Tag Archives: Mass Rock

Way out East, a clutch of wells around Youghal

A while ago I spent a couple of days around Youghal, several wells on the agenda. While doing a spot of research I came across reference to some wells en route to Youghal, notably in the Carrigtwohill area:

The five Holy Wells in our parish have gone dry or disused. Their locations are as follows: St. Coleman’s Well at Reinaslough, St. David’s Well at Wyse’s Bridge, the Holy Well of the Vat in the Well Lane, The Easter Well in Woodstock and the Holy Well in Ballinbrittig. Carrigtwohill Community Newsletter

None sounded particularly hopeful but I decided to see if I could find St David’s Well and Easter Well as they seemed to be just north of the village.

Easter Well, Tobar na Casca, near Carrigtwohill

Neither St David’s Well or Easter Well are listed in the Archaeological Inventory so finding their locations was up to intelligent guesswork!  I identified Wyse Bridge but no sign of St David, who incidentally is patron saint of this area. I then carried on to the One-Sided Glen/ Woodstock Glen, a very narrow and very pretty wooded glen with the most incredibly treacherous potholes. I explored both sides of the hedgerows and could hear running water. Just off the road was a large pool of fresh and abundant water, a pipe leading from it. Could this be Easter Well?

Easter Well?

This extract from the Parish Magazine sheds as a bit more light but this water source was certainly not closed.

Again below in Gleann O’Leith – “The One Sided Glenn”, is Tobar na Casca – “The Easter Well”, to where many came from far and near to the Easter Pattern during the Penal Law Years. However irregular behaviour developed in 1830 due to the consumption of Poitin! The local clergy took immediate action in de-blessing the well and in ordering its closure. In the late 1930’s when the Cork County Council sought to improve the supply of water to the village of Carrigtwohill they added the old Holy Well springs to its then reservoir in the Woodstock Glen. Being now sealed, the well abated into history until the new millennium, when through the memory searching of the older fraternity of the district it was again located and re-closed.

The pattern day sounded rather lively though!

Holy Well, Killeagh

The next quick detour on my way to Youghal was to check out a well that was more or less just off the main road and was marked on the OS map. The Archaeological Inventory recorded it as having been destroyed during field clearances but I thought it worth having a look. I parked near this rather sweet thatched cottage and switched on the GPS.

It lead me along the road then over a gate into a field. The field was newly ploughed and sown but the sides had been left wild and lush. No immediate sign of any well.

The GPS lead me to a nettlely heap which seemed, on reflection, to be an interesting shape.

Interestingly-shaped patch of nettles

I tentatively explored and hit stone! There also seemed to be a bit of a drop! I returned to the car for the well kit and came back with gloves and secateurs. It’s always a thrilling moment when you realise that there might be something interesting under there. And there was!

The well revealed

A bit of hacking back and the well was revealed: a stone built wellhouse with a large flat stone slab on top, the whole thing fitting snugly into the bank. There was quite a large area in front, possibly with the remains of walls. The well itself was now damp rather than flowing.

This poor well had not received visitors for a long time and I have been unable to find out anything about it but it was highly satisfying to find it still there, sitting quietly underneath all the foliage.

Fainin Well, Killeagh

Whilst trying to find information for the well above I discovered that I missed another well  a mile or so away in the woods – classified as a ballaun stone in the Inventory but also described as a holy well. Note to self: please check all bullaun entries before fieldwork. I have not been there yet but have included a photo and some information, posted on Killeagh Inch Community Council Facebook page, original photo and text by by Jonathan Neville.

Fainin Well, a ballun stone. Photo by Jonathan Neville

The Holy Well located on the rock outcrop north of the Metal Bridge is known as Fainin’s Well. It is a Bullaun stone. Rainwater collects in its hollow and it is known to have curative properties, that being a cure for warts. The Irish for wart is faithne giving us Fainin. The original purpose of these stones is unclear, but they are clearly associated with early ecclesiastical sites, possibly that of Killeagh village or else at Aghadoe itself.

