Struell: Bathing at midsummer and the origins of holy wells

Finbar McCormick

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Holy wells are common across much of Europe and are particularly common in Britain and Ireland. They are generally associated with local saints but can also be dedicated to members of the holy family or St. John. They are commonly believed to have curative powers and they are especially frequented on the anniversary of the saint to whom they are dedicated. Devotional activity focused on holy wells was especially important in Ireland as pre-reformation churches passed into Protestant ownership and thus became unavailable for worship for the Roman Catholic majority of the population.

There has been a general assumption that at least some holy wells had their origin in pre-Christian times. This theory can be supported by a late 7th century Life of St Patrick which states that the druids regarded wells as sacred and made offerings to them. Struell wells, County Down, is an early well associated with St Patrick. An 8th century text describes the saint immersed in the well at night, singing psalms and resting on a nearby stone slab during the day. The main devotional activity at the well however, took place on Midsummer Eve rather than on the anniversary of the saint (March 17th). Description from between the 17th and 19th centuries record that large numbers of pilgrims bathed in a naked state in the wells at midsummer.

It can be suggested that these activities are a continuation of pre-Christian midsummer rituals associated with the promotion of good health, not only for humans but also for animals. There are records from Ireland and elsewhere of livestock being bathed at midsummer in order to protect them from illness. Additionally, there are records of early church condemnation of midsummer bathing as such activities were regarded as pagan
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationReligion, Cults & Rituals in the Medieval Rural Environment
EditorsChristiane Bis-Worch, Claudia Theune
Number of pages9
ISBN (Electronic)978-90-8890-488-2
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2017

Publication series

PublisherSidestone Press


  • Struell, hily wells, midsummer, continuation of pre-Christian rituals


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