After two days of solid rain the sun came out and we headed down to Baltimore to catch the ferry to Sherkin Island, in search of a well. The journey over is a short one but highly picturesque as you sail past the Beacon, glimmering like a gigantic sugar cone. Some impressive clouds today but miraculously we didn’t get wet.
Sherkin island, Inis Earcáin (island of the sea pig or porpoise), is a beautiful place, one of Carbery’s Hundred Isles. There is evidence of human occupation going way back for there are standing stones, a megalithic tomb, the remains of an O Driscoll castle (Dun na Long), and the impressive ruins of a fifteenth century Franciscan friary – the first thing you see on disembarking.
The small winding lanes and wild windswept hills feel like going back in time, yet the island is thriving, the home of 114 islanders according to the last census of 2011.
It attracts many artists and it is even possible to study a BA in Visual Arts here – a collaboration between the Dublin Institute of Technology, West Cork Arts Centre and Sherkin Island Development Society. It is also the home of Sherkin Island Marine Station, a centre of excellence renown for its pioneering work concerning marine biology and ecology. There is one dampener on all this positivism, the National School closed a year ago and all island children now have to take the ferry to the mainland for their education.
The Smith’s Well, Tobar Gabha, St Mughain’s Well
We, however, were in search of a well, the only one on the island as far as I can ascertain. Known as Tobar Gabha, or Smith’s Well, or even St Mughain’s or St Mona’s Well (discussed later) it is located in the townland of Kilmoon. It is marked on the current Landranger OS map (88) but beware for, as we were to discover, it is inaccurately marked.
The well lies in the direction of Horsehoe Bay. What a beautiful spot, an elegant, curved bay with crystal clear water, calm, but exceptionally cold.
We asked a woman having a quiet sunbathe outside her house whether she knew of any well. She didn’t but was curious to hear that we did and looking at our map directed us up towards the hills. A wonderful walk through bracken and heather, passed an attractive but closed house, and sublime views out to sea. We stopped at another house, the door painted a sunny yellow and lavender lining the path. I went to inquire. Seán answered the door – he was busy changing the duvets ready for his next group of holiday makers. What a place to stay. He had time to talk though and knew of the well, giving us clear instructions: plough through the field, head for where the mountain comes down to the land, take a sharp left and follow the valley, looking out for a fuchsia bush. He warned that it would be challenging. We went off through thick grasses and brambles, aiming for the toe of the mountain and the veering off to the left. The bracken was shoulder high and the brambles treacherous but the colours of the heather and gorse were incredible.
As we went further into the valley an amazing vista of sea, mountains, Beacon and lighthouse was revealed. It was, however, a completely different direction to the one in which the map and GPS wanted us to go, but we trusted local knowledge – wisely, as it turned out.
To the right, a clump of straggly fuchsia bushes swamped by bracken came into view – the only ones on the hillside.
A bit of scrambling upwards, some scratchy, prickly negotiation inwards, more careful pulling back of the bracken and brambles and there was the well: a small semi-circular basin, moss- surrounded, built into the hillside, a spongy green slab in front. The water was clear, copious and dripping from above.
What a magnificent position – wild and remote, secretive and magical.
An entry in the Schools’ Folklore Collection has this to say about it:
The well on Sherkin Island is situated on the hillside overlooking Horseshoe Bay. It is a small well surrounded by fuchsia bushes. There is an old legend connected with it that people get cured there and on that account it is visited on certain times of the year, May Day Eve and St John’s Night.
If a bird is heard singing when any person suffering from a disease is praying there, it is considered a very good sign of being cured. It is the custom of people to take something with them when they visit it such as part of a rosary bead, a medal, a bunch of flowers or a bit of rag. People usually cross the hills when they visit the well. It is said the old well takes its name (Tobar na Gabha – well of the blacksmith) from an old smith who was supposed to live nearby in olden times.
The water in the well is quite fresh and it is said to never go dry. When a person wants to get his wish he must walk around the well and say four Hail Marys each time he walks around. Once in the month of January there were primroses seen there when there was not a primrose to be seen anywhere else. (194/195:0295)
The birds were certainly singing but there was no sign of any offerings and it would have been very hard to pay a round so dense was the undergrowth. The fuchsia bush was still flourishing.
We hacked our way back through the bracken and brambles, stopping off tell Se,an that we had found the well. Back in one piece? he smiled. He reckoned he had last visited the well about 20 years ago but could remember that it was once visited by many islanders and that it was customary to leave offerings. He recalled that his aunt, suffering from a bad back, had trekked through the valley to visit the well and returned cured.There had once been stepping stones along the track making the route a little easier.
When I mentioned that the well was called Tobar Gabha, Well of the Smith, he said it was was dedicated to St Mona. (The church on Sherkin is also dedicated to her). There is a reference to a similar name inThe Genealogy of Corca Laide (CELT,UCC) where the well is referred to as Tobar Mughaine. The townland in which it is located is called Kilmoon – Cill Mughaine, church of Mughain. Interestingly there is another Kilmoon in County Clare which is reputed to be named after this elusive saint. Omnium Sancrorum Hiberniae has her named as St Mughain of Cluain-Boirenn with a feast day on the 15th December. Confusingly the historic OS maps refer to it as Toberngow – Well of the Smith, as does the Schools’ Folklore extract. Could Gabha be a corruption of Mughain, or vice versa? I’d be delighted to receive any other information.