The mass rock located at Fainin’s well is a sub-rectangular stone with a rectangular socket set off centre. There is a kneeling step at the front of the stone and this would suggest that the socket was used to place a wooden cross. Mass rocks were used from the mid seventeenth century in Ireland as a location for Catholic worship during times of persecution. What is interesting is the proximity of the mass rock at Fainin’s Well to Aghadoe House. The local lords, the de Capells, lived at Aghadoe since the twelfth century. Even though they were Protestants at the time of the seventeenth century, their Catholic background possibly allowed them to turn a blind eye to the activities at the mass rock. There is a lot of folklore associated with Aghadoe, Druidic origins, monks, and a large castle which all that remains is a dovecote and sheela na gig, the only in situ one in East Cork.

Next time I’m in East Cork ……

Holy Well, Seafield, Youghal

Back on the road and on to the outskirts of Youghal. I spotted the next well from the roadside and how pretty it looked, nestling among all the yellows  and greens, surrounded by hawthorn trees.

First glimpse of Seafield Well

Parking the car rather haphazardly on the kerbside I went back to investigate. The well fitted snugly into the bank of the field, some interesting ridges in the land above it.

The rectangular well house has a distinguished conical roof, whitewashed with lichen. It is stone built and looks as though it was once rendered. A low wall, now turfed, curves around protectively and a scattering of stones in the foreground hint at other details. The conical top is interesting – a large cross inscribed by pilgrims conceals most of the details but other carvings are distinguishable: a large winged soul/cherub more commonly seen on gravestones, and above this a cross flanked by two rosettes. The cross and the face of the cherub/soul have also been inscribed with crosses.

There is also lettering below these carvings now hard to decipher which inform: Erected by Thomas Seaward Esq. of Seafield 1833. Thomas Seward or Seaward, spelt in several ways, was the Land Agent for the Duke of Devonshire, in charge of his estates in Cork and Waterford from 1817-1849. He lived at nearby Seafield House, currently being restored.

Close up of original inscription with the name Seaward Esq

The red sandstone lintel has also been covered in carved graffiti, some of it old. The well itself was dry, a fine crop of nettles at its entrance. It looked as though the stream, which presumably once fed the well, had been re-directed at some point to flow down the side of the road. This was a lovely place, the perfect day for visiting – the air full of birdsong and bees humming among the abundant wild flowers. Frustratingly I have been unable to find out much else about the well.

St Corán’s Well, Youghal

The final well on my list did not disappoint though it was in the most unexpected place –  a housing estate high up on the outskirts of the town. Even better, it was signed!

Impressive entrance pillars with a central pillar topped with a cross led down a long grassy avenue, cordylines and fencing, hawthorns in full bloom. it was such a bright and sunny day that taking photos was difficult as the light was either too bright or there were shadows everywhere.

The stone wellhouse is an interesting shaped building, elegant with attractive details – the main bit is rectangular, but it’s topped with a triangular roof, complete with added decorative flounces and finials. Pilgrims’ crosses are etched here and there. There is a stone slab in front of the well and the interior basin is square, the water fresh, clear and cold.

St Corán’s Well

A large spider’s web across the entrance confirmed that not many visitors had been recently and the empty plastic bottles littering the site had not contained holy water.

An exuberantly flowering hawthorn lent a protective cloak over the well.

To the right of the well lay various memorial stones including a rather nice arched stone bearing the name of the well, Naomh Corán (St Córan) on the front, tobar beannaithe (blessed well) on the back, the lettering and Celtic crosses highlighted in red.

Behind this lay a rather plain concrete cross erected in the holy year 1983/84. A little rusty donation box looked like it hadn’t receive much charity for sometime. Crosses inscribed on several of the stones spoke of numerous pilgrims visiting the well to pay rounds on St Coráns Feast Day, possibly 9th February. I say possibly because St Corán seems a very elusive chap and I have not been able to find out much about him at all.

He probably lived in the mid 6th century, founded a monastery up here and all that remains is this well. It has a neglected but very pleasant air, peaceful and once you walk down the long path, it feels remote and otherworldly. Some stunning views too.


