Author Archives: freespiral2016

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.

Thwarted

Thwarted at every turn today by cattle, streams, briars and tiny winding roads with five rather obscure wells on the agenda, roughly between Macroom and Carrigadrohid. No great successes well-wise, but I did encounter a few things of interests and the day was beautiful.

Well of the White Fort, Tobar an Ratha Bhain

Toberbaun or Tober na Raithe Ban means White Well or Well of the White Fort. This sounded an enticing well from the Archaeological Inventory but I knew there wasn’t  likely to be much left, the well itself having been inundated when the Lee Hydro-Electric Project was built between 1952-1957:

Known locally as ‘Tobar an Ratha Bhain’ (Hartnett 1947, 17). Identified as wheel-house of horizontal wheeled mill (9309) and excavated by Fahy (1956a,13-57), prior to flooding by Lee Valley Hydro-electric Scheme. He described well as having been ‘three-walled, drystone structure (H 5ft; 2ft x 7ft) open to W but enclosed in a mound on the other three sides’; religious objects and personal mementoes were affixed to ash tree on W side; cups and containers in front. Believed to have cured infirm children; visited Easter Sunday, Palm Sunday and Whit Sunday. White pebbles found around well during excavation were identified by workmen as ‘Hail Mary stones’ (ibid.) deposited by pilgrims. Stone wheel-house survives.

In his book The holy Wells of Ireland (1980), Patrick Logan has a little more information about the well and quotes an Ordnance Survey Book of the 1840s describing how the water could speedily kill or cure infirm children. It seems that a sick child had to be taken before the rising of the sun and plunged into the water; if the child turned red she would live, but if she went pale she would die. The well was also considered especially efficacious for the treatment of rheumatism and once crutches were left here as evidence. This is confirmed by an entry from the Schools’ Folklore Collection from the 1930s:

Tobar Rómánac (?) (pronounced Tobar na Bán) situated in the lands of James Kelleher of Mashanaglass. Situated at the foot of a large tree in the centre of a marshy field, the well is uncovered but surrounded with large flat stones. There is no special time for paying rounds to this well, nor are there any particular prayers to be said, but one must leave something when leaving. Hence it is that there is quite a collection of various objects about the well – cups, basins, medals, scapulars, buttons etc. It is claimed that many cures have been made by visiting Tobar Rómsnac and making the rounds. Michael L (?) who still lives in Mashanaglass is one of these. He suffered so much from rheumatism that he could barley stagger about with the aid of two crutches. He paid the rounds to the well every morning while fasting, for nine mornings. On the ninth morning, having finished the prayers, he discovered he could rise from his knees without the help of his crutches. He discarded the crutches and has never used them since.

The story is also told that long ago, parents brought their infants and immersed them in the waters of the well. When the infant was brought out the parents knew it was healthy if it were red in colour, but should it be pale or white they knew it was delicate. (352/353:0342)

I hoped that maybe there was something remaining. Once off the R618 and on to the little peninsula, the roads down towards the townland of Mashanaglass become exceptionally small. I went as far as I could in the car, then set off across the fields. There were cattle in one field but an attempted detour resulted in me slipping and actually sitting down in a stream, everything drenched and not an auspicious start to the day. The next field was full of even larger ginger bullocks and I could see no sign of any wheel house, just field. I returned to the car to attempt to dry off.

I did stop briefly to admire the gaunt remains of Mashanaglass castle (CO071-096002), built in 1585 by the MacSweenys, the SE corner apparently blown up by vandals in 1864! Now a handy log store.

Mashanglass Castle

Well of the Church, Toberatemple

The second well on the list also sounded fascinating and was in the nearby townland of Caum:

Spring well which, according to Hartnett (1939, 95), is associated with grave of Fr John O’Callaghan in graveyard (CO071-102001-) to S. Water from well was mixed with earth from grave and mixture either swallowed (for internal ailments) or applied externally to the sufferer. Cross incised on tombstone by those who performed rounds; three successive visits (Sunday, Friday and Sunday) were paid. (Archaeological Inventory).

The church, once the parish church for Aghinagh, was most attractive – ruined but well kept and the graveyard still used. The church was unroofed in 1656 but later repaired and used for Protestant worship,  eventually being dismantled in 1889.

The well appeared to be in rolling green pasture behind the enclosed graveyard but I could find no evidence of it. I suspect it was in the dense overgrowth near the wall attached to the graveyard.

Well may have been in undergrowth to far right

There was nothing in the pasture itself except for an enormous memorial to the wonderfully named and quite astonishing Sir Adrian Cartan de Wiart who died in 1963.

