Day 2 of the Banteer explorations and the the first well on today’s agenda was very close to where we were staying. St Fursey’s Well (or Forsin or Forsa or Fursa) seemed to lie just outside an old graveyard. We found the graveyard easily enough, right beside the road and very enticing it was too but more of that in a minute. The graveyard was enclosed by a stout wall and peering over, there seemed to be a path running down the side of it which looked very promising. We were attempting to find a way in when a car stopped and the occupant looked at us with interest. Michael pulled over to have a chat and was extremely helpful and entertaining. He directed us down to the well which was indeed down the path, but first told us a little more about the graveyard and nearby buildings. He bemoaned the general delapidated state of the site and explained that various committees lay behind it all and not a lot was being achieved.
St Fursey’s Well, Tobar Ursa
We said farewells and attempted to venture down the path. It was badly blocked in several places by fallen trees, Storm Ophelia having occurred just a few weeks previously. We clambered through the branches and over a stout iron gate.
The pathway was substantial, encouragingly damp and verdant though littered with bottles, not of the holy water kind. It led directly to a well – pudding shaped, covered in moss and ivy with jaunty plumes of ferns emerging from it.
I say a well for there is a story attached of course! Michael told us that the original well was enclosed with a stone surround in the late 1890s. The well was unimpressed, ran dry and popped up a couple of metres away to the west. This is borne out by several entries in the Schools’ Folklore Collection:
St Fursey’s Well is situated in the townland of Clonmeen in Mr Grehan’s field, two miles from O Neill’s cross at the right hand side of the road. People visit on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The whole Rosary is said. I have heard the following story from my grandfather. Somebody walled in the well, it moved two or three yards away where it remains still. St Fursey is patron saint of the well. I have never heard of anyone being cured there. There is no certain cure in the well. People drink the water. People leaves crosses, beads and any ribbons at the well. They offer copper there. There is a trout in the well. It was never tried to be drained. There is a whitethorn bush at the well. (009:0362)
Another entry gives a few more details:
… the following story is told about the well. The well was in the graveyard of Clonmeen long ago. People used to cross the country to it. The land around it was owned by Mr Howard. He had oats in the field nearest to the well and he stopped people coming to the well. That year the crops failed. The next year the people came again and he allowed them to go in. His crops were good that year. It is said that the first corpse (crops?) that come must draw water from the well till the corpse (crops) come … There is a story told how Mr Howard tried to drain the well. He built a cemet (cement) wall around it and when it was finished he took a step from it and the well sprung up again. It remains there still. (002/003:0362)
Colonel Grove White has another story which seems to suggest there were always two wells:
In Clonmeen North, about four chains north of Clonmeen church, is
St. Fursey’s Holy Well. It is a fine spring well, dedicated to St. Forsin.
The people used to resort to it for the cure of various diseases, but have
discontinued to do so for some time past. (Field Book, 1838, Ord. Sur.
Off., Dub.) I visited this Holy Well in 1907. I was told people come Fridays,
Saturdays or Sundays for cure of pains and sore eyes. They pay rounds,
and then go to the church in Banteer to pray. Formerly it was called
Tober Ursa, which means prop or crutch. People used to come with
crutches, and being cured, left the crutches behind at the well. About
twelve paces to the west of the Holy Well there was an excellent well in
former days; about 1897 a wall was built round it, and afterwards it ran
dry. (Grove White, Historical & Topographical Notes etc Book 11, p222)
His photograph is certainly of the damp area to the west, though this photo, taken in 1907, shows the well to have a low stone wall, complete with cup and spectacles. The stones that marked this well are now now scattered and the exact spot undefinable.
