Kilmacow Holy Well, near Kanturk

After a disappointing search for a a couple of wells near Kanturk, we decided to try one more site before returning home to West Cork. It proved to be something rather special.

Kilmacow Holy Well, Tobarkilmacoo

The well was instantly recognisable as we travelled up the long boreen towards the farmhouse, for there in a field was an intriguing circular clump of trees looking highly significant. The farmer, whose name I rudely forgot to ask, was busy hosing down cattle but stopped for a chat and had no problem with us traipsing over the field.

The well is enclosed in the circlet of trees

We parked the car, ducked under the electric fence and walked into the field. There was something instantly alluring about this site. A tall circle of spindly trees and within this another smaller circlet of hawthorns, neatly fenced off from cattle and intrusive agricultural activity.

We entered through the creaky gate, first glancing at the homemade and rather inventively spelled sign announcing the well.

It immediately felt like entering another world, self-contained, separate and full of atmosphere.

The thing that first strikes is the shrine – an inventive example of recycling. A little like the shrine at St Declan’s Well near Buttevant, this one was also made out of a metal agricultural implement of some kind. I’m not sure what, but it did the job very well. It rests on a red plastic tray and inside there is a statue of the BVM and various offerings giving a potent mixture of ancient, modern, homespun, pagan and devoutly Catholic all at once.

Recycling at its best

The well itself is is flush with the ground, a neat circle, sturdily constructed out of stone with abundant fresh water.

The water was considered to hold a cure, especially for sore eyes. This short extract from the Schools’ Folklore Collection describes what was required:

Cure for sore eyes … Water from the well is taken home by pilgrims and is used throughout the year for all kind of ailments. They take three sips of the water and rub it on affected parts. There is a tree at these holy wells also. (022;0354)

The array of cups suggest that the water is still much valued. Intriguingly there is also a lot of delft left amongst the greenery.

Traditionally this well was visited on Good Friday and the practice continues to this day:

it is the custom on the day of the visit to leave something at the well even a piece of cloth. People generally leave statues there, It was the custom long ago to throw some small coin, such as a sixpence, into the water, but the custom is not carried out largely now. People drink the water as they believe it is to be a cure for many diseases. There is a big tree at the well and it is on this, any piece of cloth, which is left at the well, is hanging. (022:0354)

The pieces of cloth are still there but no sixpences.

And such an odd name – here are two explanations of how it was acquired, one more likely than the other:

There is only one holy well in the parish of Kanturk. The well is in the townland of Curraheen and in the Barony of Duhallow. It is near a churchyard called Killmacow and this is the name of the well also. Some people say this name was given to it because people worshipped animals there long ago but others say it was given it because St Machu founded a church there which was called the Church of St Machi hence the name Killmacow or Cille Machu. People visit it on Good Friday and say prayers there. (ibid)

St Machu is probably a corruption of St Mo Chutu mac Finaill, also known as Carthach the Younger or Mochuda, meaning little Carthage, for there was was also a Carthage the Older who was his teacher. He was a Kerryman becoming a monk under the guidance of Carthage the Elder who called him Mo-chuta, an affectionate diminutive. He founded a small religious house in Kerry but his handsomeness caused unwanted attention and maidens to the number of thirty were so enamoured of him that they could not conceal their feelings. He considerately built a monastery especially for the maidens and persuaded them to devote their lives to God rather than him! He later founded another monastery at Rahan where he was eventually expelled due to his extreme austerity – he wouldn’t allow oxen to plough the land, insisting the monks did it themselves. Finally the whole monastic community was expelled by the High King of Tara. Eventually St Mochuda and his wandering band were offered a site at Lismore by the King of the Deisi and here he built his most famous monastery. Mochuda died on the 14th May 637AD, but his Feast Day is usually celebrated on the 15th as St Matthias had already bagged the 14th. Another well dedicated to St Mochuda’s is located on the Beara Peninsula, though I’m not entirely sure that I found the correct well here.

