This has to be one of my favourite wells visited so far. We had had an energetic day searching out holy wells in North Cork and this was the last on the agenda. It is not easy to find and seems to be on the fold of several different OS maps but eventually, after much discussion and directions in a Kanturk newsagent, we arrived at the farm of Laurence O Donoghue. He very kindly stopped what he was doing and took us down to the well, explaining the history and rituals connected with it as we went.
The path leads past his farmhouse, through a steep wooded area down towards the Catra stream, quite close to the old castle which gives the village its name.
It is an extraordinary place, fenced off and gated, with an array of small rickety benches inside. The stone wellhouse is beautifully made in a beehive shape, with what now looks like a little thatched roof but is in fact just undergrowth. An impressive limestone lintel is inscribed with the following:
Owen Egan of…….. knucknanufs
Erected this in HO……….. nour of God An…..
Bl ………….. Ad 1787 ……a
A cross has been inscribed in the centre and some of the words seem deliberately erased. On each side of the lintel are two striking carved figures.
The figure on the left is compelling and enigmatic: a bald, naked female figure holding up her arms, palms open, a slightly surprised but benign look on her face. Crosses have been inscribed onto her stomach and onto her open palms by countless pilgrims. She has been described variously as a Sile na gig and St Bridget.* She doesn’t look explicit or fierce enough for a Sile but too naked for St Bridget. Siles could be part of the rounds at holy wells though, think of the little figure at St Gobnait’s in Ballyvourney.
On the other side is a figure in Roman armour, one hand on hip, the other seeming to point to his companion on the other side. He is well worn and described either as a Roman centurion or St Michael the Archangel.
There are many intriguing and conflicting stories associated with this well. It may date back millennia and has associations with druidism and the ancient Celtic goddess Brigid, who has strong connections with water and fertility. She later became Christianised into the more acceptable but equally revered St Bridget.
In 1591 Castlemagner became a Protestant parish but Mass continued to be celebrated at the well until 1658 when a Captain William Bretridge became owner of the nearby castle. A former Cromwellian, he banned Mass but the priest and local population used an ingenious means to continue worshiping. The priest crossed the Ceatra River and offered Mass at the well while the people stood in the river – rivers being common property under the then English law. The Captain retaliated by blasting deep holes into the river to make it impassable and Mass was finally abandoned.
In 1704 a mass house was built at Coolavaleen for the local Catholic population which was dedicated to Our Lady. The well was also rededicated at this time and rounds were then paid in May rather than February.
The well was restored by Owen Egan of Knocknanuss in 1787. He was a stonemason but had eventually lost his sight. His brother was a cripple and one night dreamed that if he went to the well he would be cured. The blind brother carried the crippled brother, and the crippled brother gave instructions to the blind brother. They both drank from the water but only the blind brother was cured. In thanks he built the wellhouse and inscribed the following: Owen Egan of Knocknanus erected this in honour of God and the Blessed Virgin Mary AD 1787. It seems that the words Blessed Virgin Mary were chiseled out by a local Protestant for the well still lay on Protestant lands and people remembered the hanging of a local priest only a few years earlier and didn’t want to cause trouble. Laurence, the landowner, thought that the figure on the right was pointing to the naked figure accusingly – the Roman church shunning the goddess.
In fact it seems possible that the naked figure may have come from an ancient church at Subulter, and then on to Castlemagner castle. The St Michael figure probably came from there too. The Magners were originally from Glamorgan in Wales, where St Michael was much venerated. In Irish Christianity he is also much admired and given the title Ard RÌ na nAingil – High King of the Angels. The Magners were also a Norman family and current thinking re siles is that they are of a similar period, often placed high up on castles or in churches though no one is exactly sure why. It seems likely that the two carvings were incorporated into the wellhouse when it was built but both have earlier dates and histories.
Above the lintel is a display of cups, ready for pilgrims to taste the water. It looked very inviting, clear and cold and bubbling from under the ground.
Laurence showed us the ritual. He took a small penknife and gently traced the crosses on St Bridget’s stomach and hands, catching the power in his cup of well water. He recited prayers then drank the mixture. In the past many people would have come to do the rounds here, which included scraping the crosses with a pebble and drinking the water. The rounds were originally held on 1st February, St Bridget’s Day but since the early 18th century, when the well was rededicated, have also been held in May. The well is also considered to be a Tobar-righ-an-domhnaigh, or Sunday well and rounds were also made here before Mass on a Sunday. The water was said to be cure many ailments, including infertility and traditionally was rubbed where the pain or affliction was based. Scraps of white linen were also left at the well, maybe those used to dab the afflicted parts.Today the well seems to be only visited by Laurence and his family, erudite professors of folklore, curious blow-ins and foreigners! It is a very powerful place though.
* I recently came across this little carved figure at Lady’s Well near Cloyne and immediately thought of the figure at Castlemagner. The pose is remarkably similar. Could the curve under the belly of the Sile actually be a loincloth and this is Christ crucified? Just a thought.
Many thanks to Laurence O Donoghue for taking the time to show us the well and explain the history. The well is on private land and permission must be sought.
This is a very useful website for further information.
The location of this well can be found in the Gazetteer.