium, 2007
Review by Carl McColman
I love Irish holy wells. The sacred wells dedicated to St. Brigid in Kildare and Liscannor; Tobernault near Sligo; and Tober Phadraig near Clonmel are some of the most beautiful and moving spiritual sites I’ve ever visited — and these are just a few of the natural water sources in Ireland that have been venerated as places of healing and spiritual presence for ages untold. Emerging out of pagan water worship, the holy wells appear at various points in Celtic mythology as sacred power centers, sites where wisdom could be gained or communication with the gods might occur. With the coming of Christianity these ancient sacred sites were not suppressed but transformed, and where once people sang praises to their local fertility deities, later generations would recite the rosary and offer prayers to the Son of God and the Mother of God. Anyone interested in Celtic wisdom, Celtic Christianity, and points of continuity between indigenous and Christian spirituality will find holy wells to be places of simple yet profound spiritual nourishment.
Part of what makes the holy well tradition so special is its emphasis on the local and the particular. Each holy well is unique, with its one-of-a-kind natural setting and its own particular folklore and “pattern” (ritual of prayers and movement, which might include, as an example, reciting the rosary while walking clockwise around the well 9 times). Christianity, like the other “great” world religions, emphasizes what is universal and cosmic in significance, but the veneration of holy wells remains oriented more toward what is distinctive and singular about each individual water source.
With this in mind, Mary Shanahan’s booklet In Honour of Nature is a lot like the wells it celebrates: the author has made no attempt to exhaustively discuss holy wells throughout Ireland or even throughout a single county; rather this work zeroes in on seven wells in the northern part of County Kerry, in the lovely southwest of Ireland. Co. Kerry, like several other of Ireland’s westernmost counties, is a place where the traditional Irish language and folklore has against insurmountable odds survived, even if terribly threatened by the crushing power of English language and modern culture. So Kerry is a wonderful setting for those of us who believe that the old Irish ways have a lot to say to our troubled time. In Honour of Nature provides insight into the nature and scope of well veneration, offers directions to each of the wells profiled (with a warning that some of them are on private property!), tells the story of each well, points out what is distinctive about the well, and offers a wealth of background information on various aspects of Irish wisdom, from Sheela-na-Gigs to tree folklore. Points for personal reflection and an array of gorgeous photographs round out this handsome guide. In Honour of Nature, available from the author’s website, would be most useful for anyone planning a visit to Co. Kerry — but even armchair travelers with a love for Ireland and Celtic wisdom will enjoy reading this small treasure.