The Archaeological Inventory has yet another version of events:
In wooded area, c. 200m NE of Clonmeen church (14411). Circular well surrounded by low stone-built wall (H c. 0.4m) and partially encased by concrete structure. Photograph by Grove White (1905-25, vol. 2, opp. 223) shows open well with drinking cup and spectacles alongside. Rounds paid on January 16th, (St Fursey’s Day); at any other time rounds were paid on three consecutive days, Friday, Saturday, Sunday or three consecutive Sundays (Bowman 1934, 221). Formerly called Tobar Ursa meaning well of the prop or crutch as these were reputedly left behind by people who were cured (Eldridge 1996, 76). According to tradition, well was located a few metres to the W until 1897 when a blind workman was cured and it moved to its present location (ibid.).
Whatever the case, (and I’m inclined to go with Michael’s story that the original well is the one encased in stone and concrete which moved once it was enclosed and sprung up in the boggy area to the west), you have to feel a little sorry for Mr Howard and his oats.
The remains of the walled well are clearly to be seen, substantial, circular, well made but now very mossy. There is an overflow outlet to the west. The well is full of damp leaves but it must originally have been abundant for the overflow area is high up on the wall.
Of the second well, or the area that the first well removed to, there are only a few scattered stones to be seen in an exceptionally wet area.
The well was obviously once revered with offerings being left. Interesting to hear that it was also said to contain a trout. There were no signs of and recent visitations though the local church is still dedicated to St Fursey. His Feast Day is 16th January. I wonder if Ursa is just a corruption of Fursa?
We returned to investigate the churchyard. Again so much history within: the remains of a small rectangular Protestant church, much patched up and neglected; a huge wall believed to be all that remains of an Augustinian monastery (its stones and window probably robbed to use in the construction of the smaller church); and some very old grave markers.
Just outside the walls an abandoned and very attractive old building was once the parochial school, built around 1837, replacing a hedge school run by a Mr Daniel Singleton who had 40 pupils, in the summer.
Friday’s Well, Tobar na hAoine
Another well lay close by, Friday’s Well. We stopped at the house and inquired. The teenage son knew of the well but looked doubtful. He went to consult his mum and reported back that it was now dry and covered in undergrowth. This entry from the School’s Folklore Collection suggests it hasn’t been used for many years:
The well is situated on the right bank of the Blackwater in Mr Grehan’s field, two miles from O Neill’s Cross. It was visited long ago but not visited now. Fr O Neill who was a curate in Banteer two hundred years ago blessed it on Good Friday. People say a girl with a sore hand of whom the doctors had given up all hope (was cured?) People used the water for house purposes some time ago but the man who had the well in his land stopped the people of using it. There is a whitethorn near the well. (007: 0363)
We left it at that and went From Friday on to Sunday.
Sunday’s Well, near Banteer
A picturesque drive through small roads and then into a valley with steep wooded sides, a tantalising glimpse of the well high up among the trees. We parked in the remains of a quarry. A sign lead across the river, chunky stepping stones thoughtfully provided. A million steps made out of concrete slabs, wound their way upwards, a metal hand rail most welcome as we climbed higher and higher among the trees.
What a wonderful spot.
Several tall trees lower over the well house which is roughly beehived shaped and made out of stone. A random mixture of other stones, some quite large, litter the area. On top of the wellhouse a statue of the BVM looks serenely down, covered in rosaries, a jar of fresh flowers at her feet. To the right another shrine contains statues, more flowers and offerings and a rosary-adorned holy water bottle. To the left a neat array of cups look very welcoming in a specially constructed stand, Other statues are tucked into various places around the tree and a few rags and beads have been tied to branches.
The well is obviously still much revered and was renovated in 2016 by the local community who made access much easier via the steps and stepping stones but it sounds as though it has always been a potent spot and much visited. In fact it has all the essential criteria of a powerful and vibrant well: cures, patron saint, a frog and a mind of its own.
