St John’s Well, Tobarín na bhFaithni
The forecast promised light air, hardly any cloud and the odd bit so sunshine. It seemed like the perfect day to climb Mushera Mór, near Millstreet, and seek out the holy well that lies at the summit. After a day of nonstop torrential rain, the roads were wet and there was a lot of flooding but all was well until we arrived at the mountain – which was shrouded in cloud and it was blowing a hoolie! The forecasters lied! Nonetheless we parked just outside Millstreet Country Park and donned all available waterproof clothes. We had come too far to turn back and ever the optimist, I hoped it would clear once we got going.
My optimism proved fairly short-lived though there were some spectacular sights to begin with.
After a hundred metres or so the weather closed in even more and visibility became even less. Amazingly we met a man coming down from the summit, he had been up just for the craic but warned us about going any further. He also said this was the wrong way to get to the well and there was nothing to see anyway. I chose to disbelieve him!
The going was tough but eventually we saw the outline of a trig point and a cairn and then looming in the distance a cross. This was an encouraging sight for a wooden cross had first been erected over the well in the holy Year of 1950, later being replaced in 1975 by this metal cross a little higher up from the site. We were getting closer.
A small path weaselled off through the heather. According to the GPS it was going in the right direction. We scrambled down and suddenly there was a chink in the clouds, the air lightened and the wellhouse became visible.
It looked larger and chunkier than I was expecting, and I was much relieved to see it. The wellhouse is three sided, made out of large uneven blocks of stone, roofed with slabs, upon which have been piled more stones going up into a sort of point.
There is a rectangular opening to the south, held up by a hefty lintel. Inside a ledge contains many offerings, mostly religious statues, coins and rosaries. It is well tended.
The well underneath contains water that is fresh, clear, abundant and deliciously cold.
Even in the murk, this felt a very special place, well worth the clamber.
The well is dedicated to St John and is also known as Tobairín na bhFaithni – the little well of the warts. There are three wells dedicated to St John around Mushera Mór and this was originally the main well, the focus of a popular pilgrimage as this entry from the Schools’ Folklore Collection confirms:
….. people pay rounds to St John’s Well on the 24th of June. There is a wall around the well and a timber cross over it. It is a great well for curing warts. People leave money, rosary beads and other small articles near the well. About 60 years ago a pattern used to be held near St Johns Well. They would have two or three porter and spirit tents and numerous cake and sweet tents. All the young men used to be jumping and casting pretty heavy stones, something like the 16lb shot now. There came there a man from Limerick who …..? beforehand of St John’s Well on the 24th June. He had a big lump on his his face. He lodged at Hugh Brien’s ….. on the 23rd June. he paid a round at the well. When coming down the side of the mountain he put his hand to his face and the lump had gone. (153:0325)
It was also considered a very potent well as this rather alarming story illustrates:
This is near the summit of Musheramore mountain which is 2118 feet high, so that the well is about 2000 feet over sea level. It is on the southern side of the summit. On St. John’s Day, 24th June, each year a pattern is held at the foot of the mountain on the road from Mauma Cross to Capaillín Bán. Many climb the mountain to perform a round or pray at the well.Legend – Once there was a large number of men fowling on Mushera mountain, some being Protestants and some Catholics. When they came to St John’s Well they saw a large number of articles around the Well that people had left there after praying rounds. A certain Protestant asked what these things meant, and the Catholics explained all about the holy Well to him. He had some whiskey in his pocket and he mixed some of the water of the holy Well with it. Then he began to mock the Well, and put all the things around his hat. He then went along the top of the mountain, but was not gone very far when he lost his senses. His friends took his gun from him. He then went mad and they had to tie him up. Before they reached their house the man had died. A few moments after he died he rotted away. (033:0326)
Eventually it seems that people found the slog up the mountain a bit too much, especially the young:
…. eventually it was decided by local lads in the 1940s to build a timber platform at the foot of the hill, so more young people could go to the pattern on St John’s Day. Robert Kelleher of Ballinagree was the man commissioned to erect the platform, which he did. As time went on, the elements took its toll on the timber platform, so again the decision was made to put up a concrete floor there …. In the passage of time the crowds doing pilgrimage dwindled and so in 1954 a Michael Buckley of Aubane brought a picture of St John to a holy well on the Millstreet side of the mountain, known locally as Tobair Na Faithi or Well for curing warts, on the 24th June, so that people could come and pray here instead of going up the mountain. (Millstreet Website)
This site is now the main focus of devotion and pilgrimage and has been expanded and cared for by the community.
It is said that this well is now for the Christians and the one up the mountain for cattle! Bottles of water would be collected and sprinkled on the cattle to ensure their health for the year. The mountain townland is Knocknagappul, hill of the horses, so maybe it does them good too.
I don’t know if anyone makes the pilgrimage up here on St John’s Day (I suspect they do) but climbing Mushera Mór is a popular activity on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day – weather permitting. The views up here are meant to be stupendous We did get a slight glimmer coming down but mostly had to imagine the glories. We shall just have to return!