Balla Holy Well and Guest House
Balla Holy Well and Guesthouse
The Well of The Blessed Mother of God, as it is described on the slab of the adjacent rest house, drew crowds up to 15,000 at its peak in the 19th century when the Balla Blessed Well Pilgrimage lasted from the 15th August to 18th September. Adjacent to the well can be found the remains of an old Rest House, which was used to house visiting pilgrims and to shelter the sick. In the house, there were once two little pillars, of mason work, on top of which are two small stone crosses with inscriptions on them dated back to 1733. Both inscriptions are written in English and underneath them are the words ‘Sub tuum presidium fugimus, sancta dei’.
Local schoolgirl Annie McNicholas contributed to the National School’s Folklore Collection of the 1930s in a charming cursive script of which many today would be proud:
Balla Holy Well and Guesthouse Interior
‘There is a blessed well in the town of Balla, Barony of Clan Morris. It is said the blessed well came to Balla from the North of Ireland, because a woman abused it there. A good many people visit this well especially from the 15th August until the end of September. It is said that there were a lot of miracles wrought there some years ago. People came from all over Ireland to this well to perform stations. But since Knock started this blessed well has been more or less forgotten. The track of the Blessed Virgin’s hand and knee are on the step outside the well.’ The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0095C, Page 04_026
A young Pat McLoughlin also commented on the well:
Balla Holy Well
There is a holy well near the old church of Balla. St. Patrick visited Balla and blessed this well. After blessing the well he was hungry and he asked some of the people for bread. They refused him and that is why a baker never prospered in Balla. Many people opened bakeries there but they had to close them again in a short time. The holy well is now dry but there was water in it twenty years ago. From the road there is a path leading into the well. They also say St. Brigit visited this well. Up to fifty years ago there used to be a pilgrimage to this well every year. Three thousand people were present at this last pilgrimage. They came on foot from Galway and Roscommon. People prayed at the well for good health and many of them used to dip their feet in the water. Everyone used to leave some small article after him such as a bead, a medal, a hair pin or a piece of ribbon. A person suffering from rheumatism would stand in the well while saying the creed. The well was well known all over Connaught. The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0095, Page 261
Balla Holy Well Pilgrimage
(Balla now has two thriving bakeries. How long they will last is anyone’s guess. It might be as well to call in before you head down to the Millennium Oakwood, for if Pat’s word holds true they will surely be closed by the time you return!)
Another schoolboy folklore collector, P. O’Maolanaigh had more to add: ‘The well at Balla is called St. Cronan’s well. He it was who came in 567 to convert the people. St. Patrick it would appear passed it by. It is near the old tower and church. It is about four feet deep and keeps a good supply of spring water summer and winter. The landlord at one time enclosed it by a wall to prevent pilgrims from coming to it. But it burst up on the outside nearer to the church. Beside it are two heaps of stones with a cross on each lying down. Beneath those heaps two priests are supposed to be buried. St. Cronan himself is said to be buried somewhere near this spot.
The well is believed to cure sore eyes. Some say even that sight has been restored to some pilgrim who performed the Station. Several Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s have to be repeated at each heap of stones and at the well. The feet and hands have to be washed at the well. The time for the Station is between the two Lady Days. People from Galway especially from Conemara were the most who frequented it. In olden times they remained over for one night. Now very few do the Station where thousands did it before. A local man remembers hearing of a lame person being cured on washing his feet in the well. I have seen people take the water away in bottles. During the Black and Tan regime people from Balla did the station asking for the protection of St. Cronan for Balla.’ The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0095, Page 179
Estimates of the numbers of pilgrims attending vary from 3,000 to as many as 20,000 at peak times between 15th August and 18th September in the mid 19th century. When the 21st August 1879 apparition at nearby Knock catapulted that town to prominence, religious pilgrims flocked there in far greater numbers than had ever come to Balla and the well, dried of its devotees, finally dried of water too as the Moy Drainage schemes lowered the water table.
After years of abandonment local man Pat Conlon undertook the task of restoring the well. In an interview with the Connaught Telegraph newspaper he recounted his work: “I took out an awful lot of stuff from it. It was filled with stones, bottles and glass and was overgrown. The well has been flowing for nearly 1,600 years. Before Knock, Balla was the place of pilgrimage. I always heard that thousands of people came to the well. They used to be camped in the fair green and up the Mayo Abbey road. They came here praying and doing the stations.
“Last year the walls of the chapel were restored. So many people who come here wonder why there is not a sign post indicating where the well is located?”
Pat added: “The rise of pilgrim sites like Knock in the late 1800s sent the pilgrimage at Balla into a steady decline. However, now that the area around the well has been cleaned up it could attract new pilgrims.”
Pilgrim or not, you will surely wonder at those who went before as you make your way down the path and through the trees, away from the town and into the beautiful countryside of county Mayo.