Tag Archives: eel

In search of Blessed Fish

Confined to barracks due to hurricanes and tidal surges, my thoughts turned to blessed fish. During the year and a half I have been exploring holy wells in County Cork, I have been fascinated by how many are said to contain a blessed fish – roughly one tenth. The fish are usually described as eels but could also be trout or salmon. What’s going on here?

The Salmon of Knowledge

It seems many cultures have venerated fish or chosen a fish as the symbol of a god or goddess, and by the 2nd century AD, a fish was being used in Christian iconography to symbolise Jesus Christ. In Irish culture, the veneration of fish must surely come from the ancient story of The Salmon of Knowledge  An Bradán Feasa, found in the Fenian Cycle of Irish Mythology, an Fhiannaíocht,  which largely focuses on the exploits of the renowned hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill,(usually anglicised to Finn McCool) including his boyhood adventures and how he gained the knowledge of the world.  Here’s a brief summary:

Nine hazel trees once surrounded the Well of Wisdom, Tobar Segais, and one day nine hazel nuts fell into the water.  A salmon ate the hazel nuts and by doing so gained all the knowledge of the world. It was said that whoever ate the salmon in turn would gain the knowledge. The druid Finegas (Finn Ecas)  heard the story and longed to gain all the wisdom for himself. He made his home along the banks of the River Boyne and spent years pursuing the salmon. He had a young apprentice, Fionn, who in exchange for tuition kept his house clean and did the chores. After seven years Finegas caught the salmon and ordered Fionn to cook it, warning him not to eat any. Fionn did as he was told but in cooking the fish accidentally burnt his thumb on the spit and sucked it to ease the pain. When the boy served up the fish, the old druid noticed something different about Fionn – an inner light seemed to be streaming from him. Anxiously he asked if Fionn had eaten any salmon. He said he had not but confessed to having burnt his thumb whilst cooking. Finegas realised that this was enough and that Fionn was the chosen one. He urged Fionn to eat all the fish. When he had finished he asked him if he felt any different. Fionn said he did not but then Finegas ordered him to suck his thumb for that was where he had first touched the salmon. Fionn did so and all the wisdom of the world rushed into him! Fionn of course went on to become  a poet, warrior and leader of the Fianna, the greatest band of warriors ever know in Ireland, and when he wanted to know something, he just sucked his thumb!

(A thought here on wisdom and eye wells, tobar na súl. A cure for sore eyes is the most popular cure contained by many wells – nearly a sixth of wells explored so far. I wonder if this search for improved sight could also encompass a search for wisdom and enlightenment, a reference to the well as a font of wisdom as well as the slightly more mundane search for a cure for sore eyes. Did some pilgrims visit eye wells for answers to questions and enlightenment? And if a fish resided within, was the well extra potent?)

Tobar na Súl, eye well, Lough Hyne, West Cork

Fish as supernatural beings

As mentioned the fish was chosen as a symbol of Jesus Christ and remains a sacred motif to this day. The symbol derives from the Greek word ichthys, meaning fish, which consists of five letters from the Greek alphabet: I-ch-th-y-s. These five letters are used as initials for: Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, translated as  Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour.


Other fishy signifiers in the Christian religion include the name for initiates in early baptism rites: pisciculi – little fish, with the font itself known as the piscina, or fishpond. Wells could perhaps be seen as real or symbolic fonts and those containing fish considered to have extra potency, the fish being revered as the guardian of the well, the supernatural being that gives the well its healing power and innate wisdom.

The most common fish to inhabit wells seem to be trout or eels, themselves boundary crossers: the trout leaves the sea to enter freshwater to mate, and the eel leaves freshwater to travel to  the Saragossa sea near Bermuda. Seeing a blessed fish was considered extremely fortunate and a sign that a pilgrim’s prayers would usually be answered. At Lady’s Well Rockspring, North Cork a positive outcome was not always guaranteed:

It is said that in the well a fish is seen. When people see the fish they wish for something. Sometimes they get what they wish for but sometimes they do not. At night it is said that the fish is to be seen.  Lady’s Well, Rockspring (216:0367; Schools’ Folklore Collection)

Lady’s Well, Rockspring

At Templemologa the pilgrims travelled hopefully:

St Mologa’s Well, once home to a trout

A trout lives in the well and the diseased people look out for it because they think their rituals more effective in the trout’s presence. St Mologa’s Well, Templemologa  (Schools’ Folklore Collection, 0376: 001/002)

St Peter and St Paul’s Well, near Skibbereen, contained two blessed eels which were much venerated and the focus of an annual pilgrimage. The pilgrims brought bread with the specific intention of feeding the fish:

In Mr Carey’s land, about a mile and a quarter from Skibbereen, there is a Blessed Well. Pilgrims visit it annually on the Feast of St Peter and St Paul, 29th June. Prayers are said during the rounds. In it there is a blessed eel and the pilgrims throw bread to him.  Hundreds of people go to this well on the 29th June every year. The people take a piece of bread or cloth with them usually. There are two blessed eels in this well; it is said that long ago a blind woman and a lame man were cured there. It is said you must see one of the eels before you can be cured. People take a piece of cloth with them to tie to the whitethorn bush which is growing up over the well. I have heard that six unbaptised children were buried in a mound of earth a couple of yards from the well. May the Lord have mercy on their souls. The water that flows from this well drops from a rock that is over the well; if a person looked up he could see the drops falling down. Why people take a piece of bread with them is because they say the eels will live on that much food in the year.( 0297: 143/144)

It was essential to treat a holy well with respect, especially one containing a blessed fish. Using the holy water for domestic purposes usually ended badly. Back to St Mologa’s Well:

Close to Temple Mologa is a copious spring well, which was always held sacred by the people and should be used only for drinking and curative purposes; but on one occasion, the lady of the manor, an unbeliever, would insist on cooking her husband’s dinner in the water of the sacred spring. When the water had time to boil, the cook remarked it was icy cold; more logs were placed on the fire, still to no effect. The logs were still being piled on, the fire blazed, but when the dinner hour arrived, the water was still as cold as ever. The lord waxed hungry, and, like other mortals, became angry; he rushed into the kitchen to ascertain for himself the cause of the delay, had the cover lifted off the huge pot, and, although the fire was crackling and blazing high about it, he felt the water was quite cold; but what astonished him more was to behold a beautiful trout swimming about in it, without apparently suffering the least inconvenience. He became wonder-stricken, and had his advisers called in. They told him to take the water back to the well without delay and pour it in. This being done, the trout again became invisible, and is since rarely seen, except by certain votaries. In the district it is a common saying when water is slow to boil: ‘perhaps the Molaga trout is in it’. (Colonel Grove White: Historical and Topographical Notes Vol 1)

Not all wells were so forgiving and occasionally the well would take severe umbrage and dry up or move as happened at St Mary’s Well and Sunday’s Well, Walshestown near Cork City:

The story is to the effect that a local woman carried water home from the well to boil potatoes. Unfortunately the eel had been drawn out at the same time. To her amazement the water remained cold after hours of boiling until her husband found out what had happened and returned the eel and water to the well. But this did not appease the offended spirit which caused the water to dry up and it has remained dry to the present day. Cordner, from Carmichael Watson Project described as a blog for the Carmichael Watson project, which is based at Edinburgh University Library, centred on the papers of folklorist Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912).

