Clam and shade on a sunny late June morning. June is the time to visit St John’s Well. Trees encase the site, as the beehive structure encases the well itself. Noises drift in from out of sight, while rays of sunlight piercing the canopy catch the broken glass spread across the ground, asserting the space’s hosting of other activities. A small flow of water gently emerges, the water which restored sight and started veneration. The edge of the well, the small rectangular entrance, is the cusp. The exact point of significance, the well water is accessed here before flowing off, the sacred diluting into the profane.
Within the well another realm awaits. An inner sanctum, the tabernacle within the church. Reaching down to collect, to drink or bless draws you into this sphere. The cooling ambiance of the water, the reflections onto the vaulted walls, sparkle and shade on rock, moss and mould. Inside the beehive structure is reminiscent of subterranean consistency. It is calm here, removed from that which is outside. Temperate, dusky and muted; perhaps it always is.
The steady dripping of the water is a further layer of consistency. It captures an essence of the place. Always present, known but unobtrusive. It invites reflection and appreciation. The water – the substance of the well – emerging from the earth, gathering and flowing. It quietly splashes and echoes about, the reverberations affirming the chamber. Water sounds defining purpose and giving space.
Within the well remains. A steady emergence: earth, water, well.
Last week Vickie Langan (artist, soundy person and all round lady) and I visited two holy wells, The City, near Rathmore, Kerry and Tubrid, Millstreet, Cork. Below are a number of photos, videos and audio recordings, punctuated with text, that came out of the excursion. I also have a post on Researching with your Smartphone, based on our previous excursion.
This photo of the well, which was posted while we were on site, shows the cement structure along with a cup and glass. Unlike many other wells, the one at the City is not adorned with many votive offerings or extra materials. Like the site itself, it has a certain rawness. On a wind swept Tuesday in February, with the threat of serious rain, we had the places to ourselves.
Using the Soundcloud App on my phone, I took several recordings of the cup in the water, you can hear me lifting it, submerging it, pouring out some water and replacing it. This simple activity is central to these wells.
Vicky with her hydrophone, a superb piece of equipment for working with wells.
The altar at Tubrid holy well, on the Rathmore side of Millstreet. The altar is sheltered by a structure with offerings, signs and memorial cards throughout.
This short video of the candles on the altar indicate the recent visits by numerous people that day. Each one serving as an elemental remnant of a believer’s intentions and memories.
The site is very well maintained, as is demonstrated by this rack made especially to hold the cups used to drink the water and the other structures. It is at this point, where the water bubbling up in the well flows out, that people collect and drink the water.
Another recording using the SoundCloud App, of the water flowing.
A woman collecting holy water at St Gobnait’s holy well, Ballyvourney, on 11 Feb 2013, St Gobnait’s Day.
Visits to holy wells are a main part of my research. I usually leave with notes, audio recordings, video and photos, but also, frequently, a bottle of well water. In regards to the latter take-home, I am participating in one of the main activities of the holy well. People come to collected the holy water from the well, usually on the main feast day, to bring home or to carry to relations, friends and neighbours.
The water is mainly used as a blessings, invoking protection for the house and visitors, recovery from illness or warding off evil. Some wells are associated with specific cures or purposes; for example, the water from the City is used to bless crops and livestock in early May, while the water from Tobarín Súl near Lough Eyne is used for tooth aches.
A man taking away well water from St Brigid’s holy well Liscannor on 1 Feb 2013, St Brigid’s Day
This transfer of water is a form of mobility. Wells are necessarily located. It is at the exact point where the water surfaces, transforming from a subterranean substance to a grounded, earthly form, that it is held to be potent. It must be accessed at the source, for the very same water is not collected when it flows away to a stream or elsewhere. However, the forces and qualities of the well are mobile, through and in the water. Essences of the well, the saintly or supernatural can be brought to homes where it is stored and applied as required or as tradition sets out. While the well remains fixed, it is also highly mobile.
An audio clip of me collecting water from the well at the City near Rathmore on May Day, 2013.
As part of UCC’s Doctoral Showcase – an annual event which encourages research students to develop innovative ways to communicate their research to non-specialists – I developed a short video which intends to convey a sense of place through the use of sound and images. I used a collection of audio recordings and photos from St Gobnait’s in Ballyvourney to make the video.
