Since I began this project, a year and a half ago, I have come across dedications to 51 various saints at nearly 200 wells. The most popular patron is the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM), who currently has 29 wells dedicated to her. Not surprising really considering her elevated place in the Catholic pantheon as Mary, Mother of God; the Blessed Virgin; Queen of Heaven or simply Our Lady. Her major feasts days are May 1st (in fact the whole of May is considered to be Mary’s month), 15th August: the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin; 8th September: the Nativity of the BVM; and 8th December: her Immaculate Conception. She has even had special years dedicated to her devotion (1954 &1987) when many grottoes were erected and wells renovated. Today three Marian wells were on the agenda, each one very different and all in North Cork.
Take my hand, O Blessed Mother
Hold me firmly lest I fall.
I am nervous when I am walking,
And on you I humbly call.
Guide me over every crossing,
Watch me when I’m on the stairs,
Let me know that you’re beside me,
Listen to my fervent prayer.
Help me with every undertaking
As the hours pass away.
And when evening falls upon us
And I fear to be alone,
Take my hand O Blessed Mother
And protect my life and home.
Board at Lady’s Well, Castleharrison
Lady’s Well, Castleharrison, near Charleville
First stop Lady’s Well near Castleharrison, just off the N20 en route to Charleville. The potency of the site is immediately apparent as outlined on the board at the entrance:
On the margins of this holy well pagan multitudes were converted and baptised, and from time immemorial devotions here to the Mother of God has been rewarded with many favours and blessing. (Taken from the parish records, 1809)
Nearly a hundred years later, Colonel Grove White visited the well, wrote warmly about it and took a very attractive photograph:
In Castle Harrison Demesne, in front of the houses near the road, is an interesting holy well. It is kept in good order and is one of the most picturesque Holy Wells I have seen. It is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. Many people come to this well to pay their devotions on the different festivals dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, but particularly on August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption. I was also informed that people come here for the cure of all diseases, particularly of sore eyes. A large white thorn overhung the well. It was covered in ivy. It was blown down in the severe hurricane that occurred about 1903. It is a credit to the parish of Ballyhea for it is one of the best kept Blessed Wells in Southern Ireland. (Grove White: Historical & Topographical Notes Etc Vol 1)
The site is clearly signed and just off the main road, an enclosed space immaculately maintained.
A circular path leads down to the well, marked with the Stations of the Cross. A row of orange plastic chairs lined near to a wall hint at the many pilgrims that still visit.
The well itself looks very different to Grove White’s day. An arch recess, containing a statue of the BVM is now flanked by a domed stone well house, two small niches on either side, with a white Celtic cross surmounted over the whole.
The statue of the BVM within is a rather beautiful one, and, although denied access by a glass window, pilgrims have managed to leave offerings at her elegant feet.
The well lies below but is now disappointingly sealed off by a grill – water obtained from a tap located in the hedge nearby. The jolly smiley-faced cups seem at odds with the rather sombre and devout atmosphere.
A row of wooden benches with ornate white railings lie in front of the well for devotions.
Various notices on the site explain the required devotion at the site and include some interesting thoughts about the sacredness of water in general:
(The round) consists of 3 visits to the well, saying a Rosary each time, beginning at the Grotto and continuing the round to complete the Rosary. While doing the round the pilgrim is carried back in thought by the Stations of the Cross to Calvary where the right to God’s help and favours was earned for us, and where and where Christ put everybody (in the person of St John) under the protection of the Holy Mother. Having completed the Rosary the ceremony ends in the drinking of water from the well and a private resolution made to receive an early opportunity Holy Communion which our lord described as ‘a well of living water’ which would benefit in this life and the next.
While drinking the water from the Blessed Well the tremendous religious significance attached to water is recalled by the pilgrim. Going back to the chosen people of God in the Old Testament in the Bible we find that they had strongly in their minds that God brings life out of the waters and saves people by the waters. Moses led his people out of slavery in Egypt and they escaped from their pursuers through the waters of the Red Sea.
The visitor also recalls that in baptism each one of us has passed through the baptismal water to a new life of being now, not just the children of our parents, but children of God too. As children of God our prayer at this holy well is in a few words – Mother of God and our Mother intercede for us.
An plaque on the altar informs that it was erected during the Holy Year of 1987; I wonder if that was when the entire site was modernised.
The well was very active in the 1930s:
In the district of Charleville there is a well named Our Lady’s Well. people visit it from time to time to pray there. When a person has a disease he usually washes himself in the well. Sick people get the water of the well and drink it. The most frequent time for visiting the well is on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. When people visit the well they bring holy pictures and statues and leave them on the altar over the well. Once woman got water out of the well and used it for household purposes but it never boiled. There is a bush over the well. People who are cured hang rags on the bush. A long time ago a gipsy washed her child in it. He is now a priest. (280: 0368; Schools’ Folklore Collection)
It remains a vital and active part of the community. In June this year, for example, there was a special mass held there for the Travelling Community which included a blessing for families.
