The Rakes of Mallow

Who knew Mallow was so exciting? It’s a place that we normally just drive through on our way to somewhere else but today we stopped, three wells on the agenda. The first one I knew no long existed but I wanted to visit the site anyway.

Well of the Breast, Toberaroughta, Mallow

This well is clearly visible on the early 6 inch OS map (1829-41) and once lay within the grounds of Annabella Park. It was named Toberaroughta, Well of the Breast. How it got its name I have not been able to find out but according to Colonel Grove White it was once a holy well of considerable repute. Sadly he has little else to say about it. Today the surrounding area is occupied by Mallow Railway Station, built in 1849. Looking at the modern OS map it seems that the well lies very close to the track itself, in a bit of waste land. We thought it worth inquiring at the ticket office. The woman was charming and intrigued. She had never heard of a well but would ring the station master- she warned he was only young and probably knew nothing about it. Wrong! He did know of the well but said it was inaccessible and completely covered over. We could only gaze through the ticket barriers and imagine.

As close to the well as I got!

 St Peter or St Patrick’s Well, Mallow

On the other side of town, in an area known as Spa Glen, two other wells are mentioned in the Archaeological Inventory. They both seemed have originated as holy wells but became incorporated into the Spa which developed in Mallow during the 18th century.

The story goes that in 1725 a Doctor Rogers from Cork came to attend a patient in Mallow – a Mrs Wellstead (really). She was going down hill rapidly and found that the only thing her stomach could retain was water from the holy well. Dr Rogers treated her with this and her recovery was speedy and complete. The news spread far and wide and Mallow found itself almost rivalling Bath Spa in England. Ballads were composed exclaiming its fame:

Ye nymphs deprest With want of rest, And with complexion sallow,

Don’t waste your prime With chalk or lime, But Drink the springs at Mallow.

All you that are Both thin and bare, With scarce an ounce of tallow,

To make your flesh Both plump and fresh, Come, Drink at springs at Mallow.

The New Ballad on the Hot Wells of Mallow, 1753

A pump house complete with shell grotto was built over the holy well. The original spa house was replaced in 1828 by the building that still remains today, a rather charming mock Tudor confection, total cost £1050 15s.

The Spa House, Mallow

The spa house was built in 1828, by C. D. O. Jephson, Esq., M.P., the present lord of the manor and principal proprietor of the town: it is in the old English style of rural architecture, and contains a small pump-room, an apartment for medical consultation, a reading-room, and baths; the whole fitted up in the most complete manner for supplying, at the shortest notice, hot and cold salt-water, vapour, and medicated baths. The approach to the spa from the town is partly through an avenue of lofty trees along the bank of an artificial canal, affording some picturesque scenery; it is in contemplation to form an approach from the north end of the new street, winding round the brow of the hill and through the Spa Glen, the present outlet from the lower part of the town being inconveniently narrow. Lewis’ Topological Dictionary of Ireland, 1837

The well was now used only for spa/health reasons rather than holy reasons. Grove White describes the well as being dedicated to St Patrick but Lewis, quoted above, has it dedicated to St Peter:

The mineral waters, in their properties, resemble those of Bristol, but are much softer; one of the tepid springs was at a very early period in repute as a holy Well, dedicated to St. Peter, but they were all neglected for medicinal use till the earlier part of the last century. The principal spring is on the north-eastern side of the town, where it rises perpendicularly in a powerful stream from the base of a limestone bill that shelters it on the east.

The well remains inside the Spa House and is approached down a flight of steps. It is not accessible but I peered through the window and wished I could get a better look.

The entrance to the spa well, once dedicated to St Peter, or St Patrick

The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage describes it thus:

(The Spa House) retains well to interior with circular dressed limestone surround, dressed limestone winding steps and carved timber railings with trefoil-headed details. It offers a reminder of Mallow’s social history as a spa town and the retention of Saint Patrick’s Well to the interior as well as the canalized stream from the Lady’s Well spa adds to this interest. The site is enhanced by the bridge to the west, which is well executed.

Lady’s Well, Mallow

But this is not the only holy well on the site. A few metres away lies a large pool, with water flowing out to the NW, this stone-lined stream is the one referred to as canalized above. The well is marked on the early OS maps as Lady’s Well, now described in the Archaeological Inventory as the Spa Well.

Originally Lady’s Well, then used as part of the spa and even as a swimming pool in the 1960s.

Lewis,1837, has more to say about it:

There is another spring called the Lady’s well, also warm and of the same quality, though not covered in or used. The water of the spa has a mean temperature of 70° of Fahrenheit, rising in summer to 72° and falling in winter to 68°; it is considered as a powerful restorative to debilitated constitutions, and peculiarly efficacious in scrofulous and consumptive cases, for which the spa is much frequented by persons of fashion from distant parts of the country, being the only water of the kind known in Ireland. 

Kevin Myers in his paper The Mallow Spa published by Mallow Archaeological & Historical Society in 1984 in has a little more information:

The Spa well was dedicated to St. Patrick, as a holy well, many years before being discovered for its medicinal qualities. The temperature of the Spa water was recorded at an average of 70*F, rising in summer to 72°F and falling in winter to 66°F. A nearby spring, known as “The Lady’s Well” was said to be one degree warmer. The Lady’s Well became popular for a time in the 1960’s as a swimming pool. A well, known as “The Peddler’s Well”, situated a little further to the north is now covered in. The water at the Spa well was described as “beautifully clear and sparkling”

Far from being beautifully clear and sparkling, today the water was scummy but bubbles could still be seen rising from the bottom. It felt pleasantly warm. It was once considered especially good for respiratory conditions including asthma and TB. The water has been analysed and described in a paper by CR Aldwell 1995 as follows:

The results of the analyses indicate that the water is a calcium bicarbonate type and similar to the local groundwater in the limestone aquifers. The main differences are the lower calcium, bicarbonate, and nitrate concentrations in water from Lady’s Well.

Lady’s Well, still bubbling

The spa started to decline almost due to its popularity – the rakes moved into town and caused chaos. This drinking song called The Rakes of Mallow was written in 1740 by the ‘pleasant Ned Lysaght’ a self-confessed rake:

Beauing, belleing, dancing, drinking,

Breaking windows, cursing, sinking
Ever raking, never thinking,
Live the Rakes of Mallow;
Spending faster than it comes,
Beating waiters bailiffs, duns,
Bacchus’ true begotten sons,
Live the Rakes of Mallow…

… Racking tenants, stewards teasing,
Swiftly spending, slowly raising,
Wishing to spend all their days in
Raking as at Mallow.
Then to end this raking life,
They get sober, take a wife,
Ever after live in strife,
And wish again for Mallow.

The whole area in Spa Glen seems to have several springs rising – a third was mentioned in Myers’ article but has since been covered over. Other clues also remain – the rather forlorn looking public spa fountain has certainly seen better days.

As has the elaborate and rather wonderful water trough and pump on the other side of the road.

