The church ruins
Of all the wells throughout Ireland dedicated to Saint Patrick, the Struell wells must be the most famous. It is said that Saint Patrick travelled throughout Ireland using wells to baptize his new converts and in some cases to demonstrate the power of God with healing acts or with expressions of powerful piety and dedication. In most cases the stories of saints who stood waist deep in lakes and who dug themselves into snow while saying the office or singing hymns where stories that were told to teach people about the problems of extreme asceticism and to warn them not to fall into the same trap. Rather than being a good example to the faithful, they were held up as examples of how extremism can even drive the saints to madness. Today they are often read as powerful examples of the dedication of saints, but they were never originally meant to be understood in this way. At Struell wells however, there is a story of how Patrick used to bathe under a fountain of flowing water and although this story is not quite in the same vein as the others, when you feel the coldness of the water at Struell wells you can easily imagine that it might have been seen as an act of extremism or ridiculous, foolhardy piety. It is said that one day while bathing here, Saint Patrick was heard to sing through the psalms from his morning office and from this point on, as a place where Patrick sang and prayed, the waters have forever since been considered holy.
The eye well
The Struell wells are situated just outside the town of Downpatrick and close to Saul and they were once a site of pilgrimage that was famous throughout all of Europe. It’s likely that this is the site described as a ‘fertile fountain’ in Saint Fiacc’s eighth century hymn of the life of Saint Patrick. Initially the site was conceived as a place of penance and pilgrims would make a circuit of a stony area around Saint Patrick’s chair (now destroyed) before bathing the eyes for spiritual sight and the feet in hope of the obedience of following Christ and the head in hope of being Christ-like. By the late medieval period the wells had become associated with healing properties, which is also the period of the first clear references to the sites existence as a significant pilgrimage site. During the sixteenth century to the nineteenth century there are numerous records of many thousands of pilgrims visiting the wells, particularly around the time of the feasts of John the Baptist (due to his close association with baptism).
The drinking well
The site is the most extensive holy well site in all of Ireland and is nestled in a small valley with woodland on one side and a steep, rocky hill on the other. The name ‘Struell’ comes from the Irish ‘an tSruthail’, which means ‘the stream’ and the site is essentially four buildings with a stream directed through a system of underground culverts. There are the ruins of a church built into a portion of the wall beside the drinking well/Mother Well. This chapel was dedicated to Saint Patrick and it is this chapel that is mentioned in the late medieval period as being part of the well site for pilgrims. The current chapel remains were started in the mid eighteenth century, but for whatever reason were never completed. Beside this church is what is known as the drinking well or ‘Mother Well’ (at one time also a place to bathe your feet) which incorporates an ancient stone bearing an inscribed cross (none of the buildings at the site today is thought to pre-date the seventeenth century when the site was heavily restored). The central well is called the eye well, which is a small square building in the middle of the flat, grassed area, and here the water divides to feed the bath houses. The men’s bath house is a large stone structure with a barrel vaulted stone roof. The echo of the thundering water into the large stone tank is quite something, especially when it’s almost pitch black inside. The women’s bath house is separate from where the water comes out, which is a small stone building now with a missing roof.
The men's bath house
The site was most popular during the sixteenth century when many descriptions are given of pilgrims arriving with tents to partake of the alcohol and rich foods on offer while observing patterns at the wells. By the early nineteenth century pilgrims were being charged to enter the bath houses. Normal pilgrims could partake freely of the waters from the drinking well and the eye well, but moneyed pilgrims paid a handsome sum to enter the large bath house to immerse themselves fully in the waters by using a sluice to contain it in the stone tank. They could also use the smaller women’s bath house to discreetly bathe limbs without the intrusions of the other rabble pilgrims. By the late nineteenth century it was all to come to a grinding halt. The Roman Catholic Church throughout the entire island of Ireland chose to outlaw any gatherings, patterns and even prayers at holy wells, preaching against the gluttony and over indulgence of the people who frequented the sites and against the ‘naked rollicking’. Patterns and gatherings at holy well sites in Ireland were tolerated by the Episcopalian church (which in many ways ensured its survival; certainly in respect of sites like Saint Declan’s in Ardmore, County Waterford), generally ignored by the Presbyterians (although they did gather significant amounts of saintly lore and poetry in Irish) and of little or no consequence to other churches of the reformed tradition at the time. The thinking of the Roman Catholic church was that this superstitious practice had no place in a newly emancipated Catholic Ireland and gatherings where the Irish language was both used and propagated was considered to be repugnant and backward by many in the hierarchy of the church. These attitudes were to persist for quite some time, up to and including the period immediately after the Easter Rising when even some of the republican politicians expressed such views. Oddly things have swayed the other direction: the Roman Catholic church is experiencing a revival in relation to holy well sites and it is becoming more understanding of the imagery and allusion of the ancient records of the lives of the Irish saints, while the churches and clergy of the Reformed tradition are often the more dismissive of such practices, calling them ‘pagan’ or ‘superstitious’ but more worryingly, deliberately neglecting significant archaeological sites and holy wells and allowing them to fall into the most terrible states of disrepair. Overall the effect of the attitudes of the churches in Ireland to their own holy sites has been nothing short of appalling, neglectful and at times even criminal. Many holy well sites connected to prominent saints and important archaeological and religious sites (such as monasteries and abbey’s) have now been lost forever and at one time Struell Wells looked like it might be in trouble too.
