Today’s exploration involved a ferry, not my favourite means of travel as I have no sea legs, but the forecast was good, the sea looked calm and a well beckoned. What a great excuse to visit Oiléan Cléire, or Cape Clear Island – eight miles off the mainland and a really beautiful island, with crystal clear waters, hilly walks, lots of history and friendly people. It’s a Gaeltacht area too, a different world.
Tobar an Arigid
First stop was Baltimore and a visit to the only holy well in the town. It’s right on the harbourside, near all the hustle and bustle of the pubs and just below Dún na Séad castle, but it’s long since lost its holy qualities and in the early 20th century was converted into a pump for communal use. (It was still a well in 1916). It’s painted a bright green but no longer supplies any water.
There is a bit of a story attached to it though involving the old rogue, Sir Fineen O Driscoll, Lord of Baltimore, also known as the Rover. He was a colourful character: scholarly, piratical and opportunistic, frequently changing sides in the ongoing battle between the Gaelic lords and English for sovereignty. In 1573 he swore allegiance to the English crown and was knighted for his trouble but was later persuade to support the Gaelic chieftains and their Spanish allies at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. Perhaps, finding himself on the losing side, he tried to get into the Queen Elizabeth’s good books by this rather odd incident:
An English fleet happened to be becalmed outside Baltimore. Sir Fineen entertained the officers and men most hospitably, and good wine was distributed so plentifully that it flooded the town. Handfuls of silver were thrown into the well, which supplied diversion for the crews, and up to the present this well retains the name of Tobar-an-arigid. Elizabeth, to compliment Sir Fineen for his liberality to the fleet, summoned him to court.
Early Irish History and Antiquities and History of West Cork, W O’Halloran, 1916
Although Sir Fineen was pardoned, the power of the Gaelic chiefs was at an end. He didn’t get to meet Elizabeth either for she died before he reached the court. The well, Tobar an Arigid, means well of the silver. I wonder if it’s still down there!
The ferry to Oiléan Cléire departs from Baltimore and is a 50 minute journey. It can be notoriously rough but today the sea was calm, gannets were dive-bombing, guillemots bobbing, and someone spotted a dolphin.
Tobar Ciarán, or St Kieran’s well (I can’t believe how many different ways there are to spell Ciarán!), is right at the harbourside, which has been newly spruced up after the last lot of storms. At one time the well was so close to the sea it was daily covered by the tide, yet the water miraculously still retained its purity. This is how Daniel Donovan writing in 1876 described it:
… a mere hollow in the sand … over this the tide encroaches at high water; however on its receding, the water in the well is perfectly fresh, being fed by a spring which comes up from a deep source.
Sketches in Carbery, 1876
Today it is enclosed in a smart wellhouse and the tide has been barriered off by a stout wall.The well is behind a wall and approached down a small flight of steps.
The wellhouse has a large concrete lintel and supporting pillars faced with pebbles. The water itself is in two shallow chambers and looked a bit scummy, but there is a glass left on top should you fancy a sip. The area around has been nicely landscaped with pebbles and sea hardy plants.
To the right is a grotto with Bernadette kneeling and gazing up at the Blessed Virgin Mary. This, like so many others, is a replica of the grotto at Lourdes where Bernadette is said to have seen and spoken to Our Lady on several occasions in 1858. Lourdes itself remains one of the most frequented Marian shrines receiving up to six million pilgrims annually. This grotto, like many others, was put up in the Marian Year of 1954.
In front of the grotto is the Gallán Ciarán, or pillar slab. This has been boxed up for safety due to the harbour renovations but should be released soon.
It is a large flat topped stone with several crosses inscribed upon it. This is how the Archaelogical Inventory describes the crosses:
On top is cross-like carving in relief … On NE face incised Latin cross … with expanded shaft terminals. On SW face, very worn Latin cross … with expanded terminals. Slight trace of another incised cross on SE face
This too has associations with St Ciarán, a very interesting character by all accounts. He is said to have been born on the island in 325AD and is one of the’ first-born saints of Ireland’ (Lives of the Saints). His mother was an islander and his father came from Ossary in County Offaly. The young Ciarán is said to have heard about the new religion from fishermen. He was converted and became a wilderness figure: dressing in animal skins, eating sparingly and sleeping on the bare ground. He lived the life of a hermit and spent his time in unceasing prayer. A story tells how he blessed a well so ‘it had the taste of wine or honey for everyone who drank it got drunk as well as filled.’ (Lives of the Saints) Nice to think it could have been this well. Ciarán eventually set out for Rome where he was baptised. On his way back to Ireland he met St Patrick who gave him a bell and told him wherever it should ring was the place to build an abbey. The bell rang out near Birr in Offaly where he duly founded an abbey at Saighir Chiaráin.
St Ciarán is still venerated on the island – the harbour itself is called after him as are the churches, both old and new. The well is still active and Mass is said here on St Ciarán’s day, 5th of March, when the Gallán is also incorporated into the rounds. I don’t know if the water has any particular healing qualities but traditionally fishing boats would take some on board with them to ensure a safe voyage. It is also meant to stay fresh forever and will never boil!
Tobar Maolín, St Maolín’s Well
There is another well on the island located near the hostel. It was described as a holy well by Sites and Monuments in1988 and described as being dedicated to St Maolín. It has since been downgraded and is not officially considered as an archaeological monument though it certainly looks the part and as it has a saint attached to it …..
Many thanks to my friends Michael and Zillah Plaice who kindly went exploring in very damp conditions and uncovered the well. It is hidden in plain site under a clump of montbretia, underneath a large stone wall.
Zillah, who spent her childhood on Cape Clear, can remember playing near it as a child but little seems to be known about it. It consists of three limestone slabs tucked into the shallow bank and still contains fresh, clear water. It is labelled on the historic 25 inch map simply as well.
The location of both wells can be found in the Gazetteer.