Spa pump & trough

This was erected in 1810 and is described by the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage:

Freestanding water pump and trough, c. 1810, comprising rectangular-plan limestone-built sunken area with dressed surrounding wall, curved to west corners and having carved coping. Dressed limestone steps to east side with dressed limestone parapet walls. Limestone flagging to trough area and dressed limestone rectangular-plan trough. Three carved limestone lions’ head spouts to wall above trough. Rectangular-profile limestone-built platform to west with metal closure and three cast-iron water pumps, two having decorative spouts and fluted shafts.

This fountain is notable for its fine stone crafting and well-executed decorative pumps. It forms a pair with the nearby Spa House as a reminder of Mallow’s history as a spa resort town. The lions’ head spouts are features of particular note and add artistic interest to the site.

Known affectionately as the Dogs’ Heads, the water here is still gushing but apparently unfit for human consumption.

The Spa was in decline by the 1840s and although attempts have been made over the years to revive it, the area around Spa Glen remains unloved. The Spa House is currently empty, the inside looking worse than the outside. The wells are neglected as are the fountain and pumps. There seems an astonishing lack of foresight to allow such a unique and historic area of the town to be so ignored and undervalued for it seems full of potential for locals and tourists alike. One famous Irish commodity is still rejoicing in the spa though.

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

The Three Marys

Since I began this project, a year and a half ago, I have come across dedications to 51 various saints at nearly 200 wells. The most popular patron is the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM), who currently has 29 wells dedicated to her. Not surprising really considering her elevated place in the Catholic pantheon as Mary, Mother of God; the Blessed Virgin; Queen of Heaven or simply Our Lady. Her major feasts days are May 1st (in fact the  whole of May is considered to be Mary’s month), 15th August: the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin; 8th September: the Nativity of the BVM; and 8th December: her Immaculate Conception. She has even had special years dedicated to her devotion (1954 &1987) when many grottoes were erected and wells renovated. Today three Marian wells were on the agenda, each one very different and all in North Cork.

Prayer to Our Lady

Take my hand, O Blessed Mother

Hold me firmly lest I fall.

I am nervous when I am walking,

And on you I humbly call.

Guide me over every crossing,

Watch me when I’m on the stairs,

Let me know that you’re beside me,

Listen to my fervent prayer.

Bring me to my destination safely every day,

Help me with every undertaking

As the hours pass away.

And when evening falls upon us

And I fear to be alone,

Take my hand O Blessed Mother

And protect my life and home.

Board at Lady’s Well, Castleharrison

Lady’s Well, Castleharrison, near Charleville

First stop Lady’s Well near Castleharrison, just off the N20 en route to Charleville. The potency of the site is immediately apparent as outlined on the board at the entrance:

On the margins of this holy well pagan multitudes were converted and baptised, and from time immemorial devotions here to the Mother of God has been rewarded with many favours and blessing. (Taken from the parish records, 1809)

Nearly a hundred years later, Colonel Grove White visited the well, wrote warmly about it and took a very attractive photograph:

In Castle Harrison Demesne, in front of the houses near the road, is an interesting holy well. It is kept in good order and is one of the most picturesque Holy Wells I have seen. It is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. Many people come to this well to pay their devotions on the different festivals dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, but particularly on August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption. I was also informed that people come here for the cure of all diseases, particularly of sore eyes. A large white thorn overhung the well. It was covered in ivy. It was blown down in the severe hurricane that occurred about 1903. It is a credit to the parish of Ballyhea for it is one of the best kept Blessed Wells in Southern Ireland. (Grove White: Historical & Topographical Notes Etc Vol 1)

Lady’s Well, Castleharrison. Photo taken by Grove White 1905.

The site is clearly signed and just off the main road,  an enclosed space immaculately maintained.

A circular path leads down to the well, marked with the Stations of the Cross. A row of orange plastic chairs lined near to a wall hint at the many pilgrims that still visit.

Route down to well with Stations of the Cross

The well itself looks very different to Grove White’s day. An arch recess, containing a statue of the BVM is now flanked by a domed stone well house, two small niches on either side, with a white Celtic cross surmounted over the whole.

Lady’s Well, Castleharrison

The statue of the BVM within is a rather beautiful one, and, although denied access by a glass window, pilgrims have managed to leave offerings at her elegant feet.

The well lies below but is now disappointingly sealed off by a grill – water obtained from a tap located in the hedge nearby. The jolly smiley-faced cups seem at odds with the rather sombre and devout atmosphere.

A row of wooden benches with ornate white railings lie in front of the well for devotions.

Ornate benches for devotions & prayer

Various notices on the site explain the required devotion at the site and include some interesting thoughts about the sacredness of water in general:

(The round) consists of 3 visits to the well, saying a Rosary each time, beginning at the Grotto and continuing the round to complete the Rosary. While doing the round the pilgrim is carried back in thought by the Stations of the Cross to Calvary where the right to God’s help and favours was earned for us, and where and where Christ put everybody (in the person of St John) under the protection of the Holy Mother. Having completed the Rosary the ceremony ends in the drinking of water from the well and a private resolution made to receive an early opportunity Holy Communion which our lord described as ‘a well of living water’ which would benefit in this life and the next.

While drinking the water from the Blessed Well the tremendous religious significance attached to water is recalled by the pilgrim. Going back to the chosen people of God in the Old Testament in the Bible we find that they had strongly in their minds that God brings life out of the waters and saves people by the waters. Moses led his people out of slavery in Egypt and they escaped from their pursuers through the waters of the Red Sea.

The visitor also recalls that in baptism each one of us has passed through the baptismal water to a new life of being now, not just the children of our parents,  but children of God too. As children of God our prayer at this holy well is in a few words – Mother of God and our Mother intercede for us.

An plaque on the altar informs that it was erected during the Holy Year of 1987; I wonder if that was when the entire site was modernised.

Altar with plaque dated 1987

The well was very active in the 1930s:

In the district of Charleville there is a well named Our Lady’s Well. people visit it from time to time to pray there. When a person has a disease he usually washes himself in the well. Sick people get the water of the well and drink it. The most frequent time for visiting the well is on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. When people visit the well they bring holy pictures and statues and leave them on the altar over the well. Once  woman got water out of the well and used it for household purposes but it never boiled. There is a bush over the well. People who are cured hang rags on the bush.  A long time ago a gipsy washed her child in it. He is now a priest. (280: 0368; Schools’ Folklore Collection)

It remains a vital and active part of the community. In June this year, for example, there was a special mass held there for the Travelling Community  which included a blessing for families.

Lady’s Well, Templemary, near Buttevant

The next well sounded fascinating from the description in the Archaeological Inventory:

 In pasture, at base of ash tree and on W side of Mallow-Liscarroll road. Enclosed NW->SE by roots of tree; SW side and base stone-lined. On SW side is partially cut limestone block (0.88m x 0.48m; T 0.17m) with holy water stoup (0.3m x 0.39m) cut into one end. Latin cross with splayed ends carved into side of stoup. According to local information, well visited in May and stoup came from nearby site of RC church, which was demolished in late 1970s/early 1980s; Grove White (1905-25, vol. 4, 35) noted church ‘was thatched’.

