Two days exploring the remote and scenic tip of the Beara Peninsula and some very curious wells discovered.
Kilaconenagh Holy Wells, near Castletownbere
The weather on day one was not promising – thick fog and a steady mizzle. We persevered however and the first well stop was just outside Castletownbere. The GPS led us down a remarkably lush and green wooded lane.
A little wooden gate and a mossy sign boded well. The well was said to be behind the ruins of Kilaconenagh church (CO115-045002). Although the remains are pretty meagre, the church is said to date from as early a the 8th or 9th centuries, now much ruined and covered in ivy. Apparently the rafters from the church were removed during the wretched Seige of Dunboy in 1602 to make gun emplacements. It’s a peaceful spot today, unkempt and fecund, the grave stones lurching in unlikely angles, the chest tombs rampant with ivy. It’s treacherous underfoot too, many graves apparently open or at least riddled with dips and holes. Jack Roberts in his The Antiquities of the Beara Peninsula gives a very odd story as to why the gravestones are quite so higgeldy piggeldy. Apparently a monster emerged from a nearby stream and ransacked all the graves, quite why isn’t explained!
Finding the holy well, or rather holy wells, involves a climb over the wall and an rootle amongst the undergrowth – there a licheny stile and a just discernible path. The well is actually four ballaun stones carved into the rockface, now pretty much covered in undergrowth but still impressive. They are unusually large:
The western well has a diameter of 0.5m and depth of 0.3m. 0.6m to the east is the second which is 0.8 x 1.1m in diameter and depth of 0.4m. 0.9m to the east is the third with a diameter of 0.9 x1.2m and a depth of 0.2m.
The fourth ballaun, just above the three and to the right, is slightly smaller. It’s unclear whether they are natural or man-made, the one on the far left certainly looks as though it has been deliberately scooped out of the rock.
A short entry in the Schools’ Folklore Collection gives an odd bit of extra information:
To the west end of Castletownbere in an old graveyard situated nearby there is a holy well. In olden days people that suffered any disease of the body used (to) visit this well and pray for a certain amount of time that God may deliver them from their sufferings, and restore them back to health again. At the edge of the well a frog sat and if the invalid did not see him it was a sign that their disease would not be cured. 061:0278
This felt an ancient and unusual place. Unfortunately amongst all the excitement of coping with GPS, camera, reading glasses, barbed wire, inquisitive ponies and looking for frogs, I dropped my phone and cracked the glass. One of the hazards of well hunting.
We visited Dunboy Castle afterwards and pondered on the roof of the old church. Dunboy is now a rather gloomy shell, the ancestral home of the O Sullivan Beare, too full of brutal memories perhaps, softened a little by the stunning views and lush vegetation, mainly flowering rhododendrons.
Puxley Mansion lies nearby, guarded by a stout fence and ever encroaching vegetation.
What an extraordinary sight and an even more perplexing history: built in 1739 on profits from copper mining, extended in Gothic style during the Victorian period, abandoned by the owner after his wife died in childbirth, blown up by the IRA in 1921, abandoned again, restored in 2007 as a 6 star hotel, Celtic Tiger collapsed and now abandoned once again.
The day’s explorations ended with a visit to Dzogchen Beara, another unexpected place, full of interest – a Buddhist meditation centre, retreat and hospice, perched scenically on the clifftops with incredible views. No fabulous views today though, thick fog, but we did avail of the very good café.
Blessed Well, Tobairn Beannaithe, near Allihies
Miraculously the fog lifted on the second day, all brightness and breeziness in colourful Allihies.
Fuelled with an enormous breakfast (The Seaview Guest House highly recommended) and much helpful advice from our landlady and a fellow guest we set forth to find Tobairin Beannaithe, the little Blessed Well. This was located high up on the east side of the Bealbarnish Gap and took a bit of finding! Our landlady equipped us with a booklet written by local school children in the 1970s, herself included, and rang up a local who she thought might have more information, but he was elderly and still in bed! We followed her directions, turned on the GPS, parked the car and scrambled up the hill.
