North Cork is rich in holy wells and although we have made several fruitful exploratory visits already, there are still plenty of interesting sites to visit. We travelled with our friends Robert and Finola of Roaringwater Journal fame and treated ourselves to two nights in a large and spacious Airbnb just outside Banteer.
St Ita’s Well, Tobar Slánan, Millstreet
Our first stop was south of Millstreet in Kilmeedy East. We parked near Kilmeedy Castle, the substantial ruins of a tower house built by the McCarthy’s in 1435 now used as a rather grand tractor store and space to dry washing. We inquired at the house for directions to St Ita’s Well, more commonly known as Slánan Well, and were directed back to the main road, lorries thundering past at quite a speed. We walked through green and boggy pastures following the GPS towards a wooded copse. This was in fact a graveyard, the old stone walls heavy with moss, the jumble of graves densely packed, their uninscribed markers like scattered green teeth. In one corner a huge railed tomb was slowly crumbling amongst the ivy, the final resting place of Henry Leader, who died aged 62, on November 9th 1809, and his two children. More of the Leader family shortly.
It seems likely that this was once the site of a church dedicated to St Ita, also known as St Ide.The townland still bears reference to her name: Kilmeedy kill m’Ide Church of My Ide. Look carefully and near the Leader tomb are the low remains of a wall, possible foundations of the original church dedicated to the saint (CO048-018004). She was born in County Waterford in 480 AD and excelled in the Six Gifts of Irish womanhood : wisdom, purity, beauty, music, sweet speech, and embroidery. Her very name means thirst for holiness. She founded a community of nuns in Killeedy, Waterford, and died there around 570 AD. She was renown for her sanctity and spirituality and may have had the gift of prophecy and is commonly known as the Bridget of Munster and the Godmother of Saints. There are a number of churches dedicated to her in Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Kerry and her feast day is January 15th. This beautiful stained glass panel depicting the saint by is by Harry Clarke and can be seen in the Honan Chapel, Cork. More about Clarke’s extraordinary work can be found here.
The holy well is also dedicated to St Ita and lies just outside the graveyard in an exceptionally boggy area, slowly being engulfed with water and brambles, an enormous tree marking its presence.
The wellhouse is large, curved and stone built, now green, soft and springy to the touch. A cement cross, still bearing traces of blue paint, is fixed on top.
Several offerings affirm that the site is still revered: various statues of the BVM, a plate depicting a pope (Paul VI according to Finola) and some rosaries.
The water within was abundant and clear, flowing out from the well down into the pasture.
The well is also known as the Slánan Well, meaning the health-giving well and was famous for the quality of its water and the cures it held.
Once somewhat prolonged and efficacious rounds were required at this potent site as described by a local farmer in the 1930s:
The Slánan is situated in the most eastern part of the townland of Kilmeedy about 1½ miles from Millstreet. It consists of a Holy Well dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and St.Ita and a burial ground where many of those who died in the neighbourhood during the famine years were buried. There being only one coffin to be had, this was used to take the bodies to the graveside and was then taken back for the next corpse. For many years this burial ground had been used only for unbaptised children.
To the south-west of the well is the tomb of the Leader who owned the demesne close by.
A very efficacious “Round” is performed at this blessed well and it is the custom in the neighbourhood to perform it for any bodily ailment, and practically everyone in the locality can testify to some personal cure, and cures have repeatedly taken place on promising to do this round. Kneeling at entrance to the well beside the white-thorn tree which grows on its western brink the round is started. First an offering is made of the Round in honour of Our Lady, and the saint of the well for the desired cure or in thanksgiving for cure already effected on promise of this round. Still kneeling the person recites seven Paters, Aves and Glorias and then starts the Rosary. Rising to his feet on commencing the first decade he walks very slowly round the well by the left where there is a well defined path until he returns to the spot from whence he started. Having now recited a decade or more of the Rosary he kneels and says again the seven Paters, Aves and Glorias. He then rises follows the same path as before and continuing the Rosary. Returning to the entrance to the well he again kneels on the spot as before and recites a third time the seven paters, Aves and Glorias. On rising he continues the Rosary following the same path as before and on coming to the place from whence he started he finishes the Rosary. He then takes some water from the well and bathes his hands and also any affected part of the body. He next gets more water from the well and takes three drinks in honour of the Blessed Trinity. The days for the round are Thursday, Friday and Saturday of any week in the year but it must be done on the three consecutive days and it is necessary to hear mass on the Sunday following in order to complete the Round.
