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Wells and Wellbeing: The Hydrogeology of Irish Holy Wells

21 June 2024

I developed an appreciation of the link between groundwater, health, and religion following a summer spent in Wales foraging for forgotten springs and wells to sample for my hydrogeology research. Holy wells have held significant importance in Ireland for centuries. These often-sacred sites provided important water supplies, were commonly linked to wellbeing, and connected people to their spiritual heritage. In Wells and Wellbeing, Misstear delves into the fascinating intersection of tradition and groundwater science, aiming to provide an understanding of the influence of geology on the locations of holy well sites and how the water chemistry could be linked to health and wellbeing benefits. 

Split into four main sections, the book guides readers through sacred wells and springs and their cultural significance across the globe and introduces some hydrogeological concepts. Using survey results from over 200 sites in Ireland, the book examines the connection between the spring locations and the geology, using field evidence from 25 case studies and summarising the different aquifer types. Sample results from the fieldwork are clearly described and the author explores the connections to potential health benefits. Risks are also considered, in some instances due to natural concentrations of certain elements, but also the susceptibility in many cases to human pollution. 

The book includes many photographs, maps, and diagrams that made it easy to read and to digest the key points from each chapter. There are also data tables and graphs, collected from the author’s own research. One of the key outputs are the water quality data, which are linked back to the geology of the sites and used to evaluate whether the reputed health benefits of the wells and springs can be substantiated by the chemistry. The spiritual and therapeutic links of holy wells and the importance of these for Irish cultural heritage are clear to see, if less so, in some cases, for medicinal purposes. 

I found the book accessible and it would appeal to those interested in popular scientific literature, right through to university taught courses and practising professionals, since there is an extensive bibliography to enable further reading. An understanding of geology and hydrogeological processes would be advantageous, particularly regarding the central chapters of the book that explore in depth the hydrogeology and hydrochemistry of groundwater in Ireland. 

Reviewed by Phil Merrin 



BY: Bruce Misstear (2023). Geological Survey Ireland, 176 pp. (pbk)  

ISBN: 1-89970270-9 

PRICE: €20 www.gsi.ie