Category Archives: sightseeing

Pilgrimage to Gougane Barra: Ireland 2017 (Part VIII)

If I had had the time, the equipment, and the desire to punish my body, I might have been tempted to have hiked the entirety of St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Way, which covers a mountainous 23-mile stretch between Drimoleague and Gougane Barra, during my time in Ireland. Although I’m sure that the young and fit could manage this in a (long and painful) day, typically it is recommended as two seven-hour hikes spread across two days. It is not an easy walk, since it involves three valleys and four mountain chains and is marked by uneven ground and unpredictable weather. I, therefore, just cut to the chase and headed straight to Gougane Barra by car.

This was my final outing in County Cork, since my long drive back to the ferry was scheduled for the following day. I did not want to spend much time in the car, having just (barely) survived the trek around Beara; I needed to unwind and decompress before hitting the road again. I did some Pilates and read a book and hung around the cabin in a low-key kind of way. Around mid-afternoon, the clouds that had wreathed the mountains that morning began to recede, and I thought it might be nice to have a small jaunt–just one last little venture out–so that I could stretch my legs. I opted to explore Gougane Barra because it is only about 20 minutes away from Kealkill and driving there would allow me to satisfy my curiosity about what lay in, around, and beyond the mountains I was seeing each time I looked out my living room window.

If any one day of my trip could be described as an unabashed success, it was this one. The commute to Gougane Barra was quick, easy, and very pretty, and when I got there I found this:

St Finbarr’s Oratory in Gougane Barra

I mean, come on. Places like this exist in real life? In case you didn’t quite catch how unbelievably lovely the chapel is, let me also share this view:

Close-up of the Oratory and its idyllic surroundings

The feast day of St Finbarr (or, if you prefer, Finnbar, Findbarr, Fionnbharra, or Barra–because why stop at just one name when you could confuse people with a multitude?) is 25th September; the faithful who visit Gougane Barra as the culmination of the pilgrimage over the mountains would typically time their journey to arrive on this day. The appellation “Gougane Barra”, evidently meaning “the rock of Finnbarr”, originally was attached only to the island on which Finbarr lived in the middle of the lake (itself previously named Loch Irce). Now, however, the phrase is used to refer also to the lake, the settlement on the shore, and the area in general.

The island is currently attached to the mainland by way of a (presumably manmade) path, so it is quite easy to access the grounds to complete the contemplative activities associated with the pilgrimage–or, if you are like me, to merely do some sightseeing.

Prayer could not possibly be any more healing than the simple privilege of enjoying this view

Legend has it that Finbarr, back in the 6th Century, told the people of Drimoleague that they needed to get right with God; he then turned on his heel and hiked down to Gougane Barra to establish his monastery–hence the “Pilgrim Way”. The area fell into ruin after his death, but a new monastery was built around 1700 by priest Denis O’Mahoney. The oratory shown above was built in the 19th Century. Unsurprisingly given how utterly charming it is, it’s a popular destination for weddings; in fact, one had taken place on the day of my visit. Back in the days of the Penal Laws, though, Gougane Barra had a somewhat more serious role to play: Because it is tucked away in such a quiet and disconnected spot, it was a good place for Catholics to secretly continue performing Mass even after it had been forbidden.

The eastern half of the lake, which is fed by the River Lee

Those who are interested in doing the pilgrimage properly and making the rounds at Gougane Barra had better set aside a good chunk of time; after you’ve made your two-day hike across the mountains, you also need to complete a 13-step prayer series. You start in the middle of the island in a walled-off area marked by a large timber cross:

You say the Creed, after which you make a confession, say an Our Father, follow it up with a Hail Mary, and then finish with a Glory Be to the Father. So far, so good. You’ll notice that the stone walls here are decorated (if that is the correct word) with the Stations of the Cross. Don’t let these fool you! You don’t actually have to interact with them directly (not as part of the pilgrimage, anyway; presumably they would come in handy around Easter time). What you do need to do is visit each of the eight cells between them; then you go outside and head to the old altar; finally you swing by the holy well and the slanan (or “health stream”). At each of these spots, you do another five each of the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be.

