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.
An imposing yew tree and an even larger beech tree signified that something interesting was about to be revealed.
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.
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.
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:
Lady’s Well, Coolgreen, near Glanmire
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!