I continued on into Youghal which was looking its best in the brilliant sunshine. I was completely knocked out by the splendour of the Collegiate Church and the richness within (especially  Boyle’s tomb) but as I emerged blinking into the sunshine and peered over the graveyard wall in an attempt to see to Walter Raleigh’s house (still inhabited and the inhabitant not delighted by people peering over said wall) something funny happened. Two women approached, smiling, and took me by the arms and hoisted me up onto a nearby chest tomb. This is the best place to get a photo. Make sure you see the oriel window where Walter Raleigh probably sat with his friend Spencer, you know  – the Faery Queen.

I dutifully took the photo then they said, come on now time to get back to the bus. I gently explained I was nothing to do with their tour and much hilarity ensued. Who knows where I might have ended up next!

Actually I ended up in the gardens of Ballymaloe Cookery School and was further stunned by the shell house!

Shell House interior, Ballymaloe Cookery School gardens

For an informative description of St Mary’s Collegiate Church visit Roaringwater Journal.
Youghal has an excellent and informative website.
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.

Exploring around the M8

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

St Cuain’s Well, Tobairin Cuain, Knockraha

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

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

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

Raised path leading to the well

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

The original ‘small’ well?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sing Sing Prison

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

Sing Sing prison, a living tomb

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

Irish Examiner article

The Year of Disappearances

Lady’s Well, Coolgreen, near Glanmire

Bouncy, large pup

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

Quartz pile with well in background

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

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

Lady’s Well

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

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

The Virgin’s Little Well, Tobairin Mhuire, Ballybrack

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

The well is right on the edge of the road

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

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

St John’s Well, Doonpeter  & Mass Rock

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

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

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

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

Turn right after this stile!

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

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

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

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

St John’s Well

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

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

White quartz stones are everywhere

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

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

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

Some thoughts on Ballauns

Travelling around looking for holy wells, as you do, it is remarkable how often a ballaun is encountered – either situated near a well or described as the well itself.  A ballaun is, at its most simple, a man-made hollow carved in a rock. They crop up all over the place and there are 1014 recorded in the National Monument Database. The Irish word, bullán, means bowl or possibly drinking vessel, milk pail or little holes. Quite how old they are or what they were originally used for is open to debate. Some believe they date back to the Bronze Age, others that they are Medieval. Some say their original uses have been long forgotten but they were later adapted for Christian practice as fonts or stoups.The Archaeological Inventory defines them as:

The term bullaun is used by archaeologists to describe man-made hollows or basins cut into outcropping rock, boulders or small portable stones. One, two or more hollows may occur in a stone. Bullaun stones are found in association with ecclesiastical enclosures, penitential stations, holy wells and burial grounds and sometimes with ringforts.

Others think they have much more mundane uses and were originally grinding vessels, like large mortars. Quern stones seemed to have been used for grinding wheat so were these used for crushing nuts, bones, seeds? Another theory is they were used in the production of ironworking and smithing, used to crush metal ores.  Evidence is fragmentary and research minimal but here are a few observations:

  • They are often associated with monastic sites
  • They are often found by holy wells
  • They are sometimes the holy well itself
  • Sometimes they are in earthfast rocks
  • Other times they are described as portable
  • Usually they are just a single depression in the rock
  • Other times there might be multiple ballauns
  • Sometimes they have been incorporated into an ancient stone, and used as a mass rock
  • They have associations with baptism
  • Often they have been moved from their original site and placed near a religious site
  • Sometimes they are associated with curing or cursing, a stone moved in them as prayers or curses incanted
  • Many are said to never run dry
  • The water within is often associated with the curing of warts
  • Others are said to miraculously fill with milk
  • Some multiple ballauns contain different coloured water
  • They are sometimes included in the rounds at pilgrimage sites

Safe to say that ballauns are probably multi-period, multi- functional and have healing connotations – warts being top of the list (is there some mineral in the stone that is particularly efficacious for this complaint?) Recently I visited two very interesting examples both with spiritual or healing connections, and both had been used as Mass Rocks.

Holy Wells, Mohanagh, near Skibbereen

Described as a multiple ballaun stone/holy well in the Archaeological Inventory, this proved an elusive monument, the old track that once led to it from the roadside long since gone. Today I went up to the house, an extensive large dairy farm behind. Seán was doing something in a shed and kindly dropped everything to take me out to the holy wells. What magnificent countryside – up high, amongst pasture with huge views out on all directions, the hills crowned with ringforts.