The old altar at St Finbarr’s Oratory; the crosses have been scratched in by pilgrims. Back in the day, and possibly also now, people would save the flecks of stone they’d etched off and then drink them (preferably in water from a holy well). Refreshing!
St Finbarr’s holy well, in which was swimming many very blessed invertebrates and microorganisms

You end your circuit at Father O’Mahony’s tomb, where you finish off with one last Creed, one last confession (shame on you for already slipping up just since you left the cross at the beginning of the round, tut), one Our Father, and one Hail Mary. The placard on which all these instructions are listed finishes here with “etc.”, which I find to be awfully blasé; after all, you don’t want to mess up right at the end and have all your efforts invalidated. The sign also suggests you might want to insert an optional prayer visit to the Oratory. Once you’ve said your piece to God, you collect half a bottle each from both the holy well and the slanan (honestly, wouldn’t it have been more efficient to collect these while you were there the first time?) and then sprinkle the person or people whom you were hoping to help with your prayers.

The tomb of Father O’Mahoney lies near the well-trafficked entrance to Holy Island; not much resting in peace to be had here

The information point also said that lights have been installed on and around the island so pilgrims can safely visit and pray at all hours. Part of me finds this kind of impressive and endearing, but the other part of me thinks that maybe it’s enabling people to be a little  more devoted, or perhaps you might say fanatical, than is strictly necessary? But I guess there are some pretty short days in the fall and winter, so I can see where it is better to be safely well-lit than sorry.

On another day, I might have been tempted to sit and enjoy the incredible scenery, or to stroll along the paths in the nearby woods. On this particular day, however, there was a prematurely autumnal wind blowing down off the mountain, and it made for a very blustery experience. It wasn’t too bad when the sun was out, but when clouds rolled back through, it was uncomfortably chilly. I could see why all the Pilgrim Way websites took care to caution hikers to be responsible; it would be all too easy to set off during a sunny period and then get caught out as a result of quick-moving weather systems blowing in off the sea. Poor St Finbarr and Father O’Mahony, who had no access to microfleece or waterproof jackets.

One last glimpse of the picturesque Oratory, plus bonus bird (yes I know that’s a swan, but there’s no alliteration to enjoy if I use an s-word, is there?)

As I reached the end of the Gougane Barra access road where I would turn right to head back to Kealkill, I came across this display at the junction:

Sometimes I feel that Christians in general, and Catholics especially, are a little too subtle with their imagery. I just don’t get what they’re trying to convey here.

I don’t know how I’d managed to miss this on the way in, given that it is at least life size, if not a bit bigger. I can see where this would be quite an affecting display for believers just reaching the end of the Pilgrim Way, but, IMHO, it is a bit of a shame to be bombarding people with the concepts of SACRIFICE and SUFFERING and DEATH when they have just been surrounded by beautiful, calming, uplifting natural scenery that has probably (if they are like me) gifted them with a sense of peace and serenity. Why harsh everyone’s mellow? Can’t we just celebrate the nice bits of Creation? No? Well, I think we can all see why I’ve not been nominated for any Catholic faith awards recently.

Celebrating the nice bits of Creation: This is how it’s done.

It took me a whole week, but with Gougane Barra I finally demonstrated that I’d learned how to do a day trip right: Choose somewhere close and easy to find, swoop in, enjoy the sights, and then go straight home before anything could become overly complicated, onerous, or generally unpleasant.

I was saving all of those traits for the mega-crazy road trip I had planned for the following day.

The Ring of Bheara: Ireland 2017 (Part VII)

Although I was spending a fair amount of time outdoors, my trip to Ireland wasn’t quite as outdoorsy as I’d originally planned–other than my stroll around the Glengarriff Nature Reserve, I hadn’t done much that was focused on exploring and enjoying the local habitat as opposed to interesting features found within it. I decided to rectify this by visiting the Killarney National Park, a beautiful and ecologically important part of the country that sports woodland and lakes as well as a castle and some gardens and nearby sacred stones; it is, in other words, something of an Irish smorgasbord.

En route to Killarney was Kenmare, a small town that was perfectly positioned to act as a rest stop and which, conveniently, is home to another stone circle that I could tick off my list. During all the time I spent in Cork, I never saw much advertisement for Kenmare, and yet it is much more welcoming and enchanting than either Bantry or Baltimore, which (as far as I could tell) get more attention.