The farmer mentioned an unusual phenomena which he himself had heard on several occasions. Sometimes there would be strange noises seemingly coming from under the ground near the well. He said that it was believed that there was a tunnel running from the graveyard to the well and the noises were caused by trapped air and wind. This unusual but distinctive phenomena is also mentioned in the extract below, a rather different reason being given for it:

Old people say that if a person died that was going to be buried at the graveyard of Killmacow, a drum would be heard beating there on the night before. Nearly everyone living in the district has heard it often and I was told by a person that heard it, that he heard it once in the daylight at about 5 o clock on a summer’s morning. If a person heard strange things like this, the old people say that it is a sign that the priest out left some little ceremony, or some word, when he was being baptised, because they said if a person was baptised with all the ceremony he would never see or hear anything ghostly. (353/354:0353)

We decided to visit the graveyard, just above in the next field. We climbed over the stile and were astonished at the depth of the surrounding fosse for this is the remains of an early ecclesiastical enclosure (CO015-046001). On looking at the OS Historic 6 inch map (1841), the surrounding enclosure is enormous and the fosse very impressive – in fact Seven radial earthen banks (H 0.4m-1.55m) connect inner enclosure with main outer earthworks. (Archaeological Inventory)

OS map, 1841

The graveyard is enclosed within yet another wall but in between the two rings re some intriguing humps and bumps can be seen. Rounds still begin here on Good Friday and continue down to the well, a custom that may have been going on for many years.

There were also two no shows:

The Well of the Brothers, Tobarnambraher, Kanturk

This well was meant to lie just north of Kanturk off the busy main road towards Freemount, in the townland of Curragh. We walked up and down the edge of the road and wandered in the fields beyond but there was no sign of any well, just a random stile set into the wall. Could this once have led to the well, odd stiles are always hopeful signifiers. The other side of the stile was now impenetrable. Rounds were once paid here and there is a tradition that two priests were hung in the vicinity. A friend has informed me that Tobarnambraher means Well of the Brothers (it is only labelled by its Irish name on the old OS maps) and I suspect that refers to the two unfortunate priests.

Killowen, Millstreet

Another holy well in Killowen, just outside Millstreet, also proved elusive. It is referred to as a spring in the 25 inch OS map and is last recorded in holy use in 1876 but now it has seemly vanished. Nor was there any sign of the cilleen which is meant to be nearby (CO039-170). The townland, Killowen, takes its name from the cilleen which was known as Cill Eoghain – church of Eoin/John. Was the well originally dedicated to St John too? The cilleen itself may lie in a ringfort, also indistinguishable.

This part of North Cork is abundant with interesting wells – St Berichert’s Well and Lady’s Well are about three miles away from Kilmacow Holy Well in Tullylease, whilst St Bridget’s Well, Castlemagner is very close by near Lombardstown.

This is the last blog of 2017. So far around 221 holy well sites have been visited and there remain a good few more yet to discover. Nollag shona duit. See you in 2018.

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

Fursey, Friday & Sunday

Day 2 of the Banteer explorations and the the first well on today’s agenda was very close to where we were staying. St Fursey’s Well (or Forsin or Forsa or Fursa) seemed to lie just outside an old graveyard. We found the graveyard easily enough, right beside the road and very enticing it was too but more of that in a minute. The graveyard was enclosed by a stout wall and peering over, there seemed to be a path running down the side of it which looked very promising. We were attempting to find a way in when a car stopped and the occupant looked at us with interest. Michael pulled over to have a chat and was extremely helpful and entertaining. He directed us down to the well which was indeed down the path, but first told us a little more about the graveyard and nearby buildings. He bemoaned the general delapidated state of the site and explained that various committees lay behind it all and not a lot was being achieved.

St Fursey’s Well, Tobar Ursa

We said farewells and attempted to venture down the path. It was badly blocked in several places by fallen trees, Storm Ophelia having occurred just a few weeks previously. We clambered through the branches and over a stout iron gate.

