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A Folklore Survey of County Clare by Thomas Johnson Westropp


Wells and Well Customs

Hesitation in questioning poor people too closely about their religious feelings and rites has, I fear, rendered my notes on this important subject somewhat bald. The pagan Irish, of course, reverenced wells, and the famous King of the Waters’ in Mayo was connected with St. Patrick by early biographers.[142] With the usual wise tactfulness of the ancient Irish missionaries all that was harmless was adopted into the new religion, and the wells lost none of their old observances and honour. The dedications of the Clare wells form a most valuable record, for, even when the founder of the church was forgotten, or a new patron invoked, the well usually kept the name of the ancient local saint. Unfortunately since about 1850 names of wells have been locally forgotten, and a re-dedication, often to St. Joseph, is common. Strange to say, the noteworthy saints Enda and Luchtighern are forgotten at the wells at their churches. The early mediæval life of St. Senan, (Colgan, ‘Vita S.S.,’ March) says that, when that saint was born at Magh Lacha, Moylough, there was no water at hand to baptize him,—a rare thing in County Clare,—so he told his mother to pull up three rushes, and a spring welled out. The tale was still told in 1816.[143] The life of St. Mochulleus (Mochuille or Mochulla), about 1141 tells us how that early seventh-century saint struck a rock near a lake to the north of Tulla and three streams broke out. The well dedicated to him to the east of Loch Graney is evidently intended, and two streams still flow from it down the hillside. Some have supposed the wells of Tobereendowny, (‘well of the King of the Sabbath,’ or, as suggested by Prof. Macalister and others, ‘of the world’),—were dedicated to a pre-Christian deity. Tobereevul is dedicated to Aibhill. The flooded dolmen, Tobergrania, is named from Finn’s fugitive spouse, ‘Granny’s bed’ occurring also as a dolmen name in Clare. Among Christian dedications we have Tobercruhnorindowan (of ‘the creator of the world’) at Killard, Tober Isa (of ‘Jesus’), and Tobernacrohynaeve (i.e. Tobar-na-croiche-naoimh, of ‘the Holy Cross’). To the Virgin are dedicated wells at Drimelihy-Westby, Kilmacduan, and Killadysert. Of non-local saints,—usually, it is probable, late dedications,—we find St. John has the wells of Killone and Tromra, St. Michael wells at Kilbrecan, Cappagh (Bunratty) and the Kilmihils, St. Augustine at Kilshanny and Gallynagry, St. Bartholomew at Toberpartholaun in Rath (Inchiquin), and St. Martin at Moyarta, Ballynecally, and Lemaneagh. All the dedications to St. Joseph are modern. St. Patrick did not enter Clare, but has wells at Correen (Kilnaboy), Clooney (Bunratty Barony), and Rossalia. The following list of wells dedicated to local saints may be useful for reference. Brecan (c. 480) has wells at Noughaval near Clare Castle (Kilbrecan), Doora, and Clooney (Bunratty); Brendan (date doubtful), at Kilmoon and Farighy (Moyarta); Brigid, (probably the Abbess of Feenish Island, c. 550), Kiltanon, Cappafeeaun, Finnor, and Coney Island; Caimin (d. 653), Iniscaltra and Moynoe; Caritan (c. 550), Kilcredaun in Kilballyowen, Kilcredaun near O’Brien’s Bridge, and Kilcredaunadober near Bunratty; Carrol (doubtful), Kilcarrol, where a wooden image of him existed in 1816; Colan of Tomgraney (d. 552), to the west of that village; Colman mac Duach of Kilmacduach (c. 630), Kinallia, Oughtmama (where ‘the three Colmans’ probably originate in a confusion of texts), Teernea, Lough George, and Crusheen: Columba of Iona (d. 597), Crumlin and Glen Columbcille; Cornan (unknown), Kilcornan and Tobercornan in Gleninagh; Croine (unknown), Kilcrony and Liscrona in Moyarta; Cronan (probably of Tomgraney, c. 550), Inchicronan, Termoncronan, Killo-kennedy, and Corrakyle; Dioma, Kildimo; Enda (c. 480), Killeany; Fachtnan (doubtful), Kilfenora; Flannan (c. 680), Killaloe; Imer (unknown), Killimer; Inghean Baoith (c. 630), Kilnaboy, Commons, Glensleade, Quakerstown, Killavella Dulick (Templemaley), Kiltacky, Kilshanny, Aglish, Moy-Ibrickan, Mogowna, Ballycoree, Shalee (two), Cullaun, Castletown (Spansil Hill), Dromumna, and Quin; Kirin (not Kieran), Kilkierin (locally Kilkereen); Lachtin, Kilnamona, Kilfarboy, and Stacpoole Bridge near Miltown Malbay; Lonan (c. 580), Killaspuglonane and Derrynavahagh (Kilmoon); Luchtighern (c. 550), Tomfinlough and, probably, Moy Ibrickan; Maccreehy (c. 580), Kilmacreehy, Kilmanaheen, and Inagh; Mainchin (perhaps ‘St. Munchin,’ patron of Limerick), Kilmanaheen; Mochonna (unknown), Feakle and Moynoe; Mochulla (c. 620), Tulla, Templemoculla (Clonlara), Lough Graney, Lough Breeda, Miltown, Kilgorey, Fortanne, Broadford, Trough, Ralahine, Cragg, Lahardan, and Cappavilla, with perhaps, (if not of St. Molocus, c. 550), Moylough, Scattery, and Carrigaholt; Molua (c. 620), Killaloe; Onchu, Killonaghan; Sanctan, Dromline; Screbann, Clondegad and Kilmaley; Senan (d. 552), Iniscatha, Moylough, Iniscaeragh (Mutton Island), Kilclogher, Carrow (Kilmacduan), Erribul (Kilfiddan), Kilshanny, Killaneena, Cooraclare, Kilcredaun, and Drim (Quin); Tola (c. 635), Dysert O’Dea and Kiltola; and Voydan or Baighdean (unknown), Kilvoydan, Corofin, and Kilraughtis.