Kenmare was bustling when I arrived; car parks were full, shops were busy, customers were occupying every sidewalk table in front of the town’s many cafes and restaurants. The town reminded me of a wheel, with a pleasant park located at the hub and many streets radiating outwards; one led to a dignified stone church and, beyond it, residential neighbourhoods; others were lined with an assortment of shops whose facades were painted in an array of cheerful colours; and still others headed back into the scenic countryside. There was kind of a timeless feel about Kenmare, which looked as though it probably had maintained that same basic layout, more or less unchanged, for a few hundred years.

The very tidy Kenmare stone circle

The Kenmare stone circle is not far from the town centre and is extremely well signposted; on the one hand this was very convenient for navigational purposes, but on the other hand it meant that I ended up sharing the site with several other groups of people. The other unusual thing about the Kenmare circle is that it is actively maintained. To quote the author of one of my favourite online resources:

“…the monument and its surroundings are so well tended it looks more like a garden feature than a prehistoric monument. There are pine trees completely encircling it and the grass is kept very short, almost lawn-like. All this is reflected in the name it is known by locally: ‘The Shrubberies’. A little too pristine for my liking.”

I agree that the ambience of stone circles is, generally, enhanced by an air of wildness and naturalness, but I still felt that the Kenmare circle was worth visiting. It is 17.5 m across at its widest point, which makes it the largest stone circle in southwest Ireland; also, it is elliptical rather than circular, which is uncommon. The central stone is actually a boulder burial dolmen, and rests upon at least three other smaller stones beneath it.

Boulder dolmen in the centre of the circle; it seems to have some very small bullauns?

There are many online fora where megalith-lovers share photos, information, and opinions about sacred stones, and Kenmare gets an overwhelmingly bad rap across most of these. In addition to a prevailing distaste for the well-manicured lawn, there was also negativity about the landowners’ request for a €2 donation from visitors, as well as the lack of an impressive water view from the site. I didn’t mind paying–in fact, I had been surprised at how many of the other sites I’d visited were free–and I thought it was very pleasant to see and hear the River Finnihy running by just down the hill from the stones; I can see, however, that the site might have been even more dramatic when the surrounding trees didn’t block the probably even more impressive view over to the nearby bay.

One of the other charms of the Kenmare circle is what I will call, for lack of a better word, a “wishing tree”:

I refrained from reading anyone’s notes, but boy was I tempted

I couldn’t find any information on this particular tree online, but I do know that there are many instances in which “wishing trees” are associated with sacred stones. Back in the day, one of the many ways in which you could interact with a stone in order to promote a positive outcome was to hammer something into it as a request or offering; this wouldn’t have been easy, so it was a good way to ensure that only the most motivated of supplicants  had access to a stone’s power. Over time, this practice morphed into the slightly easier method of leaving things draped on the stone, or sitting at its base, or hanging in a nearby tree. I’m not sure how long visitors have been engaged in this activity at Kenmare specifically, but in general I do know that it’s a prayer technique that is centuries old. Although some of these leavings were written-out prayers–such as those you find posted near votives in cathedrals–others were simply ribbons or strings or objects. Again, I don’t know any specifics about Kenmare, but I have read that in other places, these more general items might be left for a time and then retrieved for application to the problem at hand, with the idea that they would have absorbed, and be imbued with, some power from the stones. I kind of wanted to leave something of my own just to take part in the ritual and see what it felt like to do so, but I searched my bag and found absolutely nothing of use; that will teach me to leave home without some emergency spiritual sundries.

Back in town, I stopped to read a sign about Kenmare and the surrounding area and was quite taken with an image of a stone circle–Uragh–in the midst of breathtaking countryside. I very much wanted to see it in person but noticed that it was in the opposite direction from Killarney, which meant that I needed to make a decision: Did I head north towards the woodlands or did I spontaneously change plans and head south along the Beara Peninsula? In addition to being interested in this particular stone circle, I had been wanting to see more of the Beara and the coastal areas in general, so I decided to opt for the latter.

