A couple of weeks ago I travelled to Dursey with a friend, her friend, a husband and a dog, two wells on the agenda. Although we had a wonderful day, the well hunt was not entirely successful as the field in which the first well was supposedly located contained a lot of very large cattle, their calves and reputedly amongst them a bull. It looked to me, as I peered over the fence, that a cow was actually standing in what looked like the well. I resolved to go back and yesterday made the long trip back to Dursey.
Dursey lies at the very end of the Beara Peninsula, it’s name as Gaelige is Oileán Baoi, or Island of the Bull. It is 6.5km long and 1.5km wide, a wild and hilly place frequently glimpsed off the mainland shrouded in mist. There is only one way to get to Dursey and it’s not for the faint-hearted. A cable car, the only one in Ireland, is the only means of transport across the notoriously ferocious Dursey Sound. The first cable car was introduced in 1969 and was a God send for islanders, mainlanders and day trippers alike. The service is still going strong and you are swung aloft in a small wooden cubicle, six people the maximum allowed in at a time, then glided up and over the gantry and back down to terra firma.
Psalm 91 and a bottle of rather murky holy water nestle next to the first aid kit. Today I travelled over with two islanders and their spare tyre, and a German family. The seats are wooden slats and the journey is short, about 7 minutes and surprisingly smooth with some fabulous views as you are wired aloft. Rather disconcertingly, only a few minutes into our journey the whole thing came to a halt, just long enough to get a bit twitchy; then we juddered backwards, picked up two more passengers to get to our capacity, and resumed the journey! The holy water was not resorted to.
The island is spectacular – wild and remote, now home to only two permanent residents, several holidays homers and day trippers. Sheep and cattle are plentiful though. Once three villages thrived in the island’s townlands: Ballynacallagh, Kilmichael and Tikilifinna but now the little clusters of houses are mainly derelict or empty, a general air of melancholy pervading.
The hedgerows are spectacular, today bursting with all sorts of flowers: foxgloves, thyme, scabious, heather, toadflax, camomile …. The distinctive herringbone walls thick with colour.
It’s an invigorating and breath-taking walk along the main track, which goes all the way along the south side of the island then heads up through the centre.
The views out to sea are jaw-dropping, today the palest of blues and silvers with a surprising amount of tiny fishing boats out there.
Tubrid Well, Ballynacallagh
The first well lies in the townland of Ballynacallagh (townland of the landing place), just outside the settlement of the same name. I was relieved to find that the cattle had been moved to the adjacent field and on close inspection, yes, the bull was in situ – a rather fine beast with a ring through his nose, not a bother on him.
I asked a man collecting water from a tap whether I could go through the fields. He knew of the well but hadn’t been for many years and yes, it was in that field. I squeezed over the fence and followed a stone field boundary, the fields sloping sharply as they headed down towards the cliffs and then the sea. The field itself is called Gort an Tiobarín – field of the holy well.
The cattle eyed me with gentle curiosity and the GPS led me confidently on. Just where I hoped there was a well was a mass of dampness, actually the results of two wells and their springs converging– the first well had a neat stone built opening but I think the holy well was the less glamorous wetness: currently a quagmire of shitty brown muck, much trampled over by the cattle (compare the site with the first image).
The water was trickling from under the boulder and after a bit of searching I managed to identify the cupmarked stones that are also mentioned in the Archaeological Inventory. They lie just in front of the well, much shit-spattered but the cup marks just discernible – five on the stone on the left (CO0126-011001), and possibly two on the stone on the right (CO0126-011003). These date from the Bronze Age and are exciting to see for Beara has very few known examples of rock art.
Although the well today looked more like a muddy bog it had once been the object of veneration. Penelope Durell in her excellent book Discover Dursey has a little more to reveal about it about it:
… The well itself is small, a natural spring arising from under a boulder and spilling out into a shallow pool. Its water and those of another well join the stream and flow into the sea below at Cuaisín an Tiobraid, little cove of the holy well … It was the custom to pay the rounds at the holy well on three Saturdays in succession, reciting ten decades of the Rosary on each occasion. The devotee, carrying ten small quartz pebbles, would kneel beside the well for the first decade and drop one of the pebbles. The procedure was to then walk clockwise around the well – in harmony with the course of the sun- while intoning the next nine decades, each time dropping another pebble.
The well is simply called Tubrid Well and I wondered if it might have been originally have been dedicated to St Michael whom the next townland is named after and which contains the scant remains of St Michael’s church, destroyed by the English in 1604 and the last gable standing blown down by a gale in the 1990s. It seems not for Penelope Durell refers to the islanders going on pilgrimage to St Michael’s Well on Knocknahulla on the mainland to take part in the annual pattern day there.( I’m still puzzled by that well!) Incidentally, there was until not long ago, a ballaun stone in the vicinity of the old church, renown for its curative powers. This has since disappeared.
The views from the well though are sublime, and I was delighted to have found it. I was less hopeful about the second well, the intriguingly named Tobar na gCliathrach – well of the hurdle passage.
Tobar na gCliathrach, Well of the Hurdle Passage
I was alerted to this well by a short mention of it in Bruno O Donoghue’s invaluable book: Parish Histories and Placenames of West Cork. I was further excited to see it marked on an old map lent to me by a friend. The well lay in the last townland – Tilikafinna, tice lice finne, house of the white rock. It was an awfully long walk, nearly to the end of the island but a good one, following the track as it curved around the bottom of the island.
Someone has a sense of humour for various signs are placed on the track – imagine doing 100kmph here!
There are little benches here and there to take a quick snack or enjoy the views. Today the air was noisy with choughs, nesting in some of the old buildings; and freshly shorn and marked blue-bottomed sheep and their lambs skittered in front of me. Out at sea gannets were diving and inland stonechats were indignant at the disturbance.
The last house on Dursey is still inhabited and I knocked. The occupier was having his lunch and the woman I talked to knew of no holy wells.The map though looked promising. I had to find an old field boundary then follow it down towards the cliffs, eventually veering off slightly to the right. I found the boundary, a large well made stone affair, green with flowers and ferns, and followed it down into the pasture. How exciting to suddenly see a small stream appear from a ridge – could this be coming from the well? It was! Tucked into the back of the hill, flowing out from the rock was a stream of water – fresh and clear. A pipe hinted at someone’s appreciation of the water. In front two flat stones lay as if inviting reverence.
What a beautiful spot, the most wonderful thing being the smell – I couldn’t help but crush the abundant wild camomile underfoot and the aroma was heady.
I sat, ate a banana and just marvelled at this little well surviving quietly and unknown, and gasping at the sheer beauty of the scenery. Looking out to to sea the Scariff Islands shrouded in cloud occasionally opened up to reveal themselves.
Was this well holy? Bruno O Donoghue thought so and I will be content with that. I can’t help but wonder at the name – does anyone have any ideas? It certainly felt very a very special place.
A long walk back, the same way I had come for the climb up across the centre of the island via the signal tower looked too challenging at this stage. The map contained one more reference to another well Tobar a Righe, well of the slope. which seemed to be down by a cluster of ruined houses, but couldn’t find it. Walking back I was pursued by little drifts of mist and was then fortunate to catch the first cable car back across the water.
Fumbling in my backback I was delighted to find a fiver, just enough to buy a bag of chips and cuppa from the mobile refreshment caravan on the other side. Perfect.