The stone was part of a natural rocky outcrop, earthfast, and the holy wells were actually four ballauns, two large ones and two smaller ones. Whilst we were walking over to the site, Sean’s phone rang and it was John, the owner of the farm, who had seen us up above and wanted to talk to me and give me more information.

Mohonagh ballauns

View from above, three of the four ballauns viewable

He thought the ballauns probably dated from the Celtic Period and the stone had later been adopted by early Christians. He knew the stone had been used as a Mass Rock during Penal Times. John didn’t know of any particular healing qualities associated with the wells but he was a hypnotherapist and opined that whatever you believed might eventually work for you.


The largest ballaun, incredibly clear water

Two of the largest ballauns were full of water and this one in particular, illuminated by the strong sunlight, looked suitably mysterious and profound. It is easy to imagine that they would have made perfect baptismal fonts at a later period. It seems there was also a pillar stone here once, for Jack Roberts in his book, Exploring West Cork, describes how the stone was in situ but broken when he visited.  No sign of it today.

The rocky outcrop is in a magnificent position with wide views out towards wind farms on the distant hills. A ringfort (CO141-075001) lay not very far away – Cahergnauv – the fort of the bones. We waded through thick slurry, while Seán held down the barbed wire and hacked back the bracken so I could get a better look.

The ringfort was intact, a large neat circle now full of russet coloured bracken. We contemplated the Other Crowd and decided to go no further. A delightful encounter and an amazing stone.

Castlemehigan Cup marked stone & possible ballaun

Some while ago I visited another enigmatic stone, complete with ballaun, as part of a day exploring rock art, led by Robert and Finola of Roaringwater Journal fame. Do check out their journal which contains several fascinating articles about the subject including this one.  The enormous earthfast rock at Castlemehigan is in the most extraordinary location, high up overlooking a small lough, with views of the sea beyond.


The earthfast rock is covered in 20 cupmarks

It is covered in 20 cupmarks, prehistoric rock art, but one in particular is different – larger with straight sides, a definite basin shape. Look carefully and you can see crosses inscribed on the surface near to the ballaun for the stone was later used as a Mass Rock, very similar to Mohanagh. The hill above is still known locally as Cnocan an Aifreann, Hill of the Mass.


Largest cupmark or a ballaun?

I had heard that the water was good for curing warts and wondered if it might also be considered a holy well. Was the water used for cures before it became a Mass Rock or was the water considered powerful once it was used as Mass Rock?


Rock in the foreground with fine views out across the lough

It’s easy to imagine people gathering here over the centuries to worship a multitude of gods for what a magnificent situation with those long views out over the lake and beyond.

Another great example of this kind of stone is the one near Caheragh recorded a few weeks ago. This had cupmarks and ballaun stone recognised as a holy well, and had been used as a Mass Rock.


Holy well/ballaun near Caheragh, Skibbereen

Some useful websites:

Irish megaliths: ballauns

Blood from a stone

Irish ballaun stones

Many thanks to John McCarthy for the information and to Sean Leahy for showing me the wells in Mohonagh. The wells are on private land, please ask permission at the farm.

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

In Search of Cats around Toe Head

The day being fine we set out for Toe Head, a small peninsula somewhere below Skibbereen roughly towards Castletownsend. There were three wells on the agenda and I was not very hopeful about finding any of them. Once off the main Castletownsend road the roads become quite challenging but highly scenic: tiny bumpy roads with stunning views out to the Atlantic, whitewashed farms and green pasture full of black and white cows.

Well of the Two Cats, Tobar na Chat, Toe Head

img_0050The first two wells on the agenda both had unusual names connected with cats: Well of the Two Cats and Well of the White Cat, both reputedly within 70 metres of each other. We parked the car and I went off to inquire at a house. Paddy was doing something dangerous in a shed that involved using a mask. He very kindly answered my questions and was amazed to hear I knew about the well – he only knew of one but gave directions: up the boreen, across the ditch and look for the cattle trough. The boreen was fairly newly restored and we feared that the Well of the White Cat, the first one to be encountered according to the GPS, might have been destroyed in the ensuing work. The Well of the White Cat appears on an early OS Map but not in later editions though it is mentioned in the Archaeological Inventory and the name is supplied by Jack Roberts in his book Exploring West Cork.