Sunday’s Well & Lady’s Well, Walshestown

These two wells, on each side of the niche containing the statue, were said to contain an eel in Sunday’s Well (to the left) and a trout in St Mary’s Well (to the right). It seems that the central area, which is now a grotto, might have once been a third well – the holiest well. Was this the one that dried up after being disrespected?

The blessed fish as representative of the saint

Some fish are also considered to be the direct manifestation of a saint and therefore especially potent. The eel sometimes spotted at St Fanahan’s well, Mitchelstown was considered to be the saint himself and this belief is clearly depicted on two very different sculptures of the formidable, warrior saint. The statue above the holy well shows an elegant sinuous eel below the dainty feet of the slender saint.

Contrast that with the sculpture outside the Garda station in the town where the true light of the saint shines through. This clearly is a depiction of man who might have a crozier called Cennachathach (head battler!) and whose teeth might spark thereby causing the shafts of his enemies’ spears to burn! The eel is pretty chunky too.

As always a sighting of the eel was considered a fortuitious sign for the pilgrim and this well held a cure for lameness.

The blessed fish as water purifier 

Interesting at St Sylvester’s Well, Malahide, north Dublin, an eel was purposefully introduced into the holy well for it was recognised that eels keep water clean:

We are aware that many sacred fish are associated with holy wells and, here in Malahide, up to the close of the 1890’s, an eel was inserted into the waters of the well to purify it …. The custom of releasing an eel into the well water could also be a folk remedy for keeping the water pure as the eel will eat all the grubs, crustaceans, mites, flies, nympha and all aquatic insects which would otherwise contaminate it’s purity. Malahide Historical Society

St Sylvester’s Well, Malahide; Photo: Technogypsy

The dissenter

However, not all eels were the bringer of good luck – just one dissenting voice at Abbey’s Well, Kilshannig where a good fish/bad fish routine seems to be going on:

it is said that an eel and a trout live are supposed to inhabit this well. The trout is supposed to be seen by people doing the rounds if their requests are to be granted. If not an eel may be seen. A few years ago a man named Jack Sullivan went paying rounds for his son who got a pain in his leg. One day as he was kneeling in front of the well he noticed the trout jump about the well. He had often heard it was very lucky to see a trout. To his surprise when he returned home the pain was gone. There was also a woman whose son fell seriously ill. She went paying rounds for him at Abby’s Well. One day as she was kneeling beside the well she noticed an eel in the water. When she returned home she informed the neighbours of what she had seen. She did not know anything about the eel but one of the onlisteners told her it was very unlucky to see an eel. Soon after the boy died. Schools’ Folklore Collection (139 -142:0363)

St Abbey’s Well, Kilshannig

I have a very good friend who has spotted a blessed fish in a Cornish well but I am still travelling hopefully.

Meandering south of Mallow

Four wells on the agenda today, all south of Mallow and all having interesting and detailed write ups by Colonel Grove White in his Historical and Topological Notes etc.

Ania’s Well, Tobar Aine, Dromore

As we approached Dromore House, (now called Nazareth House and run by the Sisters of Nazareth as a holistic centre) where the well was supposed to be located, I had a sinking feeling that I had dragged my three companions here before to no avail. I was right. We had been here before and found no well. Today, Nazareth House was in the middle of huge and major developments – the road was up, the land surrounding the house was up, diggers and men in high viz were prominent. We shouldn’t have been there and we beat a tricky and difficult retreat, the well I suspect ripped up and vanished. Grove White mentions a Field Book of 1839 that refers to it as Ania’s Well and noted that it was a good spring well resorted to for the cure all diseases. In the confusion of the moment I took no photos.

Saint Hulaman’s Well, Kilcolman

One chain from Keil is an excellent spring well, said to have been consecrated by Saint Hulaman. It is said that if dirty clothes, potatoes, or the like were washed in it the spring would immediately dry. Such happened about 50 years ago but the well was again restored by putting salt and holy water into it, so tradition tells us. (Grove White, Vol III)

When Colonel Grove White visited in 1909 he reported a fine spring well near the road and described the large whitethorn bushes growing around it. He also noted that it was no longer in holy use. The Archaeological Inventory gave a little more information describing the well as being in the base of a sycamore tree. This sounded an intriguing well – another temperamental North Cork well and who was St Hulaman?

We searched high and low along the edge of the road, looking for sycamore trees. I followed the GPS and ventured into a very wet and boggy field, the undergrowth getting more and more tangled, the terrain softer and squelchier. Suddenly there seemed to be a gap in the brambles that looked worth investigating. A little bit of hacking back with a walking pole and trying not to sink knee deep into the bogginess and a definite pool of water was revealed, fern strewn and promising. Right next to it was the impressive stump of what I took to be a scyamore tree.

There were remnants of stone work just discernible in the water but nothing like a circular wall as may once have existed. The water was clear and plentiful.

And I am none the wiser as to who St Hulaman was, Google doesn’t seem to know either. If anyone has any idea, please let me know.

Edit: Many thanks to Ann Buckley who suggests that Hulaman may be an anglicisation of Colmán.

Blind Well, Tobar Caoch, Skarragh

Near the centre of Skarragh about 15 chains west of Skarragh Wood, and about 34 chains east of Lisaniska (fort) is a fine spring well, to which people resort for the cure of sore eyes on which account it got the name Tober keagh, or the Blind Well. Field Book. This well is on Mr John Bolster’s land. People come here and pay rounds for sore eyes. it is much frequented. In 1904 I heard of an old man whose eyesight was cured; his sight improved every time he paid a round. (Grove White VolII)

A chain by the way is roughly 66 feet or 20 metres!

Skarragh Well. Photo by Grove White 1913

We parked the car and walked up our 15 chains towards Skarragh Wood, skirting along the edge of a wheat field.  A barbed wire fence greeted us, the well of course on the other side.The wood was dense and impenetrable and we could find no way to get in. It didn’t look as though we would have been able to get very far even if we had managed to get into the wood. We conceded defeat but admired a rainbow appearing in the distance and amused ourselves by counting the variety of wild flowers growing in the edge of the field – a lot.

View from the vicinity of the Blind Well

Several entries in the Schools’ Folklore Collection refer to the well as containing a cure. It also liked to be treated with respect: 

Near the top of Scarra Hill in this parish (Kilshannig, Barony Duhallow, Co Cork) is a well named Tobar Caoc. Several cures were wrought at this well, especially sore eyes were cured. Long ago there was a tree growing up beside the well on which pieces of cloth and rosaries were hung. The Protestant owner of the land on which the well was situated did not like to see the people coming to pay rounds. He cut down the tree and a few days later his hand became very sore and any doctor he went to could not cure it. At last somebody advised him to bathe his hand in the water flowing from the well. He did so and in a short time his hand was cured. He never afterwards tried to stop people paying rounds at the well.  About five years ago the farm in which Tobar Coac is situated was put up for sale and bought by a Catholic Mr William O Connell. (215/216: 0362)

Another entry gives a little information as to how rounds should be paid:

About forty five years ago an old woman who was then about seventy-five years of age, told me that one of her children when young had a sore eye and on the advice of a neighbour she went to Tobar Caoc for some water with which to bathe the eye. The journey to and from the well should be made before sunrise, she said. She performed the journey and brought a small bottle of water to be applied to the child’s eye. She was about to put the bottle, in which there was still some water, safely away, when, as she said herself, the bottle was taken from her hands and dashed on the floor. The child’s eye soon got well, the old lady said, and she looked on the breaking of the bottle as a warning that she should not attempt to store any of the water but to get a fresh supply if she ever needed it again. (215/216:0362)

A shame that we could not find this potent well.