Many articles of devotion are left at the well. It being a custom by everyone making the round to leave something on the final day. Over the well is a Crucifix and printed on it are the words ‘Lord hear my prayer and let my cry come unto Thee’.
What is known as the ‘Long Round’ is made in the same manner on twenty one consecutive days, starting on a Thursday. The ‘Short Round’ is then added on the last three days of the week making twenty four Rounds in all.
The owner of the farm (Mr Meaney) in which the well is situated built a room of his dwelling house on the passage leading to the well and the roof was blown off every time it was put on. Noises were heard in the room and it became uninhabited. Cattle were then put in there but they all died. The roofless part of the house is still to be seen. The present occupier (a son of the former owner) would not use as firewood any fallen branches from around the well. (Schools’ Folklore Collection: 095-098:0323)
Today it seems there are few visitors paying rounds, long or short, and we saw no evidence of the roofless cabin. However, the local football team is still called the Slánan Rovers!
There is meant to be a bullaun stone (CO048-018004) in the vicinity too but search as we did we could not find it. A rather magical spot, serene and hidden, despite being so close to the main road.
We repaired to Millstreet for lunch in the Wallis Arms and were given instructions how to get to the ruins of Mount Leader House, the home of the occupier of the impressive tomb in the graveyard. Actually this house dates from 1833, replacing an earlier building, the remains still palatial with a huge porticoed entrance and fine period features. The house is perched up high with commanding views and once had ornamental gardens, the lake and some massive trees still extant. Behind the ruins a jumble of stablings, coach houses, walled gardens, kennels and corn drying areas gave glimpses into its opulent past.
St Finnian’s Well, Flugh Feigh Well, Nohaval Upper
It was starting to get dark by the time we ventured out of Millstreet towards the Kerry border and Nohaval Upper, in search of St Finnian’s Well. Small roads, the imposing Paps to our left and then a long boreen ending up in a farmyard. What a wonderful encounter. After a moments surprise, Jim donned his wellies and offered to take us to the well. His young grandson Hugh accompanied us, both apologising for the bogginess of the terrain – there had indeed been a lot of rain. We paused at the top of a very green field and Jim pointed out where the grass was a slightly different colour, the possible site of a church ( CO029-033002) and a burial ground, the field being known as Pairc an tSeipeil, or Chapel Field. Jim said there was also evidence of a fulachta fiadh. It seems likely that the well is actually in the fulachta fiadh for it was called Flugh Feigh Well on the 1842 OS map, just the way Jim pronounced fulachta fiadh. It was still being referred to as the Folach Fiadha in the 1930s and recognised as being both a fulachta fiadh and a holy well:
Mrs Bohan’s son Patrick (PO) a noted man and a fellow who is often called on to dig graves told me in connection with the Folach Fiadha (the Holy Well) that when Hugh Twomey came to Nohoval (1899) he (Patrick) worked for him and one day and for days they took stones out of Páirc a’ tSeípéil They were fine well-dressed stones and they were used to make a piggery at Twomeys. They dug up what looked like ashes there too and someone must have been living there. (Schools’ Folklore Collection: 508: 0358)
The evidence of burnt material is promising. Fulacht fia are a common archaeological features, characterised by the presence of heat shattered stones. Also known as burnt mounds, they were probably open-air cooking places in which a stone trough was filled with water and heated by the immersion of hot stones, which had been heated by on a nearby fire. Once the water was heated the stones were cast aside giving rise to the usually characteristic crescent shaped monument. Sometimes, as here, they have been ploughed out and just the scattering of burnt materials remain – and the essential water source.