I had visions of something similar to the wonderful St Lachteen’s well in Ballykerwick, near Donoughmore. It was easy to find and clearly signed from the road, a well maintained walkway leading steeply down towards the sound of running water.

Disappointingly the ash tree has long since been cut down though the stump remains just behind the wellhouse.  The whole site was renovated and rededicated in 1991, somewhat fiercely.

Lady’s Well, Templemary

A large stone shrine complete with statue of the BVM is where the ash tree once stood. The statue is attractive and well cared for with flowers, and a few offerings.

The welhouse replaces the old ash tree

The well itself is in front of the shrine but covered over by a sharp sheet of metal. Lift that up, and the water underneath is abundant and fresh. The area is nicely slabbed with a step down to the water.

To the right the ancient stoup described in the Archaeological Inventory remains, emblazoned with a cross. An array of cups lined up on a stack encourage the water to be used.

An ornate rail and kneeling block lies in front to the well; to the left a very unattractive metal shelter, bare and ugly, presumably for people to shelter in when the weather gets rough. The whole space felt devoid of atmosphere, a little too manicured but it is obviously still an active and important site within the community.

Grove White uncharacteristically has little to say about this well but what he does say is tantalising:

… in olden times much venerated and visions were said to have been seen there.

Lady’s Well, Tobermurray, near Liscarroll

By the time we visited the final Lady’s Well, the rain was falling steadily and enthusiasm was dwindling. The approach was down a long bumpy boreen, at one time a boxer came leaping and barking to greet us. The boreen ended in a farmyard complete with a house which I wasn’t sure was occupied or not. I knocked and no reply. A wooded area off the yard looked promising and I went to explore.

I was gob-smacked, no other word for it, and rushed back to tell my husband he needed to come and see this, rain or not!

A wooded grove comes to mind for the site is encircled by a wall and many tall and mature trees. In the centre is a large pool or spring, the well itself, stone-lined with steps to the south and a metal railing to ease collection of water – it’s quite a long drop down.

Lady’s Well, Rockspring

Little benches are dotted here and there but dominating the space is a shrine to the BVM. It is a large rectangular stone structure, topped with a cross. Inside is a niche with an arched doorway containing a statute of the BVM – illuminated!

She gazes soulfully upwards, hands in prayer with an assortment of offerings around her: rosaries, cards, pictures, statues.

A tree nearby holds a rack of colourful and spotless cups, a picture of the Sacred Heart propped below.

In a dense wooded area by the water there are more statues:  Jesus with outstretched arms and a small BVM in a little niche. They look ancient, traces of their original paint still clinging on.

What a remarkable place, oozing with atmosphere and presence, such a contrast to the first two wells described. It seems this is another of those North Cork wells that has moved from its original position:

There is only one holy well in the parish. It is in the townland of Rockspring, Liscarroll in cllrs. Brislane’s field. The people pay rounds … during the month of May because the well is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin.

There is a story about the well. A woman washed her petticoat in the well. It is said that the well moved and there is a tree that marks where the well was first. There are trees growing around the well where it is now.

The people cure sore eyes at the well. When people are going to the well they take relics with them, namely flowers, statues, holy pictures and rags. They hang the rags on a tree. The people drink the well water and there are cups at the well for the water.

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.  (216:0367; Schools’ Folklore Collection)

Another entry gives a little more information about the site of the original well

There are two holy wells around Liscaroll. One well is in Knawhill and the other is in Rockspring. The one in Rockspring is called the Blessed Virgin’s Well. It is said that one night a woman washed her feet in the well and when the people got up in the morning the well had removed to where it is now. A tree stands in the field where it is said the well was. There is a hole in the tree and it never goes dry. The well in Knawhill cures sore eyes. People pay rounds to the blessed Well in Rockspring the months of May and August. (044: 0367; Schools’ Folklore Collection)

The tree at Knawhill is now on the list but I can find no reference to it. There is another well very close by dedicated to St Baoithin which will be explored shortly.

The locations of these wells can be found in the Gazetteer. All have public access.

Some Curious Wells near Doneraile

Fuelled with a large and delicious breakfast at the  Café Townhouse in Doneraile a clutch of wells were on the agenda today resulting in two no shows, an unexpected possible and a dilapidated well in a curious position.

St Coneela’s Well, Doneraile

St Coneela’s Well, in the townland of Horseclose and on the edge of the town, sounded intriguing and was last recorded in the Archaeological Inventory in 2009:

On N side of millrace off N side of Awbeg River. Open oval stone-lined well (1.4m E-W; 1m N-S; D 0.6m) at base of natural rise; stone lining, largely collapsed, reaches max. H of 1m to NE where it is built into rise. Three steps set into rise on NW side lead down into well. Statue of Blessed Virgin set into mature ash tree on NE side; rosary beads hang from tree. Two circular water-filled holes (diam. c. 0.6m), one possibly stone lined, set equidistant (1m) to S and W. According to Jones (1902, 238), well connected with ‘Coneela a Colliagh, one of three virgin saints of Doneraile, Drinagh Wood and Wallstown. It would appear that during some of the earlier wars in Ireland these girls were forced to fly from near Waterford, as some of the invaders attracted by their beauty were anxious to take them in marriage.

An old map of Doneraile, dated 1728, reproduced in Colonel Grove White’s Historical & Topical Notes etc. Volume III, (1906-15), clearly shows the well in an area then known as Trethewey’s Glen.

par tof a map of Doneraile dated 1728, showing St Coneela’s Well

The Colonel visited in 1913 and took a fine photograph with Lord Castletown carefully posed in front of it. He was the husband of Hon Emily Ursula Clare St Leger. Note the clooties.

St Coneela’ Well, photo taken by Colonel Grove White, 1913

The well is still marked on the current OS map and seemed to be located on the banks of the River Awbeg. We approached from many different angles but always met with a closed gate or impenetrable foliage. We decided that it must be on Doneraile Golf Club links and entered via the main entrance. We asked someone playing golf if they had ever heard of a holy well on the links and were met with blank looks. Plan B: we decided to walk along the other side of the river and hope that we might be able at least to see the well if not get to it. We wandered through a very dilapidated area full of burnt out, derelict buildings – once rather fine by the look of them, old schools and warehouses. Then we fought our way through bog and brambles following the river. There was evidence of what might have been an old mill and the mill race. We thought we might even have found the old ash tree described above but there was no sign of any well.

After further research once home, I think the well is definitely on the golf links so I will have to re-visit.*

*Further research undertaken and a visit to the Golf Club and a possible site for the well found: was this small pump house on the spot of the original well? The GPS seemed to think so. A  mature ash tree was to be found very close by.

Well of the Eyes, Tobersool, Knockacur

This well is also marked on the current OS map and lies just south of the town of Doneraile in Dreenagh Woods, once part of Doneraile Park estates. It is also marked on the 6 inch historic map (1841) and it looks as though a path, now vanished, once passed right by it. There was no chance of getting in the wood, the undergrowth was too thick and impenetrable. We reluctantly abandoned the search.