Memorial to Sir Adrian Cartan de Wiart

Frustratingly I could find no sign of Father O Callaghan’s grave either. There is a very interesting entry in the School’s Folklore Collection which describes in detail just how the complicated rounds were paid:

Rounds are paid at this grave. They may be paid on any Friday of the year, but the most important days are Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The rounds are paid in the following manner. When a person suffers from a disease or injury of any kind he must first of all enter the graveyard, climb over the wall to an adjoining field and get some water in a well known as the Church Well. Returning to the graveyard he takes a pinch of earth from Father O Callaghan’s grave and puts it into the water. Then he rubs the water to the affected part. This is the first part of the round and perhaps the following sketch will help to make what follows more clear.  The person stands by the tree at the foot of Father O Callaghan’s grave and walks to an unmarked grave immediately to the left and then to an unmarked grave on the right and so back to the tree. Up to this no prayer has been said.  Then he kneels at the foot of Father O Callaghan’s grave and says Five our Fathers, Five Hail Marys  and Five Glorias for Father O Callaghan’s soul…

The entry then explains (at some length) that the same process must be repeated for the pilgrim’s mother, his father, for Father O Callaghan’s father, and for Father O Callaghan’s mother. The process is then repeated saying only one of each prayer. Finally:

… The person next goes to any other grave in the church yard and say a whole Rosary (on the beads) for all the dead who are buried in the graveyard. Next he proceeds to a flat whitish stone a short distance nearer to the gate than father O Callaghan’s grave. On this stone there is another about the size of an egg. The person takes this small stone and makes the sign of the cross five times with it on the other, meanwhile repeating the Glory Be to the Father. Next he comes to where a Father O Leary is buried. This grave is easily identified, standing just inside the outer gate of the graveyard and being enclosed in an iron railing. The round is completed at this grave by saying any prayer for the repose of Father O Leary’s soul. (345-356:0342)

You no longer need to climb over the wall for there is a small stile, but the well and graves remained elusive.

Well of the Story Teller, Tobernatanhee, Tobar a’tSeanchaidhe

Still damp, the next well also looked rather obscure but the name, Well of the Story Teller, Tobar a’tSeanchaidhe, sounded romantic. Optimism flagging somewhat, I headed off to the oddly named townland of Rosnascalp ( Ros na Scailp – shrubbery of the clefts or shelters). This well was said to be in a fulacht fiadh, an ancient possibly ritualistic cooking area. There was a long and extremely muddy boreen leading down towards the field in which it was once located. A cluster of trees, a possible horseshoe shape indicative of fulacht fiadh and some stones scattered here and there. I could hear water but I couldn’t get across the second fence and the stream, and reluctantly called it a day here too.

Possible site of the well

Heading off the peninsula my route took me via Carrigadrohid. The castle was looking magnificent in the late Autumn sunshine – built in the 15th century by the McCarthys. What an amazing position.

Carrigadrohid Castle

The rather imposing grotto at the end of the bridge was also worth a stop – a Fatima Grotto as opposed to the usual Lourdes grotto, distinguished by the three children and their sheep, erected in the Marian Year 1954.

Fatima Grotto, Carrigadrohid

Well of the Infant, Tober a Naoidheanain, Toberanoonan

A small, steep and very damp lane lead upwards to Cappanagraun. I parked where I could and followed the GPS. Finally a definite well, though much altered. A lot of drainage work had been going on here, an arch built over what looked like the original lintel of the well house, pipes coming out from all over the place, and the entrance to the well blocked with bags full of gravel. But in spite of all this the well was intact, stone-lined and full of fresh clear water, very hard to photograph due to the bright sunshine and shadows.

Well of the Infant, original lintel intact

Next to it lay a bullaun stone (CO071-73207) – possibly not in its original position as it looked like it has just been dumped next to the well. I think it was once slightly further away.

St Bartholomew’s Well, Tubar Parrinane, Bawnatemple

A possibly interesting though widely spread complex comprising a monastic site, a bullaun and a holy well was last site on the agenda.

I arrived at the monastic site first. It seems to be known as both Bawnatemple graveyard and Canovee graveyard and has two distinctive yew trees and some interesting gravemarkers. Across two fields was the earthfast bullaun stone – rather impressive in its solid isolation.

Bullaun stone, Canovee

I wonder if this was one of the stones mentioned in this odd story, found in the entry for Canovee graveyard on the Historic Graves website:

This story was included in a project entitled Bawnatemple Graveyard put together by four girls in Canovee N.S., Helen Dunne, Angie Moynihan, Shaunagh O’Sullivan and Shauna Lyons. The story was collected by American Folklore Society from two girls in Canovee in 1895. Historic Graves

There is a current tradition that the church of Cannavee and the graveyard about it many years ago were, during the night, removed by the saints to the present site from a place a short distance (perhaps a quarter of a mile) away. The story is that a man who had risen before dawn, to attend to some farm work, looking upward, saw the church, graves, tombstones, and so on passing over his head. But the gaze of one in sin caused such disturbance that two stones from the church dropped to the earth, and to this day lie in sight in the field where they fell. Some say that it was to place the graves near the road so that the occupants might have the prayers of the passers-by that the miracle was performed, for in its present situation the churchyard is only seperated from the road by a wall, but in its old site it was not bordered by any road. The field reputed to be the former place occupied by the graves is never tilled. It is said that slight elevations, and now and then a footstone, yet show where graves used to be.

