‘St Patrick’s Well Lane’ and the Origins of St Patrick’s Day

By Kate Collins (kec66@cam.ac.uk)

If you find yourself walking around Dublin this St Patrick’s Day, take a look up at the street signs and you might just see a reminder of how the annual celebrations on the 17th of March are said to have begun. All streets in Dublin have two names, in Irish and English, displayed on their name-plates, but Nassau Street in the city centre is unusual in having three names across its various signs — the English version, a literal Irish translation of Sráid Nassau, and another name that on the face of it seems rather unusual: Sráid Thobar Phádraig. This translates to ‘The Street of Patrick’s Well’, referring to a legend that when visiting Dublin in the fifth century, St Patrick created a holy spring somewhere along the now-modern line of the street and used the water to baptise some of his first Irish converts to Christianity.[1]

The two contrasting street name-plates to be found on Nassau Street in Dublin (Author’s own photograph).

For generations, citizens of Dublin drank from the well, whose waters they believed to be holy and able to impart miraculous cures, especially on St Patrick’s feast-day each year. As a result, a tradition grew up where Dubliners proceeded to the well on the feast-day each year to drink the waters and invoke the holy man’s aid; this practice and the surrounding celebrations are thought to be the origin of the annual festivities on the 17th of March each year. Over the generations, the lane where the spring was located became known as ‘St Patrick’s Well Lane’ or ‘Patrickswell Lane’. At some point, a legend also grew up that the well was where frogs had first been introduced to Ireland after frogspawn was put in the water![2]

The well dried up temporarily in 1729, prompting widespread outcry and leading Dean Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, to write ‘Verses on the Drying Up of St Patrick’s Well’, where he accused the students of the nearby Trinity College Dublin of drinking the well dry following their revelry and carousing.[3] This development was possibly connected to the demolition of a nearby large artificial hill, formerly the site of the ancient Thingmote (Viking place of assembly), in around the same period, though the exact timings here are vague. The earth from this hill was used to raise the level of the then-St Patrick’s Well Lane, possibly placing the well underground and creating lasting confusion over its location.[4]

A few decades after this, in the mid-eighteenth century, the street name was officially changed to Nassau Street. Sources disagree over whether this renaming was in honour of William III, who had been the Count of Nassau, or Count Henry Nassau who ‘liberated’ Dublin from the Jacobites after William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, or even Richard Nassau, Lord Molesworth.[5] There is also considerable disagreement over where exactly the well was or is located. Today Trinity College Dublin claims the well is located under its Nassau Street gate, but in the late 1930s, a Dublin mineral water exporter located in nearby Nassau Place claimed that it was to be found on its property, with the waters being used to manufacture mineral drinks sold to Dubliners and those around the world.[6]

Speculation over the location of the well in the pages of the Irish Press, 28 April 1932 (Taken from Irish Newspaper Archives)

So why the three names if the street was renamed centuries ago? The old designation of St Patrick’s Well Lane seems to have been hard to dislodge, lingering in public usage until at least the late eighteenth century.[7] A hundred years later, an increasingly nationalist Dublin Corporation (the municipal authority) began to examine the issue of street nomenclature in Dublin, including the institution of bilingual street names on city name-plates.[8] When the time came to choose an Irish-language version for Nassau Street, the older name seems to have been used as the basis for the translation, most likely due to the apparent British origins of the ‘Nassau’ name. One letter to the Irish Independent as early as March 1912 complained about the disconnect between the English and Irish versions of the street’s name.[9] In spring 1921, the Corporation attempted to regularise the situation as part of its plans for a sweeping reform of Dublin street names to replace British references with more patriotic Irish ones: Nassau Street was to be officially renamed to Sráid Thobair Pádraig, or ‘Tubber Patrick Street’ (an unusual and rather ugly English translation!).[10]

For a variety of reasons, this proposal was never officially implemented, and the official name remains ‘Nassau Street/Sráid Nassau’. Yet somehow one sign bearing the proposed Irish name exists on the corner of Nassau and Grafton Street — not too far from where the annual St Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin passes each year. Today this name-plate stands as one of the lone reminders of this largely-forgotten aspect of Dublin’s local history, and of how the St Patrick’s Day festivities supposedly all began.

Image 3: The alleged entrance to St Patrick’s Well under the Nassau Street campus gate of Trinity College Dublin. (Author’s own photograph)

[1] Gary Branigan, Ancient and Holy Wells of Dublin (Dublin 2012), pp 79-80.

[2] Brannigan, Ancient and Holy Wells, pp 79-80; Irish Times 19 August 1922.

[3] Irish Press, 28 April 1932; ‘The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 7/Verses on St Patrick’s Well’ (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Works_of_the_Rev._Jonathan_Swift/Volume_7/Verses_on_St._Patrick%27s_Well) (accessed 6 Mar. 2023).

[4] Evening Herald, 6 January 1932, p. 5.

[5] Carol and Jonathan Bardon, If Ever You Go to Dublin Town: A Historic Guide to the City’s Street Names (Belfast, 1988); C. T. M’Cready, Dublin Street Names, Dated and Explained (Dublin, 1987 [1892]); Irish Press, 28 April 1932.

[6] Irish Press, 17 March 1938.

[7] Irish Independent, 10 June 1932.

[8] See Yvonne Whelan, Reinventing Modern Dublin: Streetscape, Iconography and the Politics of Identity (Dublin, 2003), Chapters 4 and 8.

[9] Irish Independent, 29 March 1912.

[10] Report No. 71, ‘Report of the Paving Committee Submitting Report of the Special Committee re Alteration of Street Names’, Report and Printed Documents of the Corporation of Dublin, Vol. 1 – 1921, pp 505-39.

[Header Image: Old sign for Nassau Street, Dublin (Author’s own photograph)]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close