St. Sylvester's Well,
Old Street, Malahide
Old Street (formerly known as Chapel Street) is the site of St. Sylvester's Well and, along with Strand Street, was originally the centre of Malahide and populated largely by fishermen.
In 1830 all the Old Street cottages were roofed with thatch and the walls were probably mostly built of mud but by 1901 only 20 of the 26 cottages were thatched. No thatched cottages remain to-day.
The natural spring on the corner of Old Street and Railway Avenue, formerly Fountain Lane, has been a source of water since pre-Christian times. John Rocque's map of 1756 indicated the position of the well, but, unfortunately, does not give it a title. The well was open at the top, enabling residents to use the old established method of procuring water by a bucket and rope and may have been the only source of water for the community of Old Street until 1929 when the mains water supply was installed in Malahide. The well was then covered in and has remained covered ever since as it was considered a danger to children.
We do know that the adjoining Church of St. Sylvester takes its title from the well and not vice-versa.
Opinion is divided as to who exactly the well is named after.
Some historians hold that the well got its title from the Pagan Sun-God Silvanus.
Others hold that it may be named after ST. (POPE) SYLVESTER I (c. 270 - 335 A.D.) who was Bishop of Rome in 313 A.D. History best remembers St. Sylvester through his connection with Constantine the Great (C. 280 - 337 A.D.). Constantine, suffering from leprosy, had a dream in which St. Peter and St. Paul advised him to visit Sylvester I, who restored him to full health. It became clear to Constantine that a faith, which could perform such miracles, was worth cultivating and in 313 A.D. he issued the Edict of Milen, proclaiming total freedom of religion for all. Prior to this Constantine had been attached to Judaism and Sylvester suggested to him that the whole question of Religiou Faith should be disputed before a collective audience of Jews and Christians the topics for discussion included Paganism, God, Christ and the Ten Commandments. A leading Rabbi by the name of Zamberi volunteered to perform a miracle, as proof of his faith and approaching an ox, whispered the name Jehovah in the animals ear, whereby the beast dropped dead. Legend has it that Sylvester retaliated by pronouncing the name Christ, which restored the ox to life. Thus was Constantine re-affirmed in his new faith - A 13th Cen. wall painting in the Church of San Silvestro in Tivoli, near Rome pictures this "conversion" scene in minute detail.
St. Sylvester I is also reputed to have slain a dragon (more likely a crocodile), not by the sword as St. George is often depicted, but by the power of the name of Christ. To overcome a dragon was little more than an allegorical assertion of sainthood.
The feast day of St. (Pope) Sylvester 1 is celebrated on December 31st.
The Normans, being very proud of their French origins, may have dedicated the well to Pope Sylvester 11, the first French Pope of the 10th century when they arrived in Malahide at the end of the 12th century.
Others prefer to relate the well's origins to a Bishop Silvester, a holy man associated with the fifth-century Christian mission to convert Ireland from paganism.
The well is sometimes referred to, locally, as the Sunday Well, from the fact that the water is said to have first appeared on a Sunday, but this may have resulted from the similarity of the name of the Fir Domhnainn, one of Malahides earliest inhabitants and that of the Irish name for Sunday Dia Domhnaigh.
The well has also been called Our Lady's Well - see below.
Customs associated with wells (the eel in Malahide)
A cycling group from Belvedere College visiting the well about 1948 and on the right, the well as it is today.
St. Sylvester's RC Church, dating from 1845, is in the background. The lower building to the left was constructed in 1846 as a national school for boys and girls and was in use as a boys school up to 1954. It is now used for parish purposes.
We are aware that many sacred fish are associated with holy wells and, here in Malahide, up to the close of the 1890's, an eel was inserted into the waters of the well to purify it.
The water of St. Sylvester's well was also known for its medicinal properties and is reputed to have cured a wide variety of diseases and afflictions.
Wells, in general, were known to be the haunts of spirits, who could prove to be propitious, if remembered, but were very vindictive, if neglected. Holy wells, like St. Sylvester's, are approached from the northern side, then moving east to west, in imitation of the diurnal motion of the Sun.
When Christianity came to Malahide it did not destroy the heathen customs associated with the well, but rather absorbed and incorporated the established traditions.
The Malahide well, like many others, became associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a patron or pattern was held there regularly on the 15th August. On this date the well was decorated and the statue of the Blessed Virgin was decked with ribbons. There is a theory that the statue used was Our Lady of Malahide, associated with the Oak panel carving of the Assumption in Malahide Castle. During the patterns, the well was circled seven times, while reciting a special prayer or rann. At these 15th August patterns, worshippers gathered from many miles distant. The tradition of reciting prayers whilst circling the well on 15th August was revived in recent times.
In the olden days public baptisms took place at St. Sylvester's Well. The system was that of triple immersion. Today the receptacle for the water used in baptism in Christian Churches is frequently eight-sided because eight is the number of re-birth - many wells were octagonal for the same reason.
But, back to the Malahide eel. Eels have always been associated with magic e.g. an eel will not die before sunset: and eel skin makes a lucky belt for the wearer: horsehairs will turn into eels, juice or soup of the eel is a cure for stomach cancer etc.
The custom of releasing an eel into the well water could also be a folk remedy for keeping the water pure as the eel will eat all the grubs, crustaceans, mites, flies, nympha and all aquatic insects which would otherwise contaminate it's purity.
Photo of well taken about 1949.