We’re back from a few days in Limerick with Amanda – she of Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry – and Peter. It felt like we were sneaking over the border into unknown territory! What – do Cork and Kerry not have enough holy wells for you, Amanda? It turns out that the answer to that question is no – Limerick beckons and we obey the call.

We managed fifteen wells in an afternoon, a morning and a whole day – along with some stained glass, some random archaeological sites – and a steeplechase! See Robert’s post for more on that story. I’ll probably write more about the wells in future, but for now take a look at Amanda’s latest post to get a sense of one of her objectives for the trip. The bit I am writing about is our walk up to the top of Ardpatrick and what we saw there (above, above and below).

At the end of the full day, having slogged across (I’m sure) half of muddy Limerick, Amanda airily announced that our last location of the day might be up a slight rise. Knowing Amanda, a vision of Jacob’s ladder arose in front of me – and I was not wrong! But what a site – Ardpatrick is one of those places that you can’t believe you never knew about before and are SO glad you do now!

At the top of a steep hill, it’s an early medieval monastic site, with the ruins of a church, the stump of a round tower, an erstwhile holy well, and a large graveyard. The road up has been recently concreted, probably to make it easier to access the graveyard. 

Limerick seems to specialise in ancient graveyards marooned in the middle of fields, with little visible sign of roads leading to them. We saw several like that over the course of three days and this one had the added feature of being on the top of a mountain. The original road to it was known as the Rian Bó Phádraig, or the Path of Patrick’s Cow. Like many another saint (St Manchan, for example), Patrick had a cow to supply his milk and this cow had mighty horns which she used to plough a path up the hill so he could build his monastery at the top.

The actual shape of the site isn’t as obvious on the ground, but it appeared to have been a typical early-medieval ecclesiastical site comprising of a group of buildings within one or more circular enclosures. The monks lived in small huts, there was a central church (often containing relics of the founding saint) and in this case there was also a round tower. This illustration is at the beginning of the walk to the site.

There would have been a complex of fields and dwellings around the site and these are most clearly visible now from the air. Also from the air can be seen the original Rian Bó Phádraig and the approaches from either side.

The round tower is just a vestige now, but Brian Lalor in his book The Irish Round Tower (more recently re-published as Ireland’s Round Towers) says, When fully standing, the tower would have dominated the landscape, even from a great distance, and is among the finest sited of all towers. He suggests a date of 11th to 12th century and states, The paucity of the tower remains are more than compensated for by the interest and drama of the site.

The church is a confusion of walls and one archway, much broken down and ivy-covered. Although some authorities suggest that the church had antae (see this post for an explanation of antae), typically found on churches of this era, those antae are not obvious now and the church was probably re-built on several occasions over the centuries. Indeed there is one account that it was burned down in 1114.

That same source, The Annals of the Four Masters, tells of the death of the abbot in 1129. 

In this year ‘Ceallach [Celsus], successor of Patrick, a son of purity, and Archbishop of the west of Europe, the only head whom the foreigners and Irish of Ireland, both laity and clergy, obeyed; after having ordained bishops, priests, and persons of every degree; after having consecrated many churches and cemeteries; after having bestowed jewels and wealth; after having established rules and good morals among all, both laity and clergy; after having spent a life of fasting, prayer, and mass-celebration; after unction and good penance, resigned his spirit to heaven, at Ard-Padraig, in Munster, on the first day of April, on Monday precisely, in the fiftieth year of his age. His body was conveyed for interment, on the Wednesday following, to Lis-mor-Mochuda, in accordance with his own will; it was waked with psalms, hymns, and canticles, and interred with honour in the tomb of the bishops, on the Thursday following. Muircheartach, son of Domhnall, was appointed to the successorship of Patrick afterwards 

O’Donovan’s translation, available here

The holy well (above) has been covered in ‘for safety reasons’. It held a cure for rickets, lameness and rheumatism, and according to the folklore if you saw your reflection in the water, you’d be grand. But if you didn’t, you’d be dead within the year. Perhaps it’s just as well it’s filled in.

The graveyard is still in active use. One of the features of all the Limerick graveyards we saw on our trip is a curious double-gapped ‘stile’. I wondered if it also functions as a coffin rest, with those carrying the coffin able to pass into the graveyard through the gaps, while resting the coffin on the middle stand. More than one observer has commented that the top piece of masonry on this middle stand probably came from the early church.

It had been a magnificent day – very cold but sunny and bright – and it was getting dusky as we headed back down the hill. It was at this point that I discovered that my cute but ill-fitting wellies were not designed for downhill travel, as my toes slid forward and were soon very painful. This was when I needed the intervention of St Patrick to perform some kind of toe miracle, but alas he turned a deaf ear and in the end I had to come down mostly backwards. The only compensation for descending facing backwards was seeing the silhouette of the mountain in the fading light – the cemetery crosses standing starkly against the skyline.

