Browsing the Schools’ Folklore Collection as you do (if you haven’t you should – it’s a mine of information: duchás.ie) I came across a hitherto unknown well just outside Skibbereen. It wasn’t listed in the Archaeological Inventory and I could find no reference to it anywhere else. It sounded fascinating though. This is what Seóirse O Donnabháin discovered about it in 1937:
St Peter and St Paul’s Holy Well
It is said that in Skibbereen and district are many blessed wells. There is a well in Castlelands out of which if you took water it would keep fresh a long while. People visit the well on the twenty ninth of June. Two holy eels are in the well and if you touch these eels you commit a bad act….. (0297:145/146)
Before Christmas, I sent an email to Terri Kearney at the Skibbereen Heritage Centre wondering if she had any information. No reply and I forgot about it until out of the blue came a phonecall. Not only had she found someone who remembered the well but he was prepared to take me there. I was advised that wellies would be essential.
An afternoon was arranged to meet Pat and off we went. Never in a million years would I have found this well.
We parked on a wide and newly made track then set off across boggy pasture, nipped under barbed wire, skidded down ditches, crept under mossy boughs, slipped and scrambled until we came to a halt in a little copse and there was the well.
Now it was just a large, muddy pool, a circular bank giving it some shape, with evidence of recent slippage in the banks. Apparently there had never been a wellhouse. The water was abundant and the ground very muddy, dense with with willows and a whitethorn above. Once this well had been the site of a large annual pilgrimage. Pat’s father used to recall how hundreds of people had visited in his day; and Pat himself could remember how at least thirty or forty people would gather when he was a boy. He was brought by his family every year on the feast day, and also most Sundays. The well is dedicated to St Peter and St Paul and the feast day is the 29th June, but Pat thought they visited on the 23rd June, St John’s Eve.
There was once a path, with steps cut into the land, but this has long since disappeared. People would bring bread with them for in the well resided two blessed eels. The bread given by the pilgrims was supposed to last the fish for the whole year. Should you see one of these eels it was of course exceptionally fortunate. Rounds were made around the well, the Rosary recited and clooties tied into the whitethorn. I was delighted to see one mossy ribbon still fluttering in the branches above the well.
Pat’s mother had once placed a statue of Our Lady here, now vanished in the undergrowth. Cures were attributed to the water and it was obviously a place once much revered as shown by Caoimhín O hEadhra’s entry in the Folklore Collection:
In Mr Carey’s land, about a mile and a quarter from Skibbereen, there is a Blessed Well. Pilgrims visit it annually on the Feast of St Peter and St Paul, 29th June. Prayers are said during the rounds. In it there is a blessed eel and the pilgrims throw bread to him. Hundreds of people go to this well on the 29th June every year. The people take a piece of bread or cloth with them usually. There are two blessed eels in this well; it is said that long ago a blind woman and a lame man were cured there. It is said you must see one of the eels before you can be cured. People take a piece of cloth with them to tie to the whitethorn bush which is growing up over the well. I have heard that six unbaptised children were buried in a mound of earth a couple of yards from the well. May the Lord have mercy on their souls. The water that flows from this well drops from a rock that is over the well; if a person looked up he could see the drops falling down. Why people take a piece of bread with them is because they say the eels will live on that much food in the year.( 0297: 143/144)
The well does seem to be marked on the early OS maps and is called Gortnaclohy Well, if I have located it correctly. Gortnaclohy means gort na cloiche, field of the stone building and the townland is named after it. Pat reckoned no one had been here for 20 years until a couple of years ago when Louise Nugent of Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland also tracked down the well – and Pat! He was much amused that I too should now be following in her footsteps. He thought only half a dozen of the older members of the community would even remember this place. Astonishing that such a potent spot could be so quickly forgotten.
Pat also gave me a little more information about another well nearby – also known as an eel well. This turned out to be the well at Roaringwater Pier which I think can now officially be designated as holy!