Wart well tooreen


We wandered up into green pasture, rummaged around but found no sign of a well. The hawthorn tree looked promising as did a damp patch tucked into a rocky corner.


Possible well site?

We conceded defeat and went to look for the Well of the Two Cats, also known as Tobar na Chat. The ditch described by Paddy was more like a large stream, very wet but I was able to walk up it until the troughs came into view, water pipes still coming from them, the original well long since converted to more mundane usage.

There were two stone troughs, heavily covered in brambles and honeysuckle but the water was clear and very abundant. Large slabs were in front of them, and there were blocks of white quartz in evidence.


The well now converted into cattle troughs

No one seems certain how these wells got their names – Jack Roberts suggests it refers to ancient Irish connections with Greece or Egypt but maybe there was just a surfeit of feral cats in the area. White cats are a specialty of west Cork and they’re often deaf.

St Bartholomew’s Well, Tobar Partholain, Toe Head

Judging by the map, the next well, St Bartholomew’s Well or Tobar Partholain, looked very obscure. There seemed to be no path to it and it was right at the edge of the sea which probably meant cliffs. We parked by a couple of houses and were watched with considerable interest by a gang of young heifers, all looking rather frisky.


Frisky heifers

I had a horrible feeling the walk to the well would be through their field. I went to inquire at the nearest house. Another lovely encounter, this time with Tom who was also much amused to hear what we were up to. He knew of the well but hadn’t been for at least 20 years. He was doubtful that we would find it. I was a bit doubtful about the cattle but he said he knew a sneaky short cut and took us out round his house and pointed us through the fields. Over three fields, and two walls heading straight out to the sea, but the last bit defeated me – a thick briar hedge, electric fence and barbed wire, plus a steep drop down onto a ledge now full of bracken. The well was meant to have a large slab in front of it but I could see nothing – except for truly spectacular views.


The well is somewhere amongst that bracken

Paddy, from the first stop, could remember the well. He said he had visited it as a boy when rounds were still made. He thought the water was meant to be good for sore eyes and he could remember people leaving coins and other offerings. What a remote spot, a real journey to get here but I suppose that was all part of it.


Lunch under the looming tower of Uillinn, the West Cork Arts Centre

After a bouncy drive around the peninsula we repaired to Skibbereen for a well-deserved lunch. One of those odd things happened. I met someone I hadn’t seen for some time and we got chatting. I explained about the well hunt. Did I know about the well at Caheragh, she inquired? I did but I didn’t know how to get to it and I didn’t have my information with me. She recommended we followed the signs to the old graveyard for it was somewhere close by but she couldn’t remember where exactly. I had been curious about this well for it was supposed to be in a townland called Tooreen but search as I did I could find no townland with that name in Caheragh. Apparently it was a wart well.

Wart well, Tobareen na bhFaithne, near Caheragh

img_0686We set off, found the old graveyard and were impressed with the array of interesting graves, but no sign of any well. We were about to give up when we bumped into Martin quietly communing at a family gravestone – it was All Souls’ Day. We got chatting. He’d never heard of a well but he knew someone who might – several phonecalls and much discussion ensued but no one knew anything. I know of a good well about two miles away, easy to find, he said, would we like to see it? We would. We did. We followed him. It only turned out to be the well I thought was in Caheragh! And what a fantastic thing! Actually an enormous recumbent stone complete with rock art: cup marks, a circle, some intriguing holes and a large ballaun stone – the wart well itself.


Recumbent stone with ballaun, the wart well

I suspect the tiny well had originally started off as a cupmark and had been enlarged many thousands of years later. Cupmarks are usually considered as rock art and date from the Bronze Age. They are very enigmatic, no one is sure of their exact use or meaning – Roaringwater Journal offers some excellent thoughts and insights. Known as Tobareen na bhFaithne, little well of the warts, this entry form the Schools’ Folklore Collection gives a detailed account of how the well should be approached and used:

In my father’s farm there is a little well called Tobairin Bhfaithne. It is situated in the centre of a rock. There is a cure for warts in it. In olden times persons who had warts would not be allowed into America or England or any other country. When a person had warts he used to come and wash them in the water. The cloth used to wash them should be left in the water. Then the warts should be carefully counted and for each wart a Hail Mary should be said. Then a small stone should be taken from the field and a cross for each wart should be made on the rock of the well. Now there was a girl who lived in Lissane who wanted to go to America and having a lot of warts he was not allowed to go. She came to the well and washed them several times but in vain. And old man advised her to go and wash and count the warts for seven mornings before sunrise. She did as she was told and before the seventh morning they had disappeared. (356:0293)

The well is said to never go dry and seems that it once had a stone cover, now vanished.