For more about this wonderful site, have a look at this entry by our friend, the marvellous Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland.

Chasing Steeples!

I can’t resist a good Irish story . . . I look out for them wherever we go. Our latest adventure was over in the northern part of County Cork, searching out a number of holy wells and anything related to them: we were led by Amanda Clarke: look at her website here. Regular readers will know that we often get together with Amanda and Peter to share our mutual interests in the Irish landscape. On this most recent expedition our path took us through Buttevant, and specifically to St John’s C of I church there, where Finola was keen to inspect the stained glass windows. The present church was built in 1826, and replaced an older one, established in the late 1600s.

As you can see, it has a tower with a fine, elegant spire. I was fascinated to read that the predecassor of this church is credited with the historical significance of having ‘given birth’ to the Steeplechase horse race.

. . . The term ‘steeplechase’ actually originated in a horse race first held in Ireland in the 18th century. As the name might suggest, that very first race took place in 1752 between two steeples in rural county Cork in the south of Ireland. At that time, church steeples were among the tallest buildings in the landscape. On that night, Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake were at dinner at Buttevant Castle, having a good time. They made a bet between themselves to race from the steeple of Saint John’s Church in Buttevant to that of Saint Mary’s Church in the town of Doneraile . . .

Sadly, the Castle at Buttevant is no longer habitable. It was built around 1200 by Philip and William de Barry, on land seized from the Gaelic O’Donegan’s. The poet Edmund Spenser (1553 – 1599) lived in the nearby castle of Kilcolman for many years, and wrote his poem The Faerie Queene there. He also mentions Buttevant Castle in his writings:

“Old father Mole, (Mole hight that mountain grey
That walls the Northside of Armulla dale)
He had a daughter fresh as floure of May,

VVhich gaue that name vnto that pleasant vale;
Mulla the daughter of old Mole, so hight
The Nimph, which of that water course has charge,
That springing out of Mole, doth run downe right
to Butteuant where spreading forth at large,
It giueth name vnto that auncient Cittie,
VVhich Kilnemullah cleped is of old:
VVhose ragged ruines breed great ruth and pittie,
To travallers, which it from far behold”

Spenser is supposed to have derived the names ‘Mole’ and ‘Armulla’ from Kilnemulla or, more correctly Cell na mullach, an early name for Buttevant. It is possible that the castle here fell victim to the 20th century Irish Civil War, although I cannot find any detailed information on this. Accounts generally suggest that the building was in use until the 1920s and another reference states that there was a significant fire which destroyed the interior in 1936. Today, it is a windowless ruin which is not accessible to the public.

I’m sure you are all anxious to get back to the story of that first Steeplechase – and you want to know who won? When taking in any Irish tale you have to be patient . . . We simple don’t know who won! It’s not recorded anywhere . . . The account continues:

. . .The distance was around 4 miles, crossing countryside and rivers. The winner would be the first to touch the base of the steeple in Doneraile. The prize? More than 600 gallons of port. Sadly, history has not recorded who actually won the race. But that race has gone down in history, with steeplechase races becoming a tradition . . .

Obviously, we had to continue our expedition with a visit to Doneraile, to view the finishing post. That’s St Mary’s Church, above. The present building does not have a spire: I would have thought that such a feature would be essential if you were looking out for it from a distance of four miles, even with fairly flat countryside in between. However, I have now learned that the term ‘steeple’ correctly refers either to a simple church tower, or a church tower with a spire on it. Have a look at the terrain from a birds’ eye view:

Here I have copied extracts from the first edition 6″ Ordnance Survey map, showing the terrain in more detail around the start and finish points as it was noted in the early nineteenth century:

On this occasion we didn’t have time to explore the route itself: I wonder if anyone else has? Is it significant that the townland which surrounds Doneraile Church is known as Horseclose?

In the present day, of course, Steeplechasing has an equine life of its own. Supposedly, the very first recognised English National Steeplechase took place in March 1830. In 1839, the British Grand National Race at Aintree was established, a race that is still run today over roughly the same distance of around 4 miles. Here’s a poster for the Irish equivalent – at Fairyhouse – on Easter Monday 1916, a very significant date in the Irish calendar . . .

While on the subject of the Aintree event, we must mention the most famous racehorse of all time (probably) who holds the record for winning the Grand National Steeplechase thrice – in 1973, 1974, and 1977 and coming second in 1975 and 1976: Red Rum.

