Category Archives: Midsummer

Only Fools & Horses

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. 

St John’s Well, a kilometre away from the mountain site, and a lot further down

 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!

More information about the other two St John’s Wells on Mushera can be found here 
The Millstreet website also has some good information about these wells,

Exploring around the M8

A very fruitful three days in East and Mid Cork enjoying a spot of well hunting. A fine variety was discovered, this little crop lurking on either side of the M8.

St Cuain’s Well, Tobairin Cuain, Knockraha

This well sounded intriguing: I liked both names – Knockraha (hill of the forts) and the unusual and little known, at least by me, St Cuain. The entry in the Schools’ Folklore Collection sounded interesting too:

There is a holy well in the glen underneath Kilquane graveyard. The well is covered over like a house. It is on a rock. There are a few trees growing around it and seven small stones like seven little headstones. People recite the rosary on these stones and there is a cross cut into each one of them. St John’s Day is the day on which rounds are performed. Long ago it was a very popular well, Crowds used to visit it. The custom is dying out now and you would only see a few people going to visit it. There is a niche on each side of the wall around the well like a little window in which are little statues of the blessed Virgin. There is a cup to drink the water and when you are leaving the well you should leave something after you such as a ribbon or a button. There is a small well out from the big well in which people wash any place that would be affected with sore or ache and some people carry a bottle of water home with them… School’s Folklore Collection 102:0382

A delightful drive through small green roads grappling with both driving and using the GPS, when a signpost and parking spot came into view, how very civilised!  An amble through light woodland, a river cascading to the left, everywhere lush and green.

Raised path leading to the well

An imposing yew tree and an even larger beech tree signified that something interesting was about to be revealed.

The original ‘small’ well?

Tucked behind the yew tree and under the beech was a small stone structure built into the bank, complete with a niche containing a statue of a male saint; St Patrick, I think, minus his shamrock. A stone in the front advised to kneel and pray. I suspect this was the small well where pilgrims once washed affected places. There was no water visible today but the smattering of written prayer requests showed that the shrine still had potency.

Beyond this, steps were cut into bank, leading upwards, an odd chair-shaped stone with a cross carved into it lay to the side. The well itself was built into the hillside, stone slabs in the front for prayer, the whole structure rich in ferns.

St Cuain’s Well, with little ‘headstone’ inscribed with a cross visible

Tobairin Cuain a plaque on the top announced; this was put up by the local Pioneer Abstinence Association in 1975. Actually the whole site was restored more recently in 2000, as part of a Millennium Project by the local community. Inscribed crosses were cut into the stones on each side of the well, the crosses now painted black – the little headstones as described in the Folklore excerpt. The water within was abundant but a bit murky; a niche to the right contained a heart-shaped icon of the BVM, spent candles and a small medal.

A cross overlooked the whole scene. This was erected in 1950, another holy year, and a plaque attached to it in 2000, commemorating local men Ned Fitzgerald and Mick and Jimmy Sheridan.

This place had the most tranquil air, almost soporific, yet it obviously remains a popular and relevant place for several cars rolled up whilst I was here and people came to pay their respects.

St Cuain’s Well was traditionally visited on St Johns Eve, 23rd June, when rounds were paid. St Cuain or St Quane seems a shadowy figure but he’s given his name to the local townland: Kilquane, Quane’s Church. He seems to have been a missionary, contemporary with St Patrick, who built a church and monastery in what is now the nearby cemetery, of which nothing remains. A mass is still held here in his honour on the 10th July, his feast day.

An interesting extra fact: the well seems to be aligned to the Winter Solstice for on this day at noon the interior is lit up by the sun’s rays.

Sing Sing Prison

It’s worth just going up the road to the cemetery (CO064-026002) for this holds a chilling reminder of a very different time. Here, in an underground mausoleum, is the remains of Sing Sing Prison, used as the official prison for Cork No1 Brigade during the War of Independence. It was nicknamed Sing Sing after the American prison of the same name. After the tranquility of the well and in spite of a group of men cheerily working in the cemetery, this felt a horrible place, literally a living tomb.

Sing Sing prison, a living tomb

The cell is approximately 4.5m at it longest, barely 1.8m at its highest and is closed with a rusty metal door, the holes drilled into it by the local blacksmith to offer a little air to the miserable prisoners still visible. Black and Tans, members of the Cameron Regiment and local informers and spies were held here until dispatched, their bodies buried it the nearby bog. A wretched story, the facts of which are only recently, and controversially, being examined. Two interesting articles below:

Irish Examiner article

The Year of Disappearances

Lady’s Well, Coolgreen, near Glanmire

Bouncy, large pup

This well took a bit of finding – according to the OS map, various paths seem to lead to it and I decided to make a first attempt from the nearby farm, Coolgreen House. There was no one at home except for a very large bouncy rottweiler/doberman puppy who was thrilled to have someone to play with. I then decided to approach via the longer path which lead through fields. Frustratingly my way was then blocked by a gang of young and rather frisky looking cattle. I decided to try the shorter route once more and returned to the house. Still no one at home but then I notice a newly created road which seemed to be exactly where the path was. I followed this and lo and behold there was the well. Much work seemed to be going on here: the well was fenced off, parking and new roadways recently made around the well area which was grassed and encircled by hawthorn trees.

