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.