The area around Cullen in North Cork revers three saintly sisters: St Lasair, St Laitairian and St Inghne Bhuidhe – the spellings of these names vary enormously! Who they were seems complicated. Some accounts refer to them as being from the north of England for the wonderfully named St Beirechert (also spelled in a multitude of ways) is said to have lived with them for a while before heading up to Tullylease (his well to be recorded shortly). The saint who gives his name to St John’s Well on nearby Mushera mountain is meant to be their brother (his well also coming up soon) and they also seem to have connections with St Gobnait of Ballyvourney and St Croagh Dearg at the City of Shrone. Other accounts put them back much further in time, as daughters of an ancient chieftain, Bhuide. It seems likely that their feast days once marked the start of the Celtic festivals – St Lasair at Imbolc (Spring), Inghe Bhuidhe at Bealtine (Summer) and St Latiairian at Lunasa (Autumn). Was there a fourth sister since forgotten who brought in Samhain (winter)?
There is a nice story in the Lives of the Saints by Canon O Hanlon which shows how highly the sisters were regarded:
… In the diocese of Kerry there is an old church at Dromtariff, in the parish so-called, and County of Cork, where a female saint, called Inneen, was venerated on the 6th of May. According to popular tradition, she was the sister of St. Lateerin, who is likewise popularly known at Cullin in that part of the country, and to an older sister who lived at Kilmeen. The remains of an ancient paved way may be traced between the places. It is stated, according to a local tradition, that the Angels of Heaven made a road one night from Kilmeen through Dromtariff and on to Cullin, so that the three sisters might the more conveniently visit each other once every week.
St Lasair’s well at Killasseragh has since been ploughed over but the wells of the other two sisters remain, revered and visited and full of interesting folklore.
Inghne Bhuidhe’s well, Dromtarriff
This is a delightful and unexpected spot, approached through a farmyard and then down a track through fields sown with wheat. The first time we visited, the wheat was ripe and golden, the tractors passing up and down beside the well. Beautifully enclosed within a circular wall, it has the feeling and appearance of a small oasis. A metal gate creaks open and lets you in. Inside all is green and quiet. A hawthorn tree is decorated in rags of many colours, a mossy statue of the BVM below. The well is below the ground, four steep and narrow steps take you down and it’s quite a feat to scoop up the water. A box for donations has been customised as a mug holder. The water is cold, clear and plentiful and is said to be good for eye ailments and men’s problems.
It hasn’t always been so peaceful here! There are several stories about foolish landowners trying to cover up the well:
The Leaders (landlords) drained the well at Dromtariffe on one occasion. They drained from the Blackwater up to the well, with the intention of putting an end to the custom of visiting the well. At that time people went to the well on different occasions during the year: there was no special day of pilgrimage. The Leaders then tilled the land and sowed corn in the area of the well and in fact over the well itself, which they had covered. On the morning of the sixth of May the spring burst up through the ground. It made a lake of four or five feet in depth and a few feet in diameter, where the well had been. The story went round and the people made enquiries to find out whether the well had not reappeared previous to the date mentioned. Nobody had seen it before the sixth of May however. Water to the depth of about one and a half feet filled the bottom of the well and no water overflowed into the field. Therefore it did not interfere with Leader in any way. The result of it all was that the Leaders did not again interfere with the well or with anybody who has occasion to visit it.
Another story dating from 1873 – is this describing the same event from another point of view or is it a different occurrence altogether?
… a most remarkable occurrence is said to have taken place, now over twenty years ago. The man who owned the land in which the holy well is situated thought to stop it by draining, as the people used to damage his place when coming from all directions to Visit the well. All the men he had employed endeavouring to stop its course refused working at it. He even advanced their wages, but this did not induce the greater number of them to continue their labour. However, some undertook the draining, and the first day they worked every workman got sore eyes. After this some continued for a few days, until they got stone blind. Then the gentleman who owned the land saw his mistake, and he got men to repair the damage he had done to the well. He got a wall built around it, and from that date he kept a man in charge of it.