The route to my destination was very well marked, but it was not an easy drive. It was a one-lane road with many twists and turns and quite a few dramatic hills–and sometimes the twists and turns came on the dramatic hills, which made for an exciting but somewhat nauseating journey. For the sake of my safety and my stomach’s integrity, I needed to concentrate on where I was going, but this was extremely hard because the landscape was phenomenally gorgeous. I pulled over a couple of times to gawk and take photographs, but none of my images really do it justice.

Cloonee Upper Lough, which feeds into Cloonee Middle and then Cloonee Lower Loughs, which ultimately decant into Kenmare Bay
Almost all the countryside I passed through was pastureland for sheep and cows.     

The quickly changing weather added a certain je ne sais quoi to the view, which was already impressive enough thanks to the rugged terrain and vibrant colours; in addition to the low-lying fog hovering at the tops of the hills, there were also dark grey clouds punctured by spears of brilliant sunlight and patches of gold that rolled across the land as the clouds raced overhead.

The stone circle is located between two lakes–Cloonee Upper and Inchiquinn (which sounds to me more like a Native American word than an Irish one)–and these, too, are stunningly, distractingly beautiful.

Lough Inchiquinn, which is bordered by the Uragh Wood nature reserve (running along the far side right-hand side of the lake)

There was a family hiking around Cloonee Upper when I arrived, but nobody else in sight–not entirely surprising given that the access road dead-ended in the middle of the wilderness a couple miles further on. I left my car at a little lot just off the main thoroughfare and hiked the remaining quarter mile or so to the stone circle. A bracing wind was howling down the hills and across the lakes, but in between gusts the land was silent and still; though I was not actually that far from a main route or from civilisation, I had the impression of being truly isolated. It was great.

The Uragh Stone Circle is located on a little knoll at the edge of Lough Inchiquinn, and since I was approaching from below, I was unable to catch any glimpses of the stones until they were right in front of me; one moment all I could see was a grassy incline, and the next I was suddenly presented with this:

If you didn’t hear a choir of angels burst into song when you looked at this photo, then something is wrong with you.

I honestly don’t think you could ask for a more scenic, more quintessentially Irish, more perfect view than this one. There are even waterfalls at the eastern side of Inchiquinn, for heaven’s sake. It’s amazing. It was worth sacrificing Killarney, it was worth every stomach-turning bend in the road, and it was even worth the horrible hairdo I was sporting as a result of all the wind. When I returned home later and did some reading online, I found my sentiments echoed by previous visitors to the same spot:

“Even though it rained continually on our visit, I thoroughly enjoyed this magical location. Set against a backdrop of mountains, lakes, and waterfalls, Uragh Stone Circle was certainly one of the main highlights of our recent trip to Cork and Kerry and surely one of the most beautiful. A gorgeous drive along the narrow, meandering road to this remote spot adds an air of anticipation to the journey.”

Before I headed back to the car, I climbed a hill located to the left of Uragh so that I could see even more of the landscape and have another vantage point from which to view the megaliths. As I stood surveying the scene, a patch of brilliant sunlight slid down the opposite slope and swept over the grass towards the circle. I managed to snap a photo just as the beam reached Uragh:

The stone circle illuminated by a roving shaft of sunlight. Cue more angelic singing.

I don’t really believe in destiny or luck, but sometimes things work out so perfectly, you do have to wonder.

I was also wondering what I should do next. I didn’t want to push myself too hard and have another back-breaking day in the car like I did when I visited Baltimore, but…I did really want to drive the Ring of Beara route that would allow me to circumnavigate the peninsula and access various other sacred stone sites along the way. Yet again, I felt driven to take in as much of the countryside as I could while I was there, since anything less just felt like a wasted opportunity. I don’t even know why I pretended that there was actually a choice to make here, because obviously I was only ever going to opt for the more time-consuming and strenuous plan. That is just how I roll.

I passed these sheep on the way back to my car. I’m no expert, but I think the one in front needs a better barber.

According to the map I had (temporarily) filched from my cabin, there was a cluster of interesting sites right off the R571 road that I was planning to follow around the peninsula. I figured that I could investigate these as and when I was interested; the weather was becoming increasingly inclement, and the roads this far out were more challenging, so it seemed sensible to be flexible and feel out the situation as I progressed.

