We are often invited to join our friends Amanda and Peter Clarke on their journeys of exploration into the wild places of West Cork and Kerry. We even stray over into Limerick on occasion! And it’s usually all to do with Holy Wells. Amanda has been writing about them for years, and you can find her accounts of them in Holy Wells of Cork & Kerry, here.
Recently we were at Loo Bridge, near Kilgarvan, Co Kerry. There’s a well there – Tobar na Naomh – All Saint’s Well, and there’s a lively account of it in the Dúchas Schools Folklore Collection. Evidently a ‘band of Saints’ travelling over the mountain to Gougane Barra stopped at this well for refreshment. One of them (St Finnbarr) left his spectacles behind and didn’t realise it until he was a long way up the steep path. Fortunately, there were so many of his companions that he was able to pass a message back down to those who were still starting off from the well and the spectacles were retrieved! But – because they were holy spectacles, they left their imprint on the rock at the well – forever. There it is in the picture above.
There are several crosses etched into the stones around this well by visitors. It’s wonderful to think of the continuity of those pilgrims seeking out the well and keeping its veneration alive – probably through countless generations.
Another well on our agenda involved us walking over a long, muddy trackway. We could see the prints of the feet of other travellers: the top pic looks like bear paws (although perhaps more likely to be badgers), whereas the cloven hoof above is either Satan or a deer. We met none of these on the path that led, eventually, towards the Wells of St Peter and St Paul.
St Peter’s well is clearly defined (above, with Amanda looking on). Beyond it is a weather-worn shrine with a Calvary depiction. It’s quite a surprise to find such a substantial life-sized scene in a remote wood.
A little way to the east of St Peter is St Paul (above). He looks down on his own well. Note the modern mugs, implying that the well is still in use.
Both St Peter and St Paul share their feast day on 29th June. This is the day when these wells should be visited.
The 6″ OS map, above, dates from the late 19th century. St Peter’s well is marked on it, while St Paul’s only gets mentioned as a spring. Not far to the south is a railway line: The Great Southern Railway: Headford Junction to Kenmare. This was opened in 1890 and closed in 1959. While the track itself is long gone, many features can be traced. We stopped at Loo Bridge where the old station remains, as does an adjacent steel river crossing.
I am always saddened to see abandoned railway lines: they could so easily have had a new lease of life in our present environmentally conscious world. Regardless of their potential functionality, ‘heritage railways’ are also highly popular tourist destinations. I’m afraid, however, that the work and costs now required to recover them is unlikely to be invested any time soon, unless there is a big change in attitude and priority.
Lost railways and fading wells: unlikely bedfellows for a day out in Kerry. But our travels are always fulfilling, and diversity is the essence. In Ireland we can never run out of places to visit, or matters to be researched and recorded. Join us again, on our next expedition!
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.
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
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.
it’s not just for long walks – the Sheep’s Head is also perfect for wandering with intent, having, as my father used to say, a dander. Our trip there this week, in the excellent company of Amanda and Peter, was that sort of day, where we drove around and dropped in and out of interesting places. Amanda and Peter Clarke, our regular readers will know, are the couple behind Walking the Sheep’s Head Way, so who better to have as companions and guides for a day of exploring. Amazingly, given all the time we’ve spent there, only one of our stops was familiar.
Our first stop was a curious stone overlooking Dunmanus Bay. Known as the Giant’s Footprint, the local legend tells a familiar story about two giants throwing rocks at each other. This must have been a mere pebble, because one of the missiles became the Fastnet Rock. Footprint stones are also associated with inauguration sites, where kings were acclaimed in early medieval society. (See the comments section below for a link to an amazing piece of art from our friend, the acclaimed photographer EJ Carr, who used this stone in his fantasy photography piece on the Arthurian legend – follow the link in the comment to view his images.)
Being with Amanda is always a great opportunity to visit a holy well and we had never been to Gouladoo. It also ticked a box for me as I’ve been wanting to visit promontory forts. The holy well first – it’s a Tobar Beannaithe, a Blessed Well, not associated with any particular saints. Amanda’s research revealed that it did have a particular purpose, though – girls would visit to pray for a husband. Read Amanda’s comprehensive account here.
Because this is on the Sheep’s Head Way, the route is signposted and maintained. The well itself has a cup thoughtfully provided so you can have a drink if you dare. The path down to it has been carved out of the hillside and roughly paved, indicating that this was a site to which many people once came.
If you turn your back to the holy well, the promontory fort is straight ahead of you.
