Arriving in Mitchelstown in the late afternoon the light was fading and a thin mizzle had set in but we thought we could manage a trip to two wells dedicated to the town saint, St Fanahan, or, as he is known as Gaeilge, St Fionnchú: the white hound.
St Fanahans’s Well, Tobar Naomh Fionnchú
St Fanahan’s Well is found off a small housing estate on the edge of Mitchelstown and is clearly signed from the road. There is a helpful information board and an attractive plaque that informs that the old pilgrimage route is now part of the Siúlbhealaigh Stairiúil, or Historic Walking Trail. The instantly impressive pathway leading down to the well is 700m long, a raised causeway through fields, planted with now mature beeches on each side. We met a local man who told us that the causeway was raised during Famine times on the instruction of the local priest but other information suggests that the path could be at least 1000 years old.
Whatever, it is an imposing and rather wonderful avenue, an original Mass path, recently fitted with electric lights which are only illuminated for nine days before and nine days after St Fanahan’s Feast Day on the 25th November. I was saddened to see what I thought was a dead pheasant at the edge of the trees – it gave us a shock as it took to the wing with a squawk and flew off! The causeway ends in an attractive little footbridge going across the Sruth na nÉglise, stream of the church. A small plaque explained:
This bridge was built in 1870 by the County Grand Jury. Half its cost was paid by Edmund Murray, Jeremiah Casey (father of ‘the Galtee Boy’) and Michael Cusack of 19 Lower Cork Street. Casey and Cusack did so in thanksgiving respectively, for the safe return of his son from Australia, and Cusack of his brother, William Cusack, a Union Officer who fought in the American Civil War.
Look out for the carved head on the right hand side. St Fanahan himself ? The Archaeological Inventory reckons it came from the Catholic church in St Thomas’ Street, Mitchelstown.
The bridge leads onto a small island, surrounded by three different streams – viewed as a special sign, reminiscent of the Holy Trinity. The area is enclosed by earthen banks, mature trees giving it an ancient feel as a path winds around the perimeter, here and there interspersed with Stations of the Cross. Occasional breaks in the bank allow a Mass path from across the fields to enter the site, stepping stones across the stream preventing wet feet. A tranquil spot apart from hum of the M8 not so far across the fields, and the occasional gunfire from the nearby Army shooting ranges!
It is the well that is the focal point though. A photograph of the original well can be found in an entry in the Schools’ Folklore Collection – a much simpler affair with kneeling stones arranged around the well basin. Interesting to see the shrines and statues hanging in the trees.
The current well was restored in 1989 and is apse-shaped with cut stone blocks around it, surrounded by low level seating. The water is abundant and clear with a sprinkling of beech leaves. It is considered good for curing flesh wounds, lameness, blindness and warts. Walking sticks and crutches once adorned the original well, evidence of the power of the cure.
Watching over it is a large stone cross carved with the figure of St Fanahan and an eel on the facing side, and on the other side a sickle and a bell. It’s beautifully done, the work of well known Cork sculptor Ken Thompson. St Fanahan looks a benign figure, holding one hand in blessing, his crozier in the other, his dainty slippered feet peeping out from under his robe. Only the large sword at his belts hints at other things. For St Fanahan was not your usual saint – he was a warrior saint admired for: ‘… the greatness of his nature and the nobility of his race, and the greatness of his fury and his virtue. (Book of Lismore)
The Book of Lismore, written in the fifteenth century (translated in 1890 by Whitely Stokes), is invaluable in describing St Fanahan’s life in all its colourful and fascinating detail. Finola from Roaringwaterjournal has written an excellent entry about him so I shall just keep it brief. He seems to have been remarkable even before he was born and could speak through his mother’s womb! Aged seven, he was sent to be educated at the Abbey of Bangor. His fiery temper proved too much and he was expelled, taking with him a bell which would ring when he arrived at his destiny. The bell rang as he neared Mitchelstown and here he built a monastery. Many extraordinary tales are associated with him including one where the king of Déisi came to see him and asked if he could guarantee him a place in Heaven by swopping his good soul for his bad one. Fanahan agreed and offered the king his own place, already guaranteed. To re-earn his place in Heaven, he commissioned seven smiths to make seven sickles. He then spent the next seven years hanging from them in penance. He rewarded the smiths by calling the place Brigown – Bri Goghann, the Smiths’ Hill. He did descend once though for he was called upon to help the children of Niall of the Nine Hostages against foreign attackers. Later, once released from the sickles, he seems to have been often called upon to lend his weight in battles. He led from the front, literally breathing fire – sparks bursting from his teeth which caused the shafts of his enemies’ spears to burn! His weapon of choice was his crozier, Cennachathach – head battler, reputedly later kept as a relic in the round tower until this fell down in the 18th century! Eventually he went on a pilgrimage to Rome to do penance, dying around 660AD. The meaning of the sickle, the bell and the eel now becomes clear.
The eel incidentally is meant to be visible in the water of the well and is considered to be the embodiment of the saint himself. Whoever sees it will have great fortune.
There is another sculpture of St Fanahan outside the Garda Station in town and this seems to capture his strength and charisma. Sculpted by Cliodna Cussen in 1981, this saint is a suitably beefy and muscular figure sitting solidly upon a rock, head battler in his hand, a rather enigmatic expression on his face. On one side is an eel and on the other a curled up hound, referring to his name.
St Fanahan’s Feast Day is the 25th November and an annual pilgrimage is still made to the well. The pattern lasts for nine days preceding the 25th when pilgrims are expected to visit the well, say private prayers to the saint walking three time clockwise around the pathway behind the well, and recite a Decade of the Rosary.
As we left a local man stopped for a chat and told us about the Mass path and the eel, and the annual Mass. He also explained that St Fanahan was patron saint of blow-ins which made us smile. It seems there is truth in this too for when the saint arrived in Mitchelstown, the locals were not immediately friendly. He vowed to curse the locals and support strangers. Not a very saintly attitude but I think the locals have forgiven him by now.
St Fionnchú’s Church, Brigown
We thought we had time to visit Brigown, site of the St Fanahan’s monastery, 880 metres to the south west. A fascinating place, although there is little remaining of the monastery or the round tower that was later built there in the 10th Century. There are some fine examples of early graves though and in the remains of the old church building (CO019-030004), the base of a Medieval cross has been inserted over the doorway.
St Fionnchú’s Well, Brigown
It seems that the original well dedicated to St Fanahan was much closer to the monastery. The story goes that a woman washed her clothes in the well, causing much disrespect. The next morning the monks found the well had dried up and reappeared in its current position! I asked at the farmhouse if they had a holy well on their land and they didn’t think so, but looking over the wall from the graveyard I suspect the original well was somewhere near that little hollow or possibly in the trees.
A very special place and a remarkable saint.