Tobar an Duin, Donegal's most celebrated Holy Well, has been a
place of pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of people in the past
century alone. But its origin and the traditions associated with
it go back much further still.
From all parts of the county they have come; devout, humble, prayerful,
hopeful; lifting and using the blessed water as a means to spiritual
and bodily betterment.
There are other holy wells, many of them scattered throughout Donegal;
some of much greater antiquity than that at historic Doon. But none
is held in greater veneration or visited by such vast numbers. Year
by year, especially from the beginning of May until late September,
never a day and hardly an hour passes that it has not its quota
of pilgrims. In silence, telling their beads and bare-foot, they
reverently perform the traditional Stations, partaking of the water
and bearing away with them the moss-corked bottlefuls for the use
of the sick and infirm at home or to send to relatives and friends
in far distant lands.
Hardly a single Catholic home in all Donegal is ever without
Doon Well water.
But the visitors to the Well are not from Donegal alone. They journey
from many other counties and across the sea, because the fame and
efficacy of its never-failing springs have been wafted to all parts
of the world, wherever Donegal people are to be found.
Men and women who have emigrated to Britain, America, Australia
and other countries, have taken the precious bottles in their luggage
and every traveller who returns, or visitors for the first time
(if they have Donegal associations) never neglect to come to Doon
Well, some more than once.
In the old days, it was customary for all pilgrims to go to the
Well fasting, often journeying many miles over rough country without
food from the night before. Even old people, who had a passionate
attachment to the spot, did the penitential exercise uncomplainingly
every year. They came mostly from the western end of the county.
Up to four decades ago, whole train-loads of pilgrims for Doon
Well were there every Sunday throughout the summer months, from
places as far apart as Derry and Burtonport, and all points in between.
To be there on such an occasion, with hundreds of all ages, engaged
devoutly in the turas, was to see an impressive and devotional spectacle.
Click to enlarge
How did it all begin and where? What antiquity surrounds this
Holy Well and from whom did it receive its potent blessing?
The history of the Well is none too factual or circumstantial,
but it is established that it goes back for hundreds of years. Generation
after generation has had its stories to relate of the wonderfully
curative qualities of the water, and these have become an integral
part of the folklore of the parish of Gartan.
Although it must be remembered that this is the country of St.
Columba, Doon Well itself, in spite of its surroundings, does not
seem to have any associations with the Saint. He is not invoked
in the traditional prayers of the turas here, and Manus O'Donnell
has no mention at all of it. The Well is situated in a rather barren
- if wildly beautiful - part of West Donegal. It is approachable
from either the Termon or Kilmacrenan direction, and is well signposted.
Leaving the main road, the pilgrim gets his bearings from the craggy
Rock of Doon - one of the county's historic landmarks - whose gaunt,
heather-clad bulk towers over the holy spot.
Doon Well is credited with having been blessed by the saintly Lector
O'Friel, whose bones are reputed to rest in the old graveyard at
Kilmacrenan, a white stone in the wall marking the spot.
Nothing can be said with certainty as to when he lived, but it
is an historical fact that one of the name, not a bishop or an abbot,
worked in this lonely part of Donegal about the fifteenth century.
The term lector connotes a teacher or professor, usually of theology,
but there have been instances where it was conferred as a titular
honour on laymen of acknowledged sanctity of life and learning.
special pilgrimage day has been set aside for Doon Well;
people come as convenience suits, from morning 'til
nightfall. Some return several times in the same season.
There is always a very big gathering on New Year's Eve,
when special devotions take place.
Lector O'Friel was a man whose sanctity of life was matched only
by his wonderful powers as a healer. Sufferers from all sorts of
painful - and apparently incurable maladies - came, or were brought
to him, in quest of cures.
Many and extraordinary were the stories told of the efficacy of
his prayers for those with bodily afflictions.
Tradition tells us that in his old age, when his vigour was waning
and the shadow of death was hanging over him, his legion of clients
became disturbed at the thought of losing such a holy and charitable
man, in whom God had implanted such powers for miraculous healing.
"When I die, my powers will live after me," he assured
them. Asked in what way such a wonderful thing would be possible,
he told them that he would 'bless this Well at Doon' and that 'those
who drank or applied its waters' would have the benefit of his prayers
through the years, many stories have been told of miraculous
cures for all sorts of ailments and of how disabled
or crippled pilgrims were able to leave behind them
their sticks, crutches, bandages, etc., after one or
And so, in a few short extra years, the saintly Lector passed to
his reward. But Doon Well remains, to this day, a testimony in full,
to his promise to hear the petition of those who came there in pilgrimage.
This holy spot is recognised as owing its world-wide fame to the
death-bed promise of this travelling friar. Doon Well and Lector
O'Friel are synonymous terms; he it was "founded" the
Well that gave its waters their curative qualities.
Set in a wide expanse of marshy bogland, the Well is enclosed on
three sides and has a large slab on top. Traditionally, visitors
usually leave behind them little souvenirs of their turas, these
deposited on the bushes beside the well.
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