Lady’s Well, Templemary, near Buttevant
The next well sounded fascinating from the description in the Archaeological Inventory:
In pasture, at base of ash tree and on W side of Mallow-Liscarroll road. Enclosed NW->SE by roots of tree; SW side and base stone-lined. On SW side is partially cut limestone block (0.88m x 0.48m; T 0.17m) with holy water stoup (0.3m x 0.39m) cut into one end. Latin cross with splayed ends carved into side of stoup. According to local information, well visited in May and stoup came from nearby site of RC church, which was demolished in late 1970s/early 1980s; Grove White (1905-25, vol. 4, 35) noted church ‘was thatched’.
I had visions of something similar to the wonderful St Lachteen’s well in Ballykerwick, near Donoughmore. It was easy to find and clearly signed from the road, a well maintained walkway leading steeply down towards the sound of running water.
Disappointingly the ash tree has long since been cut down though the stump remains just behind the wellhouse. The whole site was renovated and rededicated in 1991, somewhat fiercely.
A large stone shrine complete with statue of the BVM is where the ash tree once stood. The statue is attractive and well cared for with flowers, and a few offerings.
The well itself is in front of the shrine but covered over by a sharp sheet of metal. Lift that up, and the water underneath is abundant and fresh. The area is nicely slabbed with a step down to the water.
To the right the ancient stoup described in the Archaeological Inventory remains, emblazoned with a cross. An array of cups lined up on a stack encourage the water to be used.
An ornate rail and kneeling block lies in front to the well; to the left a very unattractive metal shelter, bare and ugly, presumably for people to shelter in when the weather gets rough. The whole space felt devoid of atmosphere, a little too manicured but it is obviously still an active and important site within the community.
Grove White uncharacteristically has little to say about this well but what he does say is tantalising:
… in olden times much venerated and visions were said to have been seen there.
Lady’s Well, Tobermurray, near Liscarroll
By the time we visited the final Lady’s Well, the rain was falling steadily and enthusiasm was dwindling. The approach was down a long bumpy boreen, at one time a boxer came leaping and barking to greet us. The boreen ended in a farmyard complete with a house which I wasn’t sure was occupied or not. I knocked and no reply. A wooded area off the yard looked promising and I went to explore.
I was gob-smacked, no other word for it, and rushed back to tell my husband he needed to come and see this, rain or not!
A wooded grove comes to mind for the site is encircled by a wall and many tall and mature trees. In the centre is a large pool or spring, the well itself, stone-lined with steps to the south and a metal railing to ease collection of water – it’s quite a long drop down.
Little benches are dotted here and there but dominating the space is a shrine to the BVM. It is a large rectangular stone structure, topped with a cross. Inside is a niche with an arched doorway containing a statute of the BVM – illuminated!
She gazes soulfully upwards, hands in prayer with an assortment of offerings around her: rosaries, cards, pictures, statues.
A tree nearby holds a rack of colourful and spotless cups, a picture of the Sacred Heart propped below.
In a dense wooded area by the water there are more statues: Jesus with outstretched arms and a small BVM in a little niche. They look ancient, traces of their original paint still clinging on.
What a remarkable place, oozing with atmosphere and presence, such a contrast to the first two wells described. It seems this is another of those North Cork wells that has moved from its original position:
There is only one holy well in the parish. It is in the townland of Rockspring, Liscarroll in cllrs. Brislane’s field. The people pay rounds … during the month of May because the well is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin.
There is a story about the well. A woman washed her petticoat in the well. It is said that the well moved and there is a tree that marks where the well was first. There are trees growing around the well where it is now.
The people cure sore eyes at the well. When people are going to the well they take relics with them, namely flowers, statues, holy pictures and rags. They hang the rags on a tree. The people drink the well water and there are cups at the well for the water.
It is said that in the well a fish is seen. When people see the fish they wish for something. Sometimes they get what they wish for but sometimes they do not. At night it is said that the fish is to be seen. (216:0367; Schools’ Folklore Collection)
Another entry gives a little more information about the site of the original well
There are two holy wells around Liscaroll. One well is in Knawhill and the other is in Rockspring. The one in Rockspring is called the Blessed Virgin’s Well. It is said that one night a woman washed her feet in the well and when the people got up in the morning the well had removed to where it is now. A tree stands in the field where it is said the well was. There is a hole in the tree and it never goes dry. The well in Knawhill cures sore eyes. People pay rounds to the blessed Well in Rockspring the months of May and August. (044: 0367; Schools’ Folklore Collection)
The tree at Knawhill is now on the list but I can find no reference to it. There is another well very close by dedicated to St Baoithin which will be explored shortly.