Just back from a brief but fruitful tour of North Cork, culminating in two very special wells that are traditionally visited at Bealtine. Bealtine was one of the four ancient Celtic festivals and is a Cross Quarter Day, half way between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. It was usually celebrated on May 1st. It was a fire festival, a time of purification, a time when animals were moved to summer pastures, a time when summer was heralded in with the promise of a good harvest. With the coming of Christianity, the whole month of May was devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary and rounds paid at Lady’s Wells.
I have to confess that one of these wells is just over the border in Kerry but it is such a special site I had to include it so it will be a guest well.
Tubrid Well, Millstreet
This is a tranquil spot, approximately one mile west of Millstreet, and clearly signed. It claims to be the second largest holy well in Ireland and the UK and is indeed most impressive. I haven’t quite managed to identify which is the largest but St Winefride’s in Wales is looking promising. The site is tranquil, beautifully kept and still much visited. A huge pool of clear water, just over 12m in diameter, is neatly fenced in blue and white. A grotto (even the BVM’s halo is illuminated blue) and a covered altar, flickering with candles, lie to the south. The water is exceptionally clear – you can see it bubbling from under the ground and the river Finnow flows down the west side. A stand of mugs and jugs are available for pilgrims.
The well’s pristine condition is down to the work of the Well Keeper, James O Sullivan who we were lucky to meet the first time we came here:
I caretake it. I inherited a responsibility, an obligation from my father, who inherited it from his father, and I will pass it along to my son Matthew as well. I come from farming stock, and we always take our responsibilities seriously. We didn’t have a whole lot, but what we did we looked after. And I see this as my duty – to look after this well the same way my father did.
Around the well there are rosary beads, and then there’s a crucifix at the end of that. So people come down and they do the rounds. The usual thing is to go around three times. There are people down there, I am not joking you, every hour of every day. The month of May being the month of Mary, that’s when people go there in their droves. And I mean at any one time on a Sunday afternoon, there could be 300 people, 400 people there. You might think maybe it was only the elderly people that go there, and sure enough they do go there. But there are younger people as well. I see a lot of people in their 20s.
And I have found out that as we go deeper and deeper into the recession, there are more and more people coming. People come there for the solace, and the quietness. People are coming there for peace of mind. People find some strength down there. If they come with worries maybe their worries are lessened; they see things differently. If I was to say it in a nutshell, people are looking for hope. And I think they get it down there. We all go back to our roots eventually.
Sunday Tribune, 2010
The well’s history may be ancient but it nearly fell into disuse. A law passed during the reign of Queen Anne (1701-14) prescribed a pubic whipping for those who dared visit holy wells and Tubrid was subsequently almost abandoned. However, the story goes that it was rediscovered during the 1930s when a blind man dreamt that he would be cured if he visited the well. He had the same dream for three nights and was eventually brought to the well and after three visits his sight was restored. The well was then renovated and since then many cures have been attributed to the water:
At Tubrid, according to their faith and if it be the will of God … people are cured by the holy waters of the well. A cripple leaves her crutch there for all to see and walks away. A girl has her hair restored by washing in the well, an eight-year old child begins to talk, a woman has her finger straightened, and American gets relief from arthritis, a priest has a speech-impediment cured. An invalid thirty years in bed gets up and walks again after she has donated the stones for the building of the Grotto …
The rounds are carefully and precisely laid out :
The traditional round dates consists of three visits to the well any Thursday, Friday or Saturday of May. Say a Rosary each day beginning at the Grotto and continue circling the well. Break the Rosary three times at the Grotto to ask Our Lady for request. Finish with six paters, Aves and Glorias. The ceremony ends in the drinking of water from the well. Receive Holy Communion following Sunday. If visiting only one day – say the fifteen decades on that visit, the six paters etc. and receive Holy Communion on Sunday.
The rounds are always conducted sunwise ie clockwise and an annual Mass is still held here – this year it will be conducted on the 27th May.
Like many wells, there is also said to be a fish living within and those who see it will have their wishes granted. Sadly it remained elusive today.
Although it is usually known as a Lady’s well and visits are made in May, Mary’s month, there is considerable dispute as to who the patron of the well actually is. Some believe the patron is St Gobnait from Ballyvourney, others say Tubrid means Tobar Ide, St Ita’s well, while others favour St Laterian, a local saint.
