Most holy wells remaining on the list for discovery now look to be in obscure situations and today’s well was no exception. A perusal of the map showed it to be on the edge of forestry with nothing close to it, just a few ancient tracks wending through the woods. We set off and stopped at a cluster of buildings near where the most promising route began. Eileen answered the door and was most welcoming. She told us her husband was the one to ask as he had lived here all his life. She took us over to the family business next door. The family business is Leahy’s Open Farm and what followed next was such a privilege. The farm was closed for the day and although he was busy, Eddie sat down with us and told us all he knew about the well, including many first hand experiences. He then gave us a personal tour of the incredible farm: designed with families and children in mind it covers a large site, has many animals and masses of interesting activities from the cuddly meeting the animals to the more invigorating learning to drive go-carts and work mini diggers. What I really loved was being shown around the family’s original homestead – a small cottage where Eddie was born and raised, and where he had spent many years of his married life. This has been furnished in traditional style, the only original piece of furniture being the crib, and although to modern eyes amenities were basic (no running water or electricity) it oozed comfort and charm
Almost reluctantly we left his company and proceeded into the woodland in search of the well. The forestry is managed and worked and has a wide straight track running up through it. It is lovely walk in itself as you wander among tall mossy conifers, at one point passing a lake. At the Y junction, signs appear directing you to the well.
Almost without realising, the track had been climbing higher and higher as we ascended Knockakeo – hill of the fog. Incidentally, this was one of the places originally considered for Cork airport, abandoned after it was considered to be too foggy. A certain irony in that if you have ever used Cork airport! Emerging from the forestry a huge vista opened up, the Galtee Mountains in the distance.
Finally there was the well, usually referred to as just Tobairin, the little well, but on the old OS map it’s called Tobereenkilgrania – the little well of the church of grace. It is a delight: clochán-shaped minus a corbelled roof, a hefty lintel and two smaller stones forming a tight triangular entrance. The stones that are visible have been whitewashed but the rest is covered in moss and grass giving it a very pleasing appearance.
A slender wooden cross placed over the top is adorned with rosaries. A row of little white cups are lined up on the lintel and the water inside is fresh, clear and abundant. The water is of course never meant to go dry and always remain cold. Today, oddly, it felt almost warm. The water holds a cure and Eddie knew of an example of its potency. A friend of his father had been walking the land and came across the well. The water was green and scummy and he, inspite of suffering from a bad back, jumped over the wall; an impressive feat in itself. He cleared out the weed with his hands, then carried on his way. The next day he realised that his backache had gone and traced it back to the water at the well. What was most remarkable was that the man was not a believer but he changed his mind after that.
There is a small overflow area just in front of the well, where afflicted limbs would be washed. There is also a bullaun stone tucked in front of the well and Eddie explained that this is where pilgrims once washed their feet and hands.
The well is dedicated to Our Lady but Eddie had a story connecting it with St Colmcille. Apparently the saint landed on a tree and bent it and then caused the well to spring up where he set down his feet. Was he flying? The tree remained bent for the rest of its life – was this the beetley tree visible behind the well?
The well is obviously still revered, and mass cards, statues and rosaries are tucked into the grass and between the stones. Eddie said it was traditional to leave coins and we all did, Robert throwing is over his left shoulder as is customary! A small cross is etched into a red sandstone stone on top of the well and a tiny statue of the BVM watches over the site from a mossy post.
There is a slightly sinister tale in the Schools’ Folklore Collection concerning this well:
In this district there is a holy well known as the Tobairin. It is perched high on the side of the Cnoc an Ceiog and there is an unwritten law that no one should cut the furze or leaf on this hillside immediately surrounding it. There is the tale of a man who, after cutting the furze just behind the well, returned home and on retiring to bed found he had lost the use of his limbs, and never rose again. This well is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and on the Feast of the Assumption many people come to pray at it, and in the evening they recite the Rosary aloud. Some people pay several visit to the well during the month of August and it is believed that great benefit is achieved from drinking the water. (138/39:0380)
The undergrowth looked suitably rampant on our visit. The traditional pattern day is the 15th August, the Feast of the Assumption, when crowds once come from far and wide. After the solemnity of the rounds and prayers, a more partying atmosphere broke out with games and dancing. Prayers are still held here on the 15th August, and I assume the well is also visited on St Colmcille’s Feast Day, June 9th.
A morning well spent!