In Search of Cats around Toe Head

The day being fine we set out for Toe Head, a small peninsula somewhere below Skibbereen roughly towards Castletownsend. There were three wells on the agenda and I was not very hopeful about finding any of them. Once off the main Castletownsend road the roads become quite challenging but highly scenic: tiny bumpy roads with stunning views out to the Atlantic, whitewashed farms and green pasture full of black and white cows.

Well of the Two Cats, Tobar na Chat, Toe Head

img_0050The first two wells on the agenda both had unusual names connected with cats: Well of the Two Cats and Well of the White Cat, both reputedly within 70 metres of each other. We parked the car and I went off to inquire at a house. Paddy was doing something dangerous in a shed that involved using a mask. He very kindly answered my questions and was amazed to hear I knew about the well – he only knew of one but gave directions: up the boreen, across the ditch and look for the cattle trough. The boreen was fairly newly restored and we feared that the Well of the White Cat, the first one to be encountered according to the GPS, might have been destroyed in the ensuing work. The Well of the White Cat appears on an early OS Map but not in later editions though it is mentioned in the Archaeological Inventory and the name is supplied by Jack Roberts in his book Exploring West Cork.

Wart well tooreen

Bawnishall

We wandered up into green pasture, rummaged around but found no sign of a well. The hawthorn tree looked promising as did a damp patch tucked into a rocky corner.

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Possible well site?

We conceded defeat and went to look for the Well of the Two Cats, also known as Tobar na Chat. The ditch described by Paddy was more like a large stream, very wet but I was able to walk up it until the troughs came into view, water pipes still coming from them, the original well long since converted to more mundane usage.

There were two stone troughs, heavily covered in brambles and honeysuckle but the water was clear and very abundant. Large slabs were in front of them, and there were blocks of white quartz in evidence.

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The well now converted into cattle troughs

No one seems certain how these wells got their names – Jack Roberts suggests it refers to ancient Irish connections with Greece or Egypt but maybe there was just a surfeit of feral cats in the area. White cats are a specialty of west Cork and they’re often deaf.

St Bartholomew’s Well, Tobar Partholain, Toe Head

Judging by the map, the next well, St Bartholomew’s Well or Tobar Partholain, looked very obscure. There seemed to be no path to it and it was right at the edge of the sea which probably meant cliffs. We parked by a couple of houses and were watched with considerable interest by a gang of young heifers, all looking rather frisky.

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Frisky heifers

I had a horrible feeling the walk to the well would be through their field. I went to inquire at the nearest house. Another lovely encounter, this time with Tom who was also much amused to hear what we were up to. He knew of the well but hadn’t been for at least 20 years. He was doubtful that we would find it. I was a bit doubtful about the cattle but he said he knew a sneaky short cut and took us out round his house and pointed us through the fields. Over three fields, and two walls heading straight out to the sea, but the last bit defeated me – a thick briar hedge, electric fence and barbed wire, plus a steep drop down onto a ledge now full of bracken. The well was meant to have a large slab in front of it but I could see nothing – except for truly spectacular views.

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The well is somewhere amongst that bracken

Paddy, from the first stop, could remember the well. He said he had visited it as a boy when rounds were still made. He thought the water was meant to be good for sore eyes and he could remember people leaving coins and other offerings. What a remote spot, a real journey to get here but I suppose that was all part of it.

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Lunch under the looming tower of Uillinn, the West Cork Arts Centre

After a bouncy drive around the peninsula we repaired to Skibbereen for a well-deserved lunch. One of those odd things happened. I met someone I hadn’t seen for some time and we got chatting. I explained about the well hunt. Did I know about the well at Caheragh, she inquired? I did but I didn’t know how to get to it and I didn’t have my information with me. She recommended we followed the signs to the old graveyard for it was somewhere close by but she couldn’t remember where exactly. I had been curious about this well for it was supposed to be in a townland called Tooreen but search as I did I could find no townland with that name in Caheragh. Apparently it was a wart well.

Wart well, Tobareen na bhFaithne, near Caheragh

img_0686We set off, found the old graveyard and were impressed with the array of interesting graves, but no sign of any well. We were about to give up when we bumped into Martin quietly communing at a family gravestone – it was All Souls’ Day. We got chatting. He’d never heard of a well but he knew someone who might – several phonecalls and much discussion ensued but no one knew anything. I know of a good well about two miles away, easy to find, he said, would we like to see it? We would. We did. We followed him. It only turned out to be the well I thought was in Caheragh! And what a fantastic thing! Actually an enormous recumbent stone complete with rock art: cup marks, a circle, some intriguing holes and a large ballaun stone – the wart well itself.

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Recumbent stone with ballaun, the wart well

I suspect the tiny well had originally started off as a cupmark and had been enlarged many thousands of years later. Cupmarks are usually considered as rock art and date from the Bronze Age. They are very enigmatic, no one is sure of their exact use or meaning – Roaringwater Journal offers some excellent thoughts and insights. Known as Tobareen na bhFaithne, little well of the warts, this entry form the Schools’ Folklore Collection gives a detailed account of how the well should be approached and used:

In my father’s farm there is a little well called Tobairin Bhfaithne. It is situated in the centre of a rock. There is a cure for warts in it. In olden times persons who had warts would not be allowed into America or England or any other country. When a person had warts he used to come and wash them in the water. The cloth used to wash them should be left in the water. Then the warts should be carefully counted and for each wart a Hail Mary should be said. Then a small stone should be taken from the field and a cross for each wart should be made on the rock of the well. Now there was a girl who lived in Lissane who wanted to go to America and having a lot of warts he was not allowed to go. She came to the well and washed them several times but in vain. And old man advised her to go and wash and count the warts for seven mornings before sunrise. She did as she was told and before the seventh morning they had disappeared. (356:0293)

The well is said to never go dry and seems that it once had a stone cover, now vanished.

Was this rock also used as a Mass rock in Penal Times – it looked very likely. It reminded me of a very similar rock at Castlemehigan near Crookhaven, where there is a similar cup-marked stone. The largest hole, or ballaun, in the front is also known as a wart well.

If you look carefully to the right of it a cross can just be identified for this monument was also later used as a Mass Rock.

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Castlemehigan cup-marked stone & wart well

The farmer at Tooreen has promised to never move the stone. Set in a wonderful natural amphitheatre amongst green pastures, a well preserved ring fort close by – this felt a special place indeed.

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The recumbent stone is to the right of the natural rock feature

A great day made especially memorable by some delightful encounters.

With thanks to Paddy, Tom and Martin for their good humoured assistance.
The location of these wells can be found in the Gazetteer.

One thought on “In Search of Cats around Toe Head

  1. Pingback: Some thoughts on Ballauns | Holy Wells of Cork

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