blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Holy Water

When we arrive at the well, the gate does not give. Relief shows on my husband’s face as I head back to the car. Another couple pulls in, just then, and emerge from their car with a bucket and trowels. They’re here to tend a grave—or several graves, more probably—and are as likely to know as many underground as seated in Considine’s pub across the way.

“When does the holy well open?” I don’t like to bother strangers, but my husband isn’t one for shrines and the cottage we’ve rented is an hour up the coast and I can’t be certain we’ll pass this away again.

“Oh, it never closes.” The man leads me back to the gate, reaches over and unclicks the latch. He must help a hundred tourists a year but does so with good cheer. “There you are,” he says.

Saint Brigid’s Well lies on a much-traveled road south of the Cliffs of Moher. We’d pulled away from the admission booths and visitor center at the Cliffs, driven past O’Brien’s Tower and the Hag’s Head—until Liscannor Bay came into view. We’d gorged on beauty after only a few days of Irish coastline. The views of the sea and stretches of green fields with roses spilling onto stone walls had repeated themselves so often a sluggishness had set in and we let them pass without mention.

“Just in there now.” The man motions past the life-sized statue of Saint Brigid, toward a whitewashed building set against the hill. This is the Ula Ă­ochtarach, or lower sanctuary. The tunnel-like grotto is open at the rear where water trickles in through layers of stone, and the boughs of an overhead tree tied with strips of cloth provide a bright canopy. A clootie tree, it’s called, and, like holy wells, such trees can still be found in Celtic sites throughout the British Isles. But I only learn this after the fact. I know nothing as the man nods a final time before turning back, leaving me to step into the grotto.


The body is more water than anything else. We learned this in grade school, along with the names of oceans and seas and major rivers of the world. We were given maps of the continents and maps of the body and used the same blue crayon to color the Atlantic Ocean as the cytoplasm in a human cell. If our teachers were especially committed, they listed the percentages of water in our major organs:

Heart and brain–73%
Muscles and kidneys–79%

Even the bones! we cried, thinking of Halloween skeletons and the dryness of cookies without milk. Yes, they nodded. Even the bones. Water insulates, they said. It helps to regulate temperature, to metabolize food, and to flush waste. It lubricates the joints, protects the organs, and provides safe harbor for human offspring. It’s the building block of each of our trillions of cells.

Water is holy. Our teachers did not say this. They would not sully their science lessons with such a word. But neither could they restrain their reverence for a substance with a greater hold on us than our own mothers.


When a Catholic enters a church, she dips her fingers into a font near the entrance and crosses herself. This is a holdover from the days when people walked through dusty lands to get to church. Stones caught in their sandals. The sun flared overhead. Cypress trees offered only needles of shade. The faithful arrived sweat streaked and cleaned themselves in basins or simple fountains placed near entrances for that purpose. Centuries later, the Catholic performs a vestige of this act. She gathers water with the pink of her fingertips. It’s nearly magnetic, the way the droplets cling to her flesh. She brings her fingers to her forehead, her breastbone, and along the collarbone at left and right shoulder to make the sign upon her body.

She does not think as she does this. Water is closer than thought. She was sealed in its chamber as she tumbled forth in the spring of her mother’s womb—back when her arms and legs were only buds and the slits in her flesh looked like gills. Back before she was a woman or girl and more like a tiny fish.


It’s a reservoir of desire, the well dedicated to Saint Brigid at Liscannor.

Mementos plaster the walls, dangle from rafters, and overflow from every last crevice. Photographs and prayer cards. Crosses and medals. Obituaries and assorted personal objects: a spoon tucked into a tangle of rosaries; a pink teacup buoyed by a baby doll; a blue ribbon marked 2nd Place, Equestrian; laces from a child’s shoe.

A shelf swells with statues. Many are missing hands or elbows or toes. Moisture has penetrated their painted cloaks causing them to rupture and crumble. They stand side by side and lean into each other for support, an army of beleaguered saints. Jesus is plentiful: there are several Sacred Hearts, a Crucified Christ, two Infants of Prague. Saint Theresa and Padre Pio are well represented. A tulip-shaped flame erupts from Jude’s head. A bird perches on Francis’s shoulder. Joseph holds the sleeping child. But no figure is as ubiquitous as the Blessed Mother. The Virgins range in height from a few inches to a foot and are crafted of plaster and ceramic and glass. A Japanese Madonna joins Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and a Virgin with Eastern eyes and an old-world crown. The statues are strung with so many rosaries they nearly disappear under the swath of beads.

