A clutch of Bullauns

Stouke burial ground comes as a bit of a surprise. It seems to be miles from anywhere, high up overlooking some spectacular countryside in West Cork. The name is odd too. The old name for the site is Kilaspick Oen – Church of Bishop John. Later it became cillin stuaice – little church of the heights. Though nothing remains of the original church, it may have been the site of the first parish church for nearby village of Schull.

The Bishop’s Head, Bullaun stone, Stouke

It’s a wonderfully peaceful place, a jumble of graves, abundant wildflowers and some intriguing history. One of the most interesting things is a bullaun stone found in the middle of the graveyard. It is a large flattish stone with the bullaun or basin hewn in the centre, measuring 22 cm in diameter and 7cm deep. On my first visit the bullaun was covered by a flat stone or lid but this seems to have disappeared. Today the bullaun was filled with russett-tinged water and a collection of rusty coins.

Bullaun stone plus offerings

Two large jars with exceedingly rusty lids contain on inspection a mass of coins and some baby earwigs. A statue of the BVM oversees proceedings from a heathery tussock, a single lily looming out behind her. Rather an odd statue when you look closely, what on earth has happened to her eyes?

Roaringwater Journal sheds a little light on how the bullaun got its unusual name:

The bullaun stone in Stouke graveyard is known, according to the Historic Graves account, as the Bishop’s Head. The informative plaque erected by the Fastnet Trails folk tells us that an older name for the townland is Kilaspick Oen, meaning Church of Bishop John. Perhaps this was the Bishop for whom the bullaun stone is named. The story goes that during the time of the penal laws the Bishop was confirming children nearby when the redcoats got wind of his activities and came to arrest him. He was beheaded. The bullaun stone commemorates this act and has been a focus of devotion locally, with people leaving coins and tokens to pay respect and perhaps ask for consideration for special intentions. Additionally, rounds were performed here on St John’s Night – although I am not sure if this tradition has persisted.

As with other bullauns, this one has the properties of a holy well, the water being considered to have healing benefits, especially for warts.

Mention has been made of rounds being paid here on St John’s Night, 24th June, and these included the large and imposing grave close to the bullaun, as well as to the bullaun itself. This fine chest tomb is the final resting place of two brothers, a sister and their housekeeper.

Father James Barry was the parish priest during the time of the Famine and along with his brother Father John Barry worked tirelessly for the poor, attempting to alleviate the wretched conditions. Once again Roaringwater Journal has done all the hard work and provided an excellent account of their life and works. It seems that the brothers are still remembered and respected for coins and offerings were also left at their grave.

The Rolls of Butter, Kerry

From the Bishop’s Head to the Rolls of Butter, another intriguing bullaun – not technically a holy well and not even in Cork but just across the border in Kerry. What an incredible, powerful site though.

The stone in its setting

This large flat-topped boulder, complete with eight bullans and attendant smooth stones, once formed part of a complex ecclesiastical settlement: there are the remains of an ancient church, a holy well (unfound) and another bullaun in the hedgerow (once used as a font at the old church).

Bullaun stone in hedgerow

The stone and its original art ie the cupmarks could date back to the Bronze Age- it is in alignment with the sunrise at the Winter Solstice. The bullans are probably more recent – maybe they are cupmarks that have been customised – but they suggest that this particular stone has had a long and continued usage. What is especially remarkable are the smooth stones within the bullauns – cursing stones if you were feeling unkind, to be turned widdershins; or more benignly, wishing stones, turned clockwise as part of the rounds connected with the church and well. The central stone is holed and contains an undeniably upright phallic stone.

The rock contains eight bullauns of varying sizes, some with smooth stones within. The central stone is holed with an upright stone within it.

Water collects in the basins, surely once used for its healing qualities – warts, I bet. Offerings of coins cluster in the bullauns and under the smooth pebbles, staining the rock.

There is much folklore attached to the stone The story goes that the local saint, who the ecclesiastical settlement was dedicated to, St Feaghna, came across a local woman using this stone to make butter. Unfortunately she was using milk stolen from her neighbour’s cow and the saint flew into an unholy rage, turned her rolls of butter into stone, then pursued her across the river, eventually petrifying her too! Not terribly saintly action.

The site is engulfed by bracken, the larger area surrounded by an amphitheatre of mountains resulting in an extraordinary atmosphere of remoteness, peace and presence. This site is on private land so permission should be sought.

Stouke Graveyard has been recorded.
The location of this well can be found in the Gazetteer.

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