An exploration around the Castlefreke area today. The castle itself is a massive Gothic pile built by the Freke family in 1820, replacing a much earlier castle. The house was burnt down in 1910; later sold, its valuable interiors were gutted and the building left a ruin. It was purchased once again by the Freke family in 2005. They are intending to restore it to its former glory but I think money and legal issues have put developments on hold. Enticing glimpses of the property can be spotted amongst the trees, barricaded by a fearsome array of No Trespassing notices. The surrounding woodlands though are open to the public and contain many beautiful walks. They also contain a wart well.
Wart Well, Castlefreke
We were accompanied by Hannah who was born in nearby Rathbarry and knows the area well. She could remember coming through the trees with her mother to visit the well when she was a child. The trees have since been cleared in this area but the route to the well is small and slippery and very evocative. The well itself looks very much like a ballaun stone – an immovable one though, the basin being found in the natural rock. Perhaps the indent occurred geologically but has been ground out over the years?
The basin is large and quite deep, about 20cm we reckoned- see the bracken test. The afflicted area had to be dipped into the water three times and on the third time the wart should have disappeared.
None of us had any warts to test – we’ve been to too many previous wart wells – but we did dip our fingers in. It’s interesting how many ballaun stones seem to associated with the curing of warts. Possibly they contain some special mineral.
As we were walking back through the trees we stopped to inspect some old ruins. A man went by and he stopped to chat. He was full of information and told us all about the old house. It was once lived in by a woman who made poitín, a highly potent and illegal brew. She would cycle around distributing it, the bottles kept in the basket of her sit-up-and-beg bicycle. To guard against unwanted inspection of the basket she also kept a cock pheasant in there who would peck the over-curious!
We inquired about wells and he told us about one in nearby Rathbarry which had recently been partly slabbed over by someone developing a snail farm. Apparently the snails love the water and grow fat and healthy before being sent off to France for a somewhat dismal end! Although we looked for the well we couldn’t find it but inquiries are being made. We did find another well though – with the road named after it and its own marker stone, but I have doubts as to its holiness. It’s not mentioned in the Archaeological Inventory or on the old maps but it is rather nicely restored nonetheless.
St James Well, Ardfield
The next well was in the village of Ardfield, once renowned as the home of Noel Redding, the bassist in the Jimi Hendrix Experience. There is a sign to the well off the main road in the village but no hint to tell you have arrived: it’s on the bend in the road, slightly down from the road. The well was restored in 1989, instigated by a local man, the late Sonny Nyhan, who remembered it as once being a significant pilgrimage site. Although there was no obvious sign of the well he remembered where it had once been. A group got together and eventually the stones which would once have made up the wellhouse were identified, including one with the words St J carved on to it. The area was fully and sympathetically restored and is now a very peaceful spot.
The stone wellhouse is low, long and rectangular and the water comes out through a specially cut channel. There is a slab in the front, presumably for prayers and for collecting the water. The stone with the carving on has been placed at the back of the wellhouse. A statue of St James is in a covered box looking out onto the well, scallops, real and ceramic, surrounding him. A tray of nightlights placed by the water looked recent; some old shovels propped up to protect it from the elements. The glass of water on top of the well looked less recent. I wonder if Noel ever wandered down here for some inspiration.
St James was a fisherman and disciple of Jesus. He is patron saints of pilgrims and his emblem is the cockle shell. In 2010 a woman from Clonakility, Anja Bakker, walked from this little St James well to the cathedral in Santiago del Compostela in Spain, where St James is believed to be buried. She was raising awareness for the survivors of sexual abuse. The 2500km journey took her three months and three weeks and along the way she played her harp, called Sean, symbolically carrying Ireland and the pain of the victims with her.
Masses used to be said here on St James’ Day, 25th July but I’m not sure if this is still continued.
Lady’s Well, Dunowen
Back in the car and down to Red Strand. If you leave the car here there is a track across the field which takes you up what feels like a very ancient boreen with its high stone walls and pebbled floors. Maybe this was once the pilgrimage path to the well. It emerges onto a track which continue past farmhouses and pasture. The track wends its way to the left but you must peel off and follow another grassy track down to the new gate, complete with traffic cone. The first time we came here some very large bullocks were lounging against the flimsy wire and we were a little nervous. It was all quiet today. The Lady’s Well is approached through boggy pasture full of primroses and daisies and in the distance are striking views out towards the Atlantic.
The well is protected by a beehive-shaped wellhouse and a slab separates the well from the sturdily built channel of water which runs at length before disappearing into the field. There is an enclosing wall behind and an altar. A pure white statue of the BVM gazes upwards, a rosary in her lilywhite hands and arum lilies just starting to flower around her. The well is still much revered and the site beautifully maintained. Mass is still held here on the 15th August.
We walked down a different way, through more farmhouses, some a bit dilapidated and some being restored. All interesting.
We intended to carry on to inspect the wells around Rosscarbery but the weather changed. Instead we enjoyed a very fine lunch in the aptly named Pilgrim’s restaurant. It’s hungry work all this well searching.