An interesting ghost story popped up this week concerning a “holy well” and the spirit who allegedly haunts it. Holy wells appear in many religions’ folklore but primarily Christian and most often in Ireland. However, this particular story comes from England and a northeast county known for its abundance of these holy wells. Is its tourism bureau hoping to attract some paranormal tours once the coronavirus shutdown is ended? What’s the story behind this one and holy wells in general?
“In olden times, pure and reliable water was the staff of life – not that over-rated everyday stuff, bread. The rare places where safe and fresh water sprang miraculously from the ground were known for miles around and were treated with the greatest reverence from pagan times. As the North-East became Christianised, so the springs became regarded as holy wells. Many of them were dedicated to saints whose miraculous intervention was believed to have caused this life-giving water to gush endlessly out of the ground.”
Chris Lloyd writes in the Northern Echo about the pre-Christian origins of pure springs and their subsequent wells in the UK. A quick way to find some is by town or location names like Holywell Burn, Holywell House and Halliwell Beck. The Northern Echo serves the Durham County area, which Lloyd points out is overwhelmed with old holy wells. One in particular, Flass Well on Flass Street, is well-preserved but due for a serious pruning. Why? So visitors can pay their respects to Jeannie, the White Lady of Flass Well.
“According to research by the late Peter Jefferies, in 1789, a maid, Jane Ramshaw, was “decoyed from her house at night and murdered”. The crime caused a sensation. Several men were interviewed, but no culprit was traced, although it is said that some years later, a soldier at the gates of death on a continental battlefield confessed to the murder.”
Jeannie’s alleged ghost, in the form of the ubiquitous White Lady that so many female UK ghosts are named, is said to haunt the well and the nearby miner’s hall. However, Lloyd gives skeptics a reason to not believe – “Flass” is an old local term for “marshy” and the ancient march the area was built on can has long emitted mists that are the source of many white lady myths. Of course, marshes don’t attract tourists … ghosts of Marshas and Jeannies do.
While there are other famous holy wells in Durham (Galilee Well under a 12th century cathedral, St Cuthbert’s Well, St Mary’s Well and St Oswald’s Well), none have a ghost – they’re just sites for wishes, wedding photos, prayers for healings and the like. How about all of those holy wells in Ireland? Well, the website Irish Culture and Customs says there are over 3,000 holy wells in Ireland, many dating back to pre-Christian time when they were considered to be portals to the Otherworld inhabited by gods and the dead, where healing ceremonies took place, sacrifices were made, strange plants grew and supernatural fish often appeared as omens. As in other places, Christian leaders supplanted these tales with more acceptable legends. Perhaps the best of these is the story of the holy well belonging to St. Gobnait, the dragon slayer.
According to National Geographic, Ireland is big on female saints, possibly because pre-Christian Ireland was big on female deities. As a result, early Christian leaders replaced them with women and had them symbolically slay dragons – the preferred symbol of non-Christian religions. One such saint was Gobnait, a 6th century church founder in Ballyvourney who kept bees and was a patron of healthy living, fertility and bee-keepers. A well was discovered in 1952 near her grave and is now the site of pilgrimages. Whie there are no details about the dragon she allegedly slayed, it may have been a symbol for the plague, which Gobnait allegedly stopped at the border of Ballyvourney by drawing a line with her staff on the ground.
How about a ghost?
Yes, there’s a ghost at the well of St. Gobnait – visitors claim to have seen a white (of course) stag roaming around the well.
That’s just one. There are plenty more holy wells and ghosts to look for in Ireland once the coronavirus shutdown ends. You may want to avoid drinking the water for a while – washing or splashing will probably work just as well. Either one is definitely healthier than kissing the Blarney Stone.