I visited this little well on the 11th February, the feast day of St Gobnait, but was so entranced that I felt it deserved its own page. Appropriately enough St Abbán is meant to have been the brother, or possibly the mentor, of St Gobnait and that he founded the religious institution at Ballyvourney and then bequeathed it to her. Very little actually seems to be known about him. He was possibly the son of a king of Leinster, Cormac mac Diarmata, who left his high born heritage to become a holy man and hermit. Several places in Ireland seem to have connections with him: Killabban in County Laois, Adamstown in County Wexford and even Abingdon in England. He is also said to have lived for 300 years, dying around 650AD! He seems to have two feast days: 16th March and 27th October.
This little well is as mysterious as the saint and I’m almost reluctant to give information about it for it is such a special site, full of quiet presence with a truly ancient feel. But I will. The first time I visited was this time last year. I came with friends and we inquired at the post office how to find it. Park by the bridge, stride across the fields and make for the tallest tree. We followed directions which were spot on. This time I remembered how to get there and strode forth. The river had swollen and first I had to cross a ford, clinging to the muddy banks. Then I walked across water-logged fields towards the woods until a path appeared. Most magical of all, you know you are getting closer as faded red ribbons appear in the trees, showing you the path: very Ariadne or maybe Hansel and Gretel. The woods are dense, mossy and silent and at first I couldn’t find anything. I don’t think anyone had visited since we last came. Then I spotted what I was looking for. What an extraordinary site. The well itself is tiny and easily overlooked, I had to scrabble about amongst the leaves.
It has been covered by a tea tray which in turn had been covered with a stone slab with the words Tobar Abán helpfully carved into it. The leaves were so thick they were turning into a mulch, but lifting the lids and the small, triangular well was revealed, the water clear and cold. A plastic basket nearby, also very leafy, held an array of mugs and I looked around for the painted sign I’d seen last time. It too was covered in leaves which I removed and placed upright. A few ribbons hung in the trees above. So much peace.
But this is not all, a little way away is the burial place of the saint himself. Another extraordinary site – a stone cairn over a cist (burial chamber), many of the stones white quartz. Three tall ogham stones surround the cairn and on top is a large ballaun stone. The ogham (early Irish alphabet) is hard to see as the stones are so mossy but the whole thing feels very ancient and important.
A cross reminds you that this is a Christian place, so easy to forget. The cross was adorned with rosaries and ribbons and other little offerings were tucked into the quartz – I noticed a small Tupperware box which seemed to be jammed with letters. I left it where it was.
I’ve noted in my researches that some people say the final well at St Gobnait’s shrine is dedicated to St Abbán rather than St Gobnait and would be curious to know if anyone can confirm that?