Holy Well

The feast day of St Nahi is on the 9th of August, and in times past the people of Blackrock, Co. Dublin would make a pilgrimage or “pattern” every August to a holy well associated with St Nahi at the base of the low sea cliffs at Seapoint, near Blackrock. The water of this well was thought to have miraculous curative properties for ailments and afflictions of the eyes.

The word “pattern” is used in Ireland to refer to a pilgrimage to a holy well or other location associated with a particular saint on that saint’s feast day. This word “pattern” is a variation of the English word “patron” or Irish patrún as in “patron saint”. Beside the well would often be found a tree covered with rags; the tradition was to soak a piece of cloth in the water and tie it to the tree. Some people believe that these devotional practices represent a continuation of a pre-Christian Celtic religion, to which a veneer of Christianity has been added.

This kind of folk religion was largely discouraged and suppressed by the official Catholic church from the 19th century. Although many holy wells all over Ireland remain active sites of devotion, the tradition is completely extinct in South County Dublin. In this part of Dublin (Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown), thanks to suburbanisation and other changes, there remains little trace of any of the wells, or at least none easily accessible to the public.

Today we set out to find St Nahi’s well. In Irish it is Tobar Naithí and it gives its name to Tobernea Terrace, off Seapoint Avenue. Tobernea Terrace is a row of grand 4-storey Victorian houses commanding a spectacular view out across the Bay to Howth. The well is on land belonging to the Scouts (29th Dublin Scout Den Blackrock), and the gates were locked when we arrived.

By sheer good fortune, however, while we were “scouting” for another possible way in, people started arriving and opened the gates. By even greater good fortune, when I inquired about the well, not only were they happy to invite us in to visit the well, but the lady we met was very knowledgeable about the well and its traditions.

The area is moderately overgrown, and the entrance of the tunnel leading to the well is not visible until you are very close. What we found was a large hole at ground level, partially covered by concrete. For safety, a sheet of wire fencing had been placed over the open part, and weighted down with blocks.

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The tunnel appeared to be quite deep (to my regret, we had not brought a torch, so I couldn’t see how deep or wide it is). To my surprise, I could hear the sound of rapidly-flowing water, rather than the stillness I associate with well water. The run-off from the well forms an underground stream flowing under the sports field and the railway and emerging onto the foreshore. Thanks to recent heavy rain, this flow is probably more vigorous than usual.

From down here, the former line of the shore is very evident. Before the railway came through in the 1830s and straightened everything out, this piece of coastline must have been moderately dramatic, forming a small bay between the promontory at Maretimo (Lord Cloncurry’s estate) with its various follies and temples and the promontory at Seapoint with its Martello Tower. This inlet was cut off from the sea by the line of the railway and the resulting reclaimed land is now home to the Scouts den and playing fields.

The red line on the map shows the line of the low cliffs representing the former shoreline. The location of the well is marked as a red dot at the base of the cliffs

Holy Well map

At the top of the former sea cliffs can be seen the 19th-century stone wall of Maretimo, with its whimsical features like castle turrets. Now this wall forms the rear boundary of the houses of Maretimo Gardens.

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There are a few other holy wells in the area. There was one in a field at Ballyman (St Kevin’s well), to which we were taken on a walk from school one day by a teacher called Brian Murphy. It would be interesting to see whether it still exists. There’s St Begnet’s well on the rocky shoreline of Dalkey Island. And there is Lady’s Well in the grounds of Carraig na Gréine, now the Sue Ryder foundation in Dalkey. The well was accessed by a long tunnel from the shore, which I discovered and entered when I was young, but not knowing its purpose I didn’t follow all the way up to the well. The story goes that the 19th-century owner of the house, Charles Leslie, had the tunnel built to allow the public to access the well without walking across his grounds.

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3 thoughts on “Holy Well

  1. If memory serves me right, there is a holy well close to the roundabout between Carrickbrennan Road and Monkstown Avenue in South Co.Dublin.

  2. How interesting Dara – and a funny coincidence that I spent quite some time on Friday just past discussing wells in this area, my brother having scouted out 4 or 5 with a view to placing caches at them.

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