The road between Drimoleague and Bandon offers the opportunity for many holy well diversions – all of them obscure and quite tricky to find, but all worth pursuing. Today there were four wells on the agenda, each clearly marked on the OS map (Discovery Series 86 covers this area).
Well of the Baptisms, Tobernabastia, Tobar a’Bhaiste, Nedinagh East
This proved to be a delightful spot located just off the R586 near Manch. A wander down a leafy road, then a walk through a field opened up into hilly pasture. A shady grove at the far end looked significant and enticing, hawthorn, holly and ash making a little circle around some stones and covered pipes.
The little well lay in the centre amongst the jumble of mossy stones, some large slabs supported on smaller stones formed a rectangular basin, though much disturbed. The water was clear and a modern pipe within it showed that it was still being used.
As we retraced our steps I noticed a small path, much overgrown, amongst the woodland – surely the original pilgrimage path leading to the well?
The well is called Tobernabastia, or Well of the Baptisms and across the road, hidden by old farm buildings, are the remains of Fanlobbus church (CO108-027003) and its graveyard. Actually there have probably been many churches on this site, the original dating from the seventh century. Fanlobbus translates rather romantically as fan leaba ois, slope of the fawns’ bed. It is a beautiful spot. Four men were strimming amongst the higgledy piggeldy gravestones.
They stopped for a chat and although they knew of the well had little extra information but confirmed that the church site was ancient. The well, with its significant name, must surely have had connections with the church. It’s very easy to imagine a procession walking from here through the fields to an open air baptism.
Well of the Church, Tobernakilla, Dromidiclogh
This well is to be found in remote countryside above Ballineen and the GPS proved essential. Just off a small road, a clamber across a gate and you arrive on a plateau with sweeping views out across the rolling countryside. The Archaeological Inventory for County Cork described the well as:
Square depression roughly cut in rock through which bubbles a natural spring. Water now piped to cattle trough nearby. No indication of holy use.
Several places looked promising. A heap of stones with a hawthorn tree growing out of it looked possible but the actual well was just below this, now revealed as a hollow; circled by a rough jumble of stones, festooned with ragwort.
An old pipe lay within randomly aimed at an even older stone trough. The area was damp and much disturbed.
Known as Tobarnakilla or Tobar na Cille, Well of the Church, the name gives clues as to other former monuments in the area. It was possible to make out a circular enclosure and many interesting jumbles of stones. This was an old burial ground (CO108-019001). Had there once been an ancient church in the vicinity as well?
A wild and windswept spot with long views down into a valley and in the distance the intriguing shape of something just marked as mound on the map. It looked remarkably like a chambered tomb, very similar to Dowth, one of the three impressive monuments at Brú na Bóinne in Meath. Surely not! A Norman motte is another possibility, the castle on top long since disappeared.
St Bridget’s Well & Lady’s Well, Kilbrogan
I have put these two together as they are only seven metres apart and remarkably similar in structure – and neglect!
I had searched for these two wells before and knew they were situated somewhere near the stream in Bandon Town Park. An initial exploration had proved nothing and I was perplexed as they sounded as though they were both quite substantial stone structures. I had asked a local man if he had any idea where they might be. He could remember them being there and knew that one was good for eye complaints but he thought they might have been covered over.
This time we were armed with the GPS and it brought us to exactly the spot I had been searching before – near the stream. Although the park itself was beautifully kept, the area by the stream was thick with brambles, nettle and bindweed. We had sticks! We had loppers!
We bashed around in the nettles and lo and behold some stone appeared! Astonishingly, after more careful excavation, a large and well made semicircular construction with stone flanks was revealed!
The stone sides looked modernish but the stones at the very back looked older. The well was in excellent condition behind all the undergrowth. A rectangular shaped basin still held water, though crushed beer cans were more in evidence than holy water bottles.
This well was dedicated to St Bridget and its water was once considered effective in the curing of sore eyes. Railway sleepers had been used to revet the bank – was the other well, dedicated to Our Lady, still lurking in the greenery? It was – seven metres away, even more strongly entwined in nature but a bit of careful clearing and this too was revealed to be almost identical to the other well but harder to access.
It was semi-circular, made of stone with stone wings on each side. Again, it contained water and a lot of other rubbish. Once this well must have been considered a place of pilgrimage and reverence.
We were delighted but quite shocked to discover these two wells. It is astonishing that these historical monuments have been allowed to just disappear – hidden in plain sight. What an asset they could be to the Park for surely others would find them interesting – either as historical monuments and reminders of the past, or still as places of pilgrimage and meditation. An example of why it’s essential really to record these wells before they do disappear forever.*
* Delighted to say that the wells have now been cleared, thanks to Margaret O Driscoll who read this blog and immediately contacted an archaeologist and Tús (Community Work Placement Initiative). Great to see.