The bullaun was once believed to hold a cure for toothache and could perhaps be considered a holy well in itself, though the water today was stagnant and scummy. There were great views down to the enclosed monastic site.

Canovee monastic site

The well lay in the other direction (maybe where the original monastic site was?) and I stopped at group of houses. I talked to two local men who knew nothing of the well but having looked at the GPS gave me hints as to how to approach it. Again, each time I got near the site I was frustrated by more huge ginger cattle or streams or briar enclosed fences. I’m afraid I didn’t find St Bartholomew’s Well and suspect it has since vanished. Once visited on the saint’s feast day, 24th August, it was said to hold a cure for ague.

By this time, I was in need of that cure myself.

The location of these wells can be found in the Gazetteer.
The Gazetteer can now be found on the main menu of the site which might make things easier. And there’s a new Feast Days page too.

Island Wells 5: Heir Island, Inis Uí Dhrisceoil

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 Loopsited 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.

Scenic lobster pots, Cunnamore Pier

The ferry crossing is a mere five minutes as the handsome skipper sails out in his teeny boat, maximum 12 passengers.

MV Thresher, the ferry for Heir Island

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.

East Skeam Island

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.

Paris

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.

The bridge to Paris

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.

Tobar a’ Lúibín, Well of the Little Loop

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.

The location of the well can be found in the Gazetteer.
Sincere thanks to the islanders who came to my assistance and were so generous with their time.

Ferry times to Heir Island

In search of Blessed Fish

Confined to barracks due to hurricanes and tidal surges, my thoughts turned to blessed fish. During the year and a half I have been exploring holy wells in County Cork, I have been fascinated by how many are said to contain a blessed fish – roughly one tenth. The fish are usually described as eels but could also be trout or salmon. What’s going on here?

The Salmon of Knowledge

It seems many cultures have venerated fish or chosen a fish as the symbol of a god or goddess, and by the 2nd century AD, a fish was being used in Christian iconography to symbolise Jesus Christ. In Irish culture, the veneration of fish must surely come from the ancient story of The Salmon of Knowledge  An Bradán Feasa, found in the Fenian Cycle of Irish Mythology, an Fhiannaíocht,  which largely focuses on the exploits of the renowned hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill,(usually anglicised to Finn McCool) including his boyhood adventures and how he gained the knowledge of the world.  Here’s a brief summary:

Nine hazel trees once surrounded the Well of Wisdom, Tobar Segais, and one day nine hazel nuts fell into the water.  A salmon ate the hazel nuts and by doing so gained all the knowledge of the world. It was said that whoever ate the salmon in turn would gain the knowledge. The druid Finegas (Finn Ecas)  heard the story and longed to gain all the wisdom for himself. He made his home along the banks of the River Boyne and spent years pursuing the salmon. He had a young apprentice, Fionn, who in exchange for tuition kept his house clean and did the chores. After seven years Finegas caught the salmon and ordered Fionn to cook it, warning him not to eat any. Fionn did as he was told but in cooking the fish accidentally burnt his thumb on the spit and sucked it to ease the pain. When the boy served up the fish, the old druid noticed something different about Fionn – an inner light seemed to be streaming from him. Anxiously he asked if Fionn had eaten any salmon. He said he had not but confessed to having burnt his thumb whilst cooking. Finegas realised that this was enough and that Fionn was the chosen one. He urged Fionn to eat all the fish. When he had finished he asked him if he felt any different. Fionn said he did not but then Finegas ordered him to suck his thumb for that was where he had first touched the salmon. Fionn did so and all the wisdom of the world rushed into him! Fionn of course went on to become  a poet, warrior and leader of the Fianna, the greatest band of warriors ever know in Ireland, and when he wanted to know something, he just sucked his thumb!

(A thought here on wisdom and eye wells, tobar na súl. A cure for sore eyes is the most popular cure contained by many wells – nearly a sixth of wells explored so far. I wonder if this search for improved sight could also encompass a search for wisdom and enlightenment, a reference to the well as a font of wisdom as well as the slightly more mundane search for a cure for sore eyes. Did some pilgrims visit eye wells for answers to questions and enlightenment? And if a fish resided within, was the well extra potent?)

Tobar na Súl, eye well, Lough Hyne, West Cork

Fish as supernatural beings

As mentioned the fish was chosen as a symbol of Jesus Christ and remains a sacred motif to this day. The symbol derives from the Greek word ichthys, meaning fish, which consists of five letters from the Greek alphabet: I-ch-th-y-s. These five letters are used as initials for: Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, translated as  Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour.