Abigail’s Well, Kilgobnet

After the limited success of the first three wells, the final well in our search was worth waiting for. We knew we were getting close and on the right track when we sailed past the Well Bar.

Abbeys Well, was once highly regarded and much frequented (and spelled in many different ways). It is also well documented for Colonel Grove White visited in 1908 and there are several lengthy entries in the Schools’ Folklore Collection which provide invaluable information about it.

St Abbey or St Abigail or St Abby is the anglicised version of Gobnait, who has her main pilgrimage site in Ballyvourney. The nearby townland here is called Kilgobnet – Gobnait’s church. This is the story:

The patron saint of Kilshannig … is St Gobnit, but she is more commonly called St Abby. It is said that it had been revealed to her that she should get a church built at a spot at where she should see nine white deer, and that she set out on her travels through Munster in quest of her site indicated in her vision. At several places she saw some number of white deer, she blessed those places and a spring gushed forth in each of them. She finally saw the nine white deer in Ballyvourney. There she got her church built and there she died and beside that church she was buried. Schools’ Folklore Collection (03/094: 0363)

The well is to be found in an old graveyard which seems to have evolved around the well itself, people begin anxious to be buried in such holy ground.  Grove White suggests that it might originally have been in a ringfort. The trees also seemingly planted themselves:

It is situated in a graveyard about twenty yards from the road and not in the vicinity of any church, old or new. There is a line of trees around the well each of a different quality, namely ash, Whitethorn and sycamore. it is said that these trees sprung up of their own accord. There is a protecting wall built over the well built about 50 years ago by a a local mason, Mr Horgan. (Grove White)

The wellhouse is a wonderful structure:

It is protected by a wall of stone and mortar in the form of a hood so that the approach to the well is open towards the east. The overflow to the well is towards the north.

The hood is D shaped, corbelled stone with a splayed entrance, steps leading down into the well itself.

Abbey’s Well

The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage gives a date of 1800 for the wellhouse, saying that it was erected around an earlier well, though other sources give a date of the 1870s. The above quote refers to a Mr Horgan as the mason whilst the information board at the entrance to the graveyard refers to the wonderfully named Johnny the Prayers who looked after the well and was responsible for the two plaques that adorned the outside of the well. The plaque above the entrance remains and is a limestone slab, inscribed with the following words: St Abigail expelling the plague 1872. The saint is represented, kneeling at an altar but both words and image are very hard to see. A cross is deeply inscribed upon it.

Inscribed plaque over entrance

Apparently this plaque had originally been inside the well and had been painted. When it was later put outside the paint came off and the original image was cut in relief. Grove White gives more information:

… Over it (the well) is erected a building, nearly rotund in form, and when Mr. Windele
visited the place there was a rude painting in a panel on the wall inside, representing St. Abigail kneeling before an altar, expelling the plague…Canon Wilson says that this panel, having become detached, was years ago was re-erected and set in the centre of the arch, showing outward, in front. The design, cut in relief, no longer shows colouring. In the Windele MSS. (R.I.A.), vol. 14, p. 537, is a sketch of the building over Abigail’s well.
(Journal for 1905, p. 53.) I visited this Holy Well in May, 1908. I found the following inscription
on a stone on south side of the building erected over the well:

St Abby’s Well, 1908. Photo by Colonel Grove White

1. H. S.
For the suffering Souls
in Purgatory
And especially
Those who erected

This stone.
In memory of
St. Abigal
Expelling the
A.D. 1874.

On the east side over entrance to the well are the following words, etc.

(A carved figure about six inches long and three broad.)
St. Abigal
The Plague.
A.D. 1872

There seems to be no sign of the plaque described as being on the south side. but there are stones around the well that are cross inscribed and some bear the words kneel and pray roughly cut into them. These would once have been incorporated into the rounds.

Venturing into the well through the womb-like entrance, it is disappointing to find it is now dry – well, dampish. The earth floor is muddy and there are coins and other artefacts scattered in it.

Interior of the well, now dry

A little niche to the left of the entrance holds an assortment of cups and candles, and on the right are some statues of the BVM and plastic flowers.

Everywhere had been thoroughly and efficiently whitewashed  – even the rosaries and little figures. I emerged pretty white myself.


The water was once considered potent and contained a cure for all sorts of diseases, especially for sore eyes and limbs. A trout and an eel were also said to reside within:

…. it is said that an eel and a trout live are supposed to inhabit this well. The trout is supposed to be seen by people doing the rounds if their requests are to be granted. If not an eel may be seen. A few years ago a man named Jack Sullivan went paying rounds for his son who got a pain in his leg. One day as he was kneeling in front of the well he noticed the trout jump about the well. He had often heard it was very lucky to see a trout. To his surprise when he returned home the pain was gone. There was also a woman whose son fell seriously ill. She went paying rounds for him at Abby’s Well. One day as she was kneeling beside the well she noticed an eel in the water. When she returned home she informed the neighbours of what she had seen. She did not know anything about the eel but one of the onlisteners told her it was very unlucky to see an eel. Soon after the boy died. Schools’ Folklore Collection (139 -142:0363)

A rather chastening story and the first time I have come across eels being considered unlucky, usually it is also considered good luck to see them. Note too how the rounds could be done in proxy for someone too ill to attend themselves.

The annual pattern day was 11th February, St Gobnait’s day and was once a very special occasion with a distinct holiday air. It was a three day event with hawkers, music, dancing and general merrymaking .

On the 11th February every year rounds are paid to this well. It is like a national holiday for the district. Men, women and children all turn out in their best style… The rounds are usually performed by commencing the rosary in front of the well, saying the Decade there and moving on clockwise round, saying a Decade at each station. In front of the well on pattern day are two or three poor women who supply glasses of water to the pilgrims who are expected to pay at least a penny each ….. The attendance of the pattern is getting smaller each year.The old people remember a time when the young men of different townlands of the parish used to assemble int he fields near Abby’s Well and compete for ‘Championship of the Parish’ with hop-step-and-jump and long jump. Schools’ Folklore Collection (139-142:0363)

Rounds could also be paid on Fridays and Sundays and it was usually necessary to only do one round, stopping to recite the rosary at the inscribed stones and completing the process by drinking the water or taking some home. Many houses would have bottles containing water from the well. The water of course was not to be used for anything other than holy purposes and would never boil.

It is good to see the well is still cared for and revered and I believe prayers are still held here on the 11th February. It is sad to see that is is now dry, recently dry by the look of it, and I hope that might be rectifiable. A tranquil and special place.

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

Well hunting off the N22

A trip to the airport always offers an opportunity for a bit of exploration. This time as slight detour was taken to visit a few wells off the N22.

Sunday’s Well, Tobar Riogh an Domhnaigh,Rooves Beg

Always a good sign

This little well is signed and can found right on the roadside: incidentally this quiet, scenic, road was once the main butter route between Kerry and Cork. We visited shortly after May Day, the start of Bealtine, and everywhere was looking immaculate! A neat stone wellhouse is surrounded by two curved benches and an array of potted shrubs, giving it a cosy and intimate air.