There are several entries in the Schools’ Folklore Collection and this one gives an explanation as to how the well came to be regarded as blessed:
Sundays well is situated in Fermoyle woods about a mile and a half from this school. It is unknown who blessed this well but this is how it was known to be a blessed well. A mason who was working at the Old Court near Kanturk had a very sore eye and a bit of lime went into it. He was living near Mushera Mountain and was taking a shortcut home and he passed through this field. He saw the well and bathed his eye in it. The next morning his eye was cured and he came the next day which was Sunday and built a stone arch around the well and since this man’s eye was cured the well is known to be blessed. It is situated in Timothy Horgan’s field …. (060:0361)
Another entry gives a different version (there’s a pattern developing!):
Sundays well is situated in a wooded incline in the townland of Fermoyle, Banteer. The well is still visited by great numbers on Good Friday. They come from far and near to pay rounds there. St Abbey is the patron saint of this well. It is believed that once when she was on her way to Ballyvourney she saw a white deer at this well and as it was on a Sunday she reached the well she blessed it and called it Sunday’s Well. (778:0361)
Another well dedicated to St Abbey is not far off at Kilshannig. Ballyvourney is where St Abbey, usually known as St Gobnait, founded a religious settlement and is buried. Normally a Sunday’s Well refers to Christ the King, just to make things more complex, and is often called Tobar Riogh na Domhnaigh: Well of the King of Sunday.
All versions agree that the main day for visiting the well was Good Friday and that it attracted a large crowd eager to pay the rounds:
The well is situated about one mile south of Banteer National School. Pilgrims visit it on Friday, Saturday and Sunday to pay rounds. The greatest number visit on Good Friday because on that day one visit will suffice but at any other time of the year three visits must be paid on successive days beginning with a Friday. (781:0361)
Prayers said at the well seem fairly flexible but this story has a humorous twist:
On one Good Friday a stranger came to the well and he was a cripple. He asked a boy what the rounds were. He said thirty-three rosaries for a joke. The man stayed all day saying the rosaries but he was well repaid for this because he was able to walk home. Beside the well are two bowls on which are written IHS and BVM. People rub the affected part with these bowls and they get cured. (060/062:0361)
There was no sign of the bowls presumably once carved by the grateful mason. They were still there when Grove White visited in 1907 but the inscriptions were faint even then. He also mentions that one stone bore the date 1840.
Like many North Cork wells this one also moved. Yes, there are two versions why!
… There is a story told about the removing of the well. One day – which was Maundy Thursday and the eve of the well day – a man threw dirt into the well so that people could not drink the water but the well removed from the field at one side of the road to a field at the other side of the road. It remains there still… (004:0362)
The water of course should never be used for domestic purposes as one woman found out:
Another legend tells that the well changed its position. On a certain day a woman drew water from the well for household purposes, as the usual spring was in a wet boggy place and she thought it too hard to get at. The holy well was at that time above the fence where it is now. The woman put down the water to boil potatoes but discovered that it would not boil. Next day she again came to the well to discover that it had moved below the fence … (639/640:0361)
It was traditional to drink the water and to leave offerings after your visit:
Several persons have been cured after paying rounds at this well. The rounds consist of five rosaries, five decades in each. The well is particularly recommended for sore eyes and pains of all sorts. Those who visit the well drink the water and rub it on afflicted parts. Relics such as hairpins, buttons, ribbons, rosary beads and holy pictures are always left behind at the well by pilgrims. There is a frog in this well and pilgrims who are lucky enough to see the frog in the water are sure to be cured. (778/779:0361)
Robert always likes to carry on the custom. He pronounced the water very good. I just put a dab behind my ears.
The frog is an interesting detail too, a change from blessed fish. Another intriguing comment concerns what is now labelled as a Mass Rock situated right next to the well:
Visitors can engrave names and dates of visits on a plain slab in the vicinity. (781:0361)
The rock is certainly covered in graffiti most of it quite old – unusual behaviour if it was considered to be Mass Rock for they are usually treated with great respect.
Two very interesting and very different wells but each bearing similarities and contradictions.