 

Other fishy signifiers in the Christian religion include the name for initiates in early baptism rites: pisciculi – little fish, with the font itself known as the piscina, or fishpond. Wells could perhaps be seen as real or symbolic fonts and those containing fish considered to have extra potency, the fish being revered as the guardian of the well, the supernatural being that gives the well its healing power and innate wisdom.

The most common fish to inhabit wells seem to be trout or eels, themselves boundary crossers: the trout leaves the sea to enter freshwater to mate, and the eel leaves freshwater to travel to  the Saragossa sea near Bermuda. Seeing a blessed fish was considered extremely fortunate and a sign that a pilgrim’s prayers would usually be answered. At Lady’s Well Rockspring, North Cork a positive outcome was not always guaranteed:

It is said that in the well a fish is seen. When people see the fish they wish for something. Sometimes they get what they wish for but sometimes they do not. At night it is said that the fish is to be seen.  Lady’s Well, Rockspring (216:0367; Schools’ Folklore Collection)

Lady’s Well, Rockspring

At Templemologa the pilgrims travelled hopefully:

St Mologa’s Well, once home to a trout

A trout lives in the well and the diseased people look out for it because they think their rituals more effective in the trout’s presence. St Mologa’s Well, Templemologa  (Schools’ Folklore Collection, 0376: 001/002)

St Peter and St Paul’s Well, near Skibbereen, contained two blessed eels which were much venerated and the focus of an annual pilgrimage. The pilgrims brought bread with the specific intention of feeding the fish:

In Mr Carey’s land, about a mile and a quarter from Skibbereen, there is a Blessed Well. Pilgrims visit it annually on the Feast of St Peter and St Paul, 29th June. Prayers are said during the rounds. In it there is a blessed eel and the pilgrims throw bread to him.  Hundreds of people go to this well on the 29th June every year. The people take a piece of bread or cloth with them usually. There are two blessed eels in this well; it is said that long ago a blind woman and a lame man were cured there. It is said you must see one of the eels before you can be cured. People take a piece of cloth with them to tie to the whitethorn bush which is growing up over the well. I have heard that six unbaptised children were buried in a mound of earth a couple of yards from the well. May the Lord have mercy on their souls. The water that flows from this well drops from a rock that is over the well; if a person looked up he could see the drops falling down. Why people take a piece of bread with them is because they say the eels will live on that much food in the year.( 0297: 143/144)

It was essential to treat a holy well with respect, especially one containing a blessed fish. Using the holy water for domestic purposes usually ended badly. Back to St Mologa’s Well:

Close to Temple Mologa is a copious spring well, which was always held sacred by the people and should be used only for drinking and curative purposes; but on one occasion, the lady of the manor, an unbeliever, would insist on cooking her husband’s dinner in the water of the sacred spring. When the water had time to boil, the cook remarked it was icy cold; more logs were placed on the fire, still to no effect. The logs were still being piled on, the fire blazed, but when the dinner hour arrived, the water was still as cold as ever. The lord waxed hungry, and, like other mortals, became angry; he rushed into the kitchen to ascertain for himself the cause of the delay, had the cover lifted off the huge pot, and, although the fire was crackling and blazing high about it, he felt the water was quite cold; but what astonished him more was to behold a beautiful trout swimming about in it, without apparently suffering the least inconvenience. He became wonder-stricken, and had his advisers called in. They told him to take the water back to the well without delay and pour it in. This being done, the trout again became invisible, and is since rarely seen, except by certain votaries. In the district it is a common saying when water is slow to boil: ‘perhaps the Molaga trout is in it’. (Colonel Grove White: Historical and Topographical Notes Vol 1)

Not all wells were so forgiving and occasionally the well would take severe umbrage and dry up or move as happened at St Mary’s Well and Sunday’s Well, Walshestown near Cork City:

The story is to the effect that a local woman carried water home from the well to boil potatoes. Unfortunately the eel had been drawn out at the same time. To her amazement the water remained cold after hours of boiling until her husband found out what had happened and returned the eel and water to the well. But this did not appease the offended spirit which caused the water to dry up and it has remained dry to the present day. Cordner, from Carmichael Watson Project described as a blog for the Carmichael Watson project, which is based at Edinburgh University Library, centred on the papers of folklorist Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912).

Sunday’s Well & Lady’s Well, Walshestown

These two wells, on each side of the niche containing the statue, were said to contain an eel in Sunday’s Well (to the left) and a trout in St Mary’s Well (to the right). It seems that the central area, which is now a grotto, might have once been a third well – the holiest well. Was this the one that dried up after being disrespected?

The blessed fish as representative of the saint

Some fish are also considered to be the direct manifestation of a saint and therefore especially potent. The eel sometimes spotted at St Fanahan’s well, Mitchelstown was considered to be the saint himself and this belief is clearly depicted on two very different sculptures of the formidable, warrior saint. The statue above the holy well shows an elegant sinuous eel below the dainty feet of the slender saint.