Sunday’s Well, Rooves Beg

A concrete cross lies on top of the structure, draped with a rosary; and a pretty plaque depicting the Mother and Child is pinned to the front.

Above the well a little shelf is painted in BVM blue and adorned with all sorts of offerings, blue being the predominant theme. Fresh bluebells mingle with wooden blue tulips. In the centre a statue of the BVM herself is enclosed in a blue painted niche, flanked by statues of Jesus and St Patrick. An array of candles, some of them still burning, spoke of recent visitation.

Blue altar

In front, an ingenious kneeler made out of a wooden stool complete with gardener’s kneeling pad – painted blue – makes life comfortable for pilgrims.

Steps lead down into the water, a stone slab at the front. The water is fresh and abundant and a rather jaunty red cup with a heart-shaped rim is available for drinking the water. I think it had come from a German Christmas market.

Another name for the well is Tobarin an Aifrinn, Little Well of the Mass, and Mass was held here during Penal Times – what look like the Mass Rock lies close to the well, also beautifully kept.

Mass Rock

The well was traditionally visited on Good Friday and Easter Sunday when rounds were paid, a drink from the well being included. Today the Rosary and prayers are said on August 15th but May is obviously also a popular time to visit. The water was considered efficacious and three  visits were required for a cure – two successive Sundays and intervening Friday.

This is obviously a much loved and still revered well. It has a very pleasant feel and some spectacular views out across the valley.

Views from Sunday’s Well

Lady’s Well & Sunday’s Well, Walshestown

Sunday’s Well lies to the left of the niche containing the BVM, and Mary’s Well is to the right


These wells are situated in Walshestown. One is covered in a complete arch. The relics of crumbling arches shelter the other wells. Remains of an altar, upon which Mass was celebrated in Penal Times, is still in a fair state of preservation.  Upon a stone plate on one of the arches the letters IHS are quite discernible still. The Cromwellian destroyers knocked down two of the arches. The ‘Mass’ arch escaped destruction though; the group of wells is known as ‘The Blessed Wells’, yet the water of two are used for domestic purposes. The water of the well beneath the Mass arch is only used to obtain cures. Almost every storyteller in the district has an incident to relate about the peculiar properties of the water. It will not boil, and is said to assume certain shades and volumes, each change indicating a cure or the likelihood of some disaster occurring in the neighbourhood. The most remarkable cure vouched for is the healing of wounds of a priest – Father Walsh. The surrounding district takes its name from this miracle.

Schools’ Folklore Collection 0345:356/35

The is an interesting description of the wells, recorded in 1937. If I’ve understood this correctly it seems there were three wells originally, each covered by an arch of stone. The central niche that now contains the statue of the BVM seems to have also had a well underneath it, the most potent and significant well. This has now disappeared. cement steps where it once was, leading up to an altar. Sunday’s Well lying to the left and Mary’s Well to the right still remain, minus their arches.

The wells are paved in a roughly octagonal shape approached by two steps down; empty niches lie in the surrounding curved walls. As mentioned, they both once had arched rooves, and also doors. The water in both was abundant but mucky, and the containers scattered around didn’t look as though they had had much use recently. The wells seem oddly neglected compared to the central niche containing the BVM. This is cared for and adorned with statues, flowers, candles and offerings. She has a rather baleful expression though.

The central niche; it seems there was a well once here too

Three carved stones are of interest, all in the central niche. One is a limestone slab set into the back of the recess. The letters IHS are just be discernible with what the Archaeological Inventory describes as an inverted heart beneath. IHS is a Christogram, the first three letters of the Greek name for Jesus: IHΣΟΥΣ. To the left another stone is visible behind an array of offering, a clear cross inscribed upon it. To the right another stone lurks, apparently containing a rough depiction of the crucifixion and another inscribed heart but this is very difficult to see and unfortunately I didn’t get a good photograph of it.

The water from the central well, now vanished, was considered  good for cures of tooth ache, earache and affectations of the head, and it’s interesting that the two other wells were allowed to be used for domestic purposes. They both have something a little special though. A trout is supposed to reside in St Mary’s Well, and an eel in Sunday’s Well. I saw neither, sadly. This story makes interesting reading, did the fish once live in the central well and is this why it vanished?

The story is to the effect that a local woman carried water home from the well to boil potatoes. Unfortunately the eel had been drawn out at the same time. To her amazement the water remained cold after hours of boiling until her husband found out what had happened and returned the eel and water to the well. But this did not appease the offended spirit which caused the water to dry up and it has remained dry to the present day.

Cordner, from Carmichael Watson Project described as a blog for the Carmichael Watson project, which is based at Edinburgh University Library, centred on the papers of folklorist Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912).

The water obviously worked well for the wounded priest too, Father Walsh, mentioned in the first extract; was he a priest injured whilst celebrating Mass during Penal Times? The area is now called Walshestown, after his miraculous recovery.

The whole site is shaded by the most magnificent lime tree. Steps are cut into the cliff on each side of the wells, and were presumably once incorporated into the rounds. Another very pleasant site.

We attempted to find two others wells just beyond Ballincollig. The first was in Ballynora where we were distracted by a rather fine grotto.

Sadly there was no sign of the well, a Sunday’s Well, which sounded interesting:

 In pasture, on steep hillside. Water-filled hollow under sycamore tree; roots of tree exposed and enclose well; filled by water dripping through roots. Some water now drains into trough to SE. Archaeological Inventory

A second well, Dark Well, Tobar Dorcha,  once lay in the nearby townland of Ballinveiltig, but the area was too heavily overgrown for us to get anywhere near.
The location of these wells can be found in the Gazetteer.

Fionnchú: The White Hound

Arriving in Mitchelstown in the late afternoon the light was fading and a thin mizzle had set in but we thought we could manage a trip to two wells dedicated to the town saint, St Fanahan, or, as he is known as Gaeilge, St Fionnchú: the white hound.

St Fanahans’s Well, Tobar Naomh Fionnchú

img_2996St Fanahan’s Well is found off a small housing estate on the edge of Mitchelstown and is clearly signed from the road. There is a helpful information board and an attractive plaque that informs that the old pilgrimage route is now part of the Siúlbhealaigh Stairiúil, or Historic Walking Trail. The instantly impressive pathway leading down to the well is 700m long, a raised causeway through fields, planted with now mature beeches on each side. We met a local man who told us that the causeway was raised during Famine times on the instruction of the local priest but other information suggests that the path could be at least 1000 years old.


Raised causeway leading to the well

Whatever, it is an imposing and rather wonderful avenue, an original Mass path, recently fitted with electric lights which are only illuminated for nine days before and nine days after St Fanahan’s Feast Day on the 25th November. I was saddened to see what I thought was a dead pheasant at the edge of the trees – it gave us a shock as it took to the wing with a squawk and flew off! The causeway ends in an attractive little footbridge going across the Sruth na nÉglise, stream of the church. A small plaque explained:

This bridge was built in 1870 by the County Grand Jury. Half its cost was paid by Edmund Murray, Jeremiah Casey (father of ‘the Galtee Boy’) and Michael Cusack of 19 Lower Cork Street. Casey and Cusack did so in thanksgiving respectively, for the safe return of his son from Australia, and Cusack of his brother, William Cusack, a Union Officer who fought in the American Civil War.

