St Patrick’s Holy Well, Castle Blackwater

Below the castle and near the margin of the river, is a holy well, dedicated to St. Patrick, on whose anniversary a patron is held here: the water is remarkably pure, and is much esteemed by the peasantry for its supposed virtues

Extract from Samuel Lewis’:  Cork, A Topographical Dictionary of the Parishes, Towns and villages of Cork City and County, 1837.

Sometime ago I was invited to visit St Patrick’s holy well at Blackwater Castle, Castletownroche, and only recently was able to take Sheila up on her kind offer. I had no idea what delights lay in store.

We travelled to North Cork for a few days, holy wells and stained glass on the agenda. We arranged to meet with Sheila in the morning at Blackwater Castle and three hours later we emerged impressed and awed by everything we had seen. The castle site has been inhabited for literally thousands of years, possibly as far back as the Mesolithic, and no wonder for it is in an incredible position – perched high over the Awbeg River with commanding views up and down and across.

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Blackwater Castle, high above the Awbeg River

First we wandered down the long and imposing entrance avenue then headed down towards the river and the floodplain. It was like a rainforest: old man’s beard, ferns, laurel, palms all jostling for space at the edge of the fast flowing, wide river. The well was almost obscured by a dense canopy of old man’s beard but we hacked it back to reveal the structure.

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The well under its canopy of old man’s beard

The well is cut into a small ridge, circular in shape with a jumble of stones around it. The water is fresh, clear and copious and overspills the basin, making its way down to the river.

Sheila confirmed that the water was exceptionally good and they piped it up to the castle for their own use, having first had it professionally tested. Another odd circular stone well can be found nearby, built in the 1980s by the then rather eccentric owner.

The well is dedicated to the national saint, Patrick. Rounds were once paid here on the saint’s feast day, 17th March. This practice hasn’t been celebrated for many years for it was eventually forbidden by a previous owner of the castle. This entry from the Schools’ Folklore Collection gives a little more information:

There is a well within Castlewidenham Demesne, a few hundred yards from the school. It is a well dedicated to St Patrick. Patterns used to be held here at the well in former years. One old lady remembers them.

There was a stone on the well in which a curious figure was carved. The stone was removed by somebody some years ago (I think). The figure on the stone was called ‘Sile ní Gig’.

The well is much neglected and swamp water in the vicinity was allowed to enter it. I was told by an old woman Mrs Guerin who is now over a hundred years old that she remembers when rounds were paid at it especially on St Patrick’s Day. The town band went down to the place and crowds of people paid rounds and left ribbons and pieces of rags on the bushes. The people were prevented from going there by a Mrs Grant who lived at the castle, and since then the pattern has ceased, Mrs Grant died suddenly when opening her own door shortly after the rounds ceased. St Patrick is supposed to have visited Castletownroche and blessed the well. (0372:001)

What is especially interesting is the reference to the figure once to be found near the well, also mentioned nearly 100 years earlier in a Survey Office Field Book, dated 1839:-

St. Patrick’s Well. It is situated near the S.E. boundary of the townland of Castlewidenham. It is considered to be a Holy Well, and it is near the edge of the river.  It is covered with water in the winter season. At this well lies a large stone, on which is cut an image, said to be that of St. Patrick. This stone lies flat at present, and it is also covered with water in winter.

The reference to St Patrick seems a bit coy for she is plainly all female and by 1937 the child recording information for the Folklore Project knew the proper name for such a figure:  sile na gig.  This one has had quite a chequered history.

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Sile na gig

We met up with her later on in the tour and very impressive she is. She is carved in relief on a cut block of stone. She is fairly typical in that she represents a naked female figure displaying her genitals. She is unusual in that she also sports  what looks like either an intricate hairstyle or a headdress of some kind. It seems likely that she once graced one of the buildings of the Medieval castle, possibly the keep, for the stone she is on is dressed and cut. There is anecdotal evidence that she was thrown into the river to purge a misdoing by one of the family and lay abandoned and waterlogged for many years until being rescued and placed near the well.  Colonel Grove White visited the well in 1906 and remarked:

The stone was lying in the backwater of the river Awbeg under the castle for many years, and was nearly forgotten; but in the early part of 1906 the Very Rev. Canon M. Higgins, P.P., Castletownroche, rescued it from its watery grave, and it now lies on terra firma near the Holy Well. I hear that this Holy Well is not so much frequented as in former times.