The showcase presentation also involved members of the audience engaging with the place tactily as well, through the distribution of rosary beads, stones form the site and water from the well; although this isn’t possible here, I feel the video still goes a long way to giving a solid glimpse at St Gobnait’s. The sounds in particular – feet crunching gravel, stone scrapping against stone, water dripping – evoke the place and what it is to be there.
P.S. I’ve previously blogged on Podcasts & Place and many thanks to my cousin Eilín for narrating the video.
St John’s Well Carrigaline is venerated on St John’s Eve (23rd June) in a tradition that dates as far back as at least the early nineteenth century. The communal celebration of the well sees over a hundred locals gather for prayer and hymns at the site.
The well, also referred to as Tobar Eoin Óg or St Renogue (in a corrupted form), is located to the north-west of the main town, along a path between the Ballinrea Road and the Ballea Road (R613), adjacent to the Dun Eoin residential area. It is encased by a bee-hive shaped structure, with a small entrance from which water flows. A damaged cross tops the structure, while five pilgrim crosses are inscribed on the exterior walls. While a number of locals are very dedicated to the upkeep of the site, anti-social activities (a common feature of wells and other sites near towns) still make their presence felt.
St John’s Eve is a traditional time of celebration. It is a mixture of the Summer Solstice, Pagan/Celtic customs and Christian/Catholic saintly devotion. The lighting of bonfires (large open air fires) was a prominent way of marking the occasion; this practice is still common in Cork city with both official community events and unofficial (sometimes dangerous) fires. As part of the customs surrounding the night, wells and sites associated with St John are venerated.
The current form of the devotions at St John’s Well are organised by a small group in conjunction with the Catholic parish clergy. The rosary is lead by a priest who circles the well, with someone inscribing crosses to mark each decade of the rosary. The Eucharist or Blessed Sacrament is displayed and venerated, while music is provided by members of the parish choir and the Carrigaline Pipe Band. After the formal service, some go to the well to drink the water, bless themselves and/or collect some to take way.
People gathering at the well for the St John’s Eve events
The rosary and rounds of the well are lead by Fr Charlie, while the crowd remains stationary
The Blessed Sacrament, or Eucharist, is incensed as part of the service.
Pilgrims gathering around the well to collect water after the service.
The structure requires pilgrims to reach right down into the well to gather water.
While the format of the events see only one or two people doing the ’rounds’ during the service, a number of people individually circle the well, marking the crosses and praying. The structure over the well forces pilgrims to bend down and really get into the well if they are to access the water. The bodies and movements of the pilgrims, therefore, respond to the spaces in a particular way. Also, while a minority are content to bless themselves with the water as it flows from the well, many gather it from the well directly. This speaks to a firm continuation of faith in collecting, touching and drinking the water at the exact point of the source, where it is held to be purest.
The organisation of and attendance at the 2013 service indicated a healthy belief in the well and the importance of continuing its veneration in this community. This is the third year in-a-row that I have attended this event and it has consistently attracted large crowds (although torrential rain last year resulted in a simplified service and a smaller crowd). Also, on this visit I meet Louise Nugent of the blog Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland who has also written a post on the evening.
Tubrid Well is located on the western edge of Millstreet in north-west Cork: it lies north of the Killarney Road and is adjacent to the River Finnow. It is a developed local pilgrimage site with considerable individual and communal devotion practised, especially during May.
The annual May mass holds a particular significance for the Catholic community of the area. It serves as an opportunity for communal worship. A crowd of over 200 gather on this occasion (31st May 2013), with a choir and pipe band adding to the event. The association with May, in modern times at least, centres on the Marian devotion at the site. The month of May is a special period of devotion to the Virgin Mary in Catholicism.
On the evening of the mass (a particularly pleasant evening), the majority appeared to be there for the mass itself, as many people dispersed once it finished. Those who remained stayed an chatted with neighbours and friends, numerous people drank and collecting water from the well, while others prayed and left votive offerings at the grotto and completed the rounds.
Annual May mass
People gather for the annual May Mass
Collecting and drinking water at the edge of the well.
People praying and leaving votive offerings, especially candles and flowers, at the grotto
Doing the rounds at the site. Praying the rosary while circling the well.
The site is well tended to and is highly structured, with the grotto dominating the space and different features directing movement. The well is actually a natural spring pond with water visibly bubbling up from beneath the surface. Paths shape the flow of visitors; there is a specific point to drink and gather the water; and, the low lying chain around the well marks out the prayers of the rosary. However, on this evening the mass took precedence for many over any other practice, while others performed their own rituals. The physical features, as well as the ability to drive right up to the entrance to the well, facilitate access, especially for elderly visitors and those with mobility concerns.