My eye lands on a sweet-faced Mary. Moss blooms on her mantle, rendering it the color of river water. Behind her, a framed portrait of Saint Anthony with the Infant, the cheeks of saint and Savior tinted pink. A print of the Immaculate Heart overlaps an image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Snapshots are tucked into the frames: a child crawling on a carpeted floor in a faraway house; an ultrasound image, grainy and dark; a woman from the 1950s, skirt flaring from a fitted waist, hand on hip, striking a saucy pose. These are the sort of framed artwork that once hung on grandmothers’ living room walls—perhaps more than anything, the grotto is a thousand grandmothers’ walls.

The water glints with coins. Sunlight filters through the tree overhead. A tendril of ivy pushes through a crack and grows along the wall. I turn and stare, sensing that something is required of me, but what?

Unsure of what to do, I kneel before the water, wet my fingers and cross myself, as if the well were a stoup and the whole of Ireland a church.


Though the well is devoted to Brigid, water probably flowed from Liscannor before the fifth century, when the saint is said to have been born to an enslaved woman named Brocca. The girl did not have a father so much as a master by whom she and her mother were owned. Brigid was marked early by God. She was suckled by a white cow, could stop the wind and rain, multiplied stores of milk and butter, and healed others—including a leper whose disease was washed away by a cup of blessed water. In this way, Saint Brigid bore striking similarities to the ancient Celtic goddess of the same name. Born at the exact moment of daybreak, the goddess Brigid kept an enchanted orchard from which her bees carried magical honey. Shamrocks appeared wherever she stepped. Thousands of lifetimes ago, the days of the goddess, but the water flowed even before then—back when people had no language for what they found and marked the well with a pile of rocks, the petals of a gentian, the bones of a hare tied to the branches of a hawthorn tree.

Water gurgled as Patrick tramped through Ireland. It flowed as monasteries were built and manuscripts copied and illuminated. It sprung when the Vikings came to plunder, when Henry II set the first royal English foot onto Irish soil, and centuries later, when Cromwell followed suit. The wells kept running as land was confiscated, churches leveled, and the people took to them to ask blessings on what remained. They came to the Liscannor well from the Aran Islands and all over County Clare, chanting prayers and using candles to light their paths.

Even the Protestant landlord partook. When he fell sick in England in 1840, Cornelius O’Brien was said to send for water from the well and credited it with his cure. O’Brien is famous for the observation tower he built at the nearby cliffs but is also believed to have restored the well—providing stone housing, grooming the pathways, and surrounding the sanctuary with an iron fence. Odd perhaps, a Protestant solidifying a site associated with Roman Catholic ritual, but despite the statues and prayer cards, the well belongs to everyone. It never closes, the man had said as he let me in, meaning the well house and the sanctuary, but he might as well have meant the water itself, which came long before and will continue after all of us.


I was brought to the font on a sunny day in autumn. Maples flamed on the streets surrounding Corpus Christi as, inside, the ingredients for baptism were assembled: infant and priest, oil and holy water. Only a father was missing. There was no man at my mother’s elbow, no one to slip a twenty into Father McCabe’s hand after Mass. Metaphorical fathers abounded—the kindly priest, the statues of gospel writers perched along the high altar, even God in heaven—but these were symbols and statues and theological constructs, none of which showed in the snapshots.

My mother had separated from her husband a few years before, but that did not stop her from continuing to present infants for baptism, each arriving with an entirely different set of features. If she was ashamed, she didn’t show it. She came to Mass with her parade of mismatched children and, on a clear Sunday in October, swaddled me in white as the priest invoked the Trinity and poured water three times over my head. Baptism, the Church proclaimed, replaced original sin with the grace of God. But to my mother, the ritual was perhaps less about sin than the blessing of stained glass, holy water, and light.

