Well hunting is always an enjoyable experience especially when you devote a few days to it. Wells in North Cork beckoned. We stayed for a few days in Mitchelstown in the very comfortable Ballinwillin House, complete with free range deers and boars. A welcome break on the M8 on the way up saw a diversion to Coole Upper in search of St Dalbach’s Holy Well.
St Dalbach’s Well, Coole Upper
The well was clearly signed from the road and accessed over a neatly made stile – helpful information boards lining the wall. What a delightful place: lightly wooded, close to two old churches, surrounded by green pasture, a stream emerging from under an old stone bridge complete with footbridge further down. It felt tranquil and pleasantly isolated.
The well itself is nicely made: a barrel-roofed wellhouse made from stone, with a neatly flagged surrounding area, two stone seats near the entrance, all festooned with ferns. A slab in front bears an engraved cross and around it seven kneeling stones are placed, visited as as part of the rounds.
An assortment of offerings adorn the top of the well: statues, crucifixes, rosaries, bows, coins, medals etc. all with a coppery blanket of crisp beech leaves.
Three steps lead down to the water which was fresh and abundant but clogged with leaves – said to be good for curing sore eyes and warts. An entry in the Schools’ Folklore Collection refers to another cure:
…there is a boy living in Coolagou… and his name is Kevin Lyons. A few years ago he had a very sor eear. One day his mother took him to the holy well at Coole and performed the rounds, After a few days his ear was all right because his mother had faith enough in the holly (sic) well. (049:0377)
The runoff from the well continues down a stone channel, eventually joining the stream.
The rules for pilgrimage are clearly outlined on a board outside the sanctuary. You should approach from the north, walk deisal (clockwise), keeping to the right and in single file. Collect nine small stones as counters and each time you have accomplished a round (a walk around the well, praying at each of the seven kneeling stones and reciting Our Fathers etc) throw one pebble away. When you have none left your turas (pilgrimage) is achieved. Finally make an offering and drink the water three times (using your palms if there is no cup), then hang a cloth in the bushes.
There is a story as to how the well originated:
Long ago the blessed well at Coole was just a spring. A female inhabitant of Coole Abbey House was reputed ot have seen a monk praying at this spring and she ordered an oratory to be built over it. The well is dedicated to St Deviet or which is an anglicised version of St Dalbach … It is reputed ot have a cure for warts and sore eyes by visiting and praying at each of the seven kneeling stones exposed around the outside of the well chamber.
The well may have originated as part of the Coole Abbey complex, founded in the sixth century by St Abbán. Nothing remains of the original abbey but the two churches nearby confirm the site’s long and interesting history. The tiny ruined church (CO036-019002) standing alone in the fields dates from twelfth century and still contains its stone altar which may have been used in Penal Times (go back on the road and look for the stile to access it).
This was later replaced by a newer church (CO036-019004) closer to the well, which was once the parish church. We met a man repairing one of the old walls which was sagging alarmingly. He had numbered every stone and was working to a hand drawn map tacked up on another wall. It seemed lonely work and he was glad to have a chat with interested visitors. The graveyard contains some old and unusual graves and on one of the walls of the church is carved a rather beautiful rosette or rose.
It seems the graveyard isn’t as tranquil as it looks:
There is a graveyard in the village of Coole which is near Fermoy. As one approaches the graveyard at night one is supposed to hear moaning, groaning and clapping. When one turns the corner a hearse is to be seen with a figure dressed in white driving it. If one looks into the graveyard, ghosts of the dead people who were buried there walk on their tombs. (159:0378)
Schools’ Folklore Collection
St Dalbach though is a bit of a shadowy figure. He seems to have been associated with an anchorite movement known as the Céili Dé (Companions of God) which flourished between 750-850AD, though a spot of googling shows the movement is still in existence. Anchorites chose to withdraw from secular life in order to devote themselves to an ascetic existence based on prayer. They had to take a vow of stability of place and often lived in a cell attached to a church where they could be consulted on spiritual matters via a squint (small opening in the wall). Some anchorites were literally walled in, relying on others for food and other bodily needs.
Was the monk spotted praying at the spring St Dalbach? The Martyrology of Donegal has this to say about him:
…. (he) was a great performer of penance and .. he never touched his hand to his side as long as he lived.
His feast day is 23rd October.
As you leave the site admire the very large and very still cow in the garden of the modern house opposite!
Next stop, Fermoy for a spot of lunch and a wander down the Blackwater river in search of St Bernard’s Well.
St Bernard’s Well, Fermoy
The Blackwater was full, still and impressive and the footpath, named after the saint, St Barnane Walk, is an attractive spot to wander down, in fact it is now part of an official town walk. The well is about 500metres along, passing some interesting Victorian buildings behind walls and vegetation. We were followed by some hopeful ducks looking glossy in their spring plummage.
The well is clearly signed by a wall plaque and is accessed along a whitewashed passage way, somewhat mouldy and licheny at the moment.
There are actually two well basins, both connected underground, the water eventually flowing out to the river.
The well to the south is sort of foot-shaped, partially lined with concrete and has three steps leading down to the circular(ish) basin. The whole thing is surrounded by concrete slabs.
The well to the north, which receives water from its companion, is more rectangular in shape, also with three steps down to it.
Water in both wells was clear and plentiful, but choked with coppery leaves, little water beetles skimming on the surface. It’s an odd space: claustrophobic and damp, a small spindly tree with a large metal protective grill and a wall set cast iron drinking fountain – presumably the water was once piped to this for around the edge it warns rather sternly: keep the pavement dry!
Lizzie O Grady gives a very detailed account of St Bernard’s Well well in the Schools’ Folklore Collection, worth transcribing in full:
Around the district of Fermoy there are many holy wells. In Barnane Walk south of the river Blackwater there is a well called St Bernard’s which is situated about 100 yards from a Picture House built on the site of an old abbey. As Fermoy is a beauty spot many sight -seers visit it and they make sure in viewing the course of the Blackwater and in rambling up Barnane they visit the well.
About fifteen yards south on the right bank of the river Blackwater and a quarter of a mile west of the Fermoy bridge the exact position of the well is to be found.
The well is on level ground protected by a wall on the east, south and west but open on the north to admit visitors. On the south side to which is attached an enamel cup, an ash tree grows near whose branches over-spread the well. Beech trees grow to the … and the west. A gravel path leads to the well which is divided into two parts, the part near the entrance is square shaped, three steps must be descended to reach this well the waters of which are applied to affected parts. About a yard from this is a round shaped part of the well which is also three steps below the level of the ground.The water of this is drunk and sometimes taken away in bottles. Both parts are connected by an underground stream, the waters of the round part feeding the square part and flowing thence to the river Blackwater.
Saint Bernard lived sometime during the eleventh century. On one occasion when he visited Fermoy a poor bind man came to him and begged him to restore to him his sight. St Bernard blessed the ground on which they were standing and immediately a fountain of fresh water sprung up. The saint told the man to bathe his eyes with water and no sooner had he done so than his sight was restored. The news of the miracle spread rapidly throughout the country and many blind people came to the spot and washed their eyes with water from the well and were restored their sight.
Many strange sights have been seen in the neighbourhood of the well and it is supposed to be haunted
I have gathered this information from some of the old people in Fermoy. (041-043:0378)
St Bernard (1090-1153) was actually French, one of the leading lights behind the Cistercian movement and a gifted spiritual leader and writer. He founded the great abbey of Clairvaux in Burgandy, with himself as the Abbot. Quite what he was doing in Fermoy, I’m not sure, but his feast day is the 20th August.
The location of these wells can be found in the Gazetteer. Both are public.