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A trio of wells in Tullylease

IMG_4758-Edit.tifThe enchanting North Cork village of Tullylease was once the site of a large ecclesiastical settlement founded by the wonderfully named St Bericheart (his name can be spelled in a huge number of ways: Bearhtwine, Berechtuine, Berikert, Berichter, Berectchert, Berechtir, Berehert, Berrihert but locally he is mercifully known as St Ben and that’s what I’ll call him). He was of Anglo-Saxon origin, supposedly arriving in Ireland from Winchester, his family having left England due to the Synod of Whitby 664 AD which had imposed a more Roman, as opposed to Celtic, Christianity on the land. The family, possibly four brothers and a sister, and followers arrived in Mayo where they founded a monastery. Later St Ben travelled to Cullen where he stayed with the three saintly sisters (St Lasair, St Laitairian and St Inghne Bhuidhe). Eventually he moved on and ended up in Tullylease where he duly founded another monastery. This wasn’t as simple as it sounds for first he had to contend with the local druid who was not thrilled to see him. A rather ferocious trial was contrived. It was decided that a hut was to be built of highly inflammable material. St Ben and the druid were to go inside, the door closed and the building set alight. Whoever was left standing would win the hearts and minds of the locals! The unfortunate druid was burnt to a crisp and St Ben was left unharmed, ‘not a spot was reddened on him’. 

The monastery that developed here was said to be a seat of great learning. Scholars came from near and far but, as there was no formal accommodation, had to build their own huts by clearing the forest around – hence the name of the villlage: tulach leis  – the hill of the huts. The attractive ruins of an old church dedicated to St Ben remain, as does a collection of exceptionally beautiful, decorated cross slabs. The most intricate example is a cross of extraordinary craftsmanship, in Anglo-Saxon style.

There is also a rather strange figure said to represent St Ben with curly hair and a swallow tailed dress coat. This stone is relatively recent and dates from 1838, but the others are contemporary with St Ben.

Carving of St Ben

Carving of St Ben

A polite notice asks you not to rub them for they are indeed much worn having been included in the rounds that were associated with the three holy wells to be found in the vicinity: St Mary’s Well, St Bericheart’s Well and the Deer Stone, all once included within the ecclesiastical settlement.

St Mary’s Holy Well

St Mary’s well is just below the old church and now consists of an elaborate stone wellhouse incorporating a large statue of the BVM in a niche over the well, very different to the humble stone well shown in this 1907 photograph taken by Colonel Grove White.

St Mary's well Tullylease

St Mary’s well, dated 1907. Photo by Colonel Grove White.

Today the large and rather elegant statue of the BVM gazes out soulfully, candles and rosaries at her feet.

IMG_4727The well itself is in a semi-circular trough underneath, protected by an ornate iron gate decorated with a Celtic cross. The water was clear but a little leaf-infested on the day we visited. A ladle plus special holder, seemingly a specialty of North Cork, was available as were ready filled and labelled bottles of holy water fresh from the well.

The well lies in the townland of Poulavare, poll a Mhear, which translates as the hole of the finger. Tradition has it that the well was once a baptistery but when Cromwell arrived in town he granted it to one of his men. The well was originally lined with oak planks and sheets of lead and was so enticing that the soldier decided to rip the lead from the well with the intention of selling it. When he went to tear out the lead he ripped his finger off instead! Needless to say, the mineral rich water of St Mary’s well is meant to be excellent for curing warts and sore fingers!

The site, on the banks of the river, was once used for wheel making and an attractive plaque commemorates this old craft. The old banding gear, last used in 1964, was renovated two years ago and lies close to the well.



St Bericheart well

Across the road is St Bericheart’s well. This is approached through a beautifully kept and attractively landscaped garden. The little whitewashed wellhouse is in a protective walled enclosure, entered through a metal gate, again decorated with a Celtic cross and rosaries.

Gabled well house

Gabled well house

The wellhouse has a triangular gable, topped with a cross. The well is a step down, a helpful metal bar placed across to ensure you don’t tumble in.

Encircled by the whitewashed wall, this feels a private and intimate space. The stones used for the wall were taken from the remains of St Bericheart’s house of which not much now remains due to this practice. It was once the custom to take a small stone from the house, dip it in the well, then take it home for it : posess(ed) the virtue of securing the bearer against fire and storm. Does this refer back to St Ben’s original encounter with the druid?  The water was consider to cure just about everything. A ladle with its own hanging device remains handily placed to collect some of this miraculous stuff.

The Deer Stone

IMG_4771The third well is not actually a well at all but a large ballaun stone known as as the Deer Stone or the Cloch na hEilte and it can be found in the field, once known as the Fair Field, next to the national school. The story goes that this stone would fill up every day with milk and refresh the builders working on the construction of the church. Puzzled by this bounty they decided to keep watch and see where it was coming from. The milk was coming from a deer but just as she was leaving milk in the hole, she saw the builders, became enraged and kicked the stone leaving her hoofprint in it. She and her milk were never seen again!


The stone was however held in high esteem as a cure for headaches. A suffer was advised to rub her head three times around the bowl, each time invoking the Holy Trinity. Quite hard to actually do, I did have a go. St Ben is also reputed to have baptised pagans from this stone.