Healing Powers
The ‘Ordnance Survey Letters’[144] mention the following:—Gleninagh well, which has a fifteenth-century well-house or ‘turry,’ cured sore eyes; Tober Cholmain, above Oughtmama churches, sufferers from ‘the pearl,’ the films falling off the eyes at the third washing; St. Maccreehy’s well, near Liscannor, eye troubles, which were also cured by St. Inghean Baoith’s well near Kilshanny (even then nearly deserted), Tobermoghna near Clooney (Corcomroe), St. Senan’s well on the cliffs south-west from Kilkee, Kilcrony well near Carrigaholt, Tobercaun in Kiltrellig near Loop Head, Tobershenan in Moyfadda, the Virgin’s well at Templemaley, and Tober Isa at Corlack Glebe (Bunratty). Tobernatasha, (‘well of the relic’ or, as some say, ‘spectre’), in Kilmaley was shaped liked a coffin, and delicate children used to be laid on their backs in it.[145] The black mud which gave its name to Toberduff cured sore eyes and swelled limbs. So did Senan’s well at Kilkee; horrible to tell, the devotees,—down to 1875, at least, when a washing-tank was made outside the well-house,—used to wash in this, the only supply of drinking-water for the then fashionable watering-place. Toberlachtin at Kilnamona cured several diseases, its ‘day’ being March 19th. Eyes were also healed by the well south from Newmarket-on-Fergus, and by the wetted moss of St. Mochulla’s well near Tulla (the moss being put back to complete the cure). The latter well is said to have avenged itself, about 1780, on its landlord, who had dug away part of its enclosure, by rendering his son and daughter imbecile. The son survived till 1853, and no other members of the family were affected after the well was restored.[146] The Newmarket well indignantly removed itself to its present site when ‘a dirty woman washed her feet in it,’ and it also gave her the complaint it usually cured. So, also, when the holy well above Oughtmama[147] was offended, it closed, and broke out lower down the hillside, as the Sruhaunanaeve or ‘saints’ stream,’ and the water of Killone well refused to boil. The Cunninghams, living near it, spoilt their cooking by using its water, though ‘they knew it would not boil.’ John Windele tells of other resentful wells in Cork and Kerry; for example, the well at Labba Molagga (Cork) ran dry when a woman washed her clothes in it, and at Maunaholtora the well near a dolmen ran dry, and its water refused to boil.[148] The Irish ‘Nennius’ tells a story of ducks that could not be boiled because the water would not get hot while they were in it. In the last century a woman who drew water from a well and saw it did not boil found a fish in it. She took the fish back to the well, and the water then boiled without any difficulty. The mud of the dolmen or ‘well’ of Tobergrania at Ballycroum cured sore or short-sighted eyes, and that of the bullaun or basin at Kiltinanlea church near Clonlara did the same. The well of St. Michael at Kilmihil was once powerful. Father Anthony Bruodin, a Franciscan and author of a history of his order[149] full of curious particulars about Clare before 1640, tells how ‘Lady’ Mariana, wife of Thomas MacGorman, of the author’s kinsfolk, had in 1632 long suffered from gout. The Archangel appeared to her in a dream, and bade her to go to his church and dig where she should see rushes growing near it. Aided by her son and Dermot O’Quaely, the parish priest of Kilmihil, she found the well and was cured. Many other persons got similar relief, but there seems no tradition of any cures by it preserved among the people of Kilmihil.

It is right, on visiting a well, to make offerings of small objects, only of value as homage. Rag offerings are naturally most frequent where there is a ‘blessed bush’ at the well, but they are frequently hung on a bramble, or even, on the Atlantic coast, kept in place by stones. Rags abounded, with other offerings, at Gleninagh, at least till 1899, being tied to the twigs of an old elder bush. They were hung in quantities on the stunted old hawthorn at Oughtmama well, and were found at Tobersraheen, at Aglish graveyard in Ogonello, and on the large fallen hawthorn near the basin at Kiltinanlea. They are often accompanied by rosaries, religious medals, necklaces and ribbons, broken or whole plaster and china figures and vessels, and glass, buttons, pins, and nails. Such objects are abundant at many wells, such as the little rock well in Glensleade between the largest Berneens dolmen and the road, Killone altar, St. Senan’s well near Kiltinanlea, Fortanne, Kilseily, St. Lachtin’s well near Miltown Malbay, Kilcredaun, and a well of St. Inghean Baoith (stopped by a too zealous Protestant, but recently reopened and dedicated to St. Joseph) near Inchiquin lake. The almost disused dolmen-well of Tobergrania had in 1893 two rude crosses of laths tied together, buttons, bottles, glass, crockery, and a coin.[150] In 1889 Kilfarboy well near Miltown was frequented on Sundays and Thursdays by sick persons, and abounded in such offerings as bits of leather, crockery, and blacking pots. (I am not certain whether this note refers to St. Lachtin’s well or to one near Kilfarboy church.) China and pebbles have been offered at Kilcredaun in a cleft beside the Shannon estuary, and pebbles placed in the ‘Font’ of Doughnambraher in central Clare.


Chapter 13


Chapter 15