Jungle in Dreenagh Woods, once part of Doneraile Park

It seems that this well was associated with one of the three virgin saints described in the Archaeological Inventory for St Coneela’s Well, above. There is no record of a dedication but the 1913 OS map refers to it as Tobersool, well of the eyes. Colonel Grove White (Vol 111) mentions that it was also useful for scurvy and he includes a photograph of it taken in 1913. That’s Lord Castletown again in the foreground.

Tobarsool, Doneraile

Incidentally, according to WA Jones in his book Doneraile Legends, written in 1913, all sorts of ghosts were said to haunt Doneraile Park including a Radiant Boy (always bright with fiery stars), some ghostly foxhounds and at this well, two nuns who sometimes appeared at midnight!

Lady’s Well, Doneraile Park

Next stop was Doneraile Court & Wildlife Park and the sun was now shining. What a magnificent place – the parkland designed in the style of Capability Brown, the big house attractive and nicely proportioned, once home to the St Ledger family, including Lord Castletown of course.

Doneraile Park, once home to the St Leger family

The well is not listed in the Archaeological inventory but is marked on the early OS maps as Lady’s Well. Colonel Grove White doesn’t mention it and the following short description is all I can find about it:

South of the river is the Lady’s Well, fed by strong natural springs. The pipe of the ‘ram’ which pumped water to the house from the well is still visible. A ram was a mechanical device which used the energy from flowing water to raise some of the water to a higher level. An attractive feature of the Lady’s Well Wood is a natural rockery. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the rockery was planted with woodland flowers among which the Christmas rose (helleborus niger) was outstanding. (

Was it a holy well or was it part of the extensive landscaping described above? Charles Smith in his book The Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Cork, published in 1750 refers to the extensive landscaping and pleasure gardens and I wonder if this might have been one of the many features incorporated into the park.The well lies within a wooded area known as Lady’s Well Wood,, close to the river. The spring emerges from under from a jumble of stone slabs into a pool, then flows off into the woodland. The remains of a stone wall are visible around the pool and a lopsided tree grows around the stones. It’s a very peaceful spot.

Lady’s Well, Doneraile Park

The water was very fresh and clear. Traces of red brick within looked a bit suspicious. Authentic or not, it was a very pleasant place to wander, a wonderful amenity to have on your doorstep and free to the public.

There is another well-like structure near the car park, again not indicated on the map.

Well near public car park

St Branit’s Well, Wallstown

The next well was in Wallstown, the third well referred to in relation to the virgin saints, though she now seems to have acquired to two different siblings: Nicholas and Cranit.The saint in questioned is St Branit, or possibly St Branait or St Brenet. Or even St Bernard! The historic OS maps have the well named as St Bernard’s Well.  Colonel Grove White adds to the confusion:

Beside Wallstown is the townland of Doonawanly or (more correctly) Doonavally … Here is St. Branat’s (or Brenet or Bernard’s) Well and Johnny Roche’s Tower and Mill (apart from Wallstown Castle, the main features of this end of the parish). This Well is only one of three (v. Monanimy and Clenor) still resorted to, as appears from the traditional Rag Bush beside it. Branat is possibly the Saint of Killbranner. (Grove White Volume IV)

The Archaeological Inventory description gives further intriguing details:

To SE of Castle Curious (14947), at foot of sycamore tree. Oval depression with low wall to S; well opens to E to allow egress of water. Collapsing corrugated iron shelter to NNE holds pictures, votive offerings and cups; rags tied to tree and nearby bush; still in holy use. According to Byrne (1902, 88), originally dedicated to St Branait, ‘a sister to Cranith of Clenor and Nicholas of Monanimy’. Noted for curing limbs (O’Reilly 1987, 130) and pilgrims who were cured were expected to leave something at well; once a number of ‘old fashioned boots were found in a hollow in the tree’; woman who paid rounds there failed to carry water from well as bottle broke on two occasions.

Several things that fascinate here – the mention of the corrugated iron shelter and the wonderfully named Castle Curious. I hoped the shelter would look something like this little one: Gortaneadin Grotto, just outside Inchigeela, the site of multiple apparitions by the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1986/87.

Gortaneadin Grotto, Inchigeelagh

Like all special wells, St Branit’s Well took a bit of finding but we were lucky enough to meet a man with his dog who gave us directions. He also gave the usual warnings that it was very overgrown and would be difficult to find and there was nothing much to see, but told us to looks out for a rusty gate then follow the track downwards. Gate found we followed the leafy path.

The path down to the well

Stumbling through the waist high nettles and brambles an amazing sight loomed up – Castle Curious! This extraordinary and unexpected building (currently for sale should you fancy investing 130,000 euros) was the design and home of a local eccentric Johnny Roche.

Castle Curious, home to Johnny Roche

The eircom history website offers this description:

Johnny Roche of the Tower (or Castle Curious) was a local celebrity. Born in the early part of the 19th century, he married and went to America about 1840. There, after a short while, they separated. After travelling around for a while, he returned to his home, and with knowledge gained added to his native genius, he built a mill for preparing wool and flannel, later used to cut flags for tomb stones. The sight of this machine inspired one local to the poetic effusion: “This is another of Roche’s toys that does little work but makes a great noise” which so annoyed Johnny that he converted the mill to grind corn, (the stones were to be seen lying in the vicinity until recently ). He was a self-sufficient man and built a castle single-handed over a period of three years. Here he lived and practiced his original craft of blacksmith. He is reputed to have made his own clothing, from shearing the sheep to tailoring the suit (and making the buttons). He made and repaired fiddles and musical pipes, and is credited as being ahead of his time as a Dentist. Given advance notice, he could prepare a false tooth from a cow’s hoof, and fit it in place of an extracted one. He also sculpted busts, three of which were owned by Grove White and another has recently come to light. His independence was such that the only tool he ever bought was an anvil and when he devised a scheme for ploughing his little land by adapting the power of the water wheel, he was about to grow flax for the hemp to make a rope. However, an admirer supplied the necessary rope. Many more stories are told of him and his inventions. If discipline were added to his genius, what might have been achieved? He died on the 10th of February, 1884, but was not buried in his self built tomb in the middle of the river, for which he had prepared his own epitaph:- ‘Here lies the body of poor John Roche, he had his faults but don’t reproach; For when alive his hearth was mellow, An artist, genius and comic fellow.’ The ‘Coroner’ Byrne is reputed to have sent a note to Johnny on hearing of the tomb; ‘Go, rest thy bones in Mother Earth and don’t pollute the river.’

He sounds a very useful and inventive man, but there’s no mention of the well which preceded Castle Curious. The sycamore tree described in the Inventory is still there and the area extremely overgrown but promisingly damp. First we spotted all that remained of the tin shelter – not quite how I had imagined it.

Collapsed pilgrims’ shelter

It was severely deflated and flattened, rather a sorry sight but careful investigation under the corrugated iron proved we were in the right spot as a small crucifix and the shard of an old cup were revealed. No sign of any rags on the trees and no other offerings.

Further rootling around and the well itself was revealed, close to the tree: sturdy blocks of stone arranged in a horseshoe formation from which water effused.

