Close Encounters of the Bovine Kind

Blessed Well, Tobairin Beannaithe, Cashelfean

I have been trying to find this well for ages. It is not marked on the current OS Landranger map but I was intrigued by three detailed entries in the Schools’ Folklore Collection. The first two are  especially interesting as they reference how the cure was said to work for both Catholics and Protestants. Usually a Protestant visiting a holy well causes much umbrage and mayhem – the well will go dry or move, or the Protestant will have an unfortunate accident! The outcome wasn’t entirely happy in this case either:

Holy wells were often visited by old people for the purpose of their cures. I heard the following story from an old man. Once, a woman named Mrs R… who dwelt in Lisacaha, had a daughter who was almost blind. One day she brought her to the holy well in Cashelane. It was customary for people visiting the well to leave Rosary beads, medals or some holy thing at the well. As the woman was a Protestant, she had none of these, so she left some money at the well. On the following day another little girl was walking near the well and seeing the money thought somebody had lost it, and, being unable to find an owner, she kept it. Next morning when she awoke she was almost blind and when the R…  girl awoke she was completely restored. (169/170;0289)

The well seems a little more forgiving in this extract:

The holy well is known locally as Cashelane Holy Well but the old people tend to call it Tobairin Beannaithe. It is situated against a little knob, near an old pathway leading through Cashelane to Rathura in a field owned by J… L.., Cashelane, which is about one mile from my house. No trees grown near it but at each side of it there is a bunch of briars. There are no stones there except for the little rock from where the water sprang. Rounds were made there on Friday, Saturday and early Sunday morning for the purpose of cures, but they were also made on Wednesdays. Good Friday was a special day for making the rounds.The well was visited for the purpose of curing ailments especially sore eyes. It was noted for the marvellous way in which sight was restored for both Catholics and Protestants. Rounds were also made in fulfillment of vows. If a person needed a favour and he could not visit the well at the time, he promised to visit the well if the favour was granted. He then fulfilled his promise whenever possible. No special prayers were to be said but any prayers wished by the person making the rounds, such as a Decade of the Rosary or Our Fathers, Hail Marys and Glories. For the curing of sore eyes the water of the well was considered efficacious.The water was applied to the affected part, the eyes being washed with the water. It was not drunk or carried away. People also blessed themselves with it. There were no distinctions in the offerings made by men and women. The offerings were placed on the earth near the edge of the well. Pieces of ribbons and cloths were also placed hanging on the briars. The well is now nearly covered with earth and grass and rounds are not made but very seldom there. (212/213: 0289)

The final entry shows how popular and revered the well still was in the 1930s:

….. There is a holy well in Rathora … The name of the well is Blessed Well because it is believed the well is blessed by God. Nearly every day of the week people visit the well, especially people who are suffering from any sickness. These people pray here and they walk around the well a certain number of times. They also believe they would not be cured except they leave something behind near the well. Rich people leave pence, rings, brooches and other ornaments there, and poor people leave hair-pins, rags etc. There is a pile of these relics there now on account of the number of people that go there. The water of this well has never been used for house-hold purposes. Some people drink the water in order to get rid of the disease … (0291:442.443) 

I visited the site a while ago and was frustrated to find nothing especially well-like and was determined to re-visit with more vigour. The approach is over a gate and down a very long grassy track, forestry on one side and rough pasture on the other. On the first visit I had been disconcerted to find a dead sheep in the ditch, and then, a bit later on, wondering whether the old farm house at the end of the track was inhabited or not, had gone round to the front only to be confronted by an extremely large bull and his harem lazing in the sunshine. I beat a slow and dignified retreat.

Old farmstead at the end of the track

This time I decided to see if I could find the old pathway mentioned in the above excerpts and drove to Rathura (now known as Ratooragh) and asked at a farm. The farmer and I peered at the GPS, he unable to make head nor tail of it until he fetched his glasses and then exclaimed that he thought he could remember a well. He suggested I returned to the original track and veered to the left away from the farmstead. This I did.

Entrance to the long track

The track felt equally long and exposed the second time of tackling it. I could see cattle further away in the pasture. They all stood up and regarded me and there was a lot of mooing and bellowing but that was that. I was armed with a walking pole just in case. I couldn’t help but think of the awful and recent case of the poor British woman who had ventured to some obscure archaeological site in Greece and had been eaten by wolves.

The watcher

The terrain  was incredibly muddy, great pools of bogginess  complete with large cowpats. Everywhere the sound of running water with a myriad of little streams. The GPS led me to an extra muddy area, much turned over by the cattle, they seemingly having skidded up and down the cliff edge with relish.

The Blessed Well?

Water did appear to be bubbling up from underground and the whole area was saturated. Was this all that remained of the Blessed Well? There did seem to be slabs amongst the mud and watercress, as described by the Archaeological Inventory but no sign of any recent visitors apart from the cattle:

….. In rough grazing land, at the foot of an outcropping rock. The holy well is roughly triangular in shape (L 0.7m at N; 0.6m at W and 0.9m at SW) and is defined by the vertical face of the outcropping rock at SW and elsewhere by stone slabs. The well is 0.4m deep and about half full of water. According to local information, it is still in occasional use.

I was interested to see that the rocky outcrop nearby was labelled on the Historic 6 inch map (1829-41) as Foilaphuca, Cliff of the Púca. A púca is a particularly Irish fairy/goblin/spirit, a rather sinister shapeshifter whose appearance can change depending on its mood and the landscape. One to be treated with utmost respect and easy to imagine that it was still lurking, keeping the secrets of the holy well to itself! Time to return to the car.

Foilnapuca: Cliff of the Fairies

A magnificent view on the walk back: rough pasture, little streams, rugged hills, and a huge view out towards Dunmanus Bay, glimmering with silver tones.

Looking out towards Dunmanus Bay

This whole area has a strange and empty feel as though steeped in the past, awash with scenic ruins: the old Kilthomane National School built in 1909 and now an eyeless shell; a ruin in the opposite field, possibly the old school house; up on the hill the circular gorse entangled remains of Ratooragh ringfort (CO139-023) and a mile away the picturesque and ancient ruins of the old church (CO139-020003) and graveyard, known as Cill Cheangil. There is also a Mass rock and bullaun stone lurking under all the undergrowth as yet unfound.

On my way home the cattle encountering continued, not once….

… but twice.

The location of this well can be found in the Gazetteer.

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