The pathway was substantial, encouragingly damp and verdant though littered with bottles, not of the holy water kind. It led directly to a well – pudding shaped, covered in moss and ivy with jaunty plumes of ferns emerging from it.

The pudding shaped dome of the well

I say a well for there is a story attached of course! Michael told us that the original well was enclosed with a stone surround in the late 1890s. The well was unimpressed, ran dry and popped up a couple of metres away to the west. This is borne out by several entries in the Schools’ Folklore Collection:

St Fursey’s Well is situated in the townland of Clonmeen in Mr Grehan’s field, two miles from O Neill’s cross at the right hand side of the road. People visit on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The whole Rosary is said. I have heard the following story from my grandfather. Somebody walled in the well, it moved two or three yards away where it remains still. St Fursey is patron saint of the well. I have never heard of anyone being cured there. There is no certain cure in the well.  People drink the water. People leaves crosses, beads and any ribbons at the well. They offer copper there. There is a trout in the well. It was never tried to be drained. There is a whitethorn bush at the well. (009:0362)

Another entry gives a few more details:

… the following story is told about the well. The well was in the graveyard of Clonmeen long ago. People used to cross the country to it. The land around it was owned by Mr Howard. He had oats in the field nearest to the well and he stopped people coming to the well. That year the crops failed. The next year the people came again and he allowed them to go in. His crops were good that year. It is said that the first corpse (crops?) that come must draw water from the well till the corpse (crops) come … There is a story told how Mr Howard tried to drain the well. He built a cemet (cement) wall around it and when it was finished he took a step from it and the well sprung up again. It remains there still. (002/003:0362)

Colonel Grove White has another story which seems to suggest there were always two wells:

In Clonmeen North, about four chains north of Clonmeen church, is
 St. Fursey’s Holy Well. It is a fine spring well, dedicated to St. Forsin.
The people used to resort to it for the cure of various diseases, but have
discontinued to do so for some time past. (Field Book, 1838, Ord. Sur.
Off., Dub.) I visited this Holy Well in 1907. I was told people come Fridays,
Saturdays or Sundays for cure of pains and sore eyes. They pay rounds,
and then go to the church in Banteer to pray. Formerly it was called
Tober Ursa, which means prop or crutch. People used to come with
crutches, and being cured, left the crutches behind at the well. About
twelve paces to the west of the Holy Well there was an excellent well in
former days; about 1897 a wall was built round it, and afterwards it ran
dry. (Grove White, Historical & Topographical Notes etc Book 11, p222)

His photograph is certainly of the damp area to the west, though this photo, taken in 1907, shows the well to have a low stone wall, complete with cup and spectacles. The stones that marked this well are now now scattered and the exact spot undefinable.

St Fursey’s Well, photo by Colonel Grove White 1907

The Archaeological Inventory has yet another version of events:

In wooded area, c. 200m NE of Clonmeen church (14411). Circular well surrounded by low stone-built wall (H c. 0.4m) and partially encased by concrete structure. Photograph by Grove White (1905-25, vol. 2, opp. 223) shows open well with drinking cup and spectacles alongside. Rounds paid on January 16th, (St Fursey’s Day); at any other time rounds were paid on three consecutive days, Friday, Saturday, Sunday or three consecutive Sundays (Bowman 1934, 221). Formerly called Tobar Ursa meaning well of the prop or crutch as these were reputedly left behind by people who were cured (Eldridge 1996, 76). According to tradition, well was located a few metres to the W until 1897 when a blind workman was cured and it moved to its present location (ibid.).

Whatever the case, (and I’m inclined to go with Michael’s story that the original well is the one encased in stone and concrete which moved once it was enclosed and sprung up in the boggy area to the west), you have to feel a little sorry for Mr Howard and his oats.