The women's bath house
In recent years this site has been much neglected, but pressure was brought to bear on the Environment and Heritage Service in Northern Ireland in 2006 and they were at one point publicly asked to explain why such an important well site had been allowed to fall into such disrepair and why they had allowed the underground culverts to fall into such a state of collapse as to allow the wells to go dry. From this point on great efforts were made to raise awareness of the site and its importance and good signage has been produced and repairs have been made to the underground culverts allowing the water to flow vigorously once again.
The stone tank of the men's bath house
Here would be a good and appropriate place to recite a psalm once sung by Patrick that captures part of the original concept of this place.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
According to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,
So that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgement.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being;
Therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation,
And my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
If I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
Then you will delight in right sacrifices,
In burnt offerings and in whole burnt offerings;
Then bulls will be offered on your altar.
The fountain in the women's bath house
Nearby is the town of Downpatrick in this area so closely associated with Saint Patrick who is said to have spent time in this area learning the entire psalmody by rote. Down Cathedral has long been considered the burial site of Saint Patrick and the Cathedral is built on the site of a monastery that can trace its abbots and bishops back to 753AD. The monastery suffered a dreadful Viking raid in 1016 which almost spelled its end. Over time the monastery became a parish church and it’s round tower, which had been struck by lightning and burned, was in a dangerous state of collapse. In 1790 the remains of the round tower and the old monastery were incorporated into the present structure of the Cathedral which held its first service in 1818 and was finally completed in 1829. The present Cathedral is a peculiar building with some pleasant vistas and good features (including an ancient Irish High Cross situated to the front of the exterior of the building); but it has a most unsatisfactory sanctuary that almost disappears beside the fine pews and glittering stained glass. It is unfortunately, by virtue of its period and benefactors, something of a Masonic Temple monument, but as a Cathedral it still manages to be a quiet spiritual space.
Towards the end of his life Patrick knew that he was becoming seriously and terminally ill and he expressed a desire to die in Armagh. However, he was unable to make it there due to his rapidly ailing health and was instead tended by Bishop Tassach near Saul in his final days. One of his biographers, Muirchu, describes the scene of his burial at Down when the Bishops decided to place his body on a cart drawn by two large untamed bulls which were permitted to draw the cart wherever they wished and wherever they stopped they would bury the saint and erect a suitable church or monastery. The bulls and cart with the body of Saint Patrick on it came to a stop near the top of the hill at Down, where the Cathedral now stands.
An Irish High Cross
The shrine of Saint Patrick was of great significance for the area and attracted a great number of pilgrims but was destroyed numerous times throughout history, although the remains of the body where preserved. At some point in the late medieval period the remains of Saint Patrick were interred alongside Saint Columcille and Saint Brigid, although the shrine erected around this grave site was destroyed soon after. From this point on the site was simply and crudely marked until a prominent member of the Belfast Naturalist’s Field Club procured a suitably large and well shaped slab of granite to mark the grave site in 1900. This granite slab still marks the site today and is now inscribed with a cross and the name of Saint Patrick.
The grave shrine of Saint Patrick, Saint Columcille and Saint Brigid
Almighty God, who in your providence chose your servant Patrick to be the apostle of the Irish people: keep alive in us the fire of faith he kindled and strengthen us in our pilgrimage towards the light of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Saint Patrick in stained glass in Down Cathedral
How to find it:
Struell Wells can be found by entering the town of Downpatrick and following the signs to the hospital. The wells are about two miles out of Downpatrick beyond the hospital complex and the new road and are clearly signposted after passing the hospital. Down Cathedral is clearly visible from the town and is the much smaller church (there is a very large Gothic Roman Catholic Cathedral on the opposite hill). On approaching the Cathedral, take the path up to the left and the triple grave site shrine can be found up the steps to the left near a Yew tree.
An inscribed cross on the wall of the drinking well