St Gregory & St Catherine: two secretive wells in North Cork

Visiting North Cork with some friends we headed in the direction of Glanworth, first stopping off at two saintly wells: one dedicated to St Gregory and the other to St Catherine.

 Gregory’s Well, Tobercarrown, Ballyshonock

This well is not marked on the current OS map but is referred to as Tobercarrown on the historic 25 inch map. Colonel Grove White visited it in 1905 and had this to say about it:

In the middle of a field in the townland of Ballyshonock, in the occupation of a farmer named James Duane … is a holy well, which goes by the name of Gregory’s Well. It is situated about 650 yards north of Bowen Court, and about 70 yards from the left (east) bank of the rivulet that runs through Farahy. It is not shown on the 6 in OS map. The spring bubbles up in the centre of the well at the bottom. It has never been known to run dry. The overflow goes into the stream through a dam made by the father of James Duane. The water from the holy well has the reputation of curing bad sight. People from the surrounding countryside came here to pay rounds when suffering from any diseas …. Heard from a man living within a couple of fields of the Holy Well, near Bowen Court estate, that about 10 to 14 years ago a young man who had been brought up at Bowen Court went to the Unites States of America, and while there got practically blind. He came back to his native place and drank the water from Gregory’s well, also applied the water to his eyes. In about three or four months he regained his sight and returned to America.

Rev Canon Lynch gives: Such wells as this are often called Tobar a’ Chaeich or ‘well of the blind man’ …. As Gregory’s Well is a Holy Well, it is possible that it was so called from Pope Gregory, whose festival is referred to in the Pipe Roll of Cloyne. (Grove White, Vol III)

Gregory’s Well, 1905. Photo by Colonel Grove White

The 1915 OS map shows a  path leading down along the edge of the evocatively named Bathingpond Wood, past several fords and stepping stones but we suspected today’s route might not be so straight forward. We asked at the house. Tom and Hazel were delightful. They gave us instructions how to find the well: through the barn, under the washing, then down the boreen, and over a ditch. First we discussed history and other things with them. Their house was on the site of an old castle and behind it remained an old house that had once entertained de Valera and had consequently be blown up by the Black and Tans. All calm today and nicely restored. Over the road lay the remains of Bowen’s Court, mentioned by Grove White, and the churchyard in which Elizabeth Bowen was buried but we didn’t have item to get the key – this time. They knew a little about the well and could remember older people occasionally venturing down. Tom could recall when half of it had been covered by some boards and a young heifer had knelt down to drink from the well, only to get stuck and drown. They expressed concern that no-one had been for many years and apologised in advance for what we might find.

The walk down the boreen was beautiful, following the path of the Farahy River – wheat fields and big cloudage, a small ford then some scrambling under fences and over ditches.

A young man was working in his tractor. He seemed unfazed by people emerging from the waist high grasses into his field. He thought the well was over by the river, look out for a Danger sign, he advised.

The GPS led us on, we squeezed through a gap in the fence and then down towards the river. The palettes as described by Tom were still in place, rotten and collapsed, or maybe these were newer. The whole area was choked with brambles and water plants.

Remains of palette covering well

A bit of careful clearing and stone masonry was revealed tucked under layers of greenery, the water once released immediately bubbling up and flowing out down to the river.

After a little careful clearing

It seems this well has always been a bit bosky for this nice excerpt appears in the Mallow Field Journal, 1987:

A holy well, named St. Gregory’s, exists in Farrahy townland
and is in perfect condition to-day. It was noticed for the first time
over a hundred years ago flowing into a local stream. The owner of
the land watered his cattle in it. One day, a strange young man
spoke to him as he watered his stock: ‘Would you mind, Sir, taking
better care of that well?’ He took the question seriously and built
masonry around the well.

The masonry is just discernible but looking a bit worse for wear and the tidiness of the well frequently seems to have caused concern. Interesting how these two excerpts from the Schools’ Folklore Collection refer to the same stories but add some intriguing details:

There is a holy well in the townland of Ballyshonock in Mr Dwanes. The well is noted for curing people. One night about fifty or sixty years ago a certain man passed the well late at night. He saw a person standing by the well. The person called the man … and asked him to go and ask the owner to secure it and fence around it. The man went to the owner and told him what had happened. The owner of the well gave orders to his men to go and secure the well. One of the people of the house had lost his health and when the well got properly secured he regained his health. About the same time there was a man named James Dunne living in Farraghy.  He went to America and after some years in America he lost his sight. He dreamed in America that he would be cured if he came home and made rounds to the well.  So begor he did and when he landed at home he had to be led to the well. He paid one round and he came the second day and he paid a second round and the third day he came by himself and he went back to America with his sight. ( 256/257: 0373)