Look out for the carved head on the right hand side. St Fanahan himself ? The Archaeological Inventory reckons it came from the Catholic church in St Thomas’ Street, Mitchelstown.

The bridge leads onto a small island, surrounded by three different streams – viewed as a special sign, reminiscent of the Holy Trinity. The area is enclosed by earthen banks, mature trees giving it an ancient feel as a path winds around the perimeter, here and there interspersed with Stations of the Cross. Occasional breaks in the bank allow a Mass path from across the fields to enter the site, stepping stones across the stream preventing wet feet. A tranquil spot apart from hum of the M8 not so far across the fields, and the occasional gunfire from the nearby Army shooting ranges!

It is the well that is the focal point though. A photograph of the original well can be found in an entry in the Schools’ Folklore Collection – a much simpler affair with kneeling stones arranged around the well basin. Interesting to see the shrines and statues hanging in the trees.


photograph in the School’s Folklore Collection (0376:071)

The current well was restored in 1989 and is apse-shaped with cut stone blocks around it, surrounded by low level seating. The water is abundant and clear with a sprinkling of beech leaves. It is considered good for curing flesh wounds, lameness, blindness and warts. Walking sticks and crutches once adorned the original well, evidence of the power of the cure.


Apse-shaped well basin

Watching over it is a large stone cross carved with the figure of St Fanahan and an eel on the facing side, and on the other side a sickle and a bell. It’s beautifully done, the work of well known Cork sculptor Ken Thompson. St Fanahan looks a benign figure, holding one hand in blessing, his crozier in the other, his dainty slippered feet peeping out from under his robe. Only the large sword at his belts hints at other things. For St Fanahan was not your usual saint – he was a warrior saint admired for: ‘… the greatness of his nature and the nobility of his race, and the greatness of his fury and his virtue. (Book of Lismore)


St Flanahan: warrior saint

The Book of Lismore, written in the fifteenth century (translated in 1890 by Whitely Stokes), is invaluable in describing St Fanahan’s life in all its colourful and fascinating detail. Finola from Roaringwaterjournal has written an excellent entry about him so I shall just keep it brief. He seems to have been remarkable even before he was born and could speak through his mother’s womb! Aged seven, he was sent to be educated at the Abbey of Bangor. His fiery temper proved too much and he was expelled, taking with him a bell which would ring when he arrived at his destiny. The bell rang as he neared Mitchelstown and here he built a monastery. Many extraordinary tales are associated with him including one where the king of Déisi came to see him and asked if he could guarantee him a place in Heaven by swopping his good soul for his bad one. Fanahan agreed and offered the king his own place, already guaranteed. To re-earn his place in Heaven, he commissioned seven smiths to make seven sickles. He then spent the next seven years hanging from them in penance. He rewarded the smiths by calling the place Brigown – Bri Goghann, the Smiths’ Hill. He did descend once though for he was called upon to help the children of Niall of the Nine Hostages against foreign attackers. Later, once released from the sickles, he seems to have been often called upon to lend his weight in battles. He led from the front, literally breathing fire – sparks bursting from his teeth which caused the shafts of his enemies’ spears to burn! His weapon of choice was his crozier, Cennachathach – head battler, reputedly later kept as a relic in the round tower until this fell down in the 18th century! Eventually he went on a pilgrimage to Rome to do penance, dying around 660AD. The meaning of the sickle, the bell and the eel now becomes clear.

The eel incidentally is meant to be visible in the water of the well and is considered to be the embodiment of the saint himself. Whoever sees it will have great fortune.

There is another sculpture of St Fanahan outside the Garda Station in town and this seems to capture his strength and charisma. Sculpted by Cliodna Cussen in 1981, this saint is a suitably beefy and muscular figure sitting solidly upon a rock, head battler in his hand, a rather enigmatic expression on his face. On one side is an eel and on the other a curled up hound, referring to his name.

St Fanahan’s Feast Day is the 25th November and an annual pilgrimage is still made to the well. The pattern lasts for nine days preceding the 25th when pilgrims are expected to visit the well, say private prayers to the saint walking three time clockwise around the pathway behind the well, and recite a Decade of the Rosary.

img_3012-edit-tifOnce a stall provided glasses of water from the well, for sale to the pilgrims for a small gift, now you just help yourself. Donations are still appreciated though.

As we left a local man stopped for a chat and told us about the Mass path and the eel, and the annual Mass. He also explained that St Fanahan was patron saint of blow-ins which made us smile. It seems there is truth in this too for when the saint arrived in Mitchelstown, the locals were not immediately friendly. He vowed to curse the locals and support strangers. Not a very saintly attitude but I think the locals have forgiven him by now.


St Fionnchú’s Church, Brigown

We thought we had time to visit Brigown, site of the St Fanahan’s monastery, 880 metres to the south west. A fascinating place, although there is little remaining of the monastery or the round tower that was later built there in the 10th Century. There are some fine examples of early graves though and in the remains of the old church building (CO019-030004), the base of a Medieval cross has been inserted over the doorway.


Base of cross above doorway

St Fionnchú’s Well, Brigown

It seems that the original well dedicated to St Fanahan was much closer to the monastery. The story goes that a woman washed her clothes in the well, causing much disrespect. The next morning the monks found the well had dried up and reappeared in its current position! I asked at the farmhouse if they had a holy well on their land and they didn’t think so, but looking over the wall from the graveyard I suspect the original well was somewhere near that little hollow or possibly in the trees.


Possible site of St Fionnchú’s original well

A very special place and a remarkable saint.

St Fanahan’s well is easily accessible. Locations of both wells are given in the Gazetteer.

One year in ….

This is the first anniversary of my attempt to visit and record all the Holy Wells of County Cork.  So far I have visited 149 wells: of these 131 can be classified as definite holy wells, four are a bit iffy and 14 couldn’t be found.

I have discovered a few things:

  • Wells are everywhere! They are in towns (Lady’s Well just outside Macroom); in fields (St Laitiarian’s Well, Cullen); in woods (St Paul’s Well, Ballygarvan); under trees ( Well of the Alder Tree, near Bandon); near graveyards (Trinity Well, Kinsale); at the edge of the sea (St Fachtna’s Well, Rossbrin); at the side of roads (St John’s Well, Kilcorney); near rivers (St Patrick’s Well, Kinneigh ); on mountains (St Finnian’s Well, Castletownbere) in fulacht fiadh (Trinity Well, Newcastle), and under cover ( Lady’s Well, Lissanisky).
  • Some wells are enormous:  We were told on good authority (the keeper of the well) that Tubrid Well, Millstreet claims to be the second largest well in Ireland and Britain (which the first is I’m not sure, St Patrick’s well Clonmel looks pretty huge, maybe contender for pole position), while some wells are tiny : St Abbán’s well near Ballyvourney is usually hidden under a tea tray and layer of leaf mould, but lift this off and the well beneath is small but perfectly formed.

Some wells are flamboyant: St John’s Well, Mushera is enclosed in a large well house complete with niches and statuary, has a vast area for the Stations of the Cross and ample parking;  and some wells are exceptionally modest: a small cement circle marks an almost forgotten holy well near Mitchelstown.

