Introducing the Holy Wells – of Kerry!

Remember the New Year Resolution – spend more time in Kerry? We lost no time in implementing it, and spent three days there this week. Our main purpose was to accompany Amanda and Peter as they started Amanda’s new project – to extend her Holy Wells of Cork recordings into Kerry as well. Of course, Robert and I had a small list of must-see items as well, which will likely appear in future blogs.

Above: Ballinskelligs Bay. Top photo: the mystical Skelligs. The larger one is Sceilg Mhichil (Skellig Michael) and the smaller is Sceilg Beag (Little Skellig). The Skelligs have featured in the Star Wars franchise, but are better known to us here as the home of hermit monks in the Early Christian Period

It’s always great fun to be out and about with Amanda and Peter. We had a few misgivings about the weather forecast, and indeed we had everything thrown at us – snow, hail, sleet, rain, gales – and brilliant sunshine! The sunshine persisted for our main day, to our delight, but the weather gods made up for it that night with a howling gale that knocked out the power to our hotel, the Royal Valentia. Undaunted, they served us up a great breakfast, and figured out how, with no electricity or internet, to charge our credit cards.

Robert’s post is mainly about Valentia Island, so I am concentrating on the holy wells. All of them will be written up in Amanda’s customary detailed style on her blog, so this is just a flavour of what we saw. By the way, if you are new to holy wells, check out her series of “On Wells” posts now. It will get you up and running.

St Crohane’s Holy Well site, with the well in the background, a Marian grove in the centre, and a mass rock in the foreground

Our first well was one that Robert and I had tried to find and failed on a previous trip to Kerry. This time we were with the expert and there it was – St Crohane’s well, behind an old graveyard with not one but two ruined churches and spectacular views across to the Beara. The well was once the centre of a mighty three-day pilgrimage and although that no longer happens, the well is cared for and visited.

The view from St Crohane’s, across to the Beara

I was thrilled to find a Richard King stained glass window in Ballinskelligs (future post) in a church dedicated to St Michael, patron saint of the Skelligs. Below the church is the holy well also dedicated to Michael. This is a curious site (below), almost certainly built on a fulacht fia, like the Trinity Well in Duhallow. This also was the centre of a huge pattern in its day.

We visited two wells dedicated to St Finnan (or Finan or Finian), a monk who is also associated with Lindisfarne and Iona. The first of these was a neglected little well on St Finian’s Bay – the pounding surf was a bit of a distraction (see below and final picture).

The neat little well house is the beehive-shaped structure to Robert’s left

The second was on Valentia Island and took a bit of finding until we stumbled upon the magic path through the woods. A classic well, with everything you needed to have a drink, and surrounded by slabs of slate. Robert had a sip – brave man, and now apparently safe from rheumatism.

Amanda always comes prepared with detailed research and notes, but wells can still be difficult to find

Our other Valentia well was dedicated to St Brendan (in one account, St Finnan was one of his acolytes) and was located at an amazing, windswept site, with crude cross slabs and a possible turas (pilgrim route) through the bog. Robert has more images of this haunting place.

Amanda gazes out across the bog, trying to make out the traces of a pilgrims’ path and possible stations

Two little wayside wells were encountered along the way, one along the road and one in the middle of Caherciveen – this last one, Well of the Holy Cross, a little sad and neglected, as urban wells tend often to be.

Although this was a holy well, dedicated to St John, it appears to have been repurposed as a Marian grotto, with St Bernadette in a small shelter of her own

Our final well was also the most spectacular – St Fursey’s well, located on the slopes of Knocknadobar (cnoc na dtobar – mountain of the well). Once, people climbed to the top of the mountain at Lúnasa for a three day festival. Although the festival is no more, in the 1880s local people erected stations of the cross, 14 of them, going all the way up the mountain to the top. Some of us managed to get to the second station, but saw a hardy soul way above us, well on his way.

Station 2 on the pilgrim trail from St Fursey’s Well to the top of Knockandobar

As ever, organising a trip around holy wells provided us with three days of adventures and experiences in jaw-dropping scenery and the opportunities to do lots of side-trips. The light in January is clear and sparkling and the roads are quiet, unlike at the height of tourist season.

The white dots going up the hill are the Stations

Although many restaurants, hotels and b and b’s close for the winter, enough remain open so that a hearty bowl of soup and a good coffee is never too far away. And three cheers for The Royal Valentia – open all year, great food, friendly staff and good in a crisis!