Where you have a promontory jutting out into the sea it’s easily fortified by building banks and ditches at the neck. Promontories with narrow necks were usually chosen, as being easiest to defend, and archaeological evidence suggests that some were in use as early as the Bronze Age but most evidence of occupation dates to the Early and Later Medieval Period (400 -1500AD).
As promontory forts go, this is a classic – a narrow neck with evidence of walls across it, steep cliffs on all sides, and a flat and verdant area in the middle for houses and cattle. This one has an added feature – sea arches underneath! The sea arches mean that this may eventually become an island.
The antiquarian Thomas J Westropp set out to visit all the promontory forts along the Beara and Sheep’s Head in or around 1920 and has left us his account, written over three articles in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Gouladoo, as his map shows, was one of his destinations.
Here is his description of the fort as he found it then.
Far to the west of Rinn, in Kilcrohane, is a remarkable fortified headland of dark grey slate, up tilted and separated from the mainland by a gully. This is spanned (like those at Doonagh and Dursey) by a natural arch. The adjoining townland is called Dunoure, but no fort is known to have existed near this, so perhaps that name refers to Gouladoo. The arch is lintelled, like a great Egyptian pylon, and is 15 ft. or 16 ft. wide at the gully. The neck is wider to the landward, and was strongly defended. First we find a trace of a hollow or fosse; then the foundation of a drystone wall 82 ft. long (E. and W.); behind, a natural abrupt ridge forms a banquette over 4 ft. high; the wall is about 12 ft. thick, the terrace 12 ft. to 15 ft. wide. Beyond this the neck was enclosed all round by a fence about 6 ft. thick. The whole work measures about 80 ft. each way. As at Doonagh, I think that the line of debris on the peninsula along the edge of the chasm is a trace of a wall, and that the bare slope behind it was stripped by a landslip. The whole is tufted with luxuriant masses of rich crimson heather.
The Promontory Forts of Beare and Bantry: Part III, Thomas J Westropp The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1921
It’s quite difficult to see those features now, although there is a piece of the wall remaining, and what must be his ‘terrace.’
There are other compensations to visiting a site like this – those sheer cliffs which provide such an impregnable defence for the fort, also host many gulls in nesting season. The Bluebells and Sea Campion were abundant there too.
Westropp wrote his article, The Promontory Forts of Beare and Bantry, over several issues of the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, and maybe it would be fun to retrace his steps a hundred years later to see what’s on the ground now – what do you think?
From there it was off to the Mass Rock at Glanalin, an easy walk down from the Pietà in the pass above Kilcrohane. It’s a particularly lovely walk to this mass rock (above), and in May the spring flowers are everywhere, especially St Patrick’s Cabbage, one of the group of plants known as the Lusitanian Flora, that only grows here and in Iberia.
And finding a lone Heath Spotted Orchid (above) was a real bonus too!
By sheer coincidence we were there on the same day, May 17th, when Mass was celebrated here in 2000 in remembrance of the ancestors who worshipped here.
The hole in the stone is narrow on one side and wide at the other. The man had a bigger hand and he put his hand through the big side and the woman put her hand through the narrow side. They made their promises when they put their hands through the stone
Of course we all had to do it!
There was a ring fort nearby – actually described as an enclosure in the National Monuments records – but over the years it has been disturbed to the point where it is hardly recognisable. Perhaps it is this site that gave its name to the townland, Caherurlagh. A caher is a stone fort and so the townland name means Fort of the Slaughter. Perhaps there are some aspects to the history of this area into which we should not delve too closely.
I highly recommend a day like this on the Sheep’s Head, with Walking the Sheep’s Head Way as your travelling companion, and channeling the spirit of old Thomas Westropp. I will leave you with what he had to say about the views north to the Beara as he journeyed along the north side towards Gouladoo
We pass beneath the beautiful woods of Bantry House and the picturesque old graveyard, where the Franciscan Friary once stood erected by O Sullivan in 1330. We reach the shore out of a maze of low green hills, several with ring forts on their summits, near Dromclough. Thence on past Rinn Point and up the lofty road, often unfenced and narrow, along the edge of cuttings and precipices to Gouladoo and Collack. The sweep of the high mountains in Beare and those inland heights towards Muskerry is magnificent as seen across the great bay. From Black Ball Head and Dunbeg past flat-topped Slieve Miskish and the great domes of Hungry Hill and the Sugarloaf, on to the shapely cone of Mullach Maisha, the stately range extends.
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