. . . Red Rum was bred at Rossenarra stud in Kells, County Kilkenny, Ireland, by Martyn McEnery. Following a canter at Aintree Racecourse the day before the 1978 Grand National he was retired. The news of Red Rum’s retirement was the lead story on that night’s 9 O’Clock News on the BBC and was also front page news of the following morning’s newspapers. Red Rum had become a national celebrity, opening supermarkets and annually leading the Grand National parade for many further years. His likeness graced playing cards, mugs, posters, models, paintings, plates and jigsaw puzzles. Several books have been written about Red Rum, The horse helped launch the Steeplechase rollercoaster at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in 1977 . . .


Yes, this is it: the Steeplechase Rollercoaster! You can join in the full experience here. Hopefully my account has enlivened your day: I’m sure there are many of you out there who are familiar with this tale and can, perhaps, add to it? I’ll finish with a view over Buttevant taken on our journey – an atmospheric winter morning.

With thanks to The Guardian for the header pic of the Aintree Grand National

The Wran, The Wran . . .

. . . New Year’s Day saw the Wran coming out in our village of Ballydehob, County Cork. It’s an old tradition here. That time “the fool” accompanied the wren boys. He was mounted on a donkey and carried a bladder tied to a stick. I got the song from John Levis, Ballydehob, (34 years of age) who procured it from Jeremiah Driscoll, Ballydehob (age 64yrs) who was an old wren boy. “Wren” is pronounced wran locally in Ballydehob and surrounding districts . . .

Duchas Schools Folklore Collection : Collector J Barry

This account dates from around 1936. It’s referring, therefore, to something happening regularly in the late 1800s and, probably long before that. ‘The Wran’ is still active in Ballydehob, well over a century later. I have written about our own Wran Day preparations not so long ago – and included the song – and I’m pleased to report that the day went well. That’s me, above and below, playing the melodeon (although perhaps I shouldn’t be giving away the disguise)! I’m actually wearing ‘tatters’, which was my costume when I took part in Mummers’ plays in England from relatively early in my life: I was brought up on the Surrey / Hampshire borders, prime country for this English tradition. Mumming also takes place in parts of Ireland, have a look here.

New Years’ Day was quiet day in the village – until we took to the streets! If you want to know the purpose of it all, I can’t really tell you. These are activities that happen around the natural turning point of the year – the change from the sun getting progressively lower in the sky, and weaker, to its returning strength: already we can sense the lengthening of each day. In the mumming on these islands you got a sense of it from a symbolic play where combatants fought and died, then were brought back to life by The Doctor who can apparently cure all illnesses. And, of course, we are always anxious to see the solstice in action!

In Ireland, the Wran Day tradition is accompanied by a play in some places, but more usually it’s a procession through a community, involving interaction by going into houses and shops, making a lot of noise and generally stirring up the spirits with a bit of mischief-making. We were fairly passive this year because of Covid restrictions, but it felt good to be out and about. Let’s hope that this anomaly in the regularity of daily life can become more marked as things gets back to near normal in future years!

Thanks are due to Sonia Caldwell – who instigated proceedings, keeping us all focussed – and Joe and Caroline of Levis’s Bar who provided the venue for making the masks – and gave great moral support! Traditionally, the masks are ritually burned on the following St Patrick’s day. Finola kindly provided the pics.

Art/Nature – Incredible Residency Opportunity!

Are you an artist between 30 and 45? Are you inspired by the natural world? If the answer to both of those questions is YES, then here is an opportunity of a lifetime – a residency on a beautiful private estate in West Cork, surrounded by gardens, both wild and cultivated. If the answer is NO, but you know someone who might fit the bill – share the heck out of this post – the Foundation is hoping to receive applications from Ireland!

Ulrike Crespo was a loved and respected member of the West Cork artistic community and a friend and neighbour to us all in this little corner of it. That’s Ulli below in happier times, toasting the installation of a neighbour’s gate.

We were all saddened by her death in 2019 and wondered what would happen to the glorious garden she developed – Glenkeen. In fact, her Foundation, focused on artistic development and opportunities for young people (especially disadvantaged girls) has carried on her work, and one of their programs is this residency opportunity – “ArtNature/NatureArt”.

Glenkeen Gardens is a very special place, full of sculpture and with endless vistas across innovative plantings that mix natural and cultivated areas. Ulli loved this place – it inspired her own photography practice – an ethereal, intensely atmospheric approach to scenes from this nature. Take a look at one of her photobooks, Ephemere, for example, or Flowers or Twilight. Or See some of her landscape photography from her regular shows at the Blue House Gallery in Schull.