St Branit’s Well

As always the Schools’ Folklore Collection contains entries which throw more light on this particular well:
There is a well at Shanballymore, three miles from Castletownroche, at a place called Doonevaley, convenient to Johnny Roche’s famous tower.This (was) a holy well and in days gone by, patterns were held there and several cure effected. Sore legs, toothache and earache were renowned cures. It is told that a servant girl went to this well one morning to make tea for those who attended the stations. The kettle was filled with the holy well water but no matter how long it was kept on a bright fire it would not boil.The people growing suspicious made inquires as to where she obtained the water and were horrified to find that it came from the local holy well. Next morning when the people attended the stations in a neighbouring house, they were amazed to hear that the well had moved its location to the next parish with its tree bearing relics which had been placed on it. (117: 0372)
There seem to be no other references to this well moving but further entries describe how  it was customary to pay three rounds to the well, bathe eyes or other affected areas, drink the water and finally leave a rag in the tree.

St Branit’s well is near the tree, the corrugated shelter to the left

The rag tree, which I assume is the sycamore tree, is still standing and now very large. It must  have been rather impressive for here it is describe, somewhat snidely, in the Journal of 1896, quoted in Grove White:
… Pilgrims affected by various ailments have been known to resort thither from time immemorial and as is prevailing practice in such places, have decorated the bushes with a variety of different hued ribbons, such gaudy display affords the visitors an index to the reputed sanctity of the waters below
This photo from Grove White show what it looked like in 1917.

Castle Curious & St Branit’s Well. Photo by Grove White 1917

All entries in the Schools’ Collection refer to the well as being dedicated to St Branit. She no longer seems to be associated with the Horseclose and Knockacur wells but is referred to as the sibling of Nicholas of Monanimy and Cranit of Clenor. Both have wells dedicated to them, and both wells moved because they were sleighted in some way. The story of the beautiful young woman pops up again for St Cranat was said to have been pursued by unwanted suitors and in fury plucked out her eye in order to mar her looks. A tree sprouted up where her eye fell – Crann na hUlla, the Tree of the Eye.
Nearby is a Holy Well dedicated to St. Cranat. Like St. Nicholas’s Well, this also travelled; from Killura, where the landowner, being fed up with the pilgrims, built a wall surrounding it. On completion of the wall, Cranait herself gathered up the well in her apron and moved it to its present site. Rounds were paid here on March 9th. Another aspect of her cult relates to Crann na hUlla. Legend has it that she was the beautiful sister of SS Nicholas (Monanimy) and Branat (Doonawanly), who aroused the passions of an unprincipled Prince. In order to quell his fire, she plucked out her eye and cast it from her. Where it landed, a tree grew, known as “Crann na hUlla” (The Tree of the Eye). A twig from this tree was reputed to be a charm against shipwreck, and, as such, was stripped during the great emigrations of the 19th century. As can be imagined, it no longer stands. (Eircom history website).
I have visited the rather neglected  St Nicholas Well and the site of St Cranit’s Well, of which nothing remains.  It’s interesting how the story of three siblings seems a recurring one (I’m thinking of Inghne Bhuidhe) and her two sisters) as does that of beautiful young woman marring her beauty in order to reject suitors (St Bridget reputedly plucked out her eye when told she was to marry someone she didn’t want to and it dangled on her cheek, popping back in its socket only when the proposal was rejected).
 The locations of these wells can be found in the Gazetteer.

Well Shifting around Donoughmore

Still travelling to Doneraile, three wells around Donoughmore lured us off the N20. All three were dedicated to  St Lachteen, he of the beautiful arm reliquary and multiple wells around Kilnamartrya. He is also considered to be patron saint of Donoughmore and many churches and schools are still named after him, as are the three wells. The wells are all connected, not just by name and saint, but the first two had seemingly shifted, for various reasons, to the third well at Grenagh which is still active.

St Lachteen’s Well, Ballykerwick

This was one of those wells that on the map looked as though it was the middle of nowhere, with no clear route to it. That assumption seemed pretty accurate. First I tried going over what seemed to be a public field and was met by three bouncy greyhounds, resplendent in pink collars. Then I tried another route, eventually asking at a nearby house. The man within knew of the well but advised that I needed to speak to his brother who lived in the next house. Connie was having his dinner but kindly put on his wellies and took me out to the field. I was astonished! In the middle of this large green field stood the most magnificent beech tree, solitary and proud.

The imposing beech tree

As we approached (with pink collared greyhounds who it turned out belonged to Connie) I could see that the tree had grown over a circular stone wall giving the trunk its distinctive shape.

Remains of the well plus greyhound

Going round to the front I just gasped! What an extraordinary and evocative sight. The tree had the well in a firm embrace, enclosing what had once been a circular wall with a lintel above. Connie explained that the cattle loved this tree and would rub up against it and and even climb it. He showed me where the lintel had fallen and collapsed in front of what had been the well opening, the water once flowing out underneath. Another lintel remained within, the tree slowly engulfing it. The entry in the Archaeological Inventory describes the beech tree as being behind the well but it had made strides since then.

Connie said the well had been dry for at least 30 or 40 years when the field was drained. He said he thought the well had shifted before that and had moved to a new home in Grenagh, a nearby townland. We admired the stone work of the wall which was indeed good and agreed the tree was exceptionally impressive. We lamented that nothing was being done to protect it. What an incredibly powerful and potent place.

Interestingly there seems to be a similar well dedicated to St Lachteen in Limerick.

St Lachteen’s  Well, Knockyrouke

900m further north was another well dedicated to St Lachteen, in the townland of Knockyrouke, hill of the rooks. The Archaeological Inventory described it rather unexcitedly as a muddy patch in the ground (1939, Hartnett). The description was more or less accurate. It’s now a dip in a hedge and was full of grass clippings and other garden waste. I couldn’t get hugely excited about it either.

Once it had attracted many pilgrims but this well too had shifted though the reasons for this vary from a young woman washing her feet in it, to a man trying to cut the tree above it, to British soldiers desecrating it, to blood being spilled in it. Take your pick, but whatever happened the well was severely offended. These North Cork wells can be quick to take umbrage.

Long ago St Lachteen’s Well in Knockyrouke in Donoughmore was visited by a great number of people on a certain day. Rounds were paid and people drank of the water. On one occasion a terrible fight took place and blood was spilled into the holy well. That night it moved to Grenagh…. Schools’ Folklore Collection, (069:0347)

Early OS maps refer to the well as the site of so this event must have happened at least a couple of hundred years ago, probably after a pattern which got a bit over enthusiastic. St Lachteen’s feast day is the 19th March.

St Lachteen’s Well, Toberlaghteen, Grenagh

The two wells described above moved to the townland of Garryadean near Grenagh, upset by the various ignoble events:

There are not many holy wells in the parish. The one I know the best is in the parish of Grenagh and it is named after the saint of the parish, St Lachteen.

