Travelling around looking for holy wells, as you do, it is remarkable how often a ballaun is encountered – either situated near a well or described as the well itself. A ballaun is, at its most simple, a man-made hollow carved in a rock. They crop up all over the place and there are 1014 recorded in the National Monument Database. The Irish word, bullán, means bowl or possibly drinking vessel, milk pail or little holes. Quite how old they are or what they were originally used for is open to debate. Some believe they date back to the Bronze Age, others that they are Medieval. Some say their original uses have been long forgotten but they were later adapted for Christian practice as fonts or stoups.The Archaeological Inventory defines them as:
The term bullaun is used by archaeologists to describe man-made hollows or basins cut into outcropping rock, boulders or small portable stones. One, two or more hollows may occur in a stone. Bullaun stones are found in association with ecclesiastical enclosures, penitential stations, holy wells and burial grounds and sometimes with ringforts.
Others think they have much more mundane uses and were originally grinding vessels, like large mortars. Quern stones seemed to have been used for grinding wheat so were these used for crushing nuts, bones, seeds? Another theory is they were used in the production of ironworking and smithing, used to crush metal ores. Evidence is fragmentary and research minimal but here are a few observations:
- They are often associated with monastic sites
- They are often found by holy wells
- They are sometimes the holy well itself
- Sometimes they are in earthfast rocks
- Other times they are described as portable
- Usually they are just a single depression in the rock
- Other times there might be multiple ballauns
- Sometimes they have been incorporated into an ancient stone, and used as a mass rock
- They have associations with baptism
- Often they have been moved from their original site and placed near a religious site
- Sometimes they are associated with curing or cursing, a stone moved in them as prayers or curses incanted
- Many are said to never run dry
- The water within is often associated with the curing of warts
- Others are said to miraculously fill with milk
- Some multiple ballauns contain different coloured water
- They are sometimes included in the rounds at pilgrimage sites
Safe to say that ballauns are probably multi-period, multi- functional and have healing connotations – warts being top of the list (is there some mineral in the stone that is particularly efficacious for this complaint?) Recently I visited two very interesting examples both with spiritual or healing connections, and both had been used as Mass Rocks.
Holy Wells, Mohanagh, near Skibbereen
Described as a multiple ballaun stone/holy well in the Archaeological Inventory, this proved an elusive monument, the old track that once led to it from the roadside long since gone. Today I went up to the house, an extensive large dairy farm behind. Seán was doing something in a shed and kindly dropped everything to take me out to the holy wells. What magnificent countryside – up high, amongst pasture with huge views out on all directions, the hills crowned with ringforts.
The stone was part of a natural rocky outcrop, earthfast, and the holy wells were actually four ballauns, two large ones and two smaller ones. Whilst we were walking over to the site, Sean’s phone rang and it was John, the owner of the farm, who had seen us up above and wanted to talk to me and give me more information.
He thought the ballauns probably dated from the Celtic Period and the stone had later been adopted by early Christians. He knew the stone had been used as a Mass Rock during Penal Times. John didn’t know of any particular healing qualities associated with the wells but he was a hypnotherapist and opined that whatever you believed might eventually work for you.
Two of the largest ballauns were full of water and this one in particular, illuminated by the strong sunlight, looked suitably mysterious and profound. It is easy to imagine that they would have made perfect baptismal fonts at a later period. It seems there was also a pillar stone here once, for Jack Roberts in his book, Exploring West Cork, describes how the stone was in situ but broken when he visited. No sign of it today.
The rocky outcrop is in a magnificent position with wide views out towards wind farms on the distant hills. A ringfort (CO141-075001) lay not very far away – Cahergnauv – the fort of the bones. We waded through thick slurry, while Seán held down the barbed wire and hacked back the bracken so I could get a better look.
The ringfort was intact, a large neat circle now full of russet coloured bracken. We contemplated the Other Crowd and decided to go no further. A delightful encounter and an amazing stone.
Castlemehigan Cup marked stone & possible ballaun
Some while ago I visited another enigmatic stone, complete with ballaun, as part of a day exploring rock art, led by Robert and Finola of Roaringwater Journal fame. Do check out their journal which contains several fascinating articles about the subject including this one. The enormous earthfast rock at Castlemehigan is in the most extraordinary location, high up overlooking a small lough, with views of the sea beyond.
It is covered in 20 cupmarks, prehistoric rock art, but one in particular is different – larger with straight sides, a definite basin shape. Look carefully and you can see crosses inscribed on the surface near to the ballaun for the stone was later used as a Mass Rock, very similar to Mohanagh. The hill above is still known locally as Cnocan an Aifreann, Hill of the Mass.
I had heard that the water was good for curing warts and wondered if it might also be considered a holy well. Was the water used for cures before it became a Mass Rock or was the water considered powerful once it was used as Mass Rock?
It’s easy to imagine people gathering here over the centuries to worship a multitude of gods for what a magnificent situation with those long views out over the lake and beyond.
Another great example of this kind of stone is the one near Caheragh recorded a few weeks ago. This had cupmarks and ballaun stone recognised as a holy well, and had been used as a Mass Rock.
Some useful websites: