Heir island is a remarkable place, tiny at just 2.5km long and 1.5km at its widest, but it has rugged cliffs, sandy beaches, green boreens, and wild moorland. It is home to more than 200 different wildflowers and a haven for birds. 26 souls enjoy it year round but in the summer the numbers swell as the holiday homes fill up and the Sailing School, Island Cottage Restaurant , Firehouse Bakehouse & Bread School and galleries all thrive. There is also a holy well – Tobar a’Lúibín, Well of the Little Loop, sited close to a Mass Rock and a cillín, the object of my visit.
The route down to Cunnamore Pier is a wonderful start to the adventure for as soon as you leave the N71, the roads become small, fuchsia-hedged with wonderful glimpses out to Roaringwater Bay and Kilcoe Castle ,glowing ochre amongst the grey. The road snakes past Whitehall and Rincolisky castle (CO149-007), as the road getting even smaller, edges the sea.
The ferry crossing is a mere five minutes as the handsome skipper sails out in his teeny boat, maximum 12 passengers.
What a crossing though. Heir, also known as Inis Uí Dhrisceol, after the powerful O Driscoll family who dominated this area for centuries, is one of Carbery’s Hundred Isles and quite a few of them can be spotted on the journey across including East Skeam with its picturesque fringe of trees and sturdy ruin.
The Mass Rock
Interest was aroused on the ferry which I happened to be sharing with the island postman. He offered to take me on his rounds to meet someone who might know where the Mass Rock was and maybe glean some information about the holy well, which seemed rather elusive and unknown. Off we went in an island car, stopping off at several homes to inquire about the rock. We found the landowner in his tractor and he too kindly offered to take me to the Mass Rock. We walked through his fields, he unfazed by the appearance of a colossal bull (new to the island apparently and a fine Limousin). The Mass Rock (CO149-037) is large and solid with magnificent views out to the bay below. I was shown where the congregation would have gathered below and where the rock had been purposefully cut to hold the chalice.
The well still proved elusive and I decided to follow my GPS. Bidding farewell to the farmer, I walked off towards Paris, the exotically named hamlet on the east side of the island. To get to Paris, (probably named from the Irish prais meaning broken into little pieces, or maybe referring to a fish ‘palace’) you have to go over a most remarkable and skinny humped back bridge, cars literally only just able to squeeze onto it.
Paris is a cluster of 17 houses, some ruined, some restored for holiday homes, and some lived in all year round. They all seem to fit perfectly into the landscape. Most of them date from the 1920s and are the result of a Government rehousing project specific to the island. The decrepit old houses were replaced with new ones, each with a uniform plan: single storeyed, a porch leading into kitchen/living room, two bedrooms on the ground floor and a loft above. New houses tend to be built in a similar style and look just right.
Well of the Women
I had been told there was another well by the bridge and to look out for a railway sleeper made into a seat. Here it was, to the right of the bridge, two natural indents in the rock full of clear fresh water. I hope I have remembered correctly that this is the well the farmer referred to as Tobar na mBan, Well of the Women, and this is where they used to come to wash clothes, collect water and have a natter. Not a holy well as such but interesting nonetheless.
Well of the Little Loop, Tobar Lúibín
Two chaps were out for a gentle walk and I asked them about the Tobar Lúibín. They were both born and bred on the island but had never heard of a holy well but once a bit more was described remembered where it might be and directed me up to another house. I followed their instructions and went up. There was no one at home but just behind the house was a boreen which looked very promising. The boreen led down to the sea and Trá Bhán, White Strand, and got wetter and wetter as I went down, always a good sign. The Archaeological Inventory has this description about the well:
In rough gorse and heather-covered grazing land, on a SW-facing slope overlooking a beach known locally as ‘Trá Bhán’, on the S side of Hare Island. A spring well called ‘Tobar a’ Luibín’ emerges from the base of a SW-facing field boundary and flows into a naturally occurring hollow (0.6m NE-SW; 0.5m NW-SE; D 0.4m) from which it flows in a SW direction towards the seashore.
A bit of exploring and the well was located, actually a spring, the water gushing forth from the bank, falling over a stony slab and collecting in a small natural basin.
The water then overflowed and trickled down the boreen towards the strand.
Not much seems to be known about the well, the only information I can find being in the Schools’ Folklore Collection which offers a little more insight into cures and well etiquette:
This well is situated on the south side of the hill which is called “Cnoc-a-trágha-báin” – and overlooking the strand known as the “Tráigh bán (?)”
I remember when I was a young man, people suffering from sore eyes used to visit this well.
There was no fixed day for those visits. They used to go there three mornings – early- in succession, and on each visit they used to recite a decade of the Rosary, and then bathe the eyes with the water from well. People suffering from pains and other sickness used also visit the well. The custom no longer prevails on Island.( 007:0296)
What a wonderful position with the sea in the strand below a luminous grey, and two choughs chattering and wheeling over head, such tranquility.
I wandered back past the cillín (CO149-036), the little grave markers clustered in the field. There has never been a church on the island, giving more significance to the well and the Mass Rock. I passed the old school, closed in the 1970s and returned to the pier.
The peace and calm and gentleness of this very special place was almost soporific yet restorative. I will return.
And a quick stop on my way home to investigate an interesting looking well in the roadside – not holy but rather finely made and probably to do with Whitehall mentioned at the beginning of the blog.