The remains of the walled well are clearly to be seen, substantial, circular, well made but now very mossy. There is an overflow outlet to the west. The well is full of damp leaves but it must originally have been abundant for the overflow area is high up on the wall.

Of the second well, or the area that the first well removed to, there are only a few scattered stones to be seen in an exceptionally wet area.

Possible site of second well

The well was obviously once revered with offerings being left. Interesting to hear that it was also said to contain a trout. There were no signs of and recent visitations though the local church is still dedicated to St Fursey. His Feast Day is 16th January. I wonder if Ursa is just a corruption of Fursa?

We returned to investigate the churchyard. Again so much history within: the remains of a small rectangular Protestant church, much patched up and neglected; a huge wall believed to be all that remains of an Augustinian monastery (its stones and window probably robbed to use in the construction of the smaller church); and some very old grave markers.

Just outside the walls an abandoned and very attractive old building was once the parochial school, built around 1837, replacing a hedge school run by a Mr Daniel Singleton who had 40 pupils, in the summer.

Friday’s Well, Tobar na hAoine

Another well lay close by, Friday’s Well. We stopped at the house and inquired. The teenage son knew of the well but looked doubtful. He went to consult his mum and reported back that it was now dry and covered in undergrowth. This entry from the School’s Folklore Collection suggests it hasn’t been used for many years:

The well is situated on the right bank of the Blackwater in Mr Grehan’s field, two miles from O Neill’s Cross. It was visited long ago but not visited now. Fr O Neill who was a curate in Banteer two hundred years ago blessed it on Good Friday. People say a girl with a sore hand of whom the doctors had given up all hope (was cured?) People used the water for house purposes some time ago but the man who had the well in his land stopped the people of using it. There is a whitethorn near the well. (007: 0363)

We left it at that and went From Friday on to Sunday.

Sunday’s Well, near Banteer

A picturesque drive through small roads and then into a valley with steep wooded sides, a tantalising glimpse of the well high up among the trees. We parked in the remains of a quarry. A sign lead across the river, chunky stepping stones thoughtfully provided. A million steps made out of concrete slabs, wound their way upwards, a metal hand rail most welcome as we climbed higher and higher among the trees.

What a wonderful spot.

Sunday’s Well, Fermoyle

Several tall trees lower over the well house which is roughly beehived shaped and made out of stone. A random mixture of other stones, some quite large, litter the area. On top of the wellhouse a statue of the BVM looks serenely down, covered in rosaries, a jar of fresh flowers at her feet. To the right another shrine contains statues, more flowers and offerings and a rosary-adorned holy water bottle. To the left a neat array of cups look very welcoming in a specially constructed stand, Other statues are tucked into various places around the tree and a few rags and beads have been tied to branches.

The well is obviously still much revered and was renovated in 2016 by the local community who made access much easier via the steps and stepping stones but it sounds as though it has always been a potent spot and much visited. In fact it has all the essential criteria of a powerful and vibrant well: cures, patron saint, a frog and a mind of its own.

There are several entries in the Schools’ Folklore Collection and this one gives an explanation as to how the well came to be regarded as blessed:

Sundays well is situated in Fermoyle woods about a mile and a half from this school.  It is unknown who blessed this well but this is how it was known to be a blessed well. A mason who was working at the Old Court near Kanturk had a very sore eye and a bit of lime went into it. He was living near Mushera Mountain and was taking a shortcut home and he passed through this field. He saw the well and bathed his eye in it. The next morning his eye was cured and he came the next day which was Sunday and built a stone arch around the well and since this man’s eye was cured the well is known to be blessed. It is situated in Timothy Horgan’s field …. (060:0361)

Another entry gives a different version (there’s a pattern developing!):

Sundays well is situated in a wooded incline in the townland of Fermoyle, Banteer. The well is still visited by great numbers on Good Friday. They come from far and near to pay rounds there. St Abbey is the patron saint of this well. It is believed that once when she was on her way to Ballyvourney she saw a white deer at this well and as it was on a Sunday she reached the well she blessed it and called it Sunday’s Well. (778:0361)

Another well dedicated to St Abbey is not far off at Kilshannig. Ballyvourney is where St Abbey, usually known as St Gobnait, founded a religious settlement and is buried. Normally a Sunday’s Well refers to Christ the King, just to make things more complex, and is often called Tobar Riogh na Domhnaigh: Well of the King of Sunday.

