This is another essay that was published a few years ago at the Aran Islands Info website, which is down these days, so I’ve reposted the story here.
On Inis Oírr, to walk west means to walk towards home or to walk towards the well. By home, I mean America—for me anyway. By the well, I mean Tobar Éanna—the holy well of St. Enda, patron saint of the Aran Islands. On this smallest of the three islands, there are actually a few wells. But it’s only this one, Tobar Éanna, that has the power to heal.
Where I come from we have no holy wells. America is not a Catholic country, and Chicago people are not a very spiritual or sentimental lot. If we cry over anything, it’s things like baseball scores. And if we pray for anything, it’s most likely “please, God, no more snow” when we’re still shoveling it out of the way in April. The rest of our emotions, our hopes, our sorrows, our pleas and praise, we leave to our city’s blues legends to express for us. The average Chicagoan wouldn’t be moved much by a well, much less bend at the knees at one.
I would say maybe we Chicagoans simply take the presence of water for granted, what with the mighty Lake Michigan bordering the city on the east and a river running right through downtown. Often the more you’ve got of something, the less you see it as anything special or sacred. But then again, Inis Oírr is an island with the Atlantic all around it. And being an Irish island, it soaks up its share of water from the ever-present rain clouds in the Irish sky. It has its own lake too, on the opposite end of the island from Tobar Éanna. Though it’s a small one by the standards of the North American Great Lakes, even if the islanders do call it Loch Mór.
So if water’s not the magic ingredient, what’s so special about Tobar Éanna?
For one, the islanders say Tobar Éanna never runs dry. For another, there’s a story that if you go out to Tobar Éanna, walk around the well seven times—praying the rosary all the way—look into the well, and spot an eel in the water, you will be healed of whatever ails you. But only if you see the fish. It’s the eel that seals the deal. That’s certainly pretty special.
The story of the eel and the rounds around the well reminds me a bit of the story about the church of St. Caomhán in Inis Oírr’s graveyard. It’s said that if you can figure out the way (and believe me, there is a way) to squeeze through the tall and very narrow window at the front of the church—going from the outside in and stepping onto the stone altar—then you are guaranteed to go to heaven when you die. So, pushing yourself between the stones of a crack in the wall of a centuries-old church and stepping all over its blessed altar. Well, that’s certainly pretty special too—and rather torturous if you think about it. Torturous and complicated enough that sometimes I wonder if all these rituals and traditions, as told to visitors by the locals, are really the islanders’ way of having a little fun with us “blow-ins.” Besides, I never personally met anyone who spotted the eel in the holy well, though I have known quite a few who fit through the window in the church, including myself.
It’s nice to have reassurance that you’ll go somewhere good after you die. But if it were my choice, I’d rather have the healing here on earth than heaven in the afterworld. I’d rather have spotted the eel in the holy well than fit through the window in the church—if only because it’s clear that as tricky as it is to get into heaven, it’s healing that’s the real trick of life, that’s truly hard to come by.
I suppose this is why I used to walk out to the holy well quite often, far more than I did to St. Caomhán’s church, hoping that today would be the day I’d catch the well in one of its miracle-giving moods. Don’t even ask what I needed healing for. If it means experiencing something magical, I’ll force an injury if I have to—drop a stone on my shoe, chase a bee, stare into the sun until I go blind, break my heart over an islandman, whatever it takes. I usually went walking in the afternoon, in between work shifts at the island hotel, and sometimes at sunset to watch the sun falling on Inis Meáin on my way to the well. I’d start by the beach, walking up the road to the pier, past Tigh Ned, up a curve by the Fisherman’s Cottage, past an old pier half-sunken in waves and strewn with rotting fish bait and stinking lobster cages, then past what seemed to be a quarry (never mind that building a quarry on the Aran Islands is like installing a Jacuzzi in the ocean), and finally straight on to the well, with stone walls built up by the islandmen on my left, stone piles built up by the sea on my right, all the final way.
There were no signs pointing the way to the well. It was a matter of just walking until you stumbled across it. It’s a small island after all. You’re bound to find what you’re looking for at some point. The only way I knew I had reached the well was the sight of a distinctive-looking boulder—shaped almost like a giant egg—that was set on a high stone wall by the path that led to the holy well. I counted on this big odd stone. It always led me to the well. Except once, when I went walking out to Tobar Éanna and walked and walked and never sighted the stone nor the path. I ended up walking all the way to the back of the island, then retraced my steps up and down the road. It was all just walls, with no openings or paths or anything. I finally headed back to civilization—i.e., the “beer garden” in front of Tigh Ned. I told one of the islandmen, a big fella who ran a B&B and hostel and who was chatting with an annual English tourist, what I had seen, or rather, not seen. “Do you think it’s the fairies playing a trick on you?” the islandman said to me. There was a long pause of silence between the three of us. I sensed something of a challenge in the quiet. “Maybe,” I said. The islandman answered me with a solemn nod—and then a shadow of a smile. He left us after another few minutes of conversation, and the Englishman immediately leaned in to me. “You shouldn’t have said that in front of him,” he said to me, in the tone of a concerned father. “He’ll go out tonight and tell everyone about the daft American who couldn’t find the well and blamed it on fairies, and they’ll all laugh about it.” Bless this Englishman. He meant well. But this happened perhaps the third summer I spent on Inis Oírr and he was far too late to save me from a reputation.
Maybe the same could be said for Tobar Éanna. A holy place, a healing place, but not powerful enough to turn back the hurtful tides of time and talk. A humble place too—just a small natural spring a foot or so deep, protected by stacks of thick flagstones and dug smack in the middle of a stony field dotted with tiny white daisies and yellow buttercups. If you could touch a wand to it and turn the well into human form, of the medical persuasion, it’d transform into a midwife, a trusted local nurse, an old wise woman with a store of healing lore in her head—certainly not a world-famous surgeon, puffed up with importance and arrogance and the gleam of new technology. There’s no special halo-glow to the place, despite its supposed sacredness. Yet it demands and draws respect from a visitor, by its spareness, isolation, and come-as-you-are—whole or hurt, damaged or daft, hopeful or just curious—character. A bit like the island it lives on.
It’s worth the walk anyway, worth a little dip of the hand into the water, a sign of the cross, a simple request to whatever powers-that-be in the holy spaces of this world to “give me a little help or relief here, will ya?” No real need to go round and round the thing seven times—unless you’re up for some exercise or some eel hunting.
And maybe it’s a blessing to never spot the eel in the well, to never be granted the gift of a miracle healing. To be healed would mean to never need to return to Tobar Éanna, and never need to return the place that gives it shelter—Inis Oírr. And for a girl from Chicago—where there are no magic wells, no mischief-making fairies, no miracles of any kind—that would be the most unwelcome wound of all.