I always seem to start my blog by saying how unexpectedly interesting the well in question is! It’s true – each well has its own merits and interest and this one is no exception. St Olan’s Well is to be found on the side of the Rylane road, there’s a small pull-in place. The area is neatly kept and enclosed by a chain-looped fence, topped with crosses. The wellhouse is captivating: a small stone beehive, now with a whitethorn tree seemingly consuming it. A row of slabs lead up to it. A narrow rectangular opening, lintelled, leads down into the well, now sadly dry due to recent drainage work, but it was once renowned for its healing properties for ailments of the eyes.
This is probably a good example of a pre-Christian well, perhaps blessed by local saint, St Eulong, or Olan to give him his anglicised name. This feeling of timelessness is heightened by the huge standing stone to the left of it, covered in ochre lichen and when you look closely, also inscribed down one edge by Ogham – the earliest form of Irish writing.
The inscription has been decoded as MADORA MAQI DEGO or NO MAQI DEGO. Quite what it means is unclear but it could honour a chief of the Clana Deaghda tribe which once had territory in West Munster. What an impressive and compelling stone though. It stands nearly 3m tall. It is not in its original position however but was moved in 1851 from the nearby townland of Mountrivers where it was discovered in the foundations of an old mill which in turn may have been built on a ringfort. Crosses inscribed onto it show how it was later incorporated into the rounds.
Circling the stone and the well are the Stations of the Cross. These were erected in the 1970s along with the statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The statue is in a glassed niche built into the wall, and she looks out rather wistfully, pulling back her blue robes to reveal her Immaculate Heart.
Traditionally the heart was depicted pierced with seven wounds, referring to the Seven Sorrows. Seven Hail Marys should be said daily in front of her. Should you be wondering about the Seven Sorrows (as I was), they are as follows:
- The prophecy of Simeon. (St. Luke 2:34, 35)
- The flight into Egypt. (St. Matthew 2:13, 14)
- The loss of the Child Jesus in the temple. (St. Luke 2: 43-45)
- The meeting of Jesus and Mary on the Way of the Cross.
- The Crucifixion.
- The taking down of the Body of Jesus from the Cross.
- The burial of Jesus.
A short distance away in the graveyard of the medieval church of St Olan (go right from the well, then sharp right at the junction) are more interesting reminders of the saint. Here, jostling with the gravestones, is to be found St Olan’s Cap, another remarkable standing stone.
This blatantly phallic stone also has an Ogham inscription (ANM CORRE MAQVI …UDD) but more importantly, it is topped with a capáin – a large lump of quartzite. The capáin was said to have remarkable qualities and was especially effective at curing headaches. You had to put the stone cap on your head and walk three times round the church. Kill or cure!
It was also renown for its effectiveness in curing women’s ailments and especially helpful during pregnancy and travail, as childbirth was rather euphemistically called. Could the shape of the pillar stone have had something to do with that?
Even more intriguing, the capáin seems to have had a life of its own, for if removed (as it was by an outraged and embarrassed priest), it would always find its way back to the pillar. Sadly it is now firmly cemented in place but it remains a powerful and intriguing arefact. Another Ogham stone was removed from the site in 1838 and is now part of the impressive collection of Ogham stones in University College Cork (UCC).
Nearby is another remarkable stone, St Olan’s Stone – look carefully and there are the footprints of the saint himself. Traditionally he was said to have preached perched from on top of this stone. It is also said to mark his burial place but in fact this is not the original place of the stone, it was moved from a field to the north of the graveyard during field clearances. A flat stone in front also has some inscriptions on it – maybe this was somewhere to kneel whilst doing devotions.
Rounds were traditionally held on St Olan’s feast day, 5th September and attracted large numbers of pilgrims. Visits to the well and the stones were included. PJ Harnett in his book The holy Wells of Muskerry published in 1940 explains:
Regarding the rounds paid I must, first of all, point out that St. Olan’s Well is one of a chain of three “Stations”; the other two – St Olan’s Stone and St. Olan’s Cap – being located in the neighbouring town land of Coolineagh. The Olan whose name is here perpetuated was, of course, the patron saint of the parish of Aghabullogue, as well as being the preceptor of St. Finbarr of Cork. His name is recorded in the Martyrology of Donegal as Eolang, Eulang, or Eulogius, and his feast-day occurs on September 5th. It is on this date that rounds are paid at all three stations.
An intriguing collection of monuments.