All versions agree that the main day for visiting the well was Good Friday and that it attracted a large crowd eager to pay the rounds:

The well is situated about one mile south of Banteer National School. Pilgrims visit it on Friday, Saturday and Sunday to pay rounds. The greatest number visit on Good Friday because on that day one visit will suffice but at any other time of the year three visits must be paid on successive days beginning with a Friday. (781:0361)

Prayers said at the well seem fairly flexible but this story has a humorous twist:

On one Good Friday a stranger came to the well and he was a cripple. He asked a boy what the rounds were. He said thirty-three rosaries for a joke. The man stayed all day saying the rosaries but he was well repaid for this because he was able to walk home. Beside the well are two bowls on which are written IHS and BVM. People rub the affected part with these bowls and they get cured. (060/062:0361)

There was no sign of the bowls presumably once carved by the grateful mason. They were still there when Grove White visited in 1907 but the inscriptions were faint even then. He also mentions that one stone bore the date 1840.

Like many North Cork wells this one also moved. Yes, there are two versions why!

… There is a story told about the removing of the well. One day – which was Maundy Thursday and the eve of the well day – a man threw dirt into the well so that people could not drink the water but the well removed from the field at one side of the road to a field at the other side of the road. It remains there still… (004:0362)

The water of course should never be used for domestic purposes as one woman found out:

Another legend tells that the well changed its position. On a certain day a woman drew water from the well for household purposes, as the usual spring was in a wet boggy place and she thought it too hard to get at. The holy well was at that time above the fence where it is now. The woman put down the water to boil potatoes but discovered that it would not boil. Next day she again came to the well to discover that it had moved below the fence … (639/640:0361)

It was traditional to drink the water and to leave offerings after your visit:

Several persons have been cured after paying rounds at this well. The rounds consist of five rosaries, five decades in each. The well is particularly recommended for sore eyes and pains of all sorts. Those who visit the well drink the water and rub it on afflicted parts. Relics such as hairpins, buttons, ribbons, rosary beads and holy pictures are always left behind at the well by pilgrims. There is a frog in this well and pilgrims who are lucky enough to see the frog in the water are sure to be cured. (778/779:0361)

Robert always likes to carry on the custom. He pronounced the water very good. I just put a dab behind my ears.

The frog is an interesting detail too, a change from blessed fish. Another intriguing comment concerns what is now labelled as a Mass Rock situated right next to the well:

Visitors can engrave names and dates of visits on a plain slab in the vicinity. (781:0361)

The rock is certainly covered in graffiti most of it quite old – unusual behaviour if it was considered to be Mass Rock for they are usually treated with great respect.

Mass Rock close to the well

Two very interesting and very different wells but each bearing similarities and contradictions.

Many thanks to Michael Kelleher for stopping to chat.
The location of these wells can be found in the Gazetteer.

St Ita & St Finnian, more exploring around Millstreet

North Cork is rich in holy wells and although we have made several fruitful exploratory visits already, there are still plenty of interesting sites to visit. We travelled with our friends Robert and Finola of Roaringwater Journal fame and treated ourselves to two nights in a large and spacious Airbnb just outside Banteer.