Throughout my explorations of the Ring of Beara, I was driving along, into, out of, and near the Caha Mountains. In crossing from Cork to Kerry on my way to Kenmare, I had reached an impressive elevation (for the area) and traveled through a dramatic and beautiful pass before descending into the town. I kept wanting to pull over so that I could admire the view, but there weren’t many places to do so and those that were available were not advertised early enough for me to be able to turn in without causing a pile-up on the road. The situation was not dissimilar on the peninsula, but there I spent more time driving down than up, and this time around I also had to be on the lookout for the many hikers and bikers who explore Beara more up close and personal. On the one hand, I was loving the scenery and appreciating how it soothed my eyeballs, but on the other hand I was disappointed that it wasn’t easier to document that part of the trip and collect some photographic mementos. [Insert philosophical comment here about living in the moment, blah blah blah.]

Shortly after I descended through the town of Lauragh, I caught sight of a sign pointing towards the Shronebirrane Stone Circle. I had been so distracted by the views and the steep driving and the rain and the crazy bikers who were trying to take in said views while torpedoing down steep hills in said rain, that I had kind of forgotten that I was also supposed to be keeping an eye out for stone circles. I did some quick manoeuvring and turned left onto the sort of dark, narrow, windy road I’d come to know and love; after a little while the signs told me to turn right onto a better-lit and straighter road that was, however, even narrower and also a little pot-holey. To be honest, it looked like someone’s driveway–and, in a sense, it was, as it dead-ended after maybe a mile or two at someone’s house, which was positioned right at the base of some pretty imposing mountains. There was not really anywhere else for the road to go at that point except maybe through the mountain, if someone ever cared to make a tunnel. In my quest for stone circles, I had, at last, literally reached the end of the road.

I passed a few scattered homes along the way, and at one point I had to back into the driveway at one of them because I could see a caravan coming towards me about half a mile off; given that it took up the entirety of the road, there was no other way for us to proceed. I’m glad we had this encounter where we did, because otherwise I would probably have had to reverse all the way back to the main road or risk the quagmire of a sheep field. Maybe a quarter of a mile after this encounter, I caught a glimpse of my destination and also noted, to my extreme surprise, two other vehicles full of intrepid megalith enthusiasts who had also made this most absurd of trips. They were just leaving and, unfortunately for them, were the ones in a better position to backtrack on the road and give me room to replace them in the ersatz car park near the monument. The whole journey required a lot of automotive ballet.

Shronebirrane Stone Circle, which was maybe the most ridiculously remote circle I visited in Ireland–and that is saying something

There is nothing particularly noteworthy about Shronebirrane, other than the patience required to access it and the impressive geology of its surroundings. As I believe I have previously indicated, however, each circle has its own personality resulting from its size, shape, stone morphology, and geography, and so each one–and the experiences of getting to it and viewing it–is new and different and worthwhile. No matter the effort involved, I never reached one and thought, “Well, I could have done without that, really.” Part of me wants to say that Shronebirrane was the wildest circle that I saw, but Uragh also felt pretty primeval; Shronebirrane was wild in a mountainous and green sort of way, whereas Uragh was wild in an aquatic and peaty sort of way. (Please do not ask me to quantify either of these impressions; hopefully you get the gist of what I’m saying from the photos above.)

I didn’t get many photos of Shronebirrane or its environment because the rain picked up shortly after my arrival and I had to protect my camera. I had a quick commune with the circle from the edge of the field, hopped back in my car, and retraced my footsteps. About a quarter mile down the track, my progress was hindered by a truck and trailer sitting right in the middle of the road; two men and their boys were building a sheep enclosure in a nearby field. I know they all saw me, but they opted to ignore me in favour of finishing what they were working on before doing anything about the road obstruction. To be honest, I couldn’t really fault them, because it was clearly a laborious thing to be working in the mud and rain, and whereas they were engaged in something related to their livelihoods, I was merely a visitor having a jolly. I just turned off my car and ate my apple until the truck driver came to move his vehicle elsewhere. He had a dog, but didn’t let it get in the cab with him; instead, it cheerfully trotted down the road in its master’s wake. It was squarely in the middle of the track, so I had to crawl along behind it at a safe distance for quite a while until the dog suddenly seemed to notice me for the first time; it very responsibly moved over to the side of the road, stood and waited for me to pass, and then resumed its jog homewards (luckily not too far away; I passed the truck in its driveway as I pulled back onto the main road).