Contrast that with the sculpture outside the Garda station in the town where the true light of the saint shines through. This clearly is a depiction of man who might have a crozier called Cennachathach (head battler!) and whose teeth might spark thereby causing the shafts of his enemies’ spears to burn! The eel is pretty chunky too.

As always a sighting of the eel was considered a fortuitious sign for the pilgrim and this well held a cure for lameness.

The blessed fish as water purifier 

Interesting at St Sylvester’s Well, Malahide, north Dublin, an eel was purposefully introduced into the holy well for it was recognised that eels keep water clean:

We are aware that many sacred fish are associated with holy wells and, here in Malahide, up to the close of the 1890’s, an eel was inserted into the waters of the well to purify it …. The custom of releasing an eel into the well water could also be a folk remedy for keeping the water pure as the eel will eat all the grubs, crustaceans, mites, flies, nympha and all aquatic insects which would otherwise contaminate it’s purity. Malahide Historical Society

St Sylvester’s Well, Malahide; Photo: Technogypsy

The dissenter

However, not all eels were the bringer of good luck – just one dissenting voice at Abbey’s Well, Kilshannig where a good fish/bad fish routine seems to be going on:

it is said that an eel and a trout live are supposed to inhabit this well. The trout is supposed to be seen by people doing the rounds if their requests are to be granted. If not an eel may be seen. A few years ago a man named Jack Sullivan went paying rounds for his son who got a pain in his leg. One day as he was kneeling in front of the well he noticed the trout jump about the well. He had often heard it was very lucky to see a trout. To his surprise when he returned home the pain was gone. There was also a woman whose son fell seriously ill. She went paying rounds for him at Abby’s Well. One day as she was kneeling beside the well she noticed an eel in the water. When she returned home she informed the neighbours of what she had seen. She did not know anything about the eel but one of the onlisteners told her it was very unlucky to see an eel. Soon after the boy died. Schools’ Folklore Collection (139 -142:0363)

St Abbey’s Well, Kilshannig

I have a very good friend who has spotted a blessed fish in a Cornish well but I am still travelling hopefully.

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.

Island Wells 4: Inis Earcáin, Sherkin Island

After two days of solid rain the sun came out and we headed down to Baltimore to catch the ferry to Sherkin Island, in search of a well. The journey over is a short one but highly picturesque as you sail past the Beacon, glimmering like a gigantic sugar cone. Some impressive clouds today but miraculously we didn’t get wet.

Sailing past the Beacon

Sherkin island, Inis Earcáin  (island of the sea pig or porpoise), is a beautiful place, one of Carbery’s Hundred Isles. There is evidence of human occupation going way back for there are standing stones, a megalithic tomb, the remains of an O Driscoll castle  (Dun na Long), and the impressive ruins of a fifteenth century Franciscan friary – the first thing you see on disembarking.

The small winding lanes and wild windswept hills feel like going back in time, yet the island is thriving, the home of 114 islanders according to the last census of 2011.

Shady groves

It attracts many artists and it is even possible to study a BA in Visual Arts here – a collaboration between the Dublin Institute of Technology, West Cork Arts Centre and Sherkin Island Development Society. It is also the home of Sherkin Island Marine Station, a centre of excellence renown for its pioneering work concerning marine biology and ecology. There is one dampener on all this positivism, the National School closed a year ago and all island children now have to take the ferry to the mainland for their education.

The original village school, now a home

The Smith’s Well, Tobar Gabha, St Mughain’s Well

We, however, were in search of a well, the only one on the island as far as I can ascertain. Known as Tobar Gabha, or Smith’s Well, or even St Mughain’s or St Mona’s Well (discussed later) it is located in the townland of Kilmoon. It is marked on the current Landranger OS map (88) but beware for, as we were to discover, it is inaccurately marked.

The well lies in the direction of Horsehoe Bay. What a beautiful spot, an elegant, curved bay with crystal clear water, calm, but exceptionally cold.

Horseshoe Bay

We asked a woman having a quiet sunbathe outside her house whether she knew of any well. She didn’t but was curious to hear that we did and looking at our map directed us up towards the hills. A wonderful walk through bracken and heather, passed an attractive but closed house, and sublime views out to sea. We stopped at another house, the door painted a sunny yellow and lavender lining the path. I went to inquire. Seán answered the door – he was busy changing the duvets ready for his next group of holiday makers. What a place to stay. He had time to talk though and knew of the well, giving us clear instructions: plough through the field, head for where the mountain comes down to the land, take a sharp left and follow the valley, looking out for a fuchsia bush. He warned that it would be challenging. We went off through thick grasses and brambles, aiming for the toe of the mountain and the veering off to the left. The bracken was shoulder high and the brambles treacherous but the colours of the heather and gorse were incredible.

