The enchanting North Cork village of Tullylease was once the site of a large ecclesiastical settlement founded by the wonderfully named St Bericheart (his name can be spelled in a huge number of ways: Bearhtwine, Berechtuine, Berikert, Berichter, Berectchert, Berechtir, Berehert, Berrihert but locally he is mercifully known as St Ben and that’s what I’ll call him). He was of Anglo-Saxon origin, supposedly arriving in Ireland from Winchester, his family having left England due to the Synod of Whitby 664 AD which had imposed a more Roman, as opposed to Celtic, Christianity on the land. The family, possibly four brothers and a sister, and followers arrived in Mayo where they founded a monastery. Later St Ben travelled to Cullen where he stayed with the three saintly sisters (St Lasair, St Laitairian and St Inghne Bhuidhe). Eventually he moved on and ended up in Tullylease where he duly founded another monastery. This wasn’t as simple as it sounds for first he had to contend with the local druid who was not thrilled to see him. A rather ferocious trial was contrived. It was decided that a hut was to be built of highly inflammable material. St Ben and the druid were to go inside, the door closed and the building set alight. Whoever was left standing would win the hearts and minds of the locals! The unfortunate druid was burnt to a crisp and St Ben was left unharmed, ‘not a spot was reddened on him’.
The monastery that developed here was said to be a seat of great learning. Scholars came from near and far but, as there was no formal accommodation, had to build their own huts by clearing the forest around – hence the name of the villlage: tulach leis – the hill of the huts. The attractive ruins of an old church dedicated to St Ben remain, as does a collection of exceptionally beautiful, decorated cross slabs. The most intricate example is a cross of extraordinary craftsmanship, in Anglo-Saxon style.
There is also a rather strange figure said to represent St Ben with curly hair and a swallow tailed dress coat. This stone is relatively recent and dates from 1838, but the others are contemporary with St Ben.
A polite notice asks you not to rub them for they are indeed much worn having been included in the rounds that were associated with the three holy wells to be found in the vicinity: St Mary’s Well, St Bericheart’s Well and the Deer Stone, all once included within the ecclesiastical settlement.
St Mary’s Holy Well
St Mary’s well is just below the old church and now consists of an elaborate stone wellhouse incorporating a large statue of the BVM in a niche over the well, very different to the humble stone well shown in this 1907 photograph taken by Colonel Grove White.
Today the large and rather elegant statue of the BVM gazes out soulfully, candles and rosaries at her feet.
The well itself is in a semi-circular trough underneath, protected by an ornate iron gate decorated with a Celtic cross. The water was clear but a little leaf-infested on the day we visited. A ladle plus special holder, seemingly a specialty of North Cork, was available as were ready filled and labelled bottles of holy water fresh from the well.
The well lies in the townland of Poulavare, poll a Mhear, which translates as the hole of the finger. Tradition has it that the well was once a baptistery but when Cromwell arrived in town he granted it to one of his men. The well was originally lined with oak planks and sheets of lead and was so enticing that the soldier decided to rip the lead from the well with the intention of selling it. When he went to tear out the lead he ripped his finger off instead! Needless to say, the mineral rich water of St Mary’s well is meant to be excellent for curing warts and sore fingers!
The site, on the banks of the river, was once used for wheel making and an attractive plaque commemorates this old craft. The old banding gear, last used in 1964, was renovated two years ago and lies close to the well.
St Bericheart well
Across the road is St Bericheart’s well. This is approached through a beautifully kept and attractively landscaped garden. The little whitewashed wellhouse is in a protective walled enclosure, entered through a metal gate, again decorated with a Celtic cross and rosaries.
The wellhouse has a triangular gable, topped with a cross. The well is a step down, a helpful metal bar placed across to ensure you don’t tumble in.
Encircled by the whitewashed wall, this feels a private and intimate space. The stones used for the wall were taken from the remains of St Bericheart’s house of which not much now remains due to this practice. It was once the custom to take a small stone from the house, dip it in the well, then take it home for it : posess(ed) the virtue of securing the bearer against fire and storm. Does this refer back to St Ben’s original encounter with the druid? The water was consider to cure just about everything. A ladle with its own hanging device remains handily placed to collect some of this miraculous stuff.
The Deer Stone
The third well is not actually a well at all but a large ballaun stone known as as the Deer Stone or the Cloch na hEilte and it can be found in the field, once known as the Fair Field, next to the national school. The story goes that this stone would fill up every day with milk and refresh the builders working on the construction of the church. Puzzled by this bounty they decided to keep watch and see where it was coming from. The milk was coming from a deer but just as she was leaving milk in the hole, she saw the builders, became enraged and kicked the stone leaving her hoofprint in it. She and her milk were never seen again!
The stone was however held in high esteem as a cure for headaches. A suffer was advised to rub her head three times around the bowl, each time invoking the Holy Trinity. Quite hard to actually do, I did have a go. St Ben is also reputed to have baptised pagans from this stone.
Although the Deer Stone now looks a bit isolated and forlorn amongst the grass it was one of the sites visited during the rounds which are still held here on St Ben’s Day, the 18th February. Well Day, as it is also called, was originally the 6th December but no one seems very sure why it suddenly changed dates! The rounds, which can also be done on any Friday or Saturday throughout the year, are as follows: First Decade of the Rosary in the church, the second in the old graveyard, the third at St Mary’s Well, the fourth in the new graveyard and the fifth at St Ben’s well where water from the well is taken.
An intriguing and attractive area, full of history.