The Holy Wells of Cork

Kealkill Holy Well

There’s a new blog on the scene – and it’s just the sort of thing to appeal to Roaringwater Journal readers. Holy Wells of Cork is the brainchild of Amanda Clarke. We’ve written about Amanda before – she often comes along on our adventures and she and Peter are the team behind the book Walking the Sheep’s Head Way and the website Sheep’s Head Places.

Amanda on a holy well trip

Amanda’s always been fascinated by holy wells. We’ve gone to see quite a few over the last couple of years – often a case of hunting down an obscure reference or a dot on a map. She decided that the perfect day to launch her blog was, of course, St Brigid’s Day, February 1st, and that, in order to do it properly, she should visit a St Brigid’s well on that exact day. I tagged along as the recorder.

The holy well is up there?

It’s up there? And I have to go up on my knees?

St Brigid’s well, Tobar Breedy, is on private land on the side of Lough Hyne, south of Skibbereen, and Amanda had sought and been granted kind permission by the landowner to visit the site. You can read her account here – it’s all in her signature chatty style that manages to make you feel as if you’re on the adventure as well. 

Amanda at Tobar Breedy

As a bonus, there’s a tiny ruined medieval church, also dedicated to Brigid (Templebreedy).

Temple Breedy

However, all is not well in the land of holy wells. A recent post is about four holy wells that were once the focus of veneration in Cork City. Read how they have weathered the passage of time, and be glad that she is recording them before some of them disappear from public consciousness altogether.

The first time I went to this secluded holy well in Castle Haven I was afraid to venture over the crumbling bridge. But when we returned, the bridge had been replaced. Local people are often proud of their holy wells and keep them up

Amanda will be posting regularly so go on over and sign up so you will get the updates as soon as they are on the blog. There’s lots of background information as well.

Finding Tobar Abán

Believe it or not there’s a tiny well under all that decaying foliage

We’ve featured holy wells ourselves from time to time. One of our favourites was this time last year, just outside Ballyvourney, where we found the well of St Abán , who may have been St Gobnait’s brother.

altar at the well

Robert wrote about the other holy wells near Lough Hyne, one a Lady’s Well and one dedicated to curing eyesight. Last year, he attended the mass which is still said here every May.

Tiny holy well in the woods

This little well is in the middle of a small wood, with evidence it is still in use. Note the white quartz stones around it – white quartz is often found at prehistoric sites too

No doubt Amanda will record all of this properly in time. I’m looking forward to her future posts and to going along on the field trips!

Offerings at a holy well

I love the offerings that you see at Holy wells. Sometimes you get extras too. In the case below, St Lachtan’s Well, it’s frogspawn. Holy frogspawn, of course.

St Lachtan's holy well

Coomkeen, Summer and Winter

Coomkeen Road, winterThe Coomkeen Loop Walk on the Sheep’s Head is one of the most richly satisfying walks in West Cork. And that’s saying something, in this land of jaw-dropping vistas and absorbing heritage.

Start, summer

The start of the trail in June

We walked it in June with our friends Amanda and Peter and again in November with our friend John. We had extraordinary days on both occasions. While the November day was cloudless, the one in June provided enough scattered cloud to supply that variation in light and shade that lends such atmosphere to the West Cork landscape.

And in November

And in November

To reach the start of the Coomkeen trail, drive from Durrus towards Ahakista and turn right at the Church of Ireland (before you get to the pier). Ascend to the top of that road and you will find a parking spot and the clearly marked trailhead. There are various ways you can do this walk. The complete loop is a 7km walk that brings you along the spine of the peninsula before you drop down onto tracks and then the road back up to the parking place. Our own favourite option is to walk until you reach the little lake and then retrace your steps along the ridge. Lough na Fuilla, Lake of Blood, is so called, the story goes, because thirst-crazed cattle found it dry and attacked each other in their frenzy.

Lough na Fuilla

Either way is fairly easy, although the complete loop presents a long steep climb back to the starting point. As with all Sheep’s Head walks, be prepared for any weather, wear good boots, bring a camera and leave the dog at home. If you want more information, consult the section on the Durrus Trailhead in Walking the Sheep’s Head Way.

Winter fields on Bantry Bay

Winter fields on Bantry Bay

Perhaps you think that it sounds fine to go for a mountain hike in June – but November? Yes, it was a little cooler and a lot windier, but the November hike was just as spectacular as the June one had been. Most striking of course, is the change in colour.

In summer the foxgloves are everywhere

In summer the foxgloves are everywhere

Because this is a ridge walk, the views are immense. To the north is Bantry Bay and Whiddy Island with its huge oil tanks. Beyond that are the mountains of the Beara, looking as wild and remote as, in fact, they are. To the south is Dunmanus Bay and the Mizen Peninsula. 