As we went further into the valley an amazing vista of sea, mountains, Beacon and lighthouse was revealed. It was, however, a completely different direction to the one in which the map and GPS wanted us to go, but we trusted local knowledge – wisely, as it turned out.

The approach to the well

To the right, a clump of straggly fuchsia bushes swamped by bracken came into view – the only ones on the hillside.

A bit of scrambling upwards, some scratchy, prickly negotiation inwards, more careful pulling back of the bracken and brambles and there was the well:  a small semi-circular basin, moss-  surrounded, built into the hillside, a spongy green slab in front. The water was clear, copious and dripping from above.

Tobar Gabha

What a magnificent position – wild and remote, secretive and magical.

An entry in the Schools’ Folklore Collection has this to say about it:

The well on Sherkin Island is situated on the hillside overlooking Horseshoe Bay. It is a small well surrounded by fuchsia bushes. There is an old legend connected with it that people get cured there and on that account it is visited on certain times of the year, May Day Eve and St John’s Night.

If a bird is heard singing when any person suffering from a disease is praying there, it is considered a very good sign of being cured. It is the custom of people to take something with them when they visit it such as part of a rosary bead, a medal, a bunch of flowers or a bit of rag. People usually cross the hills when they visit the well. It is said the old well takes its name (Tobar na Gabha – well of the blacksmith) from an old smith who was supposed to live nearby in olden times.

The water in the well is quite fresh and it is said to never go dry. When a person wants to get his wish he must walk around the well and say four Hail Marys each time he walks around. Once in the month of January there were primroses seen there when there was not a primrose to be seen anywhere else. (194/195:0295)

The birds were certainly singing but there was no sign of any offerings and it would have been very hard to pay a round so dense was the undergrowth. The fuchsia bush was still flourishing.

We hacked our way back through the bracken and brambles, stopping off tell Se,an that we had found the well. Back in one piece? he smiled. He reckoned he had last visited the well about 20 years ago but could remember that it was once visited by many islanders and that it was customary to leave offerings. He recalled that his aunt, suffering from a bad back, had trekked through the valley to visit the well and returned cured.There had once been stepping stones along the track making the route a little easier.

When I mentioned that the well was called Tobar Gabha, Well of the Smith, he said it was was dedicated to St Mona. (The church on Sherkin is also dedicated to her). There is a reference to a similar name inThe Genealogy of Corca Laide (CELT,UCC) where the well is referred to as Tobar Mughaine. The townland in which it is located is called Kilmoon – Cill Mughaine, church of Mughain. Interestingly  there is another Kilmoon in County Clare which is reputed to be named after this elusive saint. Omnium Sancrorum Hiberniae has her named as St Mughain of Cluain-Boirenn with a feast day on the 15th December. Confusingly the historic OS maps refer to it as Toberngow – Well of the Smith, as does the Schools’ Folklore extract. Could Gabha be a corruption of Mughain, or vice versa? I’d be delighted to receive any other information.

Many thanks to Seán for the chat and directions.
Ferry timetable to Sherkin Island
The location of this well can be found in the Gazetteer.

Meandering south of Mallow

Four wells on the agenda today, all south of Mallow and all having interesting and detailed write ups by Colonel Grove White in his Historical and Topological Notes etc.

Ania’s Well, Tobar Aine, Dromore

As we approached Dromore House, (now called Nazareth House and run by the Sisters of Nazareth as a holistic centre) where the well was supposed to be located, I had a sinking feeling that I had dragged my three companions here before to no avail. I was right. We had been here before and found no well. Today, Nazareth House was in the middle of huge and major developments – the road was up, the land surrounding the house was up, diggers and men in high viz were prominent. We shouldn’t have been there and we beat a tricky and difficult retreat, the well I suspect ripped up and vanished. Grove White mentions a Field Book of 1839 that refers to it as Ania’s Well and noted that it was a good spring well resorted to for the cure all diseases. In the confusion of the moment I took no photos.

Saint Hulaman’s Well, Kilcolman

One chain from Keil is an excellent spring well, said to have been consecrated by Saint Hulaman. It is said that if dirty clothes, potatoes, or the like were washed in it the spring would immediately dry. Such happened about 50 years ago but the well was again restored by putting salt and holy water into it, so tradition tells us. (Grove White, Vol III)

When Colonel Grove White visited in 1909 he reported a fine spring well near the road and described the large whitethorn bushes growing around it. He also noted that it was no longer in holy use. The Archaeological Inventory gave a little more information describing the well as being in the base of a sycamore tree. This sounded an intriguing well – another temperamental North Cork well and who was St Hulaman?

We searched high and low along the edge of the road, looking for sycamore trees. I followed the GPS and ventured into a very wet and boggy field, the undergrowth getting more and more tangled, the terrain softer and squelchier. Suddenly there seemed to be a gap in the brambles that looked worth investigating. A little bit of hacking back with a walking pole and trying not to sink knee deep into the bogginess and a definite pool of water was revealed, fern strewn and promising. Right next to it was the impressive stump of what I took to be a scyamore tree.

