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.

Kilnaruane: Ireland 2017 (Part V)

After my long and tiring adventure around southwestern Cork, I swore I would take it easy and give myself time to recuperate. And, since it was stormy the next morning, I totally did…for, like, half a day, until the weather cleared up and the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, and the alluring Irish countryside seduced me into sallying forth once more.

I’m not a complete masochist, so I didn’t venture very far or have much of an itinerary. I was mainly interested in seeking out Kilnaruane, a site on the outskirts of Bantry that I had originally intended to visit the day before. I was also mildly intrigued by Bantry House and Garden but thought perhaps that might be a stretch given that the atmospheric conditions seemed fairly unstable; when I say that “the sun peeked out”, what I really mean is that it was playing peek-a-boo and frequently hid behind sheets of rain. Also, it was almost painfully blustery and I wasn’t sure I could allow anyone to see what a terrible hair day I was having (serious about the first part, joking about the second…kinda).

During the