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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.