This is the first anniversary of my attempt to visit and record all the Holy Wells of County Cork. So far I have visited 149 wells: of these 131 can be classified as definite holy wells, four are a bit iffy and 14 couldn’t be found.
I have discovered a few things:
- Wells are everywhere! They are in towns (Lady’s Well just outside Macroom); in fields (St Laitiarian’s Well, Cullen); in woods (St Paul’s Well, Ballygarvan); under trees ( Well of the Alder Tree, near Bandon); near graveyards (Trinity Well, Kinsale); at the edge of the sea (St Fachtna’s Well, Rossbrin); at the side of roads (St John’s Well, Kilcorney); near rivers (St Patrick’s Well, Kinneigh ); on mountains (St Finnian’s Well, Castletownbere) in fulacht fiadh (Trinity Well, Newcastle), and under cover ( Lady’s Well, Lissanisky).
- Some wells are enormous: We were told on good authority (the keeper of the well) that Tubrid Well, Millstreet claims to be the second largest well in Ireland and Britain (which the first is I’m not sure, St Patrick’s well Clonmel looks pretty huge, maybe contender for pole position), while some wells are tiny : St Abbán’s well near Ballyvourney is usually hidden under a tea tray and layer of leaf mould, but lift this off and the well beneath is small but perfectly formed.
Some wells are flamboyant: St John’s Well, Mushera is enclosed in a large well house complete with niches and statuary, has a vast area for the Stations of the Cross and ample parking; and some wells are exceptionally modest: a small cement circle marks an almost forgotten holy well near Mitchelstown.
- Some wells are much revered: Ladys’ Well in Kealkil is beautifully kept, much visited and an annual Mass is still held here; others are completely forgotten: Lady’s Well in Bandon had literally completely disappeared under a mound of vegetation but has since been cleared, thanks to a concerned citizen reading this Blog.
- Some wells are easy to access: St Mary’s Well in Tullylease is beautifully kept with neat paths and landscaping; some are fiendishly difficult: All Saint’s Well near Three Castle Head is literally on the edge of a cliff, nerves of steel required for this one (enlarge to see the small speck that is me).
- Many wells are dedicated to saints: some are well known figures (the most popular so far is the BVM with 17 wells dedicated to her; St Bridget has 10 and St John is currently in third position with 7); some are a little more obscure – who’s heard of the warrior saint Flanahan, big in Mitchelstown?
- Some saints have even appeared at wells. The BVM was seen at Ballycurrany and St Patrick visited the well here at Castle Blackwater. The BVM even led a late night visitor to Abbey Well in Kinsale safely to his home, reprimanding him for being out too late.
- Some saints leave their mark – St Bridget left her kneeprints at the tiny well dedicated to her near Lough Hyne. St Olán left his footprints in a stone near his well at Aghabulloge in North Cork.
- Most wells are of course renowned for the quality of their water and for their healing properties. If you’re lucky the water comes freshly bottled as at St Mary’s Well, Tullylease.
- The most popular cure so far is for sore eyes with 17 wells claiming this healing. These well even have a special name: Tobar na súl. The next most popular cure is for warts with 10 wells offering this cure. Interesting most of these wells seem to be in ballaun stones. Other wells claim to help with ague, women’s problems, men’s problems, headaches, consumption and insanity. Some water is said to never boil, never dry and always remain fresh.
- Some wells still attract big Pattern Days. Pilgrims flock to Gougane Barra on St Finbarr’s Feast Day, 25th September; while on the 11th February crowds gather in Ballyvourney to honour St Gobnait. St John’s Eve, 23rd June, is another popular day for pilgrimage, the crowd being piped down to St John’s Well in Carrigaline where an evening Mass is held.
- Others attract a smaller but nonetheless devoted crowd: an annual Mass is held at Lady’s Well on the Sheep’s Head on the 15th August, when the whole hillside is decorated with flowers; some wells look hopeful with chairs in readiness, such as the rather fine well dedicated to St Bartholomew near Rathcormac; and some attract no one – the attractively named Well of the Ferns near Kilcoe, hadn’t received pilgrims for quite some time.
- Some wells are adorned with offerings: St Gobnait’s Well, Ballyvourney is covered with a huge variety of offerings; while some are bare: this poor little well dedicated to St Cummin in Rosscarbery is much overlooked.
- Some wells have statues, siles, clootie trees and standing stones enhancing them. Lady’s Well, Titeskin has a very fine stone carved with a figure of Christ crucified, dating from the eighteenth century; St Bridget’s Well, Castlemagner has two carved figures, the one on the left considered to be a sile na gig; the delightful walled well dedicated to Inghne Bhuide at Dromtarriff North Cork has an evocative clootie tree; and a magnificent standing stone, complete with later Ogham inscription, marks St Olán’s Well, Aghabullogue.
- Some wells contain blessed eels or trouts. The well dedicated to the warrior saint Fanahan in Mitchelstown is meant to be an embodiment of the saint himself. The now forgotten well dedicated to St Peter and St Paul near Skibbereen once contained two blessed eels that were fed by pilgrims. To see an eel is considered very good luck.
- Some wells have completely vanished but some are being restored. At Trinity Well near Castleventry we found Seán hard at work restoring the old well, a renewed source of pride in the community. At Corkbeg in East Cork there was no sign of the holy well, just rubbish; and poor St Finbarr’s Well near Dunmanway was almost obscured by a mouldering bag of stinking nappies.
All holy wells have their own fascination and an historical and spiritual place in their community. I have just over 200 still to visit!
Today is St Bridget’s Day, Lá Fhéile Bríde, the start of Imbolc and the first day of Spring. It’s currently lashing but the daffs are out. Hopefully this well near Buttevant recieve some visitors.
Là Fhèill Brìghde sona dhuibh uile!