Even if I’d had a father or siblings whose faces matched my own, the priest would have spoken the same blessing—in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit—while water trickled onto my face and dress and reddish tufts of hair. Water, like sacrament itself, does not change according to who receives it. I might have been a Vanderbilt, a Kennedy, or the child of the goddess Brigid herself—wrapped in raw silk and crowned by honeybees—and the water would have run over my head the same way.


It’s the nature of water to rise and fall. It evaporates from oceans and puddles and fattens the clouds until it returns to earth as snow or rain and runs into rivers and streams and swamps. It’s taken up by the loosestrife growing in the creek and by the fox as he licks the edge of the pond. It’s taken up by buckets and a network of underground pipes. It’s chugged and sweated and spat. It’s filtered by soil and metal tubing and chemical wash. It does not stay put. Rivers meander and break into lakes. Mountaintop streams feed muddy creeks that slog into rivers that head again to the sea, so that the water the fox sips and the loosestrife takes up is the same Patrick used to baptize the slave Brocca, the same Brocca used to wipe the face of her screaming newborn, the same Brigid filtered through chamomile and nettle to make tea for her sister nuns, the same that swirled inside my mother as the man rose from her bed and she turned on her pillow and slept.


On Pentecost, the priest sprinkles the congregation with water. Aspersion, it’s called, and the tool in his hands an aspergillum. He does the same to bless the palms on Palm Sunday, on Easter, at funeral masses, at house blessings, and sometimes, it seems to me, when he’s in a certain celebratory mood. He circles the church, launching droplets onto shoulders and faces and hair.

It’s an ancient practice, the sprinkling of water to purify. Leviticus describes binding a living bird with string dyed from an insect found on the leaves of certain Mediterranean oak trees—insects so round and red they were originally thought to be berries. The scarlet thread bound the bird to a cedar plank, which worked as a handle to scatter liquid from a broom of tail feathers and hyssop, after which the bird was freed.

These days clerics rely on aspergilla fashioned of metal with long handles and reservoirs of holy water at one end. A priest no longer uses red thread or hyssop—though the water may as well be sifted through a broom of feathers and blooming mint for how clean and cool it feels as it lands on the face.


When I convince my husband to return to the well on our last day in County Clare, I know only that I want to return and little else. I don’t know, for instance, to bend deep at the knee and look for the trout said to dwell deep inside the well. I don’t know to collect water in plastic bottles shaped like the Blessed Mother, nor do I remove my shoes and circle the sanctuary barefoot while offering prayers to Brigid the goddess and Brigid the saint and Brocca whose body was the first well Brigid ever knew. Instead, I write the names of those I love on a postcard featuring the wild flowers of Ireland and leave it against a flaking statue of Martin de Porres.

Just a few days between visits, but already the grotto has shifted. In a month, how different it will look. In a year, another batch of mementos will have arisen, old names giving way to new: Linda O’Brien from Tipperary and the McDermotts, William and Mary, wiped from sight. The woman smiling in her wedding dress, the crew of workers in plaid shirts clinking coffee mugs, the toddler perched and pouting on the back of a Mercedes will all be covered by photographs of others. Messages will be too faded to make out: RIP John McGowan. I love you, Daddy. To Saint Brigid, Please make Kay Weatheral better to get rid of her cancer.

It’s a palimpsest of longing, the holy well, a collective and ever-blooming collage of loss. But, this time, at least, I know why I’ve come. I’m here for the sight of silk dahlias and plaster Jesuses and a child’s stuffed whale wilting side by side. I’m here for the echo of water and the loamy scent of earth.


To make water holy, a priest speaks prayers over it. To chase the devil away, he sometimes adds a bit of salt. It delights me to imagine my curmudgeonly parish priest pouring his breath over water, the weight of the task furrowing his brow. And as much as I’ve grown used to the sound of his voice and the building on East Main Street with its worn arched doors and verdigrised stoups—something truer unfolds from the well, an ancient fish turning itself inside out. Moisture fixes itself to my hair as I think of mothers and fathers and baptisms that have nothing to do with church. It’s a reminder, the holy well. Of the unrelenting press of human longing, yes, and the ferocity of our thirst. But of something else besides. I look one last time toward the deluge of hard things (statues and teacups and rosary beads) going soft on the ledge—everything greening, even as it fades.  

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