  • Some wells are much revered: Ladys’ Well in Kealkil is beautifully kept, much visited and an annual Mass is still held here; others are completely forgotten: Lady’s Well in Bandon had literally completely disappeared under a mound of vegetation but has since been cleared, thanks to a concerned citizen reading this Blog.
  • Some wells are easy to access: St Mary’s Well in Tullylease is beautifully kept with neat paths and landscaping; some are fiendishly difficult: All Saint’s Well near Three Castle Head is literally on the edge of a cliff, nerves of steel required for this one (enlarge to see the small speck that is me).
  • Many wells are dedicated to saints: some are well known figures (the most popular so far is the BVM with 17 wells dedicated to her; St Bridget has 10 and St John is currently in third position with 7); some are a little more obscure – who’s heard of the warrior saint Flanahan, big in Mitchelstown?
  • Some saints have even appeared at wells. The BVM was seen at Ballycurrany and St Patrick visited the well here at Castle Blackwater. The BVM even led a late night visitor to Abbey Well in Kinsale safely to his home, reprimanding him for being out too late.
  • Some saints leave their mark – St Bridget left her kneeprints at the tiny well dedicated to her near Lough Hyne. St Olán left his footprints in a stone near his well at Aghabulloge in North Cork.
  • Most wells are of course renowned for the quality of their water and for their healing properties. If you’re lucky the water comes freshly bottled as at St Mary’s Well, Tullylease.
  • The most popular cure so far is for sore eyes with 17 wells claiming this healing. These well even have a special name: Tobar na súl. The next most popular cure is for warts with 10 wells offering this cure. Interesting most of these wells seem to be in ballaun stones. Other wells claim to help with ague, women’s problems, men’s problems, headaches, consumption and insanity. Some water is said to never boil, never dry and always remain fresh.
  • Some wells still attract big Pattern Days. Pilgrims flock to Gougane Barra on St Finbarr’s Feast Day, 25th September; while on the 11th February crowds gather in Ballyvourney to honour St Gobnait. St John’s Eve, 23rd June, is another popular day for pilgrimage, the crowd being piped down to St John’s Well in Carrigaline where an evening Mass is held.
  • Others attract a smaller but nonetheless devoted crowd: an annual Mass is held at Lady’s Well on the Sheep’s Head on the 15th August, when the whole hillside is decorated with flowers; some wells look hopeful with chairs in readiness, such as the rather fine well dedicated to St Bartholomew near Rathcormac; and some attract no one – the attractively named Well of the Ferns near Kilcoe, hadn’t received pilgrims for quite some time.
  • Some wells are adorned with offerings: St Gobnait’s Well, Ballyvourney is covered with a huge variety of offerings; while some are bare: this poor little well dedicated to St Cummin in Rosscarbery  is much overlooked.
  • Some wells have statues, siles, clootie trees and standing stones enhancing them. Lady’s Well, Titeskin has a very fine stone carved with a figure of Christ crucified, dating from the eighteenth century; St Bridget’s Well, Castlemagner has two carved figures, the one on the left considered to be a sile na gig; the delightful walled well dedicated to Inghne Bhuide at Dromtarriff North Cork has an evocative clootie tree; and a magnificent standing stone, complete with later Ogham inscription, marks St Olán’s Well, Aghabullogue.
  • Some wells contain blessed eels or trouts. The well dedicated to the warrior saint Fanahan in Mitchelstown is meant to be an embodiment of the saint himself. The now forgotten well dedicated to St Peter and St Paul near Skibbereen once contained two blessed eels that were fed by pilgrims. To see an eel is considered very good luck.
  • Some wells have completely vanished but some are being restored. At Trinity Well near Castleventry we found Seán hard at work restoring the old well, a renewed source of pride in the community. At Corkbeg in East Cork there was no sign of the holy well, just rubbish; and poor St Finbarr’s Well near Dunmanway was almost obscured by a mouldering bag of stinking nappies.

All holy wells have their own fascination and an historical and spiritual place in their community. I have just over 200 still to visit!

Today is St Bridget’s Day, Lá Fhéile Bríde, the start of Imbolc and the first day of Spring. It’s currently lashing but the daffs are out. Hopefully this well near Buttevant recieve some visitors.

Là Fhèill Brìghde sona dhuibh uile!

A Saintly Quartet around Midleton

Another day in east Cork. Fuelled by an enormous breakfast and good night’s sleep at the delightful Wisteria House in Cloyne, we (travelling companions Robert and Finola of Roaringwater Journal) hit the back roads around Midleton. First stop the wonderful Lady’s Well at Ballycurrany, already recorded.

St John’s Well, Templeboden

img_1571-edit-tifThe next well was just a little way away in the townland of Templeboden and is dedicated to St John the Baptist, the first of the four saints encountered today. GPS is a wonderful thing but humans are always better and we asked directions from a couple out for a walk. It was complicated to find they explained, they attempted to give instructions but then decided to take us there themselves! On the way we met the landowner and were accompanied by her bouncy dog.

The well was across several fields full of rather beautiful and inquisitive brown sheep.


St John’s Well sits in pasture

The site has recently been restored (2013) by the community, a carved stone announcing the name. The well is enclosed in a neat circular stone wall, a small cross on top signifying the sacredness of the site. A gap in the wall leads into the enclosure, a tiny square font now incorporated into the wall, found during renovations. The well itself is at ground level, semi- circular in shape, surrounded by small stones with a large slab in the front. The overflow is slabbed and goes off through the entrance into the field. The water was cold and clear with a sprinkling of bright green duckweed. The dog appreciated it! There is meant to be an eel that lives within and anyone who should spot it will of course be favoured with great fortune.

The well is dedicated to St John the Baptist and it sounds as though it was once a popular and potent site:

There is a blessed well in Templeboden. It is called Saint John the Baptist’s Well. He is the Patron Saint and in olden times there were several cures. People used to come here from all parts to settle any dispute before the Statue of Saint John the Baptist until some miracle happened and the priest broke the statue. (037:19)

Michael Patrick Hegarty, Schools’ Folklore Collection

The reference to the settling of disputes is especially interesting, as is the reaction by the priest. Originally the pattern day was on the 23rd June, St John’s Eve, when the rounds were made but we were informed that this has recently be moved to the 29th August when a well-attended Mass is still held here.

St Bartholomew’s Well, Garryantaggart

img_1574Onwards to Garryantaggart (garraidh an tSagairt, garden of the priest ) and St Bartholomew’s Well (Tobar Phartalain as Gaelige); this one having the luxury of a signpost and a little metal bridge leading over the stream into the wooded enclosure. The origins of the well are interesting (Philomena’s spelling and punctuation):

…. One day a blind man was walking to a farm house and he was lame and he had a stick and when he was walking over the bridge their was a fog that night. He lost this stick and he sat down next to a stream of water and he rubbed his eyes with the water and got his sight back. He went to the house and he told his story. He went for the priest and the men to dig this spot and they came. They made a blessed well of it. There is a tree behind the well and there are ribbons hanging on it. People leave relics there. There is a cup there and the people drink water there. They say it is not right to boil blessed water for if they boiled it they would die before the following feast of the blessed well. (0387.17)

Philomena MacCarthy, Templeboden, School’s Folklore Collection

This is a delightful spot, surrounded by a variety of mature trees with the stream in front.