Hints of masonry

There is a blessed well in the townland of Ballyshnock, Kildorrery County Cork in a field belonging to Mr Martin Dwane. Years ago it was said that the well was in Farrahy and people used to take the water for washing clothes. The old people said the well removed from there to Ballyshonock. One evening as the owner of the field was driving home his cows a man appeared to him and told him to fence in the well from the cattle and he did so. The saint of this well is St Geoffrey. The water of this well is known for curing eyes. About four years ago my father had a very sore eye and he was making rounds to the well. One evening while he was praying the saint appeared to him in the form of a trout and in a few days he was cured. It is also said that about twenty years ago the well was ill used by a tramp who was passing by.The waters next morning were changed into mud. Then a woman from the townland came and poured holy water into it and it was cleared. (261/262:073)

Several interesting things in the last extract – another name for the well, another North Cork well that takes offence and moves, and the appearance of the saint as a fish. Interesting too that the only story that Tom could remember about the well was one about a heifer drowning in the well – the negligence of the well and concerns for the security of cattle continuing in folk memory.

When we returned to our car, two sheets of paper were afixed to the windscreen – details about St Gregory! It seems there are two Gregorys – the third and the Great. I think our man might be the Great (540-604), Pope. He is the one who gave is name to Gregorian chants and I remember him from my schooldays as the Pope who, upon seeing fair haired British slave children in the market place in Rome, referred to them as angels not angles. His was feast day was originally 12th March, when it is still celebrated in Orthodox church, but was changed in 1969 to 3rd September.

Astonishing how interesting a neglected piece of water can be.

St Catherine’s Well, Ballydeloughy

Another of these temperamental North Cork Wells that removed itself to a different site when offended, St Catherine’s Well started off in the graveyard of St Catherine’s church, Ballydeloughy (CO019-085001). We started off there too, walking though a field to the ancient enclosed site, squeezing through a large and impressive stone gate.

Entrance to the remains of St Catherine’s Church

When Colonel Grove White visited more than a hundred years ago, he searched here and there within this enclosure but could find no sign of the original well. Nor could we. But what a magical place: enclosed, wooded, some ancient and decorative tombstones, flourishing fungi and fox holes.

We admired the tiny carving of the Celtic looking face on  the corner of the remains of the church – reputed to be St Catherine herself.

Carved head of St Catherine; photo by Peter Clarke

Then headed back to the roadside to try and find the well, removed to a sycamore tree in the field boundary near the remains of the castle (CO019-087). The remains of Ballydeloughy Castle are somewhat scant.

The scant remains of Ballydeloughy Castle

The hedgerow was dense and thick, we searched amongst the trees and in the ditch. My husband gave a shout – he had found a hollow in a sycamore tree. It looked interesting but moving one tree to the right we found another hollow, this time water-filled.

St Catherine’s Well, nestling in the trunk of a sycamore tree

The well was reputed to never go dry. A young man was just driving his car in through some gates across the road. We ran to ask him if he knew of the well. He didn’t but said he would be right back with his mother. He was true to his word and she said yes, she knew of the well and confirmed that the smaller water-filled hollow was indeed the well. Our experience was very similar to Grove White’s:

An old man showed me the hollow stump of a sycamore tree, which
is situated on the fence bordering the public road of the field in which
the ruins of Ballylough Castle stand. He told me that it held water in
the driest summer, even when the neighbouring spring wells ran dry.
It was full of water when I saw it at the end of September,1905. The
people are inclined to believe that it is the holy well resuscitated, the one
which was filled in a long time ago near the old church. (Grove White 1905)

How magical that this tiny well had survived into the 21st century in spite of intrusions and lack of visitors – and it was still full of water. St Catherine’s feast day is the 25th November.

And we did get to Glanworth which has many delights of its own: castle, friary, church, mill, ancient bridge.

I was pleased to see St Dominic’s Well has had a bit of a tidy up too and is being monitored by the National Monuments Service.

St Dominic’s Well, Glanworth

Many thanks to Tom and Hazel for their help in locating St Gregory’s Well and the mother and son at St Catherine’s Well.
The location of these wells can  be found in the Gazetteer.

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