Was this rock also used as a Mass rock in Penal Times – it looked very likely. It reminded me of a very similar rock at Castlemehigan near Crookhaven, where there is a similar cup-marked stone. The largest hole, or ballaun, in the front is also known as a wart well.

If you look carefully to the right of it a cross can just be identified for this monument was also later used as a Mass Rock.


Castlemehigan cup-marked stone & wart well

The farmer at Tooreen has promised to never move the stone. Set in a wonderful natural amphitheatre amongst green pastures, a well preserved ring fort close by – this felt a special place indeed.


The recumbent stone is to the right of the natural rock feature

A great day made especially memorable by some delightful encounters.

With thanks to Paddy, Tom and Martin for their good humoured assistance.
The location of these wells can be found in the Gazetteer.

Lady’s well, Ballycurrany

There are but two holy wells in this parish, one in Ballycrana and the other in Templeboden, both of which are very well kept. The people still visit them on the week preceding the twelfth of August and perform three visits around the well. We go to the one in Ballycrana which is in Mr Riordan’s land. It is called Mary’s well and there is also a Mass rock nearby with a cross marked on it. Ballycranna well is grotto shaped, it being enclosed by three walls and a wall over it … (Schools’ Folklore Collection, (387.18)

What a fascinating well this turned out to be. I am indebted to the FitzGerald family for the first hand information, and for the Schools’ Folklore Collection which is bursting with interesting descriptions. The numbers given after the Schools’ Collection quotes refer to the school number and then the page number. They can be browsed online at duchas.ie

img_1463The original route to the well from the side of the road is now overgrown and impassable. We flagged down a passing motorist for information and he sent us up a boreen to the house to ask permission, passing this cheeky carved head. Permission kindly granted, and armed with a glass, we set off through a small gate along a leafy greenway leading into an amazing grove of tall beech trees and luxuriant ferns, a stream trickling down the hillside into the undergrowth.


The path leading to the well

A cross spotted amongst the undergrowth looked promising. On investigation, the wooden cross bore the words INRIEGO SUM LUX (I am the light) … FOLLOW ME and was put up here a few years ago, not by the family but by pilgrims.


Wooden cross indicates the site

Lady’s Well

Below the cross a large earthfast rock lay between tall beech trees. We looked down into the valley and just below it was the well, tucked into a ferny bank.

Our Lady’s Well’ …… a palm tree grows on either side of the well and a hazel tree near on them ….. a stream flows from the well down a rocky incline and there is no sign of a  stream flowing in to the well. (387:99)

The above description still held true, no sign of water flowing into the well but there was the stream clearly emerging a little way below it and disappearing off down the hill.


The well is tucked into the landscape

The stone built wellhouse was semi-cirular with sturdy built-up sides and a large slab across the top. Other stones had been added to make a small niche above the slab, a cup and assortment of stones nestling within.


The stone built wellhouse

Inside, the well basin itself was damp rather than flowing, but a pipe coming out just below was gushing cold clear water into the stream.

The water was considered potent and was said never to boil:

It is a belief that if the water is boiled a ‘frog’ would appear in the pipe of the kettle. (387:99)

Many cures were attributed to the water and the well. We later spoke to the daughter of the landowners and she could remember being told of a woman who carried her disabled son a considerable distance to the well. After visiting the well, doing the rounds and taking some water he was able to walk home. The water was also considered efficacious in the curing of the ague and sore eyes. A couple of cups were tucked into a crevice and other fragment slay here and there.