Entrance to St Bartholomew’s Well

The well is an interesting construction: the main body teardrop shaped, with a flat wall at the front containing a gable faced facade topped with an iron Celtic cross. A plaque informs that the building is Under the Patronage of St Bartholomew, one of the 12 Apostles.


The entrance to the well

On the other side of this plaque is a painting of the saint himself, looking rather serene considering he met such a ghastly death which included being flayed alive. Incidentally he is patron saint of tanners! A windowbox full of flowers sits underneath him.


St Bartholomew, decorated

The teardrop shaped walls are made of stone with a rounded cemented top and there are hints of red brick under the flat wall. Well worn steps lead down to the well itself: the water, cold and fresh as Robert confirmed.

A bench under the fir trees and a smattering of plastic chairs looked hopeful, testimony that pilgrims do still visit this peaceful spot.


Waiting for the crowds

The Feast Day of St Bartholomew is 24th August. Why St Bartholomew was chosen as the patron saint is not known but the water was henceforth known as a cure for sore eyes.

With a most welcome stop for lunch in Rathcormac it was on to Britway to see a well dedicated to St Bridget.

St Bridget’s Well, Britway

20161005-img_1613161005Again this well is clearly signed and approached up a beautifully maintained pathway, a little stream to the left. Like other wells visited in east Cork, this one is surrounded by a stone wall and has a huge tree, this time a beech, encompassing the wall. The stones are partially whitewashed and a stone plaque placed in the wall informs of the last renovations: May 1st 1880.


A circular wall surrounds this old well

A little green painted gate leads down into the well which nestles at the foot of the huge tree trunk. The well is semi-circular, stone-lined with a small stone jutting out over the water, for ease of water collection? Today the water is full of colourful beech leaves but was abundant and cold.


Leafy well water

In a niche above the well is a statue of St Bridget herself, with rather alarming looking eyes. She holds a model of the nunnery she founded in one hand and in the other a coat hanger that has been recycled as her staff. Rosaries and bracelets in red and white woollen skeins hang from her wrists.


A slightly scary looking St Bridget

Below her are assorted offerings: coins, a medal saying Bless This House, a statue of the BVM in a grotto and a collection of rusty coins in a ramekin bowl. A cross sits atop the niche, poking out of the ivy.

Around the outside of the wall are placed several stones at ground level, presumably something to do with the rounds. Patrick O Regan describes the rites and rituals associated with this well in the late 1930s:

… There is a wall built around this well. This was built by a man called Garret Heaphy on the Ist May 1880 … There are four trees inside the well one rowan, two beech and one sycamore….. The annual pattern day is the 15th August but the real pilgrimage day is the 1st February – St Brighid’s Day. The well is frequented for temporal and spiritual benefits and cure of all ailments. The Rosary is recited, three rounds being given and there are three stones to count the rounds. The water is applied to the affected part. It is also drunk and taken away. The water is also used for domestic purposes but in this instance is not taken from the well proper but from the stream which flows from the well. It is said that water taken out of the well cannot be brought to boil. After the rounds offerings are made, men: money, women beads. These offerings are placed on the small altar at the back of the well or on the limbs of the trees inside the well. Pieces of cloth are also applied to a branch. In olden times it was the custom after the rounds to repair to Saint Brigid’s Stone which lies south east of the well in a field adjoining the graveyard. Prayers were said here and also at the cross on the boundary wall of the graveyard north west from the stone. (0381:311)

Patrick o Regan, Britway, Schools’ Folklore Collection


A very peaceful spot in the heart of the community, still revered and beautifully tended.

St Laurence’s Well, Clonmult

img_1669The last of the saintly quartet was a well dedicated to St Laurence O Toole, Lorcán Ua Tuathail. This lies at the side of the road in a townland called Garrylaurence or Laurence’s Garden. The wellhouse is a beehive shape, complete with a dazzling white statue of St Laurence himself looking rather melancholy and holding what seem to be lilies. Below him a cross bears the inscription INRI and St Laurence built 1842.


St Laurence’s Well, right at the side of the road

The well house has a rectangular opening and a sloping roof. A plaque informs of renovations in 1969.


Renovation plaque

Inside, the circular well house is corbelled with a step leading steeply down to the water, a candle featuring Padre Pio placed on a small ledge inside. The water today a bit murky and scummy.

A cross surmounted on a heap of stones, a bunch of peace lilies and a white bench complete the scene, the site neatly enclosed in a stone wall and gravelled. Someone had spelled out the word St Laurence in pieces of gravel on top of the wall.


A rather melancholy St Laurence

And St Laurence(1128-1180) himself ? He was an aesthete, wore a hair shirt, never ate meat, and went on regular retreats. Lorcán Ua Tuathail became Abbot of Glendalough and later Archbishop of Dublin at the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland. He tried to act as a mediator between the Anglo-Normans and the terrified Dubliners. He died in Eu, Normandy. His shrine became a place of pilgrimage and so many cures were attributed to him that he was canonised in 1225.

Holy wells at Bilberry & Broomfield East

We sought out two further wells on our journey back to Cloyne. One rather sad little well was discovered at the side of the road, now sealed off and abandoned.

The townland was called Bilberry – I wonder if there were any connections to Bilberry Sunday, the last Sunday in July.

The other well proved fiendishly difficult to get to. The GPS led us through a field of ankle-breaking, ankle-stinging sugar beet and nettles, hence the very blurry images which should give a feel of the tribulations encountered!  We looked around hopefully for the rowan tree described in the Archaeological Inventory but saw nothing. Stung and covered in burrs, we agreed Broomfield East Well had defeated us.

We did manage one final monument:  a very interesting fortified house overlooking the Owennacurra estuary : Ballyannan, circa 1650ish. An excellent day’s well hunting.


Ballyannan fortified house

Many thanks to John and Breda for changing their walking direction.
The numbers after the quotes re Schools’ Collection are firstly that of the school, and secondly of the page number. Now online at dúchas.ie
The location of these wells can be found in the Gazetteer.

Lady’s Well, Sheep’s Head

IMG_1347This attractive little well is found next to a Mass Rock and together they form a special site, still visited and venerated. The road that leads up to Lady’s Well is tiny with huge views across Bantry Bay. Park where you can then go through the stile, across a very muddy field, sometimes with cattle, and then you find yourself high up on a ridge. The entrance to the site is marked by a gate painted silver but first you pass the statue of the BVM herself, gazing somewhat wistfully out across the vast expanse of bay.


Some steep and usually slippery stone steps lead down through the gate. An enclosed area below consists of the well, dedicated to the BVM, and an adjacent Mass Rock. Many offerings have been left on the rock and the whole hillside is littered with religious statues.

The well itself is nicely constructed with blocks of stone forming an arch, the interior lined with waterborne pebbles. The clean, cold water is gathered in a shallow basin which then filters out into the nearby field. A mug is handily placed should you wish to take the water. Like many wells, an eel is reputed to lurk within and if spotted is a sign of good fortune.