St Ita’s Well, Tobar Slánan, Millstreet

Our first stop was south of Millstreet in Kilmeedy East. We parked near Kilmeedy Castle, the substantial ruins of a tower house built by the McCarthy’s in 1435 now used as a rather grand tractor store and space to dry washing. We inquired at the house for directions to St Ita’s Well, more commonly known as Slánan Well, and were directed back to the main road, lorries thundering past at quite a speed. We walked through green and boggy pastures following the GPS towards a wooded copse. This was in fact a graveyard, the old stone walls heavy with moss, the jumble of graves densely packed, their uninscribed markers like scattered green teeth. In one corner a huge railed tomb was slowly crumbling amongst the ivy, the final resting place of Henry Leader, who died aged 62, on November 9th 1809, and his two children. More of the Leader family shortly.

Tomb of the Leader family

It seems likely that this was once the site of a church dedicated to St Ita, also known as St Ide.The townland still bears reference to her name: Kilmeedy kill m’Ide Church of My Ide. Look carefully and near the Leader tomb are the low remains of a wall, possible foundations of the original church dedicated to the saint (CO048-018004). She was born in County Waterford in 480 AD and excelled in the Six Gifts of Irish womanhood : wisdom, purity, beauty, music, sweet speech, and embroidery. Her very name means thirst for holiness. She founded a community of nuns in Killeedy, Waterford, and died there around 570 AD. She was renown for her sanctity and spirituality and may have had the gift of prophecy and is commonly known as the Bridget of Munster and the Godmother of Saints. There are a number of churches dedicated to her in Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Kerry and her feast day is January 15th. This beautiful stained glass panel depicting the saint by is by Harry Clarke and can be seen in the Honan Chapel, Cork. More about Clarke’s extraordinary work can be found here.

St Ita, Honan Chapel. Photo by Finola Finlay.

The holy well is also dedicated to St Ita and lies just outside the graveyard in an exceptionally boggy area, slowly being engulfed with water and brambles, an enormous tree marking its presence.

Spot the well

The wellhouse is large, curved and stone built, now green, soft and springy to the touch. A cement cross, still bearing traces of blue paint, is fixed on top.

Mossy well

Several offerings affirm that the site is still revered: various statues of the BVM, a plate depicting a pope (Paul VI according to Finola) and some rosaries.

The water within was abundant and clear, flowing out from the well down into the pasture.

The well is also known as the Slánan Well, meaning the health-giving well and was famous for the quality of its water and the cures it held.

Once somewhat prolonged and efficacious rounds were required at this potent site as described by a local farmer in the 1930s:

The Slánan is situated in the most eastern part of the townland of Kilmeedy about 1½ miles from Millstreet. It consists of a Holy Well dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and St.Ita and a burial ground where many of those who died in the neighbourhood during the famine years were buried. There being only one coffin to be had, this was used to take the bodies to the graveside and was then taken back for the next corpse. For many years this burial ground had been used only for unbaptised children.
To the south-west of the well is the tomb of the Leader who owned the demesne close by.
A very efficacious “Round” is performed at this blessed well and it is the custom in the neighbourhood to perform it for any bodily ailment, and practically everyone in the locality can testify to some personal cure, and cures have repeatedly taken place on promising to do this round. Kneeling at entrance to the well beside the white-thorn tree which grows on its western brink the round is started. First an offering is made of the Round in honour of Our Lady, and the saint of the well for the desired cure or in thanksgiving for cure already effected on promise of this round. Still kneeling the person recites seven Paters, Aves and Glorias and then starts the Rosary. Rising to his feet on commencing the first decade he walks very slowly round the well by the left where there is a well defined path until he returns to the spot from  whence he started. Having now recited a decade or more of the Rosary he kneels and says again the seven Paters, Aves and Glorias. He then rises follows the same path as before and continuing the Rosary. Returning to the entrance to the well he again kneels on the spot as before and recites a third time the seven paters, Aves and Glorias. On rising he continues the Rosary following the same path as before and on coming to the place from whence he started he finishes the Rosary. He then takes some water from the well and bathes his hands and also any affected part of the body. He next gets more water from the well and takes three drinks in honour of the Blessed Trinity. The days for the round are Thursday, Friday and Saturday of any week in the year but it must be done on the three consecutive days and it is necessary to hear mass on the Sunday following in order to complete the Round.
Many articles of devotion are left at the well. It being a custom by everyone making the round to leave something on the final day. Over the well is a Crucifix and printed on it are the words ‘Lord hear my prayer and let my cry come unto Thee’.
What is known as the ‘Long Round’ is made in the same manner on twenty one consecutive days, starting on a Thursday. The ‘Short Round’ is then added on the last three days of the week making twenty four Rounds in all.
The owner of the farm (Mr Meaney) in which the well is situated built a room of his dwelling house on the passage leading to the well and the roof was blown off every time it was put on. Noises were heard in the room and it became uninhabited. Cattle were then put in there but they all died. The roofless part of the house is still to be seen. The present occupier (a son of the former owner) would not use as firewood any fallen branches from around the well. (Schools’ Folklore Collection: 095-098:0323)