Lives of the Irish Saints Canon O Hanlon
The wall obviously didn’t last that long for when Colonel Grove White visited the well in 1910 the photograph he took shows a very simple hole in the ground and nothing else around it but sheep. Colonel Grove White was a British army officer and general enthusiast of all things historical in North Cork. He researched extensively and presented his findings in his book Historical and Topographical Notes etc. on Buttevant, Castletownroche, Doneraile, Mallow and places in their vicinity, by Colonel James Grove White. Cork, Guy and Company, 1906-1915. This is a mine of information and includes his own photographs.
The well was later restored in 1984 and was looking very attractive and well kept in preparation for the feast day on the 6th May when the rounds are still undertaken here and conducted in a clockwise fashion. May was the most popular month for pilgrimage and rounds were also held on the 29th, 30th and 31st of May as well as any Saturday and Sunday during the year. The three stones by the well are inscribed with crosses, the water from the well is drunk and traditionally pilgrims often attach a ribbon to the clootie tree.
This is a remarkable and evocative sight – a hawthorn tree covered in an array of colourful ribbons. The ribbons contain the worries and afflictions of the pilgrim – as they weather and fade so does the illness.
This year the rounds are taking place at 8pm should you be anywhere near.
It’s interesting and rather nice that the land surrounding the well is still sown with corn. This is a remarkable place, removed and separate and yet still so connected with the past; you return to reality refreshed and tranquil.
Tobar Laitiarain, Cullen
Not far away in Cullen is the well dedicated to St Laitiarain, the sister of Inghne Bhuidhe. To find the well you walk down a small boreen skirting the old graveyard and there in a very lush green field is the beehive shaped well, gazing out across the rolling hills. The well was restored in 2008, a cross placed on the top but the tiny iron gate remains from the original well, allowing access to the water. It’s quite a stoop to get down there. It feels peaceful and remote but once hundreds of people came here to do the rounds. As often seemed to be the case, the day ended in unseemly and unchristian merriment to the annoyance of the clergy. Rounds are still held here on 25th July, making it a Lunasa site. Traditionally rounds were also held on the Sunday before the 25th July, and Good Friday.
Colonel Grove White visited the site in 1914 and mentions some of the cures that were attributed to the water:
I visited Cullen on 24 March, 1914. The Holy Well is situated in a field to N.E. and close to the graveyard. The patron day is attended by a large number of people, mostly women, who come for the cure of all kinds of diseases. I was informed that a girl named Leary, who was a cripple, was cured about 1894, and left her crutches at the Holy Well. A mason named Daniel O’Connor, who lives at Cullen, some time ago cleaned out this well and found in it some clinkers from a forge. There used to be a trout in the well.
Note the little doorway from this well remains in the current, restored well – a nice touch. And the trout referred to was meant to be golden and a bringer of good luck.
Local folklore has it that St Laitiarain came from England with her three sisters and to start with they all lived in Cullen. She was the youngest sister and every morning she went to the blacksmith to collect the ‘seed’ for the fire ie the red hot embers. She carried them back in her apron and never seemed to get burnt. One day, as she scooped the embers into her apron, she revealed a bit of shapely ankle and the blacksmith remarked on its comeliness! She glanced proudly at her ankles and at once was burned by the coals for she had felt the sin of pride. She cursed the blacksmith and prayed that the sound of a forge should never be heard in Cullen ever again! As she sank to her knees to pray she disappeared into the ground and reappeared by the well in the field. The spot where she disappeared is marked by the Dallan – a large heart-shaped boulder, also known as the Cloch na gCursa – the stone of the rounds.
It is also known as the Heart Stone or the Saint’s Stone and women would genuflect in front of it before the harvest. It was once near the village pump but has since been moved and sits rather oddly in front of a large, modern hand ball alley. The rounds start from here.
St Laitiarain’s Day is the 25th July, putting it into the Lunasa category, and rounds are still performed on this day. There is still no forge in Cullen!
- I have since been contacted by the great granddaughter of the stone mason, wonderful continuity. Thank you Sheila for getting in touch.