The Sculptures

Once there had been carvings on each side of the well:

Then there are two stones on either side about a foot high. These two are shaped like a man in the rough, the eyes, mouth and nose all visible to the hands by the side as in the illustration (387.100)


From Schools’ Collection, duchas.ie

Apparently these were made by an old man called Sean de Barra who only had one hand but was a skilled craftsman. The family told us that these had been removed not so long ago by archaeologists, seemingly for the  protection of the sculptures, but they had been left feeling bereft as they had not been consulted, permission being granted only by the church. I later managed to track the carvings down to Cork City Museum where they are now kept and was given permission to view them. They are remarkable: roughly carved and very charismatic, comprising two figures (one with head long since detached) and a cross. A little more research and it seems that they probably represent the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Bernadette and once formed a simple grotto, which makes sense of the first quote I used in this blog. The stone cross looks as though it may once have held the figure of Jesus for there are small holes drilled into it and the word INRI carved above where you would expect the figure to be. It looks as though the figures were once painted for traces of blue still cling to the praying figure of Bernadette. There are odd slash marks on all the figures, but what those represent I don’t know. It was great to see the carvings and easy to imagine their potency. They are being well cared for in Cork City Museum but it seems a great shame that they are not in situ where they would be in context and have special relevance.

The Foot Stone

Just in front of the well is a large stone known as the Foot Stone. The family told us that the story went that the BVM herself had appeared here, leaving the marks of her knees and hands in the rock. Again, it was all too mossy to make out any clear shapes.


The foot stone is one of the rocks in front of the well

Mass rock

The large rock above the well had once been a Mass rock used during Penal Times and later as a focal point for the annual pattern day Mass.

A little west of the well lies a large stone three or four foot high of sandstone. On this stone there are several crosses cut into it. This is called locally the Mass Stone. It is believed locally that Mass was said here in Penal times. The soldiers used be watching from Buckley’s Wood of Lackabeha and that people hearing the Mass were killed by soldiers. (387.100)


The Mass rock is just below the cross

We couldn’t see any sign of the crosses or the indents that once had been carved to hold two candles and a chalice – all too mossy and ivy covered. A good description of the Mass rock can be found here: findamassrock, an interesting site altogether.

Rounds & Pattern Day

The well was held in high regard and people would travel from all over the county to attend the pattern day and to pay rounds. The pattern day seems to have been the 15th August, the Feast of the Assumption, though different dates are given in the Schools’ Collection information. All accounts agreed that the period eight days before and eight days after the particular date in August was most holy.

People make their rounds eight days before and eight days after the 29th August. Every person makes three rounds as this fulfills the fifteen Decades of the Rosary. Every person kneels in five different places and says one Decade of the Rosary in each place. (387: 16)

The ritual required was clearly prescribed:

The visitor must say the Rosary, take a drink of the water and leave hanging on the palm tree bits of rags, medals, beads as an offering, and take home some of the water. (387:16)

No sign of any rags or offerings today, just a small statue of the BVM now headless nestling amongst the ferns.


The only remaining statuary

Like many pattern days it attracted large crowds and invariably ended up in chaos:

On Patron Day, over twenty tents and shebeen shops would be seen here, the concourse of people so great that the entire place would be covered with horses and butts; and the dancing, singing and inevitable match-making went on… In the locality were many poteen stills, and generally this paton ended in faction fights. A fierce faction fight developed here one year, and a man returning homeward to Ballinbointir was passing down the boreen by Eddie Cotter’s when he was battered to death by a whole family who had laid there in ambush for him. Next patron day rain fell in bucketfuls, and this happening was remarked upon by young and old.

Sean Hartnett, Carrigtowhill, dated June 1997 (From a piece of paper shown to us by the family).

An annual Mass was held here until about 12 years ago when the task of maintaining and preparing the area became too great for the owner, and the then priest had little interest in keeping the tradition going. The daughter explained how her father had made a special table to replace the rock as an altar, had made wooden seats for the pilgrims and constructed steps for ease of access. These remnants could still be seen: lino by the mass rock, a jumble of timbers amongst the ivy and mossy stairs leading downwards.

A truly magical place with layers of meaning.

Special thanks to the FitzGerald family for their information about this well. The well is on private land so permission must be obtained.
Thank you also to Daniel Breen of Cork City Museum for his kind permission in allowing me to view the carvings.
The location of this well 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.