A visit to Castletownbere gave the perfect opportunity for a small adventure on the way back. First I went up to Dereenataggart Stone Circle, admired the clootie tree and was visited by the rather snooty but very handsome guardian of the place.
Then on to check out two wells. Both turned out to be unexpectedly interesting – I don’t know why unexpected, for every holy well is interesting!
St Finnian’s Well, Castletownbere
First stop was St Finnian’s well high up in the hills behind Castletownbere. I had been reading about it in the morning before setting out and fortunately the article included a photo of the track leading onto the hillside. I recognised it instantly, parked the car and set out. The track was muddy, rutted by tyres from farm vehicles, and the surrounding area very boggy. The louseworts and butterworts were out. Inspite of the soft, damp day, the views up here were magnificent: the Caha mountains behind and Castletownbere with the sea beyond to the south. The area was flat but no sign of anything well-like, just bog grass and pools of jewel-like greens, alluring but dangerous.
The first hint was a gleam of white quartz poking through the grasses and sure enough, there on the summit of the plateau was the well.
It’s a remarkable double well, restored in 2007. Each well is slabbed to form a hexagon with the well in the centre. The white quartz pillar stands between them.
The wells were muddy and full of bog grass rather than flowing but a BVM-shaped holy water bottle and a blue rosary showed that someone still revered the site. The water was once used to cure ailments is cattle.
St Finnian is commonly called the Father of Irish Monasticism. At his birth in county Meath in the early fifth century all the birds of Ireland gathered, a portent of his future significance. He seems to have been an excellent teacher and founded a monastic school in Clonard. His prominent pupils are often called the 12 Apostles of Ireland and included St Brendan and St Columba. I’m wondering if there might be a more local saint called St Finnian for this is a long way from Meath. There’s is a St Finnian’s Bay near Ballinskelligs in Kerry, named after a man who is said to have lived in the tenth century and had connections with Skellig Michael. Could this well be dedicated to him?
St Finnian’s feast day is the 12th December.
Onwards towards Adrigole then a sharp turn left towards the Healy Pass. The country here is remote and beautiful and a right turn shortly after the grotto takes you down very tiny, windy roads where you hope you meet no other traffic. I parked by the old church – a surprisingly large car park which I later discovered had been built on top of monastic cells. For this is an ancient site, the remains of the church now barely discernible but once dedicated to St Caskan. The old graveyard is verdant and peaceful, full of primroses and bluebells, the modern graveyard nearby more orderly but still colourful, a huge crucifixion overlooking everything. A worn ogham stone speaks of a long history. The faded inscription has been translated as LUGUQRIT… LONAS, and dates somewhere between 500-700AD.
Interesting there is also mention of large stone once to be found on the site that was used to cure headaches. This reminded me of the capaín on top of the St Olán’s ogham stone, Aghabullogue, which is also close to a holy well (to be written up shortly). I wonder if it was something similar. This capaín, sometimes known as St Olán’s Cap, is made of two quartzite stones and was used to cure headaches and women’s ailments! The stones were originally detachable. For rather obvious reasons, its shape upset a local priest who tried to get rid of it, only for the capaín to mysteriously reappear. It has now been rather unsubtly cemented into place but is a fine looking specimen and apparently still potent.
Back to the well! I knew it was outside the church and on the other side of the road somewhere. I wandered with intent until I came across a gate tied with twine and saw some large and interesting stones within the boggy field.
I ventured in and there was the well, actually a ballaun stone: a deep basin carved into the sandstone boulder. It was much covered in greenery, the basin itself full of holly leaves but still impressive. It is known as tobberatemple – the well of the church.
It was once renown for its healing properties regarding sore eyes:
… in the hollow of this stone … the country people bathe their eyes when sore, in expectation of a cure… at each round they throw into the hollow a bit of rush formed into a cross. They afterwards suspend a piece of rag on a bush over the site, in memorial of their devotions.
Clerical and Parochial Records of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, Brady 1863.
There were no rags hanging here today but another large slab in front of the well looked interesting and I wondered if it originally featured in devotions. This well has had few visitors recently and although marked on the OS maps seems in danger of disappearing into the undergrowth. A rather special place.