Reputed Holy Wells Of the City of Kilkenny
“Few localities in Ireland of the same area appear to have been favoured with so copious a supply of pure fresh water as that of the City of Kilkenny”, Hogan remarked in 1884.
For besides the springs which supplied the needs of the public, there were others which were recognised as Holy Wells. In the city alone there were six such wells, namely Saints’ Kieran’s, Kenny’s, Mary’s, Francis’, Rock’s, and The Angel’s.
The first well I would like to talk about is:
St. Kieran’s Well
In 1449, Edward Langton is set down in the rent roll as holding from the Corporation a house known as Kyteler’s Hall, the hall John Prim identified as Kytelers Inn in 1882.
At the rear of this property was a spring, known as St. Kyran’s Well. Nathaniel Alcock in 1811 was granted a lease of the well on condition he established a fish market, close to the public market, at the opening into King street [now Kieran Street].
This well was a distinguished land mark from earliest times; Hugh Rufus, the first English Bishop of Ossory granted to William Earl Mareschal for four ounces of gold annually, the land from Cotterell’s bridge over the Bregagh river to St Kieran’s well.
Hogan wrote of the well as “flowing from under a rudely constructed stone roof house”. In the basin of the well was inserted a circular baptismal font of Kilkenny marble, through which the orifice in the bottom the water bubbled up. Adjoining this well was an ancient church, described in Bishop Otway’s visitation book as “the old chappell neare Kierocks Well.” The remains of this old church were demolished at the beginning of the 19th century to make way for the fish market. Tradition says the baptismal font was placed in St Francis Abbey for safekeeping. The belief in its curative values existed in the town up to the early 1800s and its demolition.
The second well :
St. Kenny’s Well
This well has given its name to the entire neighbourhood extending from Black Mill to the borough boundary near Kilcreene. It is situated at the foot of Croker’s Hill on the brink of the Bregagh river. Under a stone roofed house, it gushes in an uninterrupted supply all year round.
The door jambs of the well house are formed of stones that had been used in another building and are believed to be of early English design. They most probably were taken from the Black Abbey or some other 13th century church in the locality. It is interesting to note that similar incised stones are to be seen in the top step leading to the Black Abbey organ loft. In the middle of the 13th Century Bishop de Turville, himself a Dominican friar, granted to the Back Abbey community by charter the right to convey from the well to their house as much water through a conduit as not to exceed the diameter of his episcopal ring. The charter can be seen in the Tholsel with a sample ring attached. Bishop Hugh de Mapleton (1251-1260) granted the entire well to the Black Abbey.
There is no written evidence of a connection between St Kenny and the well, except to say a Dr. Kelly of Maynooth wrote that St Kenny studied the Gospels at Inis Loch Cree, near the source of the River Nore, and transferred its name to his retreat at the present site.
The third well I will speak about is:
St. Mary’s Well
This well sprung up at the foot of the hill on which St. Mary’s church stands. Reference is made to the well in 1703 in a fee farm grant between The Duke of Ormonde and John Smith of Kilkenny.
Identity of the site can be made from the deed, as it states the houses in the Back Lane (today’s St Kieran’s St.) and from the North side of St Mary’s well and stream to the river at St John’s gate; and the cabins opposite the church stile.
Hogan wrote in 1884 of the Butter crane in King St. “but a few years taken down and under it’s roof the well sprung up”. He described it as a fine spring of water with steps leading down to it and flowed in a constant current to the river at every season of the year. The stile of Our Lady’s Churchyard stood at the top of what was called ”the long steps” at the corner of King St. and afforded passage through the church yard to High St. The well was used as a public supply until the early 1900s, when it was closed due to its proximity to the grave yard and an outbreak of cholera and diphtheria in the City, which the authorities suspected arose from contaminated well water.
The fourth well we visit is:
St. Francis’ Well
This well, according to Hogan, was the largest spring of water in the City, and was described by Ledwich. “ Near the margin of the river and precincts of the Abbey is a spring of pure limpid water called St Francis’ Well and was famous for miraculous cures it is enclosed, and still preserves some degree of credit”.
Hogan in 1884, stated forty years before he had enquired from very old natives respecting the religious character of this well, but no one could say it was regarded as a “holy well”.
Within the memory of everyone living there, this well or more properly this pond, had been used for bathing purposes on Summer mornings. and goes on to write “I am fully convinced the observations of Ledwich were but surviving stories of St Kyran’s well and he knowing nothing of of its history gathered its traditions and applied them to that of St Francis’ well”.
Smithwick’s Brewery used the water from the well for brewing purposes, until the early 1900s, when the public supply came on stream from Muckalee. There after the well water was used as a coolant in the brewing process.
The fifth well is:
The Angel’s Well
This well is now unused, but its site is well known at the end of Abbey St. For many years, this spring had been so neglected and ill used, as to become unfit for use until the Mayoralty of William Grace, who at his own expense had it cleaned out and a stone house erected over it.
A channel was constructed conveying the water to the nearby Bregagh river.
In the boundary wall at the entrance to the well is an inscription, “Angel’s Well, William Grace Esq. Mayor 1835”
Very old inhabitants of the neighbourhood in 1884, said they never recalled it been known by any other names than the Angel’s or the Black Abbey well.
The sixth and final well is :
St. Rock’s Well
This well so named from it’s proximity to St. Rock’s Church [St. Rioch’s], near the Fair Green, sprung up in the centre of Walkins Green. The waters from this well fed the famous Walkins Lough.
Over the centuries, the lough so filled with water that the Corporation had a conduit laid to drain the lough in the 1830s. The well was covered over at this time and its waters were diverted to the drainage system.
Excavations were made during the building of the houses on Walkin Street and the Jail Road, but no trace of the well was found.
For centuries, the pattern of St. Rock took place on the 1st Sunday in August, when the parishioners gathered to celebrate the saint’s feast day. The last pattern took place in 1830, when due to drunkenness and faction fighting Bishop Kinchella was compelled to call for it’s abolition.
This was the last observance of its kind in Kilkenny city.