It’s always a pleasure to visit one of the islands off the coast of Cork, and each of the seven inhabited islands have a very distinct personality of their own. Today I was off to Bere island, An tOileán Mor (the big island); a short ferry trip from Castletownbere. Castletownbere was in a bit of a panic – no real coffee or loos to be had for water supplies had been off for the last two days! Still it was bustling enough and there is always much to admire at the quay.
The ferry itself is quite an experience for it’s pretty small and today was jam-packed, five cars being squeezed on. I was so grateful that I was a foot passenger for you have to go up the ramp backwards and fit into the most minute of spaces, albeit skillfully advised by the ferryman.
Bere Island is roughly 11km long and 5km wide and has some impressive mountains, tiny roads, an abundance of wild flowers, crystal clear waters and a long and complicated history. It sits in the middle of Bantry Bay and due to its important strategic position has frequently been commandeered for military use. It is bristling with interesting things from wedge tombs to standing stones, Viking ports to ringforts, martello towers to signal towers, batteries to gun emplacements. It’s particularly important for its military remains dating from the turn of the 20th century when it was a British military base, built to protect the North Atlantic Fleet. Batteries, barracks, canon and all sorts still litter the island. British military presence officially withdrew in September 1938, rather ironically just before outbreak of World War II.
Bere island is also part of the Beara Way, a long distance walking route, and the island offers some challenging and spectacular walking. You could spend days here just exploring but I was after a well – St Michael’s Well.
First I fuelled myself with coffee and apple pie at the former National School, now a visitors’ Centre. The woman apologized for the lack of real coffee but she had had a gang of astronomers up there over the weekend and they had drunk all her best coffee and eaten all her ice cream!
I had been to the well before and thought I remembered where it was and was in no particular rush, climbing up via the small flower-strewn lanes, admiring the creative paintwork on the old building near the schoolhouse and generally enjoying the scenery.
Did I pay any heed to the new route veering off to the left, did I read the tiny sign on the post – no. Instead I went off on an extensive and rugged loop – wonderfully scenic but way out of my way!
The views in all directions were incredible but I was mindful of my ferry and started to speed up, scattering a startled group of American walkers. How funny that their leader turned out to be the man I had met in Allihies two weeks ago who had then expressed an interest in wells!
I made my way to the cross, erected in the holy year of 1950, switched on the GPS and went down the mountain on a rather unconventional route. The woman in the Visitors’ Centre had said that locals would walk to the well from the cross but had warned: you don’t want to go that way for you have to go across the mountain. At least I was being authentic. I spotted the well way below me, distinctive by its bright yellow painted cross.
The well is dedicated to St Michael, as are the school and church on the island. It lies snug against the hillside, slabs laid in front of it.
It was looking very pretty bestrewn with flowers but the water was low, if clear. A large yellow cross marks the spot as does as rather kitsch silver statue on a plinth depicting St Michael wrestling with Satan.
The water is said to be good for general cures and sore eyes in particular. Once a large pattern day was held here on St Michael’s Feast day, 29th September. This extract from the Schools’ Folklore Collection gives more information:
St Michael’s well is situated straight above the Central Hotel. That is situated in the centre of Bere Island near a mountain. The place where the well is situated is between two mountains and it is called the pattern. The well is very small and there is not much water in it. It goes dry in the summer. It is almost covered in heath. There are two circles of white stones around the well.
The well is called St Michael’s well because St Michael is patron saint of the parish. Every person says different prayers but most say it at the outer circle of stones.The Creed and Five Our Fathers, five Hail Marys and five Glorias. Then they go up to the circle of stones near the well and they say the Rosary and at every Gloria they pick up a stone and drop it down again with their right hand. When they are coming home they always leave something after them. Some people let a button after them. They throw up the button and if it comes down with the right side turned up, the person will have good luck, but if it comes down with the wrong side, the person will have bad luck. The also bring a bottle of water with them. Some people keep it in the house like they keep holy water, some give it to the sick and more people drink it …. a person who has sore eyes would be cured if he rubbed the water on them. Long ago on Michaelmas Day everyone turned towards the holy well, like a Fair day or a day at the Regatta at present. The people used to put up stalls and sell oranges and apples and wine, whiskey and porter and there used to be wrestling. They used to have dances and concerts and plays near the well. (054/055:0277)
It’s hard to imagine all that activity at such a remote and peaceful spot. Today I was just in the company of tiny Green Hairstreak butterflies as they flitted from flower to flower, and the odd lark. There is no longer an annual Mass but a walk is conducted up here for those who wish to pay their respects.
I went down the way I should have come up – very clearly marked by yellow daubed rocks – boggy and quite difficult underfoot but the scenery magnificent and a fine collection of wildflowers, some unusual ones up here too – sundews and milkworts.
Note: The best way to get to the well is to take the ferry from Castletownbere, walk up the hill towards the Heritage Centre (clearly marked) take a first right after this and follow the Beara Way until you get to the gate pictured above, where it’s a sharp left – then follow the yellow daubed rocks! Do not carry straight on over the gate unless you want a much longer but very scenic route!
I arrived back at the quay with 10 minutes to spare! The American party came roaring up just as the last car was being loaded onboard, having seriously miscalculated the ferry times! A lesson to be learned here – you need much more time than you think to enjoy everything Bere island has to offer.