Quartz pile with well in background

A mound of white quartz topped with an iron cross testified to the visits of hundreds of pilgrims who had come before, leaving stones as they did the rounds.

The well lay behind the quartz mound enclosed in a stone wellhouse, a sturdy lintel holding up the roof, and a slab in front. Steps led down into the well itself.

Lady’s Well

A cross was inscribed over the entrance, a horseshoe above it for extra good luck. Further crosses were inscribed outside the structure and inside a niche held a small statue of the BVM and some candles. The well was dry but it was good to see that it had been so carefully restored for when it was last visited by the Archaeological Inventory it was described as being very overgrown.

The well is dedicated to Our Lady and rounds were traditionally made on the 15th August and during May.

The Virgin’s Little Well, Tobairin Mhuire, Ballybrack

This delightful well, a little shabby but the real thing, was easily recognisable by the profusion of that well known paint colour: BVM Blue.

The well is right on the edge of the road

The site is roughly triangular, jutting right out into the road, enclosed by concrete blocks and railings, a little metal gate topped with a cross leading the way in. It’s another beehive-shaped well, with an array of faded statuary, rosaries and medals on top.

Although it had a bit of a neglected air it had been visited recently as rhododendrons were scattered on top and in front of it. Crosses were inscribed on the outside and the customary niche inside was empty. The water was abundant, fresh and clear. No cups though. I liked this little place.

St John’s Well & Mass Rock, Doonpeter 

I had been advised to approach this well via an old Mass Path which was to be found opposite the Mass Rock. Fortunately the Mass Rock was clearly signed for this is a remote but incredibly scenic spot. Steep steps cut into the earth lead upwards into coniferous woodland, and below the river gushed over clusters of rocks. A little red bench invited admiration before the final arrival at the Rock. A small bridge lead over the river and there was the Mass Rock, literally part of the sheer cliff. Hundreds of crosses have been inscribed into the rugged cliff face, offerings crammed into every available crack. A large metal cross and a plaque told the story. An extraordinary place.

Back across the road and a red kissing gate looked hopeful as the start of the Mass Path.

There were no obvious signs that this was the right track but I decided to risk it. What an adventure. The walk was about a mile long, a beaten path clear in the undergrowth leading through rough farmland, the river down below. So many flowers were just coming into bloom, and the the sounds of bees and insects and the rushing of the water and the warbling of a robin and a wren provided a lovely accompaniment. Eventually the rough farmland turned into woodland, strewn with bluebells and wild garlic, and twisted, coppiced trees. Several bridges have to be traversed – the first very rickety and the second a rather ingenious metal contraption going right across the river. The remains of weatherbeaten benches hiding in the undergrowth spoke of all the weary pilgrims who had beaten a track down here over the years.

A word of warning, at the last stile turn right up onto the hill. I carried on further into the woodland and got hopelessly lost, eventually looking upwards only to realise that the well was obviously on top of the hill. It’s fenced off from the surrounding field for there are young cattle within but you can skirt the edge which takes you to the gate.

Turn right after this stile!

What a fascinating site, well worth the adventurous route to get here. The whole thing is enclosed in a ringfort, or possibly an ecclesuatical enclosure, (CO043-014001) the walls still remaining. A metal gate and two sturdy cross inscribed pillars lead you in. The first thing of interest is a rectangular ballaun stone ( CO043-014003)  with what looks like an intriguing thumbprint on top.

Next to this is boxed statue of St Patrick, complete with shamrock this time. I was amused at his feet.The statue was nicely done but the sculptor obviously couldn’t do feet, they dangle rather plaintively as though he was levitating! The inscribed stones could be all that remain of an ancient church which was once here, possibly the entrance doorway.

The scattering of stones, marked by a large wooden cross, is in fact a cilleen, a burial ground for the unbaptised. A smattering of stones with names inked onto them added a poignant touch – the names of the children who had left the stones or the names of those buried within?

The well itself is further down – another boxed statue, this time the BVM accompanied by  a white painted metal cross and an odd mitre-shaped stone.

St John’s Well

Steps take you down into the well – an array of plastic and paper cups, plus a glass jug available should you need the water.  A handy implement for removing dead leaves lay nearby- I used it for the water was a bit murky.

The well is dedicated to St John and was traditionally visited on St John’s Eve, 23rd June. The water was considered good for all sorts of healing and an entry in the Schools’ Collection mentions that crutches and other offerings were once left there. White quartz pebbles obviously featured in the paying of the rounds for there are stones scattered everywhere.

White quartz stones are everywhere

The views from up here are sublime. The locals were a pretty curious crowd too.