Today it seems there are few visitors paying rounds, long or short, and we saw no evidence of the roofless cabin. However, the local football team is still called the Slánan Rovers!

There is meant to be a bullaun stone (CO048-018004) in the vicinity too but search as we did we could not find it. A rather magical spot, serene and hidden, despite being so close to the main road.

Mount Leader

We repaired to Millstreet for lunch in the Wallis Arms and were given instructions how to get to the ruins of Mount Leader House, the home of the occupier of the impressive tomb in the graveyard. Actually this house dates from 1833, replacing an earlier building, the remains still palatial with a huge porticoed entrance and fine period features. The house is perched up high with commanding views and once had ornamental gardens, the lake and some massive trees still extant. Behind the ruins a jumble of stablings, coach houses, walled gardens, kennels and corn drying areas gave glimpses into its opulent past.

Mount Leader

St Finnian’s Well, Flugh Feigh Well, Nohaval Upper

It was starting to get dark by the time we ventured out of Millstreet towards the Kerry border and Nohaval Upper, in search of St Finnian’s Well. Small roads, the imposing Paps to our left and then a long boreen ending up in a farmyard. What a wonderful encounter. After a moments surprise, Jim donned his wellies and offered to take us to the well. His young grandson Hugh accompanied us, both apologising for the bogginess of the terrain – there had indeed been a lot of rain. We paused at the top of a very green field and Jim pointed out where the grass was a slightly different colour, the possible site of a church ( CO029-033002) and a burial ground, the field being known as Pairc an tSeipeil, or Chapel Field. Jim said there was also evidence of a fulachta fiadh. It seems likely that the well is actually in the fulachta fiadh for it was called Flugh Feigh Well on the 1842 OS map, just the way Jim pronounced fulachta fiadh. It was still being referred to as the Folach Fiadha in the 1930s and recognised as being both a fulachta fiadh and a holy well:

Mrs Bohan’s son Patrick (PO) a noted man and a fellow who is often called on to dig graves told me in connection with the Folach Fiadha (the Holy Well) that when Hugh Twomey came to Nohoval (1899) he (Patrick) worked for him and one day and for days they took stones out of Páirc a’ tSeípéil They were fine well-dressed stones and they were used to make a piggery at Twomeys. They dug up what looked like ashes there too and someone must have been living there. (Schools’ Folklore Collection: 508: 0358)

The evidence of burnt material is promising. Fulacht fia are a common archaeological features, characterised by the presence of heat shattered stones. Also known as burnt mounds, they were probably open-air cooking places in which a stone trough was filled with water and heated by the immersion of hot stones, which had been heated by on a nearby fire. Once the water was heated the stones were cast aside giving rise to the usually characteristic crescent shaped monument. Sometimes, as here, they have been ploughed out and just the scattering of burnt materials remain  – and the essential water source.