I’d originally been interested in searching for the Cashelkeety Stone Circles just outside Reenkilla, and not far from the turnoff to Shronebirrane, but I won’t lie: After that interesting but arduous little side trip, I was happy to call it a day. I now wish that I’d consulted my notes one last time before setting my sights on home, because I accidentally missed an opportunity to head out to Kilcatherine Point and investigate the purported petrified remains (or, alternatively, the chair) of the Cailleach Bheara, Ireland’s ancient witch-like creator deity. That said, Kilcatherine Point is well remote and a trip there would have extended my journey to the point where I would probably have been hating life, rather than feeling somewhat disgruntled by it, by the time I returned to Kealkill. I only mention it because the Cailleach will feature in another travel tale from the end of my trip, and, cumulatively, my two experiences with her left me suspicious that perhaps I had accidentally made an enemy of this powerful divine figure…

The Lady’s Well at Lisheens: Ireland 2017 (Part VI)

It’s difficult to choose a single favourite part of my trip to Ireland; whenever I attempt to make a shortlist, I keep thinking, “but what about…” and then adding more stuff until I wind up with a long list of pretty much everything I did. The best I can do is recognise that some of the places I visited had a particularly strong (positive) effect on my mood, and therefore have a special place in my heart. One of these is the Lady’s Well at Lisheens, on the outskirts of Kealkill. I visited it on my way to see Kilnaruane in Bantry, but it gets its own separate treatment here because it was so lovely (and definitely not because I had technical difficulties uploading photos previously).

Sometimes I look at my photos from Ireland and think, “This is too picturesque and perfect to actually be real.”

I had seen signs for the well while driving through town, but I didn’t immediately realise it was the same place mentioned in Jack Roberts’ Antiquities of West Cork; that’s because it’s simply referred to as “Lady’s Well” on the signage, but as “Lisheens / Parish Church and Holy Well” in the booklet. I’m still confused as to what “Lisheens” actually refers to. My best guess is that it is like “Tremough” in Cornwall; that is a historical name for a hill in Penryn, so it is equally accurate to say that the buildings in that area are “at Tremough” but also “in Penryn”. You won’t see “Tremough” on any signs because “Penryn” is what’s used on all the official paperwork, but you will definitely hear people–particularly locals and older folks–referring to the place using the traditional name. It was mighty confusing to try to locate the “Lisheens well”–which, on paper, is nonexistent–but there is something very satisfying about (maybe, if my theory is correct) knowing the “true” name of the place I visited. I kind of feel as though I’ve been let in on a secret.

This is the largest rosary I have ever seen. I didn’t even know that grave rosaries were a thing, but I have just discovered online that you can buy glow-in-the-dark ones…which would not be at all creepy at night.  

As I mentioned in at least one previous post, sites that have importance to Catholics today typically were also sacred to followers of earlier faiths before the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. Wells are a good example; places where contemporary Catholics now visit shrines to the Virgin Mary once were important to generations of pagan worshippers who communed with various other gods and goddesses associated with that body of water. Evidently, one of the hallmarks of Celtic Catholicism is that it involved a pretty seamless blending of the old and new faiths; although stories and traditions often evolved to reflect a hierarchy where Christianity was at the pinnacle, other beliefs and practices were still maintained alongside, without much conflict, into the 19th Century–at which point the Church finally had enough centralised power to crack down on this relatively wild and unruly outpost of its empire. Even now–or, should I say, especially now, since there has been a recent revival of interest in pagan ways–you do still find evidence that practicing Catholics are seeking out wells, stone circles, monoliths, bullauns, and so on in order to, shall we say, supplement the accepted means of requesting divine assistance.

I didn’t really know what to expect of Lady’s Well, partly because Roberts’ guidebook describes it as being in a “church yard”, by which he evidently means “graveyard” but which I interpreted as “area around a church”. I thought there would be a little chapel, with maybe a small stone trough nearby, fed by a trickle of water. Instead, what I found was this:

The Lady’s Well sits in the best-maintained portion of the graveyard, which speaks volumes about how highly it is regarded.