One well defeated me on this trip, a Lady’s Well at nearby Lahane. I stopped off in the village shop in Carrignavar and made inquiries. I was assured by two different locals that there was no well in the vicinity but I was offered a very delicious cheese toastie and a cup of strong coffee – perfect!

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

Tobar Eoin Óg, St John’s Well, Carrigaline

Bonfire night 1

Photo: cdbrock

Today is the Feast of St John the Baptist, a good example of one of those Christian festivals that neatly superimposed itself upon a much older pagan celebration, for it is also Midsummer – an ancient Celtic festival where fires were lit to honour Áine, the goddess associated with the sun, fertility and the protection of animals and crops.

Traditionally festivities began on St John’s Eve, 23rd June, which is also known as Bonfire Night in Ireland. Once every community would have had its communal bonfire, lit as the sun went set and tended through the night. As the embers died down cattle were herded through the fire to protect them from disease during the following year. Ashes from the fire were brought home to put on the fields to ensure good crops and some may have been added to the family hearth, for this was a festival about protection: in the home, in the fields, in the community.

Bonfire night 2

Photo: Irish Daily Mail

In Thomas Flanagan’s book, The Year of the French, set in 1798, he describes a Midsummer bonfire:

Soon it would be Saint John’s Eve. Wood for the bonfire had already been piled high upon Steeple Hill, and when the night came there would be bonfires on every hill from there to Downpatrick Head. There would be dancing and games in the open air, and young men would try their bravery leaping through the flames. There would even be young girls leaping through, for it was helpful in the search of a husband to leap through a Saint John’s Eve fire, the fires of midsummer. The sun was at its highest then, and the fires spoke to it, calling it down upon the crops. It was the turning point of the year, and the air was vibrant with spirits.

Lighting fires seemed suitable to signify St John too, for he baptised Jesus and in doing so, according to the church, brought the world out of darkness.  For more information about customs on St John’s Eve and St John’s Day see here.

As part of the traditions surrounding the festival, wells and sites associated with St John were visited and some are still venerated. I made my way to Tobar Eoin Óg in Carrigaline, where an annual pilgrimage and mass still takes place. This year it was a special Jubilee of Mercy Pilgrimage, marking the Holy Year of Mercy.

Tobar Eoin Óg 

IMG_7374The well is on the outskirts of the town and the custom is to gather on the roadside until assembled by the Carrigaline Pipe Band. It was a very sociable evening, helped by the warm weather, and a good-natured crowd gathered, full of anticipation. At 7.30pm the pipe band struck up and we processed slowly down a boreen and into the woodland.

Sturdy railway sleepers form stairs down into the glade where a the small stone altar had been covered in a crisp white cloth, served by the parish priest, two altar boys and a trainee priest.

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Sunbeams played through the trees and less romantically, clouds of midges hovered overhead!

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Mass was celebrated and the well featured strongly.The Rosary was lead by the priest who circled the well clockwise, stopping at each of the five crosses, another man inscribing the stones. A Decade of the Rosary was said at each one. Later some pilgrims performed the same rounds.

Hymns were sung and we were given a general absolution of our sins, then everyone rushed to gather water from the well. Most pilgrims had brought water bottles with them, others scooped the water up and some just blessed themselves with it.

The well is large and roughly made from stone in a beehive shape. A limestone cross is cemented on top of it, and five stones on the structure have crosses inscribed upon them. The opening is small and rectangular, leading into a corbelled space within. It was quite difficult to get in and out of!

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The wellhouse, candles have been lit within

The water was cold and clear and flowed out down into the fields towards the Owenboy river. The last person to take the water was a young man. He had a bunch of white lilies and some candles and slipped right inside the well, conducting a small, intimate and personal ceremony.

IMG_7460The waters have been considered beneficial for many years. Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland of 1837 gives the following account:

At Ballinrea there is a mineral spring, which is considered to be of the same kind as that of Tunbridge Wells, and has been found efficacious in cases of debility; and near it is a holy well, dedicated to St Renogue, which is resorted to by the country people on the 24th of June.

St Renogue seems to be a corruption of Eoin Óg and is another, older name for the well. According to tradition the well was discovered by a blind man whose sight was restored. A rather eroded plaque tells the story:

IMG_7453Tobar Eoin Óg

Rónógs: St John’s Well

According to tradition was discovered by a blind man whose sight was restored. In gratitude he built this beehive surround in the early 19th Century. Crowds attended the pattern every St John’s Eve, 23rd June. To drink from the well it is customary to recite a decade of the rosary at each of the inscribed crosses.

 

The well has been fairly recently restored and is obviously still much venerated and looked after – at least a hundred people were here this evening.

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Emerging from the woods it was rather nice to see a communal bonfire burning in the fields nearby, young people gathered around it. In fact I was amazed at how many bonfires I saw burning on my way home. Ainé is alive and well, as is St John.

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A Midsummer bonfire next to the site

The location of this well can be found in the Gazetteer.
There are several wells in county Cork dedicated to this saint and some are still visited on St John’s Eve: Mushera and Maulinward  already recorded; Doonpeter, Watergrasshill still on the list.