Whoever is in charge, the well, manages to retain a very serene and genuine atmosphere. It is obviously still very much part of the community – many benches donated in memory of those that liked to come here to pray face the well and offerings and candles are tucked here and there.
Tubrid well is keeping up with the times too and it even has its own Facebook page!
Having paid our respects at Tubrid we then crossed the border into deepest Kerry to visit what is believed to be one of the oldest still visited spiritual sites in Ireland.
Cathair Crobh Dearg, Rathmore, Kerry
We first visited Cathair Crobh Dearg, or the City of Shrone as it is usually known, a year ago and were amazed by it. It is in a remote and scenic spot nestling under the majestic Paps of Anu: twin-peaked mountains dedicated to the mother Goddess of the Tuatha de Danaan, Anu or Danú. The site is bursting with historical significance but seemed forgotten and neglected. The little road leading to it was the kneedeep in cow pats – actually quite appropriate as we later discovered its long association with cattle – and full of potholes but we were enchanted by it and browsed and pondered on what it all meant. An elderly man appeared and the information was exchanged. On hearing that we were off to another holy well he exclaimed: ‘Well you’re a fierce holy woman’!
Today, May Day, we knew it would be busier for, like Tubrid, it is Bealtine site. We arrived mid morning and although it was quiet,the grass was trampled, candles were lit and two men were putting up a yellow gazebo ready for the arrival of the Bishop of Kerry who was due to conduct Mass later in the day. We talked to a man hoping to make a short broadcast of the celebrations and he gently grilled us on our intentions.
Cathair Crobh Dearg, literally Red Claw’s Enclosure, and is said to be associated with St Crobh Dearg, one of three saintly sisters, the other two being St Gobnait and St Lasair. It is considered to be the oldest still revered spiritual site in western Europe and may have been founded by the Tuatha de Danaan over 10,000 years ago.They were said to have come from Boeotia in Greece and worshiped Danú, the mother goddess: protector of health, agriculture and cattle.
Cathair Crobh Dearg is left a legacy of a religious nature, unique and strange, to this day. Right down through the ages, through Druidism and Paganism and through many mutations of human searching, religious ceremonies have been enacted on this barren windswept site. This chain of events has remained vibrant and alive – one of our cherished last remaining links with those days long past.
Dan Cronin, In the Shadow of the Paps, 2001
The site consists of an enormous stone cashel, 167m in circumference, with walls four metres thick in places. Inside are various interesting monuments covering millennia: a stone cairn, some large stones that may once have contained Ogham lettering, a penitential station, a collection of cross inscribed stones described as a megalithic altar, a modern statue of our Lady of the Wayside, the picturesque remains of the deerhough’s (caretaker)19th century cottage and, just outside the cashel, the holy well.
The well, which still remains the focal point of the rounds, was once located outside the cashel in the field to the south. It dried up in the 1950s and is now a shallow depression in the field. The current well is circular, encased in concrete, but the water still bubbles up and is much valued. According to the Celtic legend the Well of Segais, as the berries of the sacred hazel tree dropped into the well at the centre of the world, they produced na bolcca immaise, bubbles of mystic inspiration or the fount of all wisdom.
The rounds are complicated and if done conscientiously could take three hours! A board tells you what to do. The last station is the well. Water is usually taken away and sprinkled on the land or given to sick cattle. Interesting how the cattle connection continues. Cattle were one of Danú’s main concerns and were once herded and driven through Bealtine bonfires to ensure good health for the coming year. Although hundreds of years later and in the Christian era this is what was still happening in1869:
The person who performs the pilgrimage first commences with the oldest cow in the bawn, after which he takes the next youngest … he first drops three drops of water into the cow’s right nostril … then her right ear … and mouths the invocation… ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. Following this the cattle were said to be impervious to all disease.’
Journal of Cork Archaeological & Historical society, 1869.
Remember the cow pats? Yes, cattle are still important here and bottles of the water will be taken and given to ailing cattle. The ancient connections and traditions continue. I have only scratched the surface here but this is a useful site which gives more information: Voices of the Dawn and Robert from Roaringwater Journal (our travelling companions) gives his version of the visit here. We were also amused to meet Louise arriving as we were leaving – her excellent site Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland is a mine of information.