‘The City’, or Cathair Crobh Dearg, is a local pilgrimage site in Shrone, Rathmore, Kerry, on the northern slopes of the Paps. The name ‘The City’ refers to the locations role as a cathair (ringfort). The surviving walls and features of the antiquity serve as setting for the pattern that is performed there. It is believed that this has been a place of continual devotion and worship over several millennia.
Both the location and possibly a pagan deity were Christianised with the space being associated with St. Craobh Dearg ( a sister of St Gobnait of Ballyvourney). In a further pagan/Celtic connection, the pattern is performed on May Day, that is the feast of Bealtaine and it is linked with ensuring the health of cattle, or sometimes agriculture more generally.
The Well is located on western side of the City. It is the last station on the pattern. It is enclosed by a stone wall with a small amount of votive offerings present.
Some work was done in the recent past with the well being located within concrete piping, with surrounding steps which facilitate access.
At the western station of the pattern, there is a statue of Our Lady with the Infant Jesus and a number of cross slabs. Devotees make the shape of the corss as part of the pattern. The deep groves speak to the age of this practice.
The Well from the road, with a woman doing the rounds and a man at the well.
A woman doing the rounds, circling the outside of the City. The flow of people that day has created a ‘path’ in the grass.
The water is taken away on sprinkled on cattle or the land. It is also kept to give to sick cattle. Some people take several bottles of water, collecting it for their neighbours and friends.
A recording of me collecting some water from the well.
A video of me walking around the outside of the City, along the pattern route. The flow of earlier pilgrims has left a clear on the route.
St Gobnait, who is venerated at different sites in the south of Ireland, has her feast day on 11th February. St Gobnait’s house and holy well in Ballyvourney, Cork, is one of the main sites of devotion associated with the saint. On the feast day or pattern day, people come to do the rounds and visit the well. The site located just outside the village is very well maintained an attracts visitors throughout the year.
Pilgrims praying in the rain at the statue of St Gobnait
The grave of St Gobnait which is a focus of devotional activity. It is a station on the rounds and people frequently leave votive offerings here.
Looking down on the pilgrimage site from beside the statue. One of the wells is in the foreground, with the grave in the middle ground to the right and the old church, which is also part of the rounds, is in the background.
St Gobnait’s Well which is adjacent to the graveyard; it is the final station on the rounds
A recording at St Gobnait’s Holy Well Ballyvourney Cork on 11th Feb 2013, the feast day of the saint. The recording captures the lifting a cup form above the well, taking up some water, drinking some, returning the water, the ambient sound in the well structure and returning the cup.
A selection of photographs and an audio recording taken today (St Brigid’s Day, 2013) at St Brigd’s Well, Liscannor Clare. There was a steady flow of people visiting the well. A mass was due to be held there at noon, weather permitting; however, it was said in the parish church instead. Most of the visitors took away a bottle of the water, while some engaged some in prayer patterns. A number of votive offerings were left in the well and rags tied to the trees adjacent to the well and pattern route.
St Brigid’s Well, Liscannor, Clare. The well is located at the rear of an artificial grotto or passage way, which is filled with votive offerings.
A group doing their ’rounds’ at the statue.
Crowds gathering by the well, the queue to the well can be seen coming out of the archway.
A woman doing the ’rounds’
An hay arch (hay wrapped over a metal frame) covers the entrance to the well, it is adorned with St Brigid’s Crosses
Collecting the holy water
The visit to the well frequently involves a lighting of a candle. This little alcove is adjacent to the well, it’s a lovely micro-space.
A central part of the tradition surrounding holy wells is the consumption of the water. This photo shows three cups on top of the low wall surrounding Our Lady’s Well, Timoleague, Co. Cork, which is sunken into the ground. On the outside of the wall, the gravel of a path surrounding the well can be seen, while on the inside the wall leads down to the still water. The three cups – a simple metal handle-less one, an old porcelain one with faded writing and a plastic mug from Lough Derg – rest, casting shadows in the mid-winter morning, awaiting use in personal and communal acts of devotion and reflection. The objects embody beliefs, vernacular traditions and absent rituals. The presence of the Lough Derg cup is a nice link between this local spot and the national pilgrimage location.