St. Attracta’s Well: A Postcard From Early Medieval Ireland

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Wakeman’s 1895 sketch of St. Attracta’s Well, Clogher (Copyright Sligo County Library)

Seeing as today the feast day of a certain Irish St. Attracta, here’s a little something about her from Tírechán’s Collectanea which contains the earliest contemporary reference to her cult, a church site dedicated to her and a particular piece of geological info that amazingly still exists today…

… et fundauit aeclessiam indrum[…] et fontem fodiuit iuxta eam nonhabet flumeninse et dese [..] plenus semper Patini […] etcalix sunt in cella adrochtae [..] [….] talain etipsa accepit pallium demanu patricii…

“and he founded a church in drum[…] and dug a well beside there and no stream flows in itself or from itself, but it is always full. There are patens and a chalice of his in the church of Adrocht (daughter of) Tálán, and she received the veil from the hand of Patrick”

Liber Ardmachanus, fol.13r

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Killaraght Holy Well, Sligo (Image: Author)

Pictured left is the location of an overgrown and half forgotten holy well dedicated to her in Killaraght, in Co. Sligo which corresponds to the Cell Adroctae placename in question. It is just a hop, skip and jump to the south of a modern day cemetery now occupying the original site of a medieval nunnery (SL047-083001-) dedicated to her, which survived until the 16th century.

When I last visited, the grass was so long, I almost fell into it when having a poke around. In addition, it is located on the verge of a very busy narrow road with a ridiculously high-speed limit; at a slight bend which results in much reduced visibility for any pedestrians mad enough to be there in the first place. Which means I took my life in my hands to bring you this picture.

However, it is not the location of the well which is mentioned in the Collectanea.That one lies a few miles away in nearby Clogher…

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St. Attracta’s Well, Clogher, Sligo (Image: Author)

Saint Attracta’s Well at Clogher is well-known with a long folk tradition of veneration within the locality and wider hinterlands. There are early modern cross slabs and several water-rolled cursing stones built into the face of the well monument, while an early modern curvilinear wall encloses a portion of the well in front.

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St. Attracta’s Well – detail (Image: Author)

Rough flag steps lead down to the water surface in a rather steep incline. You have to really descend into the cavity to reach the shallow water surface atop a bed of rock…

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St. Attracta’s Well, Bullaun/Bedrock – (Image: Author)

At which point, you find yourself face to face with a very large natural boulder with a nice round Bullaun depression within…

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St. Attracta’s Well, Bullaun/Bedrock – (Image: Author)

The boulder is part of an outcrop of the underlying bedrock and indeed the well itself is really just the exit point of groundwater bubbling up from below through some sort of rock fracture. Exactly the type of thing that a hagiographer in the seventh century might have used to depict a holy well which is ‘always full’, despite having no stream flowing in or out.

Thirteen hundred years of ritual continuity, hagiography, archaeology and even a bit of geology thrown in for good measure. Sure, what more could you ask for?

Welcome to (just a tiny little bit of) Seventh Century Ireland.

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