St Patrick’s Well & Nassau Street.
Looking through the railings at the entrance to Trinity on Nassau Street one can see, below street level, what looks like a gated doorway leading under the road. This is St Patrick’s Well, Trinity College’s own “holy well”. Holy wells were hugely popular in Ireland in previous centuries and St Patrick’s Well was once frequented by large crowds on March 17th.
Nassau Street itself was called St Patrick’s Well Lane until it was renamed (after the royal house of Nassau) in the 1700s. The name in Irish continues to be Sráid Thobar Phádraig as seen in the attached photo.
The oldest mention of a well in the area is in a 12th century Life of St Patrick. The author refers to a “fountain of St Patrick” existing in Dublin. The Life says that St Patrick, in the manner of Moses in Exodus, struck a rock with his staff. The rock then “flowed forth abundant waters”.
In 1592, when Trinity College was founded, the description of property granted to the new college defined the southern border as “the lane that leads to St Patrick’s Well to the south of the monastery”.
It was around this time that the St Patrick’s Well’s popularity among Dubliners was at its height, and a dismissive English writer in around 1610 left us an account of devotions at the well. On St Patrick’s Day, he wrote, “the water is more holy than it is all the year after, or else the inhabitants of Dublin are more foolish upon this day than they be all the year after.” On that day, he wrote, “thither they will run by heaps, men, women and children, and there, first performing certain superstitious ceremonies, they drink of the water”.
At the end of that century, a story goes, frogs were introduced to Ireland at St Patrick’s Well. A doctor, “a very good protestant ... to show his zeal against popery”, allegedly brought frog spawn from Liverpool and deposited it in the well.
In 1729 the well ran dry, inspiring Jonathan Swift to write his satirical poem. On the sudden drying up of St Patrick’s Well, near Trinity College, Dublin. “Here, from the neighbouring nursery of arts/ the students, drinking, raised their wit and parts” he wrote. Public pressure led Dublin Corporation to restore the flow of water to the well two years later. Since then the well has sat in isolation beneath Nassau Street. Generations have past and never heard of it. Now you know. Check out the street sign next time your on Nassau Street.