There are seven inhabited islands off the coast of Cork: Cape Clear Island, Sherkin Island, Heir Island, Long Island, Whiddy Island, Bere Island and Dursey Island. And of course they all have a well or two. Some island hopping required.
The rain and wind having ceased slightly, I thought it time I ventured over to Whiddy Island, which I had believed had two holy wells.
I wasn’t particularly hopeful that there would be anything remaining of either. The Schools’ Folklore Collection gives a tiny but valuable bit of information:
The holy Wells of Whiddy
There are two holy wells in Whiddy, one in the easternside in the townland of Rinn a Bainne and the other in the western side in the townland of Close. The western one is in the top of a hill in a field called Barr na Cnucán.
Long ago people came to the well to pay rounds. One day there was a man digging trenches around the well and he got a sore hand which nearly killed him. (0284:244)
Whiddy Island, Oileán Faoide, is a fifteen minute ferry trip from Bantry. Embarkation is at a temporary pier for much work is going on in the harbour. There are dreams of marinas and cruise ships.
Today the only passengers sitting outside seemed to be me and Rex the dog, his owner huddled in the cockpit with Tim the ferryman. Rex the dog was delighted with a bit of attention as we set out into Bantry Bay, spectacular views behind of the colourful town huddled under the hills, and of Bantry House set up high overlooking the Bay.
And in front Whiddy with its smattering of white houses and rolling green hills and the beautifully positioned Bank House, the only pub on the island.
As we disembarked, I asked Tim if he knew anything about the wells. The other passenger knew something about the one at the easterly end of the island and told me that it was 500m below the castle, just head straight down until I reached the shoreline. I was pleased to hear that for this well is not mentioned in the Archaeological Inventory. I showed Tim where I thought the other well was on my map and he exclaimed that it was was right next to his house and he knew exactly where it was for he had fallen into it a few weeks before! It had since been covered in by the landowner but he would be happy to show me where it was as he was going in that direction, for he was also the postman and needed to go onto his rounds.
Kilmore Holy Well
Cars are interesting on islands for no NCT is required. We gave Rex and his owner a jump start in their car and then off we bounced. Tim is a wonderful guide and is exceptionally knowledgeable about all things Whiddy, though there seems to be little information about the first well in Kilmore (or possibly Close) townland. We stopped at the side of the road near a very boggy field – he pointed to some furze up on a ridge and said it was near there.
He was off to see to some cows but would be back shortly. I skidded down the bank and up again and waded through the bogginess. Nothing to be seen of this well now, just a jumble of slates where it was recently filled in. It is located 500m north from Kilmore church (CO118-087) – now ruined and part of an ancient ecclesiastical settlement which may date from the 6th century. There are also remarkable views out towards the Beara.
One possible meaning behind the name Whiddy may be Vod Iy or Holy Island and there seem to have been several monastic settlements on the island over the years.
Was the well once connected with this ecclesiastical enclosure just over the hill?
Reenavanny Holy Well
Tim then kindly drove me off towards the other end of the island.
He dropped me off near a muddy boreen with instructions to follow the shoreline until I could see the castle, then head up to it and then follow the original instructions ie aim straight down towards the sea. There was no path and the tide was high but it was incredibly still and beautiful in the soft mizzle. Mussel beds, dotted islands, fishing boats and two swans.
I could see the castle, actually the stump of a tower house, on a drumlin and started the clamber inwards and upwards watched by some curious cattle and later on a startled hare. There had been a lot of rain and everywhere was flooded. The castle (CO105-133) dates from the 1500s and was built by the famous Donal Cam O Sullivan. It was bombarded during the Cromwellian War and was further hit by storms in the early 20th century. Next to it are the equally gaunt remains of a possible ammunition store dating from the First World War when Whiddy was used as a naval base for the US Navy (all that remains are the huge concrete floors of the seaplane hangars).
I ventured downwards towards the shore, hunting here and there for the remains of the well. Tim thought there had once been a nunnery at this end of the island and that the well might have connected with it for the townland is called Reenavanny – Rinn an Mhanaigh: headland of the young women. There were several dips and hollows that looked well-like but nothing definite.
Tim remembered having talked to older members of the community who described people visiting the well for healing, and that offerings were left in the bushes surrounding it, including crutches.
This well is not marked on the Archaeological Inventory and is in danger of disappearing altogether. Unfortunately I then ran out of time and realised I only had half and hour to rush back to catch the ferry. I will have to return.
A swift journey back along the shore, the tide even higher – a quick glimpse at the cement bases of the old aircraft hangars and a very quick browse around the derelict but so picturesque National School – plans for renovation afoot.
Whiddy is a remarkable place, now home to only 26 people, but it has so much to offer and is so full of interest. The wells may be less than impressive but a trip over is highly recommended. You’ll get a warm welcome!