This well was in the parish or townland of Knockyrouke, but one day a man tried to cut the tree which grew over it with a saw; when he had entered a little into the tree, the saw refused to work and he failed to cut it. Next morning the well was gone and it was afterwards found in the adjoining parish of Grenagh.

This wasn’t my first visit to Grenagh. When I had had an expedition to Blarney, this well was last on my list. I found the spot, got out of the car and the heavens opened with a sheet of hail. When I looked in the field a gigantic bull and his cows regarded me with interest. I resolved to leave it for another day. Today was the day and conditions looked much more promising.

The wells of Knockyrouke and Ballykerwick chose wisely for this is a beautiful site: green sloping pasture and to the left thick fields of ripening barley lined by a row of purple thistles.

The well lay below, a tiny copse, surrounded by what looked like a new wooden fence.

The well is enclosed by a wooden fence

It’s a delightful spot, spruced up yet still retaining an ancient feel. A cluster of hawthorn trees surround the wellhouse which is a little quirky: a ramshackle stone beehive nicely made, cut into the slope, with a wooden cross on top. The top is scattered with white quartz and an array of various offerings. A slab gives access to the water underneath which is abundant, fresh and cold. Cups are placed amongst the quartz.

St Lachteen’s Well

Crosses have been etched into the stones by pilgrims. Wooden benches here and there hint at crowds and the whole site is stepped and well maintained.

The water runs out into the fields below, plentiful. The annual pattern day was held on St John’s Day, as described in this Schools’ Folklore entry:

The people pay rounds there on St John’s Day If they wanted to pay rounds any other time of the year they should go two Fridays and a Sunday, or two Sundays and one Friday.They should say a rosary each time they visit the well and leave some little offering there. The water of the well is very  pure and cold. The people drink it. Every time you visit the well you could take a few sips of the water and take some of it home to a sick person. The water is not to be boiled or given to cattle. If it were disrespected it would remove. (067/068: 0347)

It was traditional to leave a small offering having visited the well and the water was considered especially efficacious for sore eyes. Mass is till celebrated here. This description dates from 2010:

Grenagh parish has its own (holy well), St Lachteen’s Well on the Walsh farm at Garryadeen. On St John’s night for the past number of years mass has been celebrated at the holy well. This year we celebrated a mass of healing, particularly for the many sick people in the parish. It was a wonderful occasion, helped no doubt by the fine evening. The beautiful singing with the musical accompaniment of Peadar Cranitch, who also played lovely airs on his tin whistle, wafted through the countryside, to the accompaniment of the singing of the birds, which made for a heavenly environment. This is a great occasion for the parish and all present were enriched and uplifted, in stark contrast to other gatherings of ugly bonfires which polluted the atmosphere and caused many euros worth of damage all over the county around the same time.The Corkman, 1.7.2010

I imagine there must have been visitations on St Lachteen’s feast day too, 19th March. Not much seems to be know about the saint who was born in the mid 6th century. His legacy remains strong though in the many wells, churches, schools etc dedicated to him in the parishes of Donoughmore and Kilnamartrya – and that magnificent reliquary, now viewable in the National Museum, Dublin.

Special thanks to Connie for showing me the well in Ballykerwick.
The location of these wells can be found in the Gazetteer.

En route to Doneraile 1: Dripsey

I’m just back from a few days in North Cork, a long list of wells on the agenda. We based ourselves in Doneraile but the journey up offered several opportunities for exploration. First stop – Dripsey where there were two wells, side by side, in what, according to the OS map, looked like the middle of nowhere.

 Sunday’s Well, Dripsey

We parked and surveyed the map. There seemed no clear way to the field we wanted to get to, no handy little path. Fortunately a car stopped and a man came to our assistance. Yes, he knew of the well but wasn’t sure if there was anything to see. We had to go high up and cut across the fields. But if there was a bull in the field do not go in. We promised we wouldn’t and followed his instructions. A grassy boreen went past some houses complete with a quartet of very yappy Jack Russells. No sign of any bulls though there were some cattle in the distance. After much ducking under wire and keeping a sharp eye out for roving bulls, we eventually saw the small copse where we hoped the wells might be.

Wooded copse, site of Sunday’s Well

A muddy patch, much trampled by the cattle and containing a few stones including quartz looked hopeful but disappointing. Then my husband gave a shout, He had spotted a cross in the undergrowth, over the stream and across a wall. We hauled ourselves over the stone wall and into the woodland. And there was the well – Sunday’s Well, discretely hidden but still much revered.

Sunday’s Well

A horseshoe of mossy stones curved around the well, a lintel slab over this upon which were many offerings — holy water bottles, statues, figurines, candles, a crucifix bearing an elongated and emaciated Jesus.

Lintel with offerings

Another slab lay in front of the well, allowing access to the water which now flowed adjacent to the well. A wooden cross stood near the well and on the stone to the right, hidden in the moss, another tiny Jesus. Crosses were etched onto the lintel stone and the mossy side stones,

Behind the well lay a jumble of stones, like a little cairn – pebbles left by pilgrims as part of the rounds?

Possible cairn, stones left by pilgrims?

The Schools’ Folklore Collection has a little information about this well:

There is a holy well situated not far from my house in Timothy Kellerher’s field at the junction of three townlands Magoola, Agharinagh and Dromgouna.

Formerly it was a place of great interest to the old people but nowadays, like everything else, veneration for it is dying out. it is neglected now, its sides are falling in, but still it is loved by a few old people. Many cures are said to have taken place at this well. Cripples who came to be cured went away leaving their crutches after them for they needed them no longer.

There are many stories connected with this spot one of which was about an old man from Dromgouna whose name was Paddy Sullivan. He thought he was called one night to plant a tree alongside the well so that people could hang their offerings on the branches. He rose next morning and planted the tree which can still be seen growing there.

It is said that Mass was celebrated there in Penal Times. It is now known by the name of Sundays’ Well and people still visit it on a Sunday to pray. (0348:177)

A secret but powerful place, quietly known to those it matters to. I wonder if that tree on the left is the one planted by Paddy Sullivan. I hope it is.

Lady’s Well, Dripsey

We almost stumbled over the second well, just a few metres in the pasture from Sunday’s Well – a sad little thing, flat within the ground, a circle of stones around it. It looked as though a metal container had once been within it or placed over it as a cover- now squashed and misshapen. It reminded me of a bog body – poor Grauballe Man perhaps.

The sorry looking Lady’s Well

A short extract from Seamus Heaney’s wonderful poem The Grauballe Man:

… As if he had been poured

in tar, he lies

on a pillow of turf

and seems to weep

the black river of himself,

The grain of his wrists

is like bog oak …

Dedicated to Our Lady, it seems that it was still being revered in 1939 when Hartnett described it as:  …  a shallow spring well, partly covered by a flat horizontal stone. There area few faded flowers and ferns laid on top of this.

Interesting how one well can still be revered and another, just a few metres away, totally ignored.

St Batt’s Well, Kilmartin Lower

The next well lay at the side of the road near Donoughmore in Kilmartin Lower, a prickly thicket of nettles, ferns and ivy at the entrance.