We were looking for what sounded like a large ballaun cut into the cliff face, possibly still revered. The GPS directed us here – now a substantial pool of water right at the base of a cliff.
A lot of work has been done up here recently and water was being piped from the pool. Had the well been submerged? There seemed to be something under the water at one point. We searched around and found nothing else likely.
The well was also known as the Women’s Well and was renown for curing sore eyes. The water was said never to dry and when the tide comes in way down below, the water is meant to rise. Rounds were paid here at the end of September.
There were magnificent views from up here, quite a journey to get to but as always, the journey seems to be an essential part of the experience.
St Michael’s Well, near Allihies
Off high for the next well too, somewhere near the summit of Knocknahulla. Our landlady had assured us that this well would be easier to find, there might even be a sign and a path. GPS on we strode and stumbled across rough pasture until the path became impassable, barbed wire fences and thick bracken, very scenic though.
We turned back and had a welcome coffee and chat at a café nearby. Here we were given further instruction by someone who had been up there last year with a party of school children. She said finding it would involve a bit of scrabbling about as it was very small and not much to see – look for the gate next to the the big junction, just past the farm with the cattle enclosure. We found the junction, we found the farm and cattle enclosure, we found the gate, we even found a sort of path and up Knocknahulla we went! More incredible views and such wonderful colours on this spectacular day, such a change from yesterday. The Archaeological Inventory information was helpful:
In rough hill pasture, in a hollow on a S-facing slope to the E of the summit of Knocknahulla. The holy well consists of a roughly circular water-filled depression (0.4m N-S; 0.35m E-W; D 0.35m) in the peaty soil. A cross-inscribed stone (CO127-046001-) covers most of the well. Known as St Michael’s well. Rounds were made up here up to recent times on the 25th September. Four small recently made wooden crosses lie on the ground Im to the E. A penitential station (CO127-046002) lies 8m to the N.
The pasture was rough alright and after much exploration, the GPS led us to the cross inscribed stone: small, flat on the ground but with a smaller stone sparkling with malachite on top, handy for doing the inscribing. Next to it a large lump of white quartz looked significant.
But where was the well? I gingerly lifted the stone and underneath was the tiniest circle I have ever seen, nothing remotely like the dimensions described by the Inventory – damp within though, and inhabited by a slug.
The ground was certainly peaty but could this possibly be the well, had the peat shrunk? There was no sign of the crosses mentioned by the Inventory and not much evidence of the penitential station also described, apparently now represented by a cairn of white quartz stones left by pilgrims, though there were blocks of quartz here and there. What a conundrum! We found the stone, we lifted the stone, but was that the well? Much searching provided no other clues or anything resembling a well.
The well is dedicated to St Michael and visited on his Feast Day, 29th September. A mighty trek up here and one still undertaken by local people, including the school children. What a puzzle. More stupendous views though. The Catholic church in Allihies is also dedicated to St Michael the Archangel.
I would love to hear from anyone who might have visited the well or has any information.
Holy Well, Toberbanaha, near Allihies
The final well was actually marked on the OS map, known as Toberbanaha on the oldest maps, but an adventurous time was still had getting there – the road got smaller and smaller, higher and high as we climbed what was once an old road from Allihies to Castletownbere. Again magnificent views from Knockgour, lots of sheep and then the road finally stopped, the Beara Way snaking off into the distance below us.
This well was actually surprisingly easy to find – it was down a steep slope but had been fenced off – a circular fence in the middle of nowhere always a good sign.
Water seeped out from under the stone and trickled down the hillside. There wasn’t a huge lot to see or much atmosphere and it had clearly not been visited for some while, but someone thought it important enough to protect.
Later we paid our respects to the Hag of Beara, An Cailleach Bheara, and the tallest Ogham stone in Ireland in the wondrously named Faunkill in the Woods. Much needed chocolate and apples were bought in Eyeries, probably the most colourful village in Ireland.
An excellent adventure.
We love the Beara!