St Bridget’s Day seems an auspicious date to start a blog about holy wells! February 1st, her feast day, was no doubt carefully chosen by the early Christian church to coincide with the start of Imbolc, the ancient Celtic festival of renewal and rebirth, and the arrival of Spring. St Bridget remains a hugely popular saint in Ireland, up there with St Patrick, and she is patron to a wide assortment of groups: babies, blacksmiths, dairymaids, nuns, sailors and cattle, amongst many others! Much has already been written about her but here’s an excellent place to start should you want more information.
Needless to say St Bridget has many wells dedicated to her – look out for place names with breed or bride in them. Most of these are to be found in County Kildare where she established a religious centre – built, incidentally, on an even older pagan shrine dedicated to an even older goddess, also confusing called Brigid; a case of the early church swiftly assimilating an older and still potent pagan deity. There are only a few wells in County Cork dedicated to her but I wanted to start my exploration with the little known but quite enchanting Tobar Breedy near Lough Hyne in West Cork. Incidentally tobar means well as Gailege.
The first time we visited this little well was in early spring and the boreen leading to it was full of an astonishing array of wild flowers: bluebells, primroses, Irish spurge. Today was slightly less clement with a strong wind and Gertrude, the last of the many storms to pass over Ireland in the last couple of months, had left the ground sodden and slippery. Nonetheless the sun came out and everywhere looked astonishing: the waters of the lough a deep teal, the bracken russet and the little fields a startling green.
We had been given excellent instructions how to locate the well by the landowner: look out for the church, just before you get to it there is a stone to the right, climb up onto it then approach on your knees and the well is just after the holly tree. You do indeed have to clamber up onto a rock and then teeter along a small ledge to locate the tiny well. Our knees did get muddy! It’s easy to miss, shrouded in bracken and ferns, but it’s delightful. Two small bowls have been scooped out of a large basin – hard to tell is this is natural or man-made – and the water is clear and fresh. Even more remarkable are two indents in front of the well, said to have been made by the saint herself as she knelt down to pray. Robert Day, writing in 1904 noted: ‘These depressions are yearly getting deeper by the number of pilgrims and devotees who come to kneel and worship at the limpid waters.’
Today there are few visitors to this beautiful place but in the past it received many pilgrims on St Bridget’s Eve and on the Day itself, people coming from Skibbereen and Baltimore as well as locally. Some people took the water home with them for it was meant to be good in curing cattle ailments, an interesting connection with Bridget as patron of cattle and dairymaids. It was also traditional to leave a coin as an offering. We were delighted to find there was still evidence of this custom, one of the oldest coins we found was a pre-decimal 5d. Terri Kearney, who interviewed many residents of Lough Hyne for her excellent book, Lough Hyne, from Prehistory to the Present, remembered one story she had been given about a less than scrupulous visitor who was described by her interviewee as: ‘a right rogue of a blaggard’. It seems he would sometimes take advantage of this monetary bounty for: ‘there was the price of a few pints inside the well ye see’. No such unscrupulous goings on today. It all felt remote, peaceful and extraordinary. Just as we were scrambling down the banks to return to the boreen, a rainbow appeared over the island. A sign from St Bridget of course!
Having made our respects, we wandered around to the little church, Templebreedy. It’s meant to date from the twelfth century and may have replaced an even older wooden building. It’s interesting to speculate which came first – the well or the church.
Back into Skibbereen for some lunch and it was rather satisfying to see people shaking hands in the supermarket, wishing each other a Happy St Bridget’s Day.