There’s a real contrast between Ulli’s photography – especially her soft-focus, gently waving, colourful flower images – and her choice of sculptures for the garden: many of those sculptures seem rectilinear and monumental, and many carry the impression of a portal to another world. 

That portal may well represent the boundary between art and nature, the subject that fascinated Ulli always. Art in her garden is not just in the form of sculpture but in the form and arrangement of the beds and in the glorious summer plantings.

Both images above © Ulrike Crespo

If the gardens can be seen as a blend of the two, other sections of the estate are pure nature. First of all, the estate is on the sea and the frontage is spectacular – giving on to Roaringwater Bay and full of marine life.

This image © Ulrike Crespo

And above it all is the Foilnamuck bog soak, about which I have written here and here. This part of the land has been left in a pristine state and is full of Orchids, Sundews, Bogbeans and Asphodels – a paradise for those of us interested in wild wet places.

The Foundation that is now carrying on Ulli’s work has established these residencies very much in the spirit of her own life’s interests. Here’s a quote from their website

The aim of the programme is to encourage the development of groups of young artists from Europe and Russia and raise the international profile of their work. The theme of art and nature comes from the location of the residency, the Glenkeen Garden estate. To explore this topic as extensively and as deeply as possible, the Crespo Foundation provides artists with a network of humanities scholars and scientists for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary exchange. The intention is for Glenkeen Garden Residencies to give space, time and inspiration for close collaboration as a team, with the goal of producing innovative works that will then be shown in Frankfurt am Main and other European cities, as well as virtually to a broader public.

All the details of the residencies and the requirements of the competition can be found on the website. The application deadline for the next one is January 30th, so no time to lose!

And for the rest of us – let’s just appreciate Ulrike Crespo’s incredible vision for this special corner of West Cork, and the enduring legacy she has left for us all. Each residency will result in exhibitions, so we will all, as time goes by, be able to share in the artistic outcomes from the chosen young artists. Robert and I look forward to this very much.

Nollaig na mBan 2022

This post was first published many years ago – in 2014! The subject matter – Women’s Little Christmas – is just as relevant today. So, have another look…

Sounds like ‘Nullig ne mon’ and translates as ‘Christmas of the Women’, but is also known as ‘Little Christmas’. It’s today – the 6th of January – and is celebrated in Ireland and wherever else in the world there are Irish communities. There are other traditions surrounding this day (quite apart from the arrival of the Three Wise Men), and they are confusing. I was brought up knowing that the Christmas decorations have to come down today otherwise there will be some bad luck in the year. Finola, however, knows that they have to stay up all through the day as it’s still part of Christmas – so she would have them down tomorrow instead. Maybe this is a Catholic / Protestant divide? And when is Twelfth Night: 5th or 6th of January? Either one, it seems, depending on which of the many traditions you choose to follow, or which part of the world you live in.

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In Tudor Britain the whole winter festival started on All Soul’s Eve (Halloween) and lasted until Twelfth Night. On the first day a cake was baked with a bean in it. Whoever had the slice with the bean was elected Lord of Misrule and presided over a topsy turvy time when the peasant ruled the master and so on. The World Turned Upside Down is a wishful thinking concept that has inspired many artists ever since.


In some parts of Europe a custom of house-blessing takes place today. Dried herbs are burnt and their scents fill the building. Doorways are sprinkled with holy water and the master of the house writes with chalk above the house and barn doors the initials C M B enclosed within the year (eg 20 C  M  B 14). According to the ritual he says: Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar, protect us again this year from the dangers of fire and water. Alternatively it could stand for “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” (May Christ bless this home).

Some traditions closer to home: McCarthy + Hawkes write in Northside of the Mizen –

…On Nollaig na mBan (Woman’s Christmas or Epiphany), the women put all the scraps and leftovers from Christmas onto the kitchen table and it was then up to everyone else to cope the best they could. At midnight, on the eve of Nollaig na mBan, the water in the spring well turned to wine. Now that was a great thing! Ne’er a man or woman has ever supped any and that was because it was only for the Little People…

Perhaps to emphasize that such miracles should be the preserve of only the Fairy Folk, there is a tale told of the blessed well of St Brendan in Cill a ‘Ruith, near Ventry in County Kerry: here in days of yore Three Unwise Men sat up to drink their fill of wine at the appropriate hour and were turned into three large boulders which stand there as a warning to this day.


As this is a Monday, and the first one of the new year, it is also known as Handsel Monday, when children used to visit neighbours and friends and ask for money or cakes. Such a gift was known as a suggit which may derive from the Irish so dhuit – ‘here’s for you – here you are’.

