I knew these two wells might be a little challenging, but the sun was shining, they were fairly close together and it seemed a great excuse to drive out to the very end of the Mizen Peninsula.
Tobaraneeve, Well of the Saints, Dunlough
The drive out to Dunlough Head is stupendous. The roads get smaller and smaller and the views get bigger and bigger. You pass by Crookhaven and its turquoise seas, gaze out at White Strand and its megalithic monuments, climb up higher with the rolling waves on your left and then savour incredible huge views out towards Barley Cove and its acres of white sand. We ignored these temptations however and crossed the estuary over the causeway (now rather plagued by signage) and continued out past small farms and a patchwork of green fields until we reached Dunlough.
It’s hard to believe that this gorgeous spot is infamous for the bungled cocaine smuggling escapade in 2007. But then again, maybe not.
Dunlough is where you park to visit Three Castle Head and its enigmatic tower house. Today the car park was packed and a steady stream of visitors was strung out on the stiff but rewarding path leading up towards the castle. Some headed towards the recently opened and beautifully positioned café but we were intent on the holy well: Tobaraneeve: Tobar na Naomh, Well of the Saints. I had always assumed that the large pool of water and stream on the left as you go through the car park was something to do with the well but it seemed over-manicured and devoid of atmosphere for a holy well. GPS and large maps revealed that the well was further inland, and on looking at the terrain, appeared to be on the edge of a cliff. A small rickety gate at the top of the cliff looked promising and hinted at things to come.
A rough path looked discernible, leading downwards through the soft and tufty grass. I went down gingerly but after a lot of rootling around found a small stream, lots of possible well-like depressions but nothing definite. We repaired to the café and asked the owner. He knew of the well, it was said to cure insanity and it was indeed half way down the cliff! It could be a bit overgrown he remarked casually. Quite an understatement. Even more enticingly he described a mass rock with a cross and Latin still inscribed upon it. I had to go back for another search. My husband could not look and left me with instructions to dial 999 if necessary.
More (careful) scrambling and I think I found the well, tucked into the slope with rough slabs of disturbed rock around it and and some dampness within.
Two large stones lay to the left and I hoped to find evidence of inscribing but could find nothing definite, just natural erosion in intriguing shapes.
What an amazing situation though: the sea rushing into a small cove below with its scatter of fallen rocks; above steep grassy cliffs full of bees and dragonflies. It is almost impossible to imagine that people did make their way down here to venerate this secretive and dangerously-placed well but the cove below is called Coosnaneeve – Cuas na Naomh – or Cove of the Saints and rounds were once paid here. It is said that the water of the well was useful for mental ailments and even madness – rather ironic for, as my husband pointed out, you would have to be mad to go down there in the first place!
Being in the area it would have been foolish not to have walked over the hill to the magnificent Dunlough Castle itself. The area is known as Three Castle Head but in fact there are not three castles as the name suggests, but one castle with three imposing towers. Once an O Mahony stronghold.
Tiobraid Ulla, Well of the Penitential Station, Letter
Still showing signs of insanity, we ventured on to the second well – this one I knew was going to be remote! We drove past Barley Cove and on towards Goleen before veering sharply to the right along a tiny road, freshly tarmacked. The road petered out, ending near a house. Inquiries were made. The family emerged and directions were given. Himself pointed up high on the mountain behind him, instructing me to aim for the two stones on the top then drop down a bit. His sisters remarked on the grand evening and encouraged us to don our wellies and sally forth. We thought we would.
The views were tremendous but the the terrain was fierce: deep, rutty, boggy holes underfoot, shoulder high grasses, gorse and brambles and many small walls and steep banks to negotiate. There were even cattle, watching us with frisky amusement. The GPS guided us up the mountain and then gave up the ghost at the last moment.
Some interesting stones were the first clues that we had to be close. A ring of stones, some of them upright, some jumbled, and a stone slab bearing white quartz in the middle, looked significant. On the old OS maps this is referred to as a stone circle but it may be also be the remains of an old church or an ecclesiastical enclosure, something to do with the penitential station referred to in the name of the well: Tiobraid Ulla, Well of the Penitential Station. One of the upright stones is classified as a cross slab and is meant to have a cross inscribed upon. The stone labelled in the image below looked promising but we could see no cross.
The itself well was meant to be just below this monument. The slope was steep, lush and skiddy. My husband pointed to a small area enclosed by rough posts
We had one final push, ducking under the barbed wire into a small area surrounded by bog grass. And there was the well!
A small basin, full of clear water with duckweed floating on top was unmistakable. The stone sides were bushy and overgrown but nestling amongst the grasses was a cup and a statue of the Infant of Prague. A very moving sight and we gasped and marvelled at the tenacity of another human being who had also made this incredible pilgrimage.
The Infant of Prague remains an intriguing and very popular little statue in some Irish homes. A coin placed under him is said to ensure that the house is never without money, and, if buried in the bride’s garden, the statue will ensure good weather for a wedding. He also obviously watches over holy wells!
Another small, dampish basin to the right revealed another stack of plastic cups.
The well is supposed to be dedicated to St Brendan and may also have been visited on St John’s Eve, 23rd June. It was obviously part of the rounds connected with the penitential station above. It’s hard to imagine people struggling across the mountain and down the slope, but returning we did find a track beginning a little further down that may once have led to the well so maybe we had just chosen the extremely difficult route.
What a spot. You don’t get more remote than this. Somehow it was all very humbling and awe-inspiring.
Two very remote but very special sites.