Sarai Humble at St Lua’s Well, Killua Castle, Clonmellon. Photo: Willie Forde

If you wish to be well, be by a well


Originally from Cork, Sarai Humble moved to the north west of Ireland to raise her daughter, who now lives in Meath. Once her daughter left the house, Sarai fully embraced the nomadic lifestyle, allowing her to travel across the country as she embarked on the journey of cleaning sacred spaces.

"This way of living has been essential in undertaking this work with the wells as often they are in remote places with no accommodation," she explained. For the past seven years she has been living in her van, equipped for the restoration of these wells and as a home to come back to.

"I can sometimes be cleaning a well for three days, which is wet and physically exertive work. It is important to be able to come 'home' and put the kettle on."

Sarai first took on this endeavor after a bout of ill health. "We lived in rural Leitrim a few years ago, our water had been from a mountain spring piped into the house."

After moving to Westport, Sarai became violently ill with a fever and vomiting.

"I had fluoride poisoning from the treated water in our tap. My body had not had any of these chemicals in its system for well over a decade. So I went in search for a well in Mayo."

She began seeking other wells for natural spring water, often finding them in disrepair. "Being the active woman that I am and feeling the memory of the deep thirst I had felt, I started cleaning the wells as I found them."

Since then, Sarai has been cleaning wells all over Ireland. From reading the landscape to structuring stonework for the best flow, she learned a lot from farmer and stoneworker Frank Doyle, who she had met while restoring a well in Westmeath.

"There have been many stone workers who have taught me bits along the way, as well as elders who have shared stories on how to keep them potable and functioning."

A holy well is a sacred spring thought to have healing properties. Accompanied by their own saints, legends and cures, they're often places of pilgrimages. While no one knows the exact number of holy wells across the country, it is reputed to be over 3,000, not including those on private land.

"To put it into perspective, if you were to visit a holy well every day for ten years, you might just see them all."

Over the years, many of these wells have been lost to poor planning of infrastructure such as roads and housing estates, ploughing of fields and lack of maintenance. However, there are others like Sarai dedicated to the restoration and preservation of these holy wells. "There are community-driven projects locating these wells and it's a relief to see this information once again going into the public domain," she said. "These spaces are part of our sacred history and we'll lose a huge part of who we are if they disappear."

From being covered in all types of mud to being chased by bulls, there is an element of risk to Sarai's work. "One must be mindful of the unseen like broken glass or pollutants in the water." In addition, Sarai often finds herself cleaning the wells during winter which runs the chance of hyperthermia.

However, there is truth to the power of healing that accompanies holy wells as the water is rich with minerals. "There are high concentrations of these minerals such as lithium which is used in antidepressant medication, iron which is essential for our blood, Sulphur which helps DNA restructure, the list goes on."

In 2017, Sarai founded the All is Well organisation to encourage local communities to care for these places. "All is Well has been as flowing as the water we help." The organisation encourages all those they meet to get involved.

"From being the strong back to dig out overflow channels to planting flowers for the bees, there's room for all of the community to care for these spaces."

While some holy wells are cared for by the church and county councils, others are private or government maintained. However, most are public access although it is best to inquire locally if you're not sure.

"There is a worrying trend of right of way access being denied as people without understanding the importance of visiting wells come into ownership of the land around these wells. An example of this is St John's Well in Warrenstown."

Regarded as the most famous well in Meath, the denial of public access followed by its removal in 2018 shocked the community.

Although most communities embrace the restoration of these holy wells, there are those who would rather keep them a secret. "This I can totally understand," said Sarai. "The fear is that these spaces would not be treated with the respect they deserve. I think the solution is through proper education."

Sarai believes that sharing the lore and history around them will help their preservation. Most of the information regarding these wells are held by elders in the communities and risk being forgotten. "When one of our elders passes away, it's like a library burning down. We need to pass on this information before it is lost."

While All is Well doesn't receive any national funding, the organisation is holding a fundraiser for Sarai's book, 'All is Well', a guide detailing the knowledge obtained on her travels and how to care for your local well.

The book also includes a map of holy wells documented across the country, illustrated by Sean Fitzgerald, who had helped organise the Súil an Craic Pilgrimage in 2020.

"The map he did for the pilgrimage went viral within the week. His support in helping me put this together has been immeasurable and I am confident that under his guidance this book will not only be a resource but something of beauty."