Another rather odd extract from the School’s Folklore Collection confirms that this well was associated with a fulachta fiadh:

Folach Fiadh is a bank of burned stones. Long ago the Danes used to cook their meals there. There is always a well near it. There is one of those wells in Jerry Buckley’s land in Doon. Some time long ago the water was scarce and big people bought it. A man near Mallow went to this well to buy the water. Two women lived near him and one of them dreamt that she would get water better a mile from the well near the Folach Fiadh. One day the woman got sick and she asked the man for a drop of water and he would not give it to her and she said that he would not get any more water at that well. A taste came in the water and he got no more water there. When he went away the water was all right. (139/140:0358)

Fulachta fia are most commonly dateable to the Bronze Age, way before those hungry Danes.

The well lies in Pairc an tSeipeil and is flush with the ground, with an overflow seeping off into the pasture.

St Finnian’s Well

The well is almost coffin -shaped, stone built and reinforced with concrete slabs, some acting as seats or kneeling places.

A stone slab forming part of the wall, has five crosses inscribed upon it, one large central cross and four smaller ones at each corner. Hugh showed us where the little stone was kept that was used to do the inscribing and Finola made her mark.

The cross inscribed stone, and water bubbling up from underground

Another stone protruding from the wall almost looked as though it had been worked, a fragment perhaps from the old church. The well is beautifully kept, fenced off from the cattle and regularly cleared of weeds and algae.

The water is fresh, abundant and sparkling, you could see it bubbling up from underground. It was said to be exceptionally good – Jim’s mother in law used to come down daily to collect two bucketfuls and take them back across the field. The water contained a cure for sore eyes but was considered good for all ailments. Another very short reference to the well reveals its potency:

Other Piseóga :- Bringing can of water first from the well on the morning of the churning. (507:0358)

Piseógs were superstitions that attended every aspect of human behaviour and were generally feared, strong precautions having to be taken against them. They could be seen as the evil eye or magic, and could be of varying levels of nastiness from a bit of neighbourly spitefulness to some serious cursing and ill will. In this case some water from the well was taken to ward off any evil intentions when the all important churning took place. Farm Ireland has an interesting article on piseógs and Eddie Lenihan, the well known folklorist and storyteller explains about piseógs and churning:

Piseógs were often associated with certain families and certain parishes, with the piseóg being passed from mother to daughter. The female connection was due to women being in charge of butter making and butter was a source of wealth in the old days. If the butter failed, you couldn’t pay rent so were out on the road… (3rd May, 2011)

A trout was also said to live within the well but Jim hadn’t seen him yet.

Once the well received many visitors, the pattern day being centred around St Finnian’s Feast Day, 13th December. (The well seems to have been called St Finnian’s by the 1913 OS map, and is referred to as such today). Traditionally  the rounds were paid over three consecutive days: 11th – 13th December. The first two days were focused on the site of an ancient ecclesiastical enclosure at Nohaval Lower where there are the remains of a church, graveyard and site of a round tower (CO038-001002) . On the third day, St Finnian’s Feast Day, the pilgrims walked the mile across the fields to end at the well. Jim could remember many offerings being left here: medals, money and rosaries. He laughed as he recalled how, when his son when very young he helped himself to some of the money!

One last story, and another odd one:

There was another well in Mikie Sweeney’s land of Doon. All the neighbours used to get water there. One day two men who were not agreeing went to and met at the well and one of them killed the other and the well closed in. A few months ago Mikie Sweeney and his son aged about 5 years went into the field where the well was. There is a green patch where the well was. The son said ‘O Daddy there was a well here’. ( 139/140:0358)

Today the well receives few pilgrims but it is beautifully kept by Jim and his family, and Jim himself has never missed a visit down to the well on St Finnian’s Day.

Many thanks to Jim O Sullivan and his grandson Hugh for taking the time to show us St Finnian’s Well.
There is good article on the well and surrounding area on the excellent Millstreet website
The location of these wells can  be found in the Gazetteer.
Other wells nearby include Tubrid Well and St John’s Well. Trinity Well is also built on the site of  a fulacht fiadh.

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.