IMG_4753-Edit.tifAlthough the Deer Stone now looks a bit isolated and forlorn amongst the grass it was one of the sites visited during the rounds which are still held here on St Ben’s Day, the 18th February. Well Day, as it is also called, was originally the 6th December but no one seems very sure why it suddenly changed dates! The rounds, which can also be done on any Friday or Saturday throughout the year, are as follows: First Decade of the Rosary in the church, the second in the old graveyard, the third at St Mary’s Well, the fourth in the new graveyard and the fifth at St Ben’s well where water from the well is taken.

An intriguing and attractive area, full of history.

Locations of the these wells can be found in the Gazetteer.

Three wells dedicated to St Gobnait, Ballyvourney


11th February is St Gobnait’s Day,  the feast day of a very popular saint in north Cork and one who still has a very well attended Pattern Day where many pilgrims visit the sites in and around Ballyvourney to pay their respects and do rounds (Turas Ghobntan).



Tobar Ghobnatan
It seemed an appropriate day to visit. Many people seem to first attend Mass in St Gobnait’s Church (there were several Masses being held throughout the day), then go to the old church and St Gobnait’s shrine to do the rounds, finishing off with a visit to the second holy well just down the road. I went back to front and ended up at the second well first. This has recently been tidied up with smart new entrance gates and a large sign advertising its presence.IMG_0940What a beautiful place though, right on the edge of the river and nestling amongst mature trees. No one was there when I arrived but a jumble of plastic bottles were available for those who wanted to take the water home with them and a neat row of cups and glasses were lined up on top of the well. The well is sturdily constructed with steps down to the basin, and seating arranged around it.

The water is exceptional – clear, and very cold. A large tree behind is adorned with a variety of offerings. A woman came down with her grandson. She drank two cupfuls of water with gusto and declared the water good. I fully agreed.

The Rounds
I then went to the old church. Actually there are two churches there now – a church of Ireland church, and the ruins of a much older church. Many people had already arrived and were doing the rounds. The pilgrimage starts at the statue of St Gobnait, takes in the small well to the right of this, and finishes at the second well down the leafy lane.

IMG_0965Most walked slowly and respectfully, stopping at each of the five station to say prayers, others just came in and visited St Gobnait’s grave, took the water and shot off again. There are some intriguing artefacts that are now part of the stations: a tiny carving of a Sheila na gig high above a window, and an agate ball embedded in the wall – both of these are traditionally stroked as part of the turas or round.The atmosphere was reverential but also had a holiday feel. Everyone smiled and greeted each other.

Bees & Deer
Everywhere you will notice deer and bees for the story goes that St Gobnait was born on the Aran Islands and an angel appeared and told her to travel until she found nine white deer grazing together, and there she would find her resurrection. After much travelling she finally spotted the deer in Ballyvourney. Here she built a religious establishment for women. She became famous for her healing and for many miracles. One miracle concerned cattle rustlers who were trying to steal all the local cattle. She sent a swarm of bees after them; the rustlers were blinded and the cattle restored.

IMG_5704The bees are especially beautiful on the statue of St Gobnait carved by the renowned sculptor Seamus Murphy. Incidentally St Gobnait is patron saint of, among other things, bee keepers and metal workers.

The statue
I then went on the current Catholic church in the village. Mass had ended but a steady stream of visitors, young and old were coming in and out. This is the only day of the year that the ancient statue of St Gobnait is made available to pilgrims. It is supposed to date from the 13th century and is made of oak, now much worn but what an extraordinary artefact it is. She is laid on a table and people queue to visit her. First though you must buy your ribbons, each cut to the length of the statue (Tomas Gobnatan, or Gobnait’s Measure). You wait your turn then once at the statue wind the ribbons around her neck, around her body, lengthwise on her body and some people scrunched the ribbons up and placed them over her heart. Finally St Abbey, as I heard her referred to, is kissed or embraced. (Abigail or Abbey is the anglicised form of Gobnait).

You take the ribbons home and they protect you from illness over the coming year. It seems she was once considered effective against smallpox for this prayer was regularly said in Irish:
O Gobnait, bring us safely through the coming year, and save us from every harm and infirmity especially smallpox.
It looked as though many people still thought she was very potent. She seemed much loved and respected, almost like a much adored member of the family.

Kilgobnait holy well

20160211-IMG_1041160211I then decided to visit the well and shrine of her supposed brother, St Abbán, found just outside the village but you’ll have to wait for this, he deserves his own blog entry! I did travel a little further out of Ballyvourney to Kilgobnait and visited a spot where St Gobnait is said to have prayed. This small walled enclosure right on the side of the road, now surrounded by fir trees was an extraordinary place. It seems it may have originally been a cillín (unconsecrated childrens’ burial ground) for there were many stone markers and interesting bumps and contours. Most extraordinary of all was the little well: a large ballaun stone filled with water, an odd milky blue. Quartz stones had been carefully laid around it, a few cups thoughtfully provided, and a small statue of Infant of Prague watched proceedings. There is also a large circular stone – could this be associated with the ballaun as a wishing or cursing stone?  A tiny tree growing up behind it gave this place a magical quality. Originally this formed part of the rounds on St Gobnait’s Feast Day but I don’t know how many other visitors it was going to get today.

A small postscript to Kilgobnet. I have just had supper with a friend from the area who confirmed that it was indeed a cillín and one held with special reverence as the site was considered to be as good as consecrated ground as it had St Gobnait’s blessing and protection.

A few extra images of a very snowy St Gobnait’s Day 2018

Others have  written excellent accounts of the pilgrimage Here are two accounts I would recommend:

Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland   Roaringwater Journal

Information about the location of these wells  can be found in the Gazetteer.