The Summit

The Summit

Amanda and Peter were able to show us an enormous standing stone on our June trip, although we missed it in November.

Rooska East standing stone

But we did visit the same ruin of a small farmhouse on the north side of the ridge. Incredible to think that someone eked out a living so high up. Although only a few broken down walls remain, the poignancy of the site comes from what was once a garden by the house, with thorn trees still bravely clinging on.

Further on are the remains of booleys – small huts used by the young people sent to mind the cattle on the high ground during the summer. Perhaps the little farmhouse was part of that endeavour.

Robert and John inspect the little ruined farmhouse

Robert and John inspect the little ruined farmhouse

Running along the ridge and crisscrossing the mountain are the remains of old stone walls. Impossible to tell how long ago they may have been first built, or how recently they functioned to separate pastures.

Walls, Summer

Walls, winterIn November the dominant colours are the blond of the grasses (called fionán, pronounced fyuh-nawn) and the amber, brown and honey tones of the bracken and heather, interspersed with the greenery of gorse and pasture. Although visually stunning, the predominance of the fionán (properly called Purple Moor Grass) and bracken have a less positive underlying meaning. They take hold where the hillside has been set on fire time and again. The fires that we often see here are supposedly to control the gorse and increase grazing for sheep, but in fact according to Birdwatch Ireland, repeat burning “has led to a loss of cover (protection) for Red Grouse…depletes moorland fauna, and can lead to soil acidification, leaching and thus soil degradation.”

In summer, it’s all green but the wild flowers provide bursts of colour.

In November, the only wild colour to be found came from a yellow brain fungus on a dead gorse trunk. Yes, it’s really called that, and is normally yellow but darkens after dry weather. It’s not feeding on the gorse, apparently, but on other fungus that is feeding on the wood. Charming.

Yellow brain fungus on gorse?

Do the walk, any time of year. Then show the photos to your friends and watch them make plans for a trip to West Cork. Or should we just keep this our secret?

Contemplating the route

Mount Corrin Walk

View from the cairn, Mount Corrin

View from the cairn, Mount Corrin

Walks that get you up to high places with panoramic views are terrific – especially when you don’t have to start at sea level! One such West Cork walk is Mount Corrin. Despite being on The Mizen, it’s part of the Sheep’s Head Walks system, which means it’s accessible and perfectly waymarked.

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The whole Mount Corrin loop walk is a 17km marathon and definitely not for the faint-hearted. But faint-hearted is exactly what we are, so we have chosen an option that can be easily accomplished on a pleasant afternoon – about a 5 km round trip. Some of these photographs are from a spring walk, and some from a fine autumn day.

From the trail - the Sheep's Head

From the trail – looking across at the Sheep’s Head

Wear good boots and bring a camera but leave the dog at home as no dogs are allowed on the Sheep’s Head Way. And if you do want to do the Big Walk, we highly recommend you pick up a copy of Walking the Sheep’s Head Way by Amanda Clarke. She and Peter have brought out a Second Edition that includes all the loop walks and they do a fabulous job of describing the whole route and provide wonderful photographs of what you can expect.

This curious little monument is right beside the parking spot

This curious little monument is right beside the parking spot

Our starting point is at a high point about half way between Durrus and Ballydehob. Drive out of Ballydehob via the road between Antonio’s Restaurant and Vincent Coghlan’s pub – that’s the Rathruane Road. About 3 km along this road you will come to a crossroads – turn right. Take the first turn left on that road and it will bring you up to the top of a hill. Once you cross over the top and start the descent on the other side you will see the waters of Dunmanus Bay ahead and to the left and a pull-out for parking on the right.

One of West Cork's most scenic parking spots

One of West Cork’s most scenic parking spots

This is your starting point – look back and you will see the way marked trail about 50ms back up the hill, running alongside a forestry plantation. It’s also your ending point: our walk will take you up to the summit and back.

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If you’re approaching from Durrus, take the R591 out of the village. Take the first turn left then the first right and follow the road to the summit. These are small country roads – be prepared to pull over or even reverse when you encounter other traffic.

Example of 'other traffic'

Example of ‘other traffic’

Once you set out, the first point of interest is what is described in the National Monuments inventory as a ‘megalithic structure’ and which looks likely to be a wedge tomb, although it is hard to be definitive about it. Whatever it is, it’s man made and intriguing.

A wedge tomb?

A wedge tomb?

You can see the cairn ahead – your destination.

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Before you get to it there is a row of standing stones. These ones are not marked on the NM inventory but it’s difficult to see what they could be other than a stone alignment. A final push now gets you to the cairn and to those panoramic views we mentioned.

