Today’s adventure was centred around the scenic back roads between Dunmanway and Crookstown, a day of exploration with my pals Robert and Finola from Roaringwater Journal. Several holy wells were of course on the agenda.
St Finbarr’s Well, Dunmanway
First stop was St Finbarr’s Well just outside Dunmanaway, an area of little shady roads, slow flowing rivers and old bridges and a seemingly favourite spot for dog walkers enjoying the unusually hot day. An attractive little gate on the side of the road informed us that we were close. The gateposts were whitewashed and the signage clear, a small cross on top of the gate hinting at what lay within. The site is meant to be part of an early ecclesiastical enclosure – the old church, dedicated to St Finbarr, is just down the lane. It also seems to have been used as a cilleen, or burial place for unbaptised children, as the plaque testified.
A beaten track led down through the boggy meadow, large trees giving dappled shade. Small white crosses lay hidden amongst the long grasses indicating the path of the rounds.
The well itself is a large, stone built and circular, pretty much obscured by rampant vegetation. Although dedicated to St Finbarr and known locally as St Finbarr’s Well, another name for it is Tobernadihy, or well of the hollows, which seems fitting. It’s not a particularly alluring well although the setting is very peaceful and undisturbed.
The well was dry – just dampness at the bottom. It didn’t seem to have received many visitors lately.
St Finbarr is the patron saint of Cork, and rounds were done here on his Feast Day, 25th September.
St Bridget’s Well, near Crookstown
We also visited a second well that had connections with Finbarr, this time in Knocknaneirk, not far from Crookstown. St Finbarr is supposed to have stopped here on his journeying from Gougane Barra, where he established a monastic cell, to Cork city where the cathedral is still dedicated to him. Gougane is the most famous site associated with this local saint and is to be written up shortly!
This well is on private land and would have been impossible to find without the help of the landowner, Olive. She was busy tending the cattle but directed us to the grove and wished us luck, warning us that it wasn’t easy to find. She couldn’t remember anyone else ever having come searching it out and was quite impressed to see us. The grove turned out to be a little wooded copse on top of a small hill, Horn Hill.
We ducked under the electric fencing and hunted around in the bracken. I slipped into a hole, obviously a sign from St Finbarr for there in front of me was the well, heavily disguised with briars and ferns and bracken, a hawthorn tree growing above it. A bit of pruning and the structure came into view: a stone built beehive shape with a sturdy lintel, nicely made.
The well itself was semi-circular, a broken cup still at the bottom, but damp rather than flowing with water.
According to Bruno O Donoghue in his Parish Histories & Place Names of West Cork compiled in the 1980s (my bible!), this well is dedicated to St Bridget. There seemed to be recognisable paths around it and presumably rounds were once done here on St Bridget’s Day, 1st February. A little further to the west is a ringfort known as Bride Fort, another connection with the saint.
Tobar Muire, Kilmurry
The third well we visited was incredible! Also on private land, we knew we would have to ask at the farmhouse for directions for the track on the map seemed to peter out in the middle of nowhere. Thank goodness we did for we would never have found it without Eileen’s help. She very kindly dropped whatever she was doing and offered to show us where the well was, though she did warn us it might be a little overgrown! This proved to be a slight understatement for at one point we were hacking our way through swathes of bracken, way above our heads.
We walked through the farm and up a trackway, then across a field looking for the gap in the wall which led up onto Cnoc a ‘Tobair, hill of the well. There was a marker stone from the track which in fact pointed straight across the field to where there was a stile in the wall, heavily overgrown with ivy.
The wall itself was prickly with blackthorn and briars, but once we had scrambled over, the first thing we saw was a large ballaun stone lying amongst the bracken, some white quartz stones still on top of it (and a bit of fox poo). This was probably once included in the rounds and may have been part of a penitential station. (I have since discovered that this is indeed a penitential station: (CO083-060001) and was visited as part of the round in connection with the holy well. What you can’t see from this photo is the extent of the rock and the white quartz pebbles that form a little fringe all the way around its base).
This looked hopeful if the way ahead didn’t didn’t. It was seriously thick and the bracken way above us! But we persevered heading towards the top of the hill which seemed a likely spot. And there it was, a low stone structure, right on top of the hill with magnificent views out in all directions.
Beautifully made, it was a circular drystone structure with a corbelled roof. White quartz pebbles had been stuffed into every section – presumably left by pilgrims doing the rounds. A wooden lintel within kept the building stable. Stone slabs led to the entrance.
It was surrounded by a mass of wild flowers, especially yellow trefoil, and felt remote and special. The well itself was damp, but again no water was flowing. An inscribed cross on one of the stones on top of the well referred to its veneration and a track coming up from a different way showed someone else had visited fairly recently. There were two other inscribed stones lying around the well, presumably visited as part of the rounds.
The well is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) and rounds were traditionally paid here on the 8th September –the Feast Day of the Nativity of the BVM. Eileen could remember when there had been a Mass held here a few years ago but it was not an annual occurrence. Kilmurry village just below also refers to the BVM, and means Church of Mary, the present church is also dedicated to her. I suspect the well may have been here first.
What a very beautiful part of the world.
St Finbarr’s Well has public access. The other two are on private land and permission must be sought. With thanks to Eileen and Olive for showing us these remarkable wells.
The location of these wells can be found in the Gazetteer.