Hacking this back I was delighted to see a little beehive-shaped well still intact behind, covered in the faded remains of foxgloves and other plants.

The well is now dry but a spring had once flown out underneath the lintel. The lintel had several crosses inscribed upon it, relics of past devotions as described in the Schools’ Folklore Collection:

There is only one holy well in our district. It is situated in the townland of Lower Kilmartin. It is called after St Bartholomew and is known locally as St Batt’s Well.

Many people perform rounds there. They generally go on a Friday and Sunday, and the following Friday again. They say certain prayers and drink some of the well water, and rub more of it to the affected part.

Nearly everybody who visits the wells leaves something there, such as old beads, medals, scapulars* and other articles. People never leave food or money there.

The well is in a space off the road and there is a whitethorn tree growing over it. (066/067:0347)

Should you be wondering, like me, what a scapular is, Wikipedia has the answer:

The devotional scapular typically consists of two small (usually rectangular) pieces of cloth, wood or laminated paper, a few inches in size, which may bear religious images or text. These are joined by two bands of cloth and the wearer places one square on the chest, rests the bands one on each shoulder and lets the second square drop down the back.

Essentially tokens of religious devotion, often to a particular saint.

Another entry describes how the well moved from one side of the road to the other but gives no explanation why:

There is a well in Kilmartin named Batt’s Well. It was removed from one side of the road to the other, and there is a tree growing over it … There are many offerings. There are rosary beads, small pictures and little flower pots, with flowers growing in them (0346:141)

I like the sound of the flower pots. It seems to have been a potent well too:

A great number of people used to pay rounds for many ailments. It was customary to leave some article at the well. A woman who had never heard of that well had a dream one night, that if she came to Donoughmore she would be cured. She came to the well and the dream (became a) reality… (142/143:0346)

I wonder when and why this little well fell out of favour.

The journey continued with three wells dedicated to St Lachteen, but they deserve their own blog entry. To be continued!

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

A clutch of Bullauns

Stouke burial ground comes as a bit of a surprise. It seems to be miles from anywhere, high up overlooking some spectacular countryside in West Cork. The name is odd too. The old name for the site is Kilaspick Oen – Church of Bishop John. Later it became cillin stuaice – little church of the heights. Though nothing remains of the original church, it may have been the site of the first parish church for nearby village of Schull.

The Bishop’s Head, Bullaun stone, Stouke

It’s a wonderfully peaceful place, a jumble of graves, abundant wildflowers and some intriguing history. One of the most interesting things is a bullaun stone found in the middle of the graveyard. It is a large flattish stone with the bullaun or basin hewn in the centre, measuring 22 cm in diameter and 7cm deep. On my first visit the bullaun was covered by a flat stone or lid but this seems to have disappeared. Today the bullaun was filled with russett-tinged water and a collection of rusty coins.

Bullaun stone plus offerings

Two large jars with exceedingly rusty lids contain on inspection a mass of coins and some baby earwigs. A statue of the BVM oversees proceedings from a heathery tussock, a single lily looming out behind her. Rather an odd statue when you look closely, what on earth has happened to her eyes?

Roaringwater Journal sheds a little light on how the bullaun got its unusual name:

The bullaun stone in Stouke graveyard is known, according to the Historic Graves account, as the Bishop’s Head. The informative plaque erected by the Fastnet Trails folk tells us that an older name for the townland is Kilaspick Oen, meaning Church of Bishop John. Perhaps this was the Bishop for whom the bullaun stone is named. The story goes that during the time of the penal laws the Bishop was confirming children nearby when the redcoats got wind of his activities and came to arrest him. He was beheaded. The bullaun stone commemorates this act and has been a focus of devotion locally, with people leaving coins and tokens to pay respect and perhaps ask for consideration for special intentions. Additionally, rounds were performed here on St John’s Night – although I am not sure if this tradition has persisted.

As with other bullauns, this one has the properties of a holy well, the water being considered to have healing benefits, especially for warts.

Mention has been made of rounds being paid here on St John’s Night, 24th June, and these included the large and imposing grave close to the bullaun, as well as to the bullaun itself. This fine chest tomb is the final resting place of two brothers, a sister and their housekeeper.

Father James Barry was the parish priest during the time of the Famine and along with his brother Father John Barry worked tirelessly for the poor, attempting to alleviate the wretched conditions. Once again Roaringwater Journal has done all the hard work and provided an excellent account of their life and works. It seems that the brothers are still remembered and respected for coins and offerings were also left at their grave.

The Rolls of Butter, Kerry

From the Bishop’s Head to the Rolls of Butter, another intriguing bullaun – not technically a holy well and not even in Cork but just across the border in Kerry. What an incredible, powerful site though.

The stone in its setting

This large flat-topped boulder, complete with eight bullans and attendant smooth stones, once formed part of a complex ecclesiastical settlement: there are the remains of an ancient church, a holy well (unfound) and another bullaun in the hedgerow (once used as a font at the old church).

Bullaun stone in hedgerow

The stone and its original art ie the cupmarks could date back to the Bronze Age- it is in alignment with the sunrise at the Winter Solstice. The bullans are probably more recent – maybe they are cupmarks that have been customised – but they suggest that this particular stone has had a long and continued usage. What is especially remarkable are the smooth stones within the bullauns – cursing stones if you were feeling unkind, to be turned widdershins; or more benignly, wishing stones, turned clockwise as part of the rounds connected with the church and well. The central stone is holed and contains an undeniably upright phallic stone.

The rock contains eight bullauns of varying sizes, some with smooth stones within. The central stone is holed with an upright stone within it.

Water collects in the basins, surely once used for its healing qualities – warts, I bet. Offerings of coins cluster in the bullauns and under the smooth pebbles, staining the rock.

There is much folklore attached to the stone The story goes that the local saint, who the ecclesiastical settlement was dedicated to, St Feaghna, came across a local woman using this stone to make butter. Unfortunately she was using milk stolen from her neighbour’s cow and the saint flew into an unholy rage, turned her rolls of butter into stone, then pursued her across the river, eventually petrifying her too! Not terribly saintly action.

The site is engulfed by bracken, the larger area surrounded by an amphitheatre of mountains resulting in an extraordinary atmosphere of remoteness, peace and presence. This site is on private land so permission should be sought.

Stouke Graveyard has been recorded.
The location of this well can be found in the Gazetteer.

Island Wells 4: Oileán Baoi; Dursey Island

A couple of weeks ago I travelled to Dursey with a friend, her friend, a husband and a dog, two wells on the agenda. Although we had a wonderful day, the well hunt was not entirely successful as the field in which the first well was supposedly located contained a lot of very large cattle, their calves and reputedly amongst them a bull. It looked to me, as I peered over the fence, that a cow was actually standing in what looked like the well. I resolved to go back and yesterday made the long trip back to Dursey.

Cow in a holy well?