Another rather odd extract from the School’s Folklore Collection confirms that this well was associated with a fulachta fiadh:
Folach Fiadh is a bank of burned stones. Long ago the Danes used to cook their meals there. There is always a well near it. There is one of those wells in Jerry Buckley’s land in Doon. Some time long ago the water was scarce and big people bought it. A man near Mallow went to this well to buy the water. Two women lived near him and one of them dreamt that she would get water better a mile from the well near the Folach Fiadh. One day the woman got sick and she asked the man for a drop of water and he would not give it to her and she said that he would not get any more water at that well. A taste came in the water and he got no more water there. When he went away the water was all right. (139/140:0358)
Fulachta fia are most commonly dateable to the Bronze Age, way before those hungry Danes.
The well lies in Pairc an tSeipeil and is flush with the ground, with an overflow seeping off into the pasture.
The well is almost coffin -shaped, stone built and reinforced with concrete slabs, some acting as seats or kneeling places.
A stone slab forming part of the wall, has five crosses inscribed upon it, one large central cross and four smaller ones at each corner. Hugh showed us where the little stone was kept that was used to do the inscribing and Finola made her mark.
Another stone protruding from the wall almost looked as though it had been worked, a fragment perhaps from the old church. The well is beautifully kept, fenced off from the cattle and regularly cleared of weeds and algae.
The water is fresh, abundant and sparkling, you could see it bubbling up from underground. It was said to be exceptionally good – Jim’s mother in law used to come down daily to collect two bucketfuls and take them back across the field. The water contained a cure for sore eyes but was considered good for all ailments. Another very short reference to the well reveals its potency:
Other Piseóga :- Bringing can of water first from the well on the morning of the churning. (507:0358)
Piseógs were superstitions that attended every aspect of human behaviour and were generally feared, strong precautions having to be taken against them. They could be seen as the evil eye or magic, and could be of varying levels of nastiness from a bit of neighbourly spitefulness to some serious cursing and ill will. In this case some water from the well was taken to ward off any evil intentions when the all important churning took place. Farm Ireland has an interesting article on piseógs and Eddie Lenihan, the well known folklorist and storyteller explains about piseógs and churning:
Piseógs were often associated with certain families and certain parishes, with the piseóg being passed from mother to daughter. The female connection was due to women being in charge of butter making and butter was a source of wealth in the old days. If the butter failed, you couldn’t pay rent so were out on the road… (3rd May, 2011)
A trout was also said to live within the well but Jim hadn’t seen him yet.
Once the well received many visitors, the pattern day being centred around St Finnian’s Feast Day, 13th December. (The well seems to have been called St Finnian’s by the 1913 OS map, and is referred to as such today). Traditionally the rounds were paid over three consecutive days: 11th – 13th December. The first two days were focused on the site of an ancient ecclesiastical enclosure at Nohaval Lower where there are the remains of a church, graveyard and site of a round tower (CO038-001002) . On the third day, St Finnian’s Feast Day, the pilgrims walked the mile across the fields to end at the well. Jim could remember many offerings being left here: medals, money and rosaries. He laughed as he recalled how, when his son when very young he helped himself to some of the money!
One last story, and another odd one:
There was another well in Mikie Sweeney’s land of Doon. All the neighbours used to get water there. One day two men who were not agreeing went to and met at the well and one of them killed the other and the well closed in. A few months ago Mikie Sweeney and his son aged about 5 years went into the field where the well was. There is a green patch where the well was. The son said ‘O Daddy there was a well here’. ( 139/140:0358)
Today the well receives few pilgrims but it is beautifully kept by Jim and his family, and Jim himself has never missed a visit down to the well on St Finnian’s Day.