Historical and Topographical Notes, Etc. on Buttevant: Castletownroche, Doneraile, Mallow, and Places in Their Vicinity Vol 2 : 145/146

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The sile in situ at the well. Photo by Colonel Grove White

She remained by the well until 1934 when she was taken up to the castle. By the 1980s she was to be found in the public dining room of the castle. It seems locals found this display of the sile inappropriate and she is now kept for safe keeping in the castle, only viewable on request. The current owners hope to reinstall her on a wall at sometime in the near future.

img_3125Siles are mysterious and intriguing – carved female figures revealing their explicit genitalia. There is much debate as to how old they are, what they are and what they represent. The current thinking is that they date from the Norman period ie 12/13 Centuries. Most are to be found on or near a castle or a church and are generally believed to ward off evil. Some scholars will argue that they are pre-Christian and refer to the hag/mother goddess and are fertility figures. As siles go, this one is fairly unalarming, others are much more explicit and fierce looking. Siles are not especially unusual sights at holy wells. At Castlemagner an enigmatic carved figure is to be found on the side of the wellhouse and is considered to be a sile, though she is rather modest compared to some of her sisters. There are parallels with the Castleblackwater sile for she too came from a nearby castle and was placed at the well in the late 18th Century. I have my doubts about her though, for when visiting another well, Lady’s Well near Cloyne in East Cork, I was struck by how similar the figure was to the carved stone found there. This is clearly a depiction of Christ crucified but look at the arms and general pose. Could this sile have been Christ – the lines round the pudenda actually a loincloth?

Another sile found near a holy well is at Ballyvourney, an ancient site dedicated to St Gobnait. This little figure is found above the entrance to the old church and is still included as part of the rounds. It is traditional to rub her. The siles at Castlemagner and Blackwater castle both have evidence of rubbing and incising. It was customary too to collect the grains of stone that were dislodge when incising with a stone and to mix it with the holy water and drink it. The water at Castlemagner is said to help with infertility and local tradition also suggests that women preparing for their wedding made a pilgrimage to the Blackwater sile in order to obtain a fertility blessing.

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Sile na gig, Ballyvourney

Some believe the carving at Ballyvourney is a figure of St Gobnait, and the sile at Castlemagner is often referred to as St Bridget. Is this a case of Christian saints taking over a much older tradition? All three siles are associated with healing, good fortune and fertility.

A digression and connection. Fascinating. I would welcome any thoughts.

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The magnificent Castle Blackwater

We were also very fortunate in being shown around the castle itself. So much still remains: curtain walls, lookout posts and the tower house itself is in a wonderful state of preservation. Adjoining it the substantial Medieval buildings were snazzied up in the 1820s in a flamboyant early Gothic style.

Sheila and her husband Patrick now rent out the castle for weddings, stag dos, private gatherings and corporate team building affairs. It is a shining example of how an ancient estate complete with unique historical buildings can thrive and prosper well into the 21Century. A huge amount of work but they seem to have got it just right.

Unravelling the Enigma by Barbara Freitag offers a detailed analysis of Sile na Gigs
Blackwater Castle has an excellent website including historical information.
Huge thanks to Sheila O Keefe who so kindly gave us an extensive and highly enjoyable tour of the well, the sile and the castle.
The location of this well can be found in the Gazeteer. The well is on private land and permission must be sought. Permission must also be obtained to see the sile.

6 thoughts on “St Patrick’s Holy Well, Castle Blackwater

  1. R Heis

    SILEADH = a dropping or distilling NA of GIG = a tickling [sexual contact]. The folklore of this figure goes all the way back to Vasconic times. As the genitals pour forth fluids when sexually engaged, so the river flows from the spring. This belief was re-introduced by the Normans but it is original to Ireland as well.

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  2. Finola

    It’s like the history of Ireland all rolled into one magnificent site. Archaeology, history, folklore – and all in the bend of the river, beautiful and resonating with character.

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  3. Robert

    Thank you for another excellent post, Amanda! Regarding Sile na Gigs or Sheela-na-gigs – the Shell Guide to Ireland describes: “an obscene female figure of uncertain significance”. In ‘Images of Lust’ by Anthony Weir and James Jerman, Batsford 1986 we find… “a distinctive feature of the sheela is its repellent ugliness: huge disproportionate head, staring eyes, gaping mouth, wedge nose, big ears, bald pate, herculean shoulders and twisted posture… these extraordinarily frank carvings were probably an element in the medieval Church’s campaign against immorality, and were not intended to inflame passions but rather to allay them…” Hmmm, I think the Castle Blackwater Sile has a rather mischievous look: she appears to be dancing, perhaps provocatively?

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