There is healing associated with the well. A story tells of how a young girl from Drimoleague was brought here in a chair, unable to walk. She saw the eel and was reputedly cured, no longer needing the chair for her return journey home. When the statue to the BVM was put up in 1952, some of the money received towards the cost, came from the granddaughter of the girl who was said to have been cured.
The rounds were said here on the 15th August, the Feast of the Assumption, and Johnny Crowley, a local historian,  explains what you had to do:
Tis a very devout place. and there have been healings attached to it. The rounds is done here on the 15th August. The rounds then consisted of 15 decades of the Rosary, going up one side of the path by the altar and down and round the other. The tradition was to take 15 small pebbles and as you passed the well you dropped one in. You know you had the 15 decades finished when you dropped the last pebble in the well. When you threw in the 15th stone and said your Hail Holy Queen, if an eel that was in the well jumped up in the water, the main part of your wish would be given…
(Sheep’s Head Way booklet)

Lady's Well, Beach
It’s interesting to note that the well is made out of pebbles and the nearby gatepost is lined with them as well. There is also an abundance of white quartz pebbles on the site.


Painting by Peter Clarke

Mass Rock

The Mass Rock was used during Penal Times (1695-1756), one of many open air places of worship resorted to when conducting Mass was illegal and priests in danger of their lives. Maybe the site was chosen because of its proximity to the holy well.
Another story from the Sheep’s Head Way booklet and Johnny Crowley:
Lady’s Well, a little hollowed glen, was used as a Mass Rock in Penal times. In the Bantry area during these times the priest wasn’t hunted, provided he kept out of the way, certainly of the Landlord, and didn’t make a big scene about the religious practices. At the Penal time then, there was a story that there was a change of command of the soldiers at their headquarters in Donemark Mills.
Somebody took the advantage of notifying the new captain in charge that there would be Mass in the morning at Holy Well and the new captain could capture a priest for himself. And that somebody no doubt got some money for his information. And seemingly they did send soldiers out to the Mass at the Well, and the story was that when they appeared on the high ground in front, the priest decided to take his chalice and host and hide it and began to run, but the people watching saw what they thought was a Lady with the light blue cloak on the rock behind the altar where the Statue is now. The Lady slipped the cloak down over the whole thing and blocked off the scene of the altar and the Mass from the soldiers. And when the soldiers saw this, they turned away and left….

It still feels a very devout place and Mass is still held here on the 15th August, when the whole hillside is decorated with flowers and a crisp white linen cloth is put upon the altar. A magical sight to suddenly come upon.



The location of this well can be found in the Gazetteer.


Four rather obscure wells on the Mizen

After all the rain and gales, what a beautiful day to be out exploring and hunting for wells. Today we had several wells on the Mizen Peninsula in our sights, all pretty small and obscure but intriguing.

Holy well, Altar
The Altar is a famous wedge tomb in a spectacular setting overlooking Toormore but I only recently discovered that there was a holy well connected with it. Supposedly located on the other side of the road to Altar, it involved a bit of crawling under barbed wired and squelching through boggy land but there it was, hidden in a little knoll under bog grass and ivy. A bit of scraping away and the stone slabs of the well house came into view, the water still fresh and cold.

According to local tradition, the well was associated with goings-on at Altar. Altar is sometimes rather enthusiastically referred to as a Druidic sacrificial altar but It is highly unlikely that it had anything to do with Druids.


Altar wedge tomb

This wedge tomb, one of many on the Mizen, dates back to around 2500BC and seems to have had continual use for the next two thousand years at least. It was excavated in 1989 and found to contain cremated bones dating from 2000BC. Later, during the Iron Age, another pit was dug and filled with shells and bones, including those of whales. Later still, it was used as a Mass Rock during Penal times (late 17th century) and this is where the little well may have had an importance as part of religious ceremonies conducted there.

Wart well, Lissagriffin
This well is made out of a large ballaun stone now sunken deep into the ground to the south of Kilmoe Church. Although not strictly a well as such, ballauns are often associated with healing on account of the properties of the water that gathers in the basin. You are meant to dip your hand three times into the water, leave a small offering and your warts will go. Having dipped my fingers in the well I was rather alarmed to see an energetic pale white worm swimming around the bottom of the basin. Sadly not an eel for should you spot one of those in a well, it is a sign of great good fortune.

The ballaun is rather neglected on the edge of the rutty road but in front of it are magnificent views across Barely Cove and behind it lies the ancient Kilmoe Church, dedicated to St Brendan. It may date from the 11th century as there is a fine example of an Hiberno- Celtic window in the east wall.


The graveyard is jam-packed with higgledy piggeldy grave markers, and in the SE corner are the remains of what could be a watchman’s hut. In the field to the east is a standing stone and somewhere to the south is a rocky outcrop containing 23 cupmarks which we didn’t manage to find. Interesting to speculate when the ballaun stone arrived at this special place, for they are often connected with ecclesiastical sites and usually included in any rounds.


The view from the churchyard across Barley Cove

Little Well of the Road, Tobereenvohir, Callaros Oughter
This well can be located on the old road out of Goleen – the oughter part of the townland name living up to its description which means high.The road is tiny, pot-holed with a fine crop of grass in the centre. You wend your way up and up, just hoping you don’t meet another vehicle. Tobereenvohir, which means small well of the road, is just that- right on the edge of the road and a small box shape has been carved out of the rock face to collect the spring water. The water was clear and very cold.

Holy well, Callaros Oughter

Holy well, Callaros Oughter

A helpful plaque has been added for it’s easy to miss. There seems to be a second well very close to the other – on my second visit an empty plastic bottle lay discarded within it.

There is meant to be a Mass Rock nearby – the rock directly to the right of it?*  Mass Rocks were often placed near a source of water or within view of the sea and this one was probably chosen because of its proximity to the holy well. The well was once much revered but seemed to have had few visitors recently.

*I found the Mass Rock on a later visit and it appeared much revered and venerated, unlike the holy well which was even more overgrown.

Mass Rock, Callaros Oughter

St Brone’s Well, Toberairin Broin, Kilbrown
We had quite an adventure trying to locate this well, driving up and down very small and very muddy lanes, inquiring at farms and finally tramping over some exceptionally muddy fields. And I’m not sure we succeeded. I thought this might be the well, a small basin under the rock surrounded by some seriously damp ground, but on further investigation, I suspect the well itself may lie a little further off to the NW and may be covered in a slab of concrete.*


Toberairin Broin?

This was a fascinating site nonetheless: a circular ecclesiastical enclosure contained the bramble-covered remains of a tiny church. Once sturdy stone walls were now crumbling but amongst them were the remains of some interesting stones – grave slabs? Marker stones?
The church and well were both dedicated to St Brone, a rather elusive chap to locate. There was a St Brone who was a disciple of St Patrick. St Patrick founded a religious establishment in Sligo and gave it to St Brone. A rather nice story has St Patrick visiting and falling at the entrance of the church, losing a tooth. The tooth was later encased in a magnificent shrine which still exists and can be viewed at the National Museum in Dublin. Sadly the tooth has gone astray. Alternatively brone means sorrow in Irish – maybe this little place was just the church and well of sorrows and there is another story behind that altogether.


* A second visit to the well, this time with the GPS and I was led to a very boggy area about 20 metres away from the church ruins. The well does not appear to be covered over as described in the Archaeological Inventory but but is a spring seeping out behind a rock. The site first identified still looked a possible contender though.

Toberairin Broin and the  holy well near Altar are on private ground, the others have public access.
All locations can be found in the Gazetteer.