Friday, 11 August 2017

Two ‘holy wells’ and their
patron saints in Millstreet

Saint John’s Well on Mushera Mountain … one of the many holy wells near Millstreet, Co Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Millstreet has about half a dozen mills that gave the town its name. But it also has almost the same number of ‘holy wells.’ We visited two of these earlier this week, but wondered less about their miracle-working than we did about the saints they are supposed to be linked with.

Saint John’s Well, otherwise known as Tobair na Faithni, is on the north slopes of Mushera, about 6 km from Kilcorney and 8 km from both Rylane and Macroom.

The well is in a rugged but dramatic location on the slopes of the mountain and at the edge of a new forestry plantation. I could imagine on Sunday, despite the rain and the mist, that on clear days there are expansive panoramic views across the surrounding countryside, looking upwards are the formidable slopes of the mountain, while the valley below is splattered with patchwork fields, glowing rich with colour.

Mushera is the highest mountain in the Boggeragh range, and there are three holy wells here, all dedicated to Saint John. But this is best-known of the three wells, and attracts a steady stream of visitors, some attracted by its reputation for offering a cure of warts.

A pattern or festival is held at this well each year on 24 June, the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist. But local people say the well is dedicated to Saint John of Mushera.

The statue of Saint John the Evangelist at Saint John’s Well near Millstreet (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

We found all this very confusing, as the principal statue at the well is of neither saint, but of Saint John the Evangelist or Saint John the Divine, also known as Saint John the Theologian or the Beloved Disciple, the author of the Fourth Gospel and the Book of Revelation.

I pointed out that a statue of Saint John the Baptist might be expected to show him as a very hairy figure with coarse clothing – perhaps even carrying his head on a platter, as he is depicted so often in Greek icons.

Local legends place Saint John of Mushera in the mountains of Muskerry and say he had three sisters, all revered as saints and named as Lasair, Inghean Buidhe and Latiaran, the patron saint of the nearby parish of Cullen, and each her own feast day on 6 May, 24 June and 22 July.

Saint Berihert is said to be a member of the same family, and these legends say Saint John and Saint Berihert lived with their sisters at Cullen before setting out on their missionary journeys, Saint John to Mushera and Saint Berihert to Tullylease.

Until about 1940, Saint John’s Day was marked with a pattern at the well. Tents were set up on the mountain near the well, with stalls selling sweets, cakes, lemonade, cigarettes and porter. Pilgrims visited the well in the morning, and the secular entertainment continued for the rest of the day, with singing and dancing. Over the years, however, the crowds dwindled in size, and the pattern was abandoned.

Then on Saint John’s Day, 24 June 1954, the late Michael Buckley of Aubane placed a picture of Saint John the Evangelist in the grotto. The late Sonny Buckley from Tullig, near Millstreet, who visited the well later that day, decided to erect a timber altar to protect this picture.

A committee was formed in Aubane to build a stone grotto, and when this was completely by voluntary labour the picture of Saint John was placed inside the stone grotto.

In 1958, a statue of Saint John the Evangelist was placed in the centre grotto, and two side grottos were built. The statue of Saint John was blessed in 1958 by Canon Costello of Millstreet. The first Mass at the grotto was celebrated on 24 June 1974 and Mass has been celebrated there every year since.

When Sonny Buckley died in 1979, he left £500 in his will towards the erection of the Stations of the Cross at the well. These 14 stations were designed by Liam Cosgrove of Blackpool in Cork City.

Tubrid Well at the western fringes of Millstreet (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Back in Millstreet, we visited a second holy well at Tubrid, on the western fringe of the town, and once again the three of us found ourselves wondering about the origins of the name of the well, and the saint it might refer to.

A sign at the entrance to the well briefly tells the stories of the well, its history and folklore.

Local people differ about the identity of the patron saint of Tubrid Well. Some say the well is Saint Gobnait of Ballyvourney, and that the source of the well is there, with the water coming north under Clara Mountain. Others say the name of the well is Tobar Íde, Saint Ita’s Well, and that over time this name was abbreviated to Tubrid.

Although the sign does not mention it, another tradition suggests the name of the well is derived from Saint Bride or Saint Brigit. In any case, Saint Ita is said to have been a niece of Saint Brigit and that after she founded a nunnery in Killeedy she stayed there until her death in 570.

Tubrid Well has been a place of pilgrimage for the people of Duhallow for countless generations. The well is 40 feet in diameter and is said to be the second largest well in Britain and Ireland.

Tubrid Well was almost forgotten and abandoned until the middle of the 20th century when it is said it was rediscovered by a blind man from Limerick. Now large numbers of people visit the well at Tubrid in May each year to pray the Rosary and to drink the waters that are said to have healing properties.

According to local traditions a fish appears in the well on occasions, and pilgrims who catch a glimpse of the fish are said to have their requests granted. But while we saw bubbles in the water, we saw no fish, and instead of pilgrims the only other visitor was a man filling large containers with natural spring water – a healing and miraculous alternative to the water that flows through many of our taps today.

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