There are but two holy wells in this parish, one in Ballycrana and the other in Templeboden, both of which are very well kept. The people still visit them on the week preceding the twelfth of August and perform three visits around the well. We go to the one in Ballycrana which is in Mr Riordan’s land. It is called Mary’s well and there is also a Mass rock nearby with a cross marked on it. Ballycranna well is grotto shaped, it being enclosed by three walls and a wall over it … (Schools’ Folklore Collection, (387.18)
What a fascinating well this turned out to be. I am indebted to the FitzGerald family for the first hand information, and for the Schools’ Folklore Collection which is bursting with interesting descriptions. The numbers given after the Schools’ Collection quotes refer to the school number and then the page number. They can be browsed online at duchas.ie
The original route to the well from the side of the road is now overgrown and impassable. We flagged down a passing motorist for information and he sent us up a boreen to the house to ask permission, passing this cheeky carved head. Permission kindly granted, and armed with a glass, we set off through a small gate along a leafy greenway leading into an amazing grove of tall beech trees and luxuriant ferns, a stream trickling down the hillside into the undergrowth.
A cross spotted amongst the undergrowth looked promising. On investigation, the wooden cross bore the words INRI … EGO SUM LUX (I am the light) … FOLLOW ME and was put up here a few years ago, not by the family but by pilgrims.
Below the cross a large earthfast rock lay between tall beech trees. We looked down into the valley and just below it was the well, tucked into a ferny bank.
Our Lady’s Well’ …… a palm tree grows on either side of the well and a hazel tree near on them ….. a stream flows from the well down a rocky incline and there is no sign of a stream flowing in to the well. (387:99)
The above description still held true, no sign of water flowing into the well but there was the stream clearly emerging a little way below it and disappearing off down the hill.
The stone built wellhouse was semi-cirular with sturdy built-up sides and a large slab across the top. Other stones had been added to make a small niche above the slab, a cup and assortment of stones nestling within.
Inside, the well basin itself was damp rather than flowing, but a pipe coming out just below was gushing cold clear water into the stream.
The water was considered potent and was said never to boil:
It is a belief that if the water is boiled a ‘frog’ would appear in the pipe of the kettle. (387:99)
Many cures were attributed to the water and the well. We later spoke to the daughter of the landowners and she could remember being told of a woman who carried her disabled son a considerable distance to the well. After visiting the well, doing the rounds and taking some water he was able to walk home. The water was also considered efficacious in the curing of the ague and sore eyes. A couple of cups were tucked into a crevice and other fragment slay here and there.
Once there had been carvings on each side of the well:
Then there are two stones on either side about a foot high. These two are shaped like a man in the rough, the eyes, mouth and nose all visible to the hands by the side as in the illustration (387.100)
Apparently these were made by an old man called Sean de Barra who only had one hand but was a skilled craftsman. The family told us that these had been removed not so long ago by archaeologists, seemingly for the protection of the sculptures, but they had been left feeling bereft as they had not been consulted, permission being granted only by the church. I later managed to track the carvings down to Cork City Museum where they are now kept and was given permission to view them. They are remarkable: roughly carved and very charismatic, comprising two figures (one with head long since detached) and a cross. A little more research and it seems that they probably represent the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Bernadette and once formed a simple grotto, which makes sense of the first quote I used in this blog. The stone cross looks as though it may once have held the figure of Jesus for there are small holes drilled into it and the word INRI carved above where you would expect the figure to be. It looks as though the figures were once painted for traces of blue still cling to the praying figure of Bernadette. There are odd slash marks on all the figures, but what those represent I don’t know. It was great to see the carvings and easy to imagine their potency. They are being well cared for in Cork City Museum but it seems a great shame that they are not in situ where they would be in context and have special relevance.
The Foot Stone
Just in front of the well is a large stone known as the Foot Stone. The family told us that the story went that the BVM herself had appeared here, leaving the marks of her knees and hands in the rock. Again, it was all too mossy to make out any clear shapes.
The large rock above the well had once been a Mass rock used during Penal Times and later as a focal point for the annual pattern day Mass.
A little west of the well lies a large stone three or four foot high of sandstone. On this stone there are several crosses cut into it. This is called locally the Mass Stone. It is believed locally that Mass was said here in Penal times. The soldiers used be watching from Buckley’s Wood of Lackabeha and that people hearing the Mass were killed by soldiers. (387.100)
We couldn’t see any sign of the crosses or the indents that once had been carved to hold two candles and a chalice – all too mossy and ivy covered. A good description of the Mass rock can be found here: findamassrock, an interesting site altogether.
Rounds & Pattern Day
The well was held in high regard and people would travel from all over the county to attend the pattern day and to pay rounds. The pattern day seems to have been the 15th August, the Feast of the Assumption, though different dates are given in the Schools’ Collection information. All accounts agreed that the period eight days before and eight days after the particular date in August was most holy.
People make their rounds eight days before and eight days after the 29th August. Every person makes three rounds as this fulfills the fifteen Decades of the Rosary. Every person kneels in five different places and says one Decade of the Rosary in each place. (387: 16)
The ritual required was clearly prescribed:
The visitor must say the Rosary, take a drink of the water and leave hanging on the palm tree bits of rags, medals, beads as an offering, and take home some of the water. (387:16)
No sign of any rags or offerings today, just a small statue of the BVM now headless nestling amongst the ferns.
Like many pattern days it attracted large crowds and invariably ended up in chaos:
On Patron Day, over twenty tents and shebeen shops would be seen here, the concourse of people so great that the entire place would be covered with horses and butts; and the dancing, singing and inevitable match-making went on… In the locality were many poteen stills, and generally this paton ended in faction fights. A fierce faction fight developed here one year, and a man returning homeward to Ballinbointir was passing down the boreen by Eddie Cotter’s when he was battered to death by a whole family who had laid there in ambush for him. Next patron day rain fell in bucketfuls, and this happening was remarked upon by young and old.
Sean Hartnett, Carrigtowhill, dated June 1997 (From a piece of paper shown to us by the family).
An annual Mass was held here until about 12 years ago when the task of maintaining and preparing the area became too great for the owner, and the then priest had little interest in keeping the tradition going. The daughter explained how her father had made a special table to replace the rock as an altar, had made wooden seats for the pilgrims and constructed steps for ease of access. These remnants could still be seen: lino by the mass rock, a jumble of timbers amongst the ivy and mossy stairs leading downwards.
A truly magical place with layers of meaning.