There were remnants of stone work just discernible in the water but nothing like a circular wall as may once have existed. The water was clear and plentiful.

And I am none the wiser as to who St Hulaman was, Google doesn’t seem to know either. If anyone has any idea, please let me know.

Edit: Many thanks to Ann Buckley who suggests that Hulaman may be an anglicisation of Colmán.

Blind Well, Tobar Caoch, Skarragh

Near the centre of Skarragh about 15 chains west of Skarragh Wood, and about 34 chains east of Lisaniska (fort) is a fine spring well, to which people resort for the cure of sore eyes on which account it got the name Tober keagh, or the Blind Well. Field Book. This well is on Mr John Bolster’s land. People come here and pay rounds for sore eyes. it is much frequented. In 1904 I heard of an old man whose eyesight was cured; his sight improved every time he paid a round. (Grove White VolII)

A chain by the way is roughly 66 feet or 20 metres!

Skarragh Well. Photo by Grove White 1913

We parked the car and walked up our 15 chains towards Skarragh Wood, skirting along the edge of a wheat field.  A barbed wire fence greeted us, the well of course on the other side.The wood was dense and impenetrable and we could find no way to get in. It didn’t look as though we would have been able to get very far even if we had managed to get into the wood. We conceded defeat but admired a rainbow appearing in the distance and amused ourselves by counting the variety of wild flowers growing in the edge of the field – a lot.

View from the vicinity of the Blind Well

Several entries in the Schools’ Folklore Collection refer to the well as containing a cure. It also liked to be treated with respect: 

Near the top of Scarra Hill in this parish (Kilshannig, Barony Duhallow, Co Cork) is a well named Tobar Caoc. Several cures were wrought at this well, especially sore eyes were cured. Long ago there was a tree growing up beside the well on which pieces of cloth and rosaries were hung. The Protestant owner of the land on which the well was situated did not like to see the people coming to pay rounds. He cut down the tree and a few days later his hand became very sore and any doctor he went to could not cure it. At last somebody advised him to bathe his hand in the water flowing from the well. He did so and in a short time his hand was cured. He never afterwards tried to stop people paying rounds at the well.  About five years ago the farm in which Tobar Coac is situated was put up for sale and bought by a Catholic Mr William O Connell. (215/216: 0362)

Another entry gives a little information as to how rounds should be paid:

About forty five years ago an old woman who was then about seventy-five years of age, told me that one of her children when young had a sore eye and on the advice of a neighbour she went to Tobar Caoc for some water with which to bathe the eye. The journey to and from the well should be made before sunrise, she said. She performed the journey and brought a small bottle of water to be applied to the child’s eye. She was about to put the bottle, in which there was still some water, safely away, when, as she said herself, the bottle was taken from her hands and dashed on the floor. The child’s eye soon got well, the old lady said, and she looked on the breaking of the bottle as a warning that she should not attempt to store any of the water but to get a fresh supply if she ever needed it again. (215/216:0362)

A shame that we could not find this potent well.

Abigail’s Well, Kilgobnet

After the limited success of the first three wells, the final well in our search was worth waiting for. We knew we were getting close and on the right track when we sailed past the Well Bar.

Abbeys Well, was once highly regarded and much frequented (and spelled in many different ways). It is also well documented for Colonel Grove White visited in 1908 and there are several lengthy entries in the Schools’ Folklore Collection which provide invaluable information about it.

St Abbey or St Abigail or St Abby is the anglicised version of Gobnait, who has her main pilgrimage site in Ballyvourney. The nearby townland here is called Kilgobnet – Gobnait’s church. This is the story:

The patron saint of Kilshannig … is St Gobnit, but she is more commonly called St Abby. It is said that it had been revealed to her that she should get a church built at a spot at where she should see nine white deer, and that she set out on her travels through Munster in quest of her site indicated in her vision. At several places she saw some number of white deer, she blessed those places and a spring gushed forth in each of them. She finally saw the nine white deer in Ballyvourney. There she got her church built and there she died and beside that church she was buried. Schools’ Folklore Collection (03/094: 0363)

The well is to be found in an old graveyard which seems to have evolved around the well itself, people begin anxious to be buried in such holy ground.  Grove White suggests that it might originally have been in a ringfort. The trees also seemingly planted themselves:

It is situated in a graveyard about twenty yards from the road and not in the vicinity of any church, old or new. There is a line of trees around the well each of a different quality, namely ash, Whitethorn and sycamore. it is said that these trees sprung up of their own accord. There is a protecting wall built over the well built about 50 years ago by a a local mason, Mr Horgan. (Grove White)

The wellhouse is a wonderful structure:

It is protected by a wall of stone and mortar in the form of a hood so that the approach to the well is open towards the east. The overflow to the well is towards the north.

