This attractive little well is found next to a Mass Rock and together they form a special site, still visited and venerated. The road that leads up to Lady’s Well is tiny with huge views across Bantry Bay. Park where you can then go through the stile, across a very muddy field, sometimes with cattle, and then you find yourself high up on a ridge. The entrance to the site is marked by a gate painted silver but first you pass the statue of the BVM herself, gazing somewhat wistfully out across the vast expanse of bay.
Some steep and usually slippery stone steps lead down through the gate. An enclosed area below consists of the well, dedicated to the BVM, and an adjacent Mass Rock. Many offerings have been left on the rock and the whole hillside is littered with religious statues.
The well itself is nicely constructed with blocks of stone forming an arch, the interior lined with waterborne pebbles. The clean, cold water is gathered in a shallow basin which then filters out into the nearby field. A mug is handily placed should you wish to take the water. Like many wells, an eel is reputed to lurk within and if spotted is a sign of good fortune.
There is healing associated with the well. A story tells of how a young girl from Drimoleague was brought here in a chair, unable to walk. She saw the eel and was reputedly cured, no longer needing the chair for her return journey home. When the statue to the BVM was put up in 1952, some of the money received towards the cost, came from the granddaughter of the girl who was said to have been cured.
The rounds were said here on the 15th August, the Feast of the Assumption, and Johnny Crowley, a local historian, explains what you had to do:
‘Tis a very devout place. and there have been healings attached to it. The rounds is done here on the 15th August. The rounds then consisted of 15 decades of the Rosary, going up one side of the path by the altar and down and round the other. The tradition was to take 15 small pebbles and as you passed the well you dropped one in. You know you had the 15 decades finished when you dropped the last pebble in the well. When you threw in the 15th stone and said your Hail Holy Queen, if an eel that was in the well jumped up in the water, the main part of your wish would be given…
(Sheep’s Head Way booklet)
The Mass Rock was used during Penal Times (1695-1756), one of many open air places of worship resorted to when conducting Mass was illegal and priests in danger of their lives. Maybe the site was chosen because of its proximity to the holy well.
Another story from the Sheep’s Head Way booklet and Johnny Crowley:
Lady’s Well, a little hollowed glen, was used as a Mass Rock in Penal times. In the Bantry area during these times the priest wasn’t hunted, provided he kept out of the way, certainly of the Landlord, and didn’t make a big scene about the religious practices. At the Penal time then, there was a story that there was a change of command of the soldiers at their headquarters in Donemark Mills.
Somebody took the advantage of notifying the new captain in charge that there would be Mass in the morning at Holy Well and the new captain could capture a priest for himself. And that somebody no doubt got some money for his information. And seemingly they did send soldiers out to the Mass at the Well, and the story was that when they appeared on the high ground in front, the priest decided to take his chalice and host and hide it and began to run, but the people watching saw what they thought was a Lady with the light blue cloak on the rock behind the altar where the Statue is now. The Lady slipped the cloak down over the whole thing and blocked off the scene of the altar and the Mass from the soldiers. And when the soldiers saw this, they turned away and left….
It still feels a very devout place and Mass is still held here on the 15th August, when the whole hillside is decorated with flowers and a crisp white linen cloth is put upon the altar. A magical sight to suddenly come upon.