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The first thing you’ll notice about the cairns (there are two of them) is the size of the large one and the scatter of stones all around them. The consensus seems to be that there has been a cairn on Mount Corrin since ancient times and that the current cairn, a more modern construction, sits on top of an older one.

The cairn on Mount Corrin is visible from this panel of rock art at Rathruane

The cairn on Mount Corrin is visible from this panel of rock art at Rathruane

We have certainly noted that the top of Mount Corrin, like the top of Mount Gabriel, is visible from several prehistoric sites and a cairn would have enhanced that visibility. The most persistent story about the cairn, though, links it to Lord Bandon.

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The Bernards, Earls of Bandon, are associated with Durrus, having laid out the town in the eighteenth century and having used Durrus Court as a summer residence. They had many interests in the area, including mining, and the always-interesting Durrus History blog gives us this information about Mount Corrin:

Mary Catherine Henrietta Bernard of Castle Bernard daughter of Lord Bandon married Colonel Aldworth on the 30th July 1863 and an address and copy of ‘God’s Holy Word’ was sent by Rev Freke and the tenantry of Durrus to which she returned thanks.  At Dreenlomane Mine (operating until c1920) owned by Lord Bandon, Captain Thomas set tar barrels alight on Mount Corrin which illuminated the sky all night and the 150 miners and their wives were treated to refreshments and similar celebrations were held in Carrigbui.

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The views from the cairn are stupendous, taking in the West Cork Peninsulas and the hinterland across to the Kerry mountains. Take a while to wander around the top – see if you can spot the collapsed walls of ancient hut sites.

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Making your way back, look down towards the farms on the northern slope of the mountain. You can still make out the unmistakeable signs of lazy beds, used to grow potatoes, and the ruins of houses abandoned long ago. It’s a poignant reminder that this land was once densely populated by people whose sole nutrition came from potatoes and who fled this area in the aftermath of the Great Famine.

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There now – that wasn’t gruelling at all, was it? And so rewarding. But still, a bit of effort required so you definitely deserve a coffee and cake at Budd’s, or a pint in Rosie’s. Tell them Roaringwater Journal sent you.

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Walking the Sheep’s Head Way

COVER-FRONT

The definitive guide, by Amanda Clarke

NOTE: Since we wrote this post Amanda and Peter have brought out a second edition, including all the loop walks.

This week we attended a very special event – the launch of a new book, Walking the Sheep’s Head Way, written by Amanda Clarke and designed by Peter Clarke. Readers of this blog will be familiar with Amanda and Peter by now, as we have shared many adventures, hikes and explorations with them. 

Amanda and Peter at the launch

Amanda and Peter at the launch

For twelve years now they have been keen photographers and chroniclers of the Sheep’s Head: the book is a natural outgrowth of the passion they have for the peninsula.

Along the north side

Along the north side

Starting and ending in Bantry, the book takes us on the original Sheep’s Head Way, beginning along the north side, out to the lighthouse, and back along the south side. It is divided into 11 sections, each one a separate walk, although they can be combined. Each walk is mapped, and because the Way is so clearly marked, you can’t go wrong. No, really!

Out to the lighthouse!

To the lighthouse!

Amanda has immersed herself in the history, geography, flora, birdlife, archaeology, folklore and landscape of the Sheep’s Head. (Indeed, it is difficult to live here and NOT be fascinated by it all and carried away by the sheer magnificence of the scenery.) Each walk is accompanied by her observations – what to look out for, the meaning of a particular feature, the history of the area, stories of the old days.

As she has done for Robert and me, she leads the reader through the walk as if she’s chatting along beside you like an old friend, filling you in on what’s around you or encouraging you to pause and just listen. 

Abandoned houses at Crimea

Abandoned houses at Crimea

Each walk has its own character – whether it’s a holy well, a famine graveyard, an abandoned settlement, a prehistoric stone circle, old mine workings or signal towers – Amanda provides the essential commentary to enhance your understanding. 

The walks encompass high ridges with sweeping views, cliffhangers with yawning drops to the sea below, soft boggy trails, seaside ambles, and stretches of boreen fringed with wild flowers. 

A ridge walk

A ridge walk

The Sheep’s Head Way has been recognised in Ireland as an area of outstanding natural beauty, and in Europe as a Destination of Excellence (one of the EDENs). And yet, you can walk for miles and never meet another soul, especially in the off season. 

Looking towards the Beara

Looking towards the Beara

If you’re contemplating a holiday in Ireland, or if you’re already here and thinking about dropping down to see us in the Wilds of West Cork, pick up a copy of this book (buy it on Amazon or at one of our great local book shops) pack a pair of stout boots, check out Living the Sheep’s Head Way, and be prepared to be blown away. 

Looking down to Dunmanus Bay

Looking down to Dunmanus Bay

Let us know when to put the kettle on.