Finola is off out tonight with friends to celebrate Nollaig na mBan, as she used to in Vancouver where the tradition was strongly followed in the Irish community. It is said that the term ‘Women’s Christmas’ can be explained because Christmas Day was marked by beef and whiskey – men’s fare – while on Little Christmas Day the dainties preferred by women – cake and tea – were more in evidence. Finola will no doubt tell me whether this is still the case.

Finola’s Favourite Posts of 2021

Every year we look back on our posts and choose your favourites and ours to highlight. We select yours based on our readership stats, and our own based on some magical chemistry known only to ourselves. The two often, but not always, coincide. Robert’s selection is here.

I started off the year with a series of three popular posts all called Legends of Mount Gabriel – the first was about poul an oidhean, The Bottomless Lake, while the next two (Fionn, Furrows and Fastnet, and Wrought by Giants centred on the work of Fionn MacCumhaill and other giants in shaping the landscape around the mountain. These were great fun to write – the first one involved some precarious scrambling on cliff faces as we found our way to the lake, making me wonder if the Search and Rescue Team might have to be deployed to get a couple of crazy septuagenarians off the mountain.

West Cork is our beat and I honed in on the Mizen Peninsula – or Ivaha as it was known historically for a series on castles and another on ancient maps. The Castles of Ivaha series has so far covered the background to the castles, and individual posts on Dunmanus, (above) Dunlough (Three Castle Head) (below) and Ardintenant. I plan more posts, although there are only vestiges left of most of the castles of Ivaha.

I love old maps and this year I found two particularly intriguing examples. We don’t know who put together the first one but in the first of two posts (Elizabethan Map of a Turbulent West Cork) I looked in detail at the map itself (below) and in the second (The Story) I tried to figure out what was going on. I’m still trying to figure it out. 

We know who did the second map – the Elizabethan Cartographer Jobson – and why: it was to provide the British crown with the information needed for the plantation of Munster in the wake of the Desmond rebellions. In Planning a Plantation: Jobson’s 1859 Map of Munster, Part 1 and Part 2, I set out to see what we could still recognise of what he mapped over 400 years ago. Turns out (below) – it’s a surprising amount!

Just when we think we know every inch of West Cork, we find new places to explore – a necessity for those times we were confined to our own area due to the pandemic. I loved getting to know the Mealagh Valley in the company of David Myler, who (literally) wrote the book about it.

Lackavaun is a wild promontory on the Mizen (below) that contains sea-caves, whereas Roaringwater Pier still carries the shades of James O’Sullivan who developed it as a once-vibrant community and commercial hub.

The wildflowers of this area are one of my passions and this year I indulged my penchant for slide-shows set to music, one illustrating what I saw as I was Wandering the Boreens, and the other as I was Lying in the Grass. The music is the same in both – Turas go Tír na nÓg by the incomparable late Michaeál O’Suilleabháin from his album, Templum, available here.

Besides these two offerings, I continue to chart the progress of my own One Acre (now four years on) and to wonder at the incredible wildflower abundance on Long Island.

Regular readers know all about my obsession with stained glass and this year the biggest thrill of the year was the publication of The Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass, to which I was one of the contributors under the inspired leadership and editorship of David Caron. I concentrated on the work of George Walsh – that’s one of his gorgeous pieces above. We celebrated with a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party on Long Island. 

I continue the uphill battle to convince Irish people that there is more to stained glass than Harry Clarke and to do my bit to draw the distinction between Harry Clarke and the studio that continued to use his name after his death. I wrote about one of his undesputed masterpieces – a two light window in Terenure, (detail, below) and then about windows done in his style, in his studios, but far below his standard, in Clarke-style Windows (another musical slide show).

Besides Harry, it was fun to explore the world of Mayer of Munich and the windows that are seen everywhere in nineteen and early twentieth century Irish churches, and to take a quick tour of 20th century made-in-Ireland Nativity images in stained glass (like the Mayfield Murphy-Devitt below).  Most of all, it was lovely to be part of the discovery of a hitherto-unknown example of the work of artist Richard King – hiding in plain sight in Macroom.

Finally, a shout out to wrought iron! This year I went back to my study of old hand-forged wrought iron gates (here and here) and once my eye was attuned to the material, I began to appreciate its use as grave markers and found lots of excellent example of the blacksmith’s craft in West Cork.

Whew! There was more, lots more, but I am pleased with this selection as a great way to mark a banner year for Roaringwater Journal. The blog had over 300,000 views this year and we know from comments that it offered many of you an interesting browse when there was precious little to do in the dark months of lockdown. And – guess what?

We get to mark Roaringwater Journal’s tenth anniversary this year! We look forward to your continued interest, our dear readers – here’s to a brighter 2022!