Inse an tSagairt

The sun was shining and we nipped across the border into Kerry. It would have been rude not to explore whilst there, so a guest well today. I left Himself at Molly Gallivan’s and he disappeared off into the mountains for a long hike.

At Molly Gallivan’s

I headed for Innisfoyle and what sounded like an interesting Mass Rock (KE110-004) and bullaun cum holy well.

Rolling Kerry landscape

A turning left after Bonane on the road to Kenmare and the countryside gets wilder, the roads smaller and all habitation ceases. I was travelling hopefully but wondering quite how I would know when I had arrived, when a helpful sign was spotted in a layby.

I disembarked. A strange landscape, once forestry, fairly recently harvested (2008) and replanted, the sapling firs just poking above the grasses and heather, with the brooding presence of the cliffs beyond.

Innisfoyle Cliffs

A clear path led off through the valley towards the cliffs in the distance and how impressive they were, rising tall out of the scrub. The sun was just above them but as I got closer it seemed to set below the cliffs and the air temperature suddenly became much colder, the day darkened. Apparently this area only gets sunlight for six months of the year, from the Spring to Autumn Equinoxes. The cliffs were formed over 10,000 years ago during the Ice Age and the whole area is still littered with enormous boulders, some as big as houses, abandoned as the glaciers retreated.

A white pole alerted to the stepping stones across the river, traditionally the route across the river for mass goers. A new metal bridge has since been built further up, less scenic but more convenient. An odd landscape now, many stumps of trees and the terrain rugged, with steps carved out of the rock as you ascend.


The Mass Rock itself is an enormous, craggy  boulder, the huge cliffs behind providing an impressive and significant backdrop.

Inissfoyle Mass Rock

A smaller stone to the right once acted an an altar and everywhere you look there are cross inscribed boulders.

To the left another larger rock contains a bullaun, a man made basin carved out of the rock. The boulder is covered with more crosses, the little stones used to do the inscribing still in place. The bullaun is considered to be a holy well and is said to never run dry and to contain numerous miraculous cures. The water was very clear, abundant and extremely cold.

Bullaun stone, the water containing miraculous cures

Behind the rock containing the bullan is a large cleft in the cliff. It has been suggested that the site was once used as a place of sun worship:

It has been observed that the sun shines on this area for just 6 months of the year – from the spring to autumn equinoxes. The first rays of sunlight appear through the opening on the spring equinox.The opening also marks the exact position of the sun at midday when observed from the bullaun stone.( A Guide to Sheen Valley Heritage Area)

Bullaun with cleft in the rock above it

The area is known as Inse an tSagairt, field or island of the priest, and there is a rather grim story connected with the site. The Mass Rock was used during Penal Times when Catholics were prohibited from worship. Mass was frequently held illegally in remote, hidden places such as this, the priest putting his life at risk to conduct the service. The story goes that Father John O Neill was conducting Mass here in 1828 when he was discovered and brutally killed and beheaded. A priest’s head was worth £ 45 in bounty and it was taken back to Cork. With a horrible irony the perpetrator discovered that Catholics had just been granted emancipation and no reward was forthcoming.

A small plaque recalls Father O Neill’s brutal murder.

The Schools’ Folklore Collection includes a fascinating if horrifying entry. Does this refer to another priest for this one seems to have escaped? I am giving it in the original Gaelige with an English translation:

Sgéal eile mar gheall ar Inse an tSagairt

Tá an pháirc sin cois na habhann thiar in Inis Phoill i mBunán. Is ann do marbhuigheadh sagart fadó agus tar éis bháis an tsagairt bhí na Sasanaigh i bpunnc féachaint cad é an saghas bháis mhíthrócairigh a bheadh tuillte ag an gcléireach.

I ndeire[adh] na scríbe do labhair duine agus dubhairt sé é do lámhach, dubhairt duine eile é do dhíth-cheannadh agus duine eile é do loisceadh (=loscadh) ina bheathaidh. Acht pé scéal é d’aontuigheadar ar é do bháthadh. Thugadar leo go Teampall nuadh lámh le Neidín é agus dhá mhaistín de mhadraibh fola ar a thóir

Chuadar isteach agus bhí an cléireach ag snámh ar a dhícheall agus aghaigh ar an dtaoibh eile, nuair a tháini’g na madraí suas leis. Níor dhean an fear ach greim daingean do thóg[aint] ar mhuineál gach madra agus do leanadar ag snámh gur shroiseadar Cill Átha ar an dtaobh eile. Nuair a bhuail cosa an chléirigh an ghainimh do sháidh sé na madraí fánuisce chun go rabhadar marbh agus as go bráth leis féin. (310:0461)

Paul kindly translated the passage for me:

Another story regarding Priest’s Island [or it could also be an area mostly bounded by water, like a field with a river running around three sides] 
That field is beside the river west [back] in Inis Poill in Bunán. A priest was killed there long ago and after the priest’s death, the English were in a fix as to the most merciless way to kill the cleric. Finally, one person spoke and said he should be shot, another said he should be decapitated and someone else he should be burnt alive. Anyway, they agreed he should be drowned. They took him with them to the new Church near Neidín (Kenmare, lit. the little nest) with two mastiff bloodhounds in pursuit of him.They went in and the cleric was swimming as best he could to the other side when the dogs caught up with him. The man just grabbed each dog tightly by the throat and kept swimming until they reached Cill Átha (the church of the ford) on the other side. When the cleric’s feet touched the sand he held the dogs under the water until they were dead and then, away he went.

There is a wild and empty air here now. No sign of habitation apart from few ruins scattered far off on the hillside, human presence feeling very inconsequential amongst the impressive geology.

The Sheen Valley abounds in interesting things and has been occupied by humans for thousands of years with many significant prehistoric monuments still in evidence. The nearby  Bonane Heritage Park is well worth a visit, as is St Feaghna’s church and the Rolls of Butter (now only accessible as part of an organised group).  And there is also a real French chocolatier in the vicinity!

The location of this well can be found in the Gazetteer.
Many thanks to Paul Ó Colmáin for the translation.

0 thoughts on “Inse an tSagairt

  1. Robert

    So many fascinating stories here, Amanda. It was so awful in Penal times that people were punished for their faith. I suppose that still goes on in our world today…

  2. Colin Svanberg

    I really liked your story about this holy well, which I came across after reading about you on Ali Issacs blog. You’ve got a very interesting hobby, even though your husband would prefer to walk in the other direction!


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