The hood is D shaped, corbelled stone with a splayed entrance, steps leading down into the well itself.

Abbey’s Well

The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage gives a date of 1800 for the wellhouse, saying that it was erected around an earlier well, though other sources give a date of the 1870s. The above quote refers to a Mr Horgan as the mason whilst the information board at the entrance to the graveyard refers to the wonderfully named Johnny the Prayers who looked after the well and was responsible for the two plaques that adorned the outside of the well. The plaque above the entrance remains and is a limestone slab, inscribed with the following words: St Abigail expelling the plague 1872. The saint is represented, kneeling at an altar but both words and image are very hard to see. A cross is deeply inscribed upon it.

Inscribed plaque over entrance

Apparently this plaque had originally been inside the well and had been painted. When it was later put outside the paint came off and the original image was cut in relief. Grove White gives more information:

… Over it (the well) is erected a building, nearly rotund in form, and when Mr. Windele
visited the place there was a rude painting in a panel on the wall inside, representing St. Abigail kneeling before an altar, expelling the plague…Canon Wilson says that this panel, having become detached, was years ago was re-erected and set in the centre of the arch, showing outward, in front. The design, cut in relief, no longer shows colouring. In the Windele MSS. (R.I.A.), vol. 14, p. 537, is a sketch of the building over Abigail’s well.
(Journal for 1905, p. 53.) I visited this Holy Well in May, 1908. I found the following inscription
on a stone on south side of the building erected over the well:

St Abby’s Well, 1908. Photo by Colonel Grove White

1. H. S.
+
PRAY
For the suffering Souls
in Purgatory
And especially
Those who erected

This stone.
In memory of
St. Abigal
Expelling the
Plague.
A.D. 1874.

On the east side over entrance to the well are the following words, etc.

(A carved figure about six inches long and three broad.)
St. Abigal
Expelling
The Plague.
A.D. 1872

There seems to be no sign of the plaque described as being on the south side. but there are stones around the well that are cross inscribed and some bear the words kneel and pray roughly cut into them. These would once have been incorporated into the rounds.

Venturing into the well through the womb-like entrance, it is disappointing to find it is now dry – well, dampish. The earth floor is muddy and there are coins and other artefacts scattered in it.

Interior of the well, now dry

A little niche to the left of the entrance holds an assortment of cups and candles, and on the right are some statues of the BVM and plastic flowers.

Everywhere had been thoroughly and efficiently whitewashed  – even the rosaries and little figures. I emerged pretty white myself.

Whitewashed

The water was once considered potent and contained a cure for all sorts of diseases, especially for sore eyes and limbs. A trout and an eel were also said to reside within:

…. it is said that an eel and a trout live are supposed to inhabit this well. The trout is supposed to be seen by people doing the rounds if their requests are to be granted. If not an eel may be seen. A few years ago a man named Jack Sullivan went paying rounds for his son who got a pain in his leg. One day as he was kneeling in front of the well he noticed the trout jump about the well. He had often heard it was very lucky to see a trout. To his surprise when he returned home the pain was gone. There was also a woman whose son fell seriously ill. She went paying rounds for him at Abby’s Well. One day as she was kneeling beside the well she noticed an eel in the water. When she returned home she informed the neighbours of what she had seen. She did not know anything about the eel but one of the onlisteners told her it was very unlucky to see an eel. Soon after the boy died. Schools’ Folklore Collection (139 -142:0363)

A rather chastening story and the first time I have come across eels being considered unlucky, usually it is also considered good luck to see them. Note too how the rounds could be done in proxy for someone too ill to attend themselves.

The annual pattern day was 11th February, St Gobnait’s day and was once a very special occasion with a distinct holiday air. It was a three day event with hawkers, music, dancing and general merrymaking .

On the 11th February every year rounds are paid to this well. It is like a national holiday for the district. Men, women and children all turn out in their best style… The rounds are usually performed by commencing the rosary in front of the well, saying the Decade there and moving on clockwise round, saying a Decade at each station. In front of the well on pattern day are two or three poor women who supply glasses of water to the pilgrims who are expected to pay at least a penny each ….. The attendance of the pattern is getting smaller each year.The old people remember a time when the young men of different townlands of the parish used to assemble int he fields near Abby’s Well and compete for ‘Championship of the Parish’ with hop-step-and-jump and long jump. Schools’ Folklore Collection (139-142:0363)

Rounds could also be paid on Fridays and Sundays and it was usually necessary to only do one round, stopping to recite the rosary at the inscribed stones and completing the process by drinking the water or taking some home. Many houses would have bottles containing water from the well. The water of course was not to be used for anything other than holy purposes and would never boil.

It is good to see the well is still cared for and revered and I believe prayers are still held here on the 11th February. It is sad to see that is is now dry, recently dry by the look of it, and I hope that might be rectifiable. A tranquil and special place.

The location of these wells can be found in the Gazetteer.