The cemetery is on a hill that rises up from the road and the car park, so I couldn’t see much of anything as I arrived. As I walked up the path, more and more rows of gravestones rose up in my vision; although the area wasn’t weedy–and in fact had been recently mown–it was clear that the grass had been allowed to grow very long before the trimming, and I had to trudge through ankle-deep piles of cuttings. The graves were all well taken care of–hung with rosaries, decorated with flowers and statues of Mary and these weird little terraria / globe / fishbowl thingies–but, overall, it didn’t seem like a place that got much traffic. I was thinking that perhaps the well was going to be yet another site so old and obscure that it was never visited and would be impossible to find. But, no. Not at all.

Life-size statue of the Virgin, overseeing proceedings

One of the many remarkable things about my experience at the well was the way in which my expectations kept changing and surprises kept emerging. When I caught my first glimpse of the shrine from afar, I realised that I had been wrong to expect a church; okay, mental picture readjusted. After I saw the white structure, I imagined, I don’t know, a pump or a tap or a shallow depression in the ground within that little hut; then I approached and found a gigantic Virgin Mary, but still no sign of water. All…right. But then I could see a staircase and I could hear a stream, so, again, I recalculated. I next expected something that was maybe like a toned-down version of this:

The trough of water was the only thing that matched any of my mental images of the Lady’s Well

…or this:

Again, the trough of water (the “well” part of “Lady’s Well”) was anticipated; the Virgin Mary statue (the “lady” part, which I obviously hadn’t paid sufficient attention to) was not.

But, as I followed the path down some steps and around a corner, this is what I got:

HOLY MOTHER OF GOD (literally)

I’d spent so much time visiting and reading about ancient sites, and thinking about how old sacred spaces were “gently” repurposed, I had never, for even the briefest of moments, considered that the LADY’S Well (hello, the name says it all!) might be super Catholic. And I know that the Virgin is a pretty sympathetic lady, while the ancient pagan goddesses could be pretty intense and intimidating, but good heavens was it unsettling to stand in the presence of all those little figurines.

Not as bad as clowns or 19th-Century porcelain dolls, but…
…still a little creepy.
Individually, though, they are quite peaceful and welcoming. Mostly.

The place was–and I mean this in the true, original sense of the word–awesome. The number and variety of statues and tokens–at an out-of-the-way place in a small town off a remote road, where you wouldn’t expect lots of visitors to naturally just happen by–conveyed how important the well is to people. You could almost feel the reverence and hope in the air; it was, to use another totally inadequate descriptor, powerful.

Although the weather grew tempestuous later in the day, it was fairly calm during my visit to the cemetery. The area was still and the dominant sound was the stream rushing past the well and shrine. It was a reminder of what the site would have been like in pre-Christian times, juxtaposed against the way it looked now with all the contemporary elements. I had a real sense of continuity rather than replacement; I could both see and hear the pagan and Catholic elements blending together, and it was not hard to imagine how the early Christians could have, over time, made a few small tweaks to their routines in order to embrace both the old and the new.

I know why the Catholic church frowned on this, but I have to say that I admire it; I think it acknowledges that life is rarely black and white. Some religions explain and address certain things better than others and have gaps that can be filled by other belief systems in ways that are not necessarily contradictory. Why not inhabit a grey space that combines useful elements of the various options on tap? That is, after all, pretty much what we do in other areas of life where we learn and grow, so why not also with religion? (I do actually know why not with religion, so this is a rhetorical question.)

View of the shrine from the well (which is also kind of a shrine, I guess…)

As you can see, the well is a pretty impressive and moving place to visit–even for someone who is neither a practicing Catholic nor a believer in the power of special water. It was a peaceful and calming place to be, which, in its own way, was very healing and uplifting. Of course, that’s how I feel about most of the great outdoors, but the human elements at this particular site–the statues, the carefully positioned seating, the care that had been taken to keep it tidy, and the real sense of history–added a little extra something.

My outing to Lady’s Well was initiated almost as an afterthought, a serendipitous little discovery meant to be a quick trip in and out. Perhaps my lack of preparation and my low expectations helped make it the delightful experience it was. Or perhaps it was divine intervention. Either way, I will always remember it as one of the loveliest things I did during my trip to Ireland.

Stern-looking headstones encountered during my exit from the cemetery, or “burial ground” as it is dramatically called in Ireland.