Dursey lies at the very end of the Beara Peninsula, it’s name as Gaelige is Oileán Baoi, or Island of the Bull. It is 6.5km long and 1.5km wide, a wild and hilly place frequently glimpsed off the mainland shrouded in mist. There is only one way to get to Dursey and it’s not for the faint-hearted. A cable car, the only one in Ireland, is the only means of transport across the notoriously ferocious Dursey Sound. The first cable car was introduced in 1969 and was a God send for islanders, mainlanders and day trippers alike. The service is still going strong and you are swung aloft in a small wooden cubicle, six people the maximum allowed in at a time, then glided up and over the gantry and back down to terra firma.

The only cable car in Ireland

Psalm 91 and a bottle of rather murky holy water nestle next to the first aid kit. Today I travelled over with two islanders and their spare tyre, and a German family. The seats are wooden slats and the journey is short, about 7 minutes and surprisingly smooth with some fabulous views as you are wired aloft. Rather disconcertingly, only a few minutes into our journey the whole thing came to a halt, just long enough to get a bit twitchy; then we juddered backwards, picked up two more passengers to get to our capacity, and resumed the journey! The holy water was not resorted to.

All options covered

The island is spectacular – wild and remote, now home to only two permanent residents, several holidays homers and day trippers. Sheep and cattle are plentiful though. Once three villages thrived in the island’s townlands: Ballynacallagh, Kilmichael and Tikilifinna but now the little clusters of houses are mainly derelict or empty, a general air of melancholy pervading.

The hedgerows are spectacular, today bursting with all sorts of flowers: foxgloves, thyme, scabious, heather, toadflax, camomile …. The distinctive herringbone walls thick with colour.

Herringbone patterned walls, an island feature

It’s an invigorating and breath-taking walk along the main track, which goes all the way along the south side of the island then heads up through the centre.

The road less travelled

The views out to sea are jaw-dropping, today the palest of blues and silvers with a surprising amount of tiny fishing boats out there.

Tubrid Well, Ballynacallagh

The first well lies in the townland of Ballynacallagh (townland of the landing place), just outside the settlement of the same name. I was relieved to find that the cattle had been moved to the adjacent field and on close inspection, yes, the bull was in situ – a rather fine beast with a ring through his nose, not a bother on him.


I asked a man collecting water from a tap whether I could go through the fields. He knew of the well but hadn’t been for many years and yes, it was in that field. I squeezed over the fence and followed a stone field boundary, the fields sloping sharply as they headed down towards the cliffs and then the sea. The field itself is called Gort an Tiobarín – field of the holy well.

The cattle eyed me with gentle curiosity and the GPS led me confidently on. Just where I hoped there was a well was a mass of dampness, actually the results of two wells and their springs converging– the first well had a neat stone built opening but I think the holy well was the less glamorous wetness: currently a quagmire of shitty brown muck, much trampled over by the cattle (compare the site with the first image).

Tubrid well, cupmarked stones in centre

The water was trickling from under the boulder and after a bit of searching I managed to identify the cupmarked stones that are also mentioned in the Archaeological Inventory. They lie just in front of the well, much shit-spattered but the cup marks just discernible – five on the stone on the left (CO0126-011001), and possibly two on the stone on the right (CO0126-011003). These date from the Bronze Age and are exciting to see for Beara has very few known examples of rock art.

Although the well today looked more like a muddy bog it had once been the object of veneration. Penelope Durell in her excellent book Discover Dursey has a little more to reveal about it about it:

… The well itself is small, a natural spring arising from under a boulder and spilling out into a shallow pool. Its water and those of another well join the stream and flow into the sea below at Cuaisín an Tiobraid, little cove of the holy well … It was the custom to pay the rounds at the holy well on three Saturdays in succession, reciting ten decades of the Rosary on each occasion.  The devotee, carrying ten small quartz pebbles, would kneel beside the well for the first decade and drop one of the pebbles. The procedure was to then walk clockwise around the well – in harmony with the course of the sun- while intoning the next nine decades, each time dropping another pebble.


The well is simply called Tubrid Well and I wondered if it might have been originally have been dedicated to St Michael whom the next townland is named after and which contains the scant remains of St Michael’s church, destroyed by the English in 1604 and the last gable standing blown down by a gale in the 1990s. It seems not for Penelope Durell refers to the islanders going on pilgrimage to St Michael’s Well on Knocknahulla on the mainland to take part in the annual pattern day there.( I’m still puzzled by that well!) Incidentally, there was until not long ago, a ballaun stone in the vicinity of the old church, renown for its curative powers. This has since disappeared.

St Michael’s Well, Knocknahulla where islanders went to pay the rounds on the feast of St Michael, 28th September

The views from the well though are sublime, and I was delighted to have found it. I was less hopeful about the second well, the intriguingly named Tobar na gCliathrach – well of the hurdle passage.

Tobar na gCliathrach, Well of the Hurdle Passage

I was alerted to this well by a short mention of it in Bruno O Donoghue’s invaluable book: Parish Histories and Placenames of West Cork.  I was further excited to see it marked on an old map lent to me by a friend. The well lay in the last townland – Tilikafinna, tice lice finne, house of the white rock. It was an awfully long walk, nearly to the end of the island but a good one, following  the track as it curved around the bottom of the island.

Someone has a sense of humour for various signs are placed on the track – imagine doing 100kmph here!

There are little benches here and there to take a quick snack or enjoy the views. Today the air was noisy with choughs, nesting in some of the old buildings; and freshly shorn and marked blue-bottomed sheep and their lambs skittered in front of me. Out at sea gannets were diving and inland stonechats were indignant at the disturbance.

The last house on Dursey is still inhabited and I knocked. The occupier was having his lunch and the woman I talked to knew of no holy wells.The map though looked promising. I had to find an old field boundary then follow it down towards the cliffs, eventually veering off slightly to the right. I found the boundary, a large well made stone affair, green with flowers and ferns, and followed it down into the pasture. How exciting to suddenly see a small stream appear from a ridge – could this be coming from the well? It was! Tucked into the back of the hill, flowing out from the rock was a stream of water – fresh and clear. A pipe hinted at someone’s appreciation of the water. In front two flat stones lay as if inviting reverence.

Well of the Hurdle Passage

What a beautiful spot, the most wonderful thing being the smell – I couldn’t help but crush the abundant wild camomile underfoot and the aroma was heady.

I sat, ate a banana and just marvelled at this little well surviving quietly and unknown, and gasping at the sheer beauty of the scenery. Looking out to to sea the Scariff Islands shrouded in cloud occasionally opened up to reveal themselves.

Scariff Islands looking mysterious

Was this well holy? Bruno O Donoghue thought so and I will be content with that. I can’t help but wonder at the name – does anyone have any ideas?  It certainly felt very a very special place.

A long walk back, the same way I had come for the climb up across the centre of the island via the signal tower looked too challenging at this stage. The map contained one more reference to another well Tobar a Righe, well of the slope. which seemed to be down by a cluster of ruined houses, but couldn’t find it. Walking back I was pursued by little drifts of mist and was then fortunate to catch the first cable car back across the water.

Pursued by a cloud

Fumbling in my backback I was delighted to find a fiver, just enough to buy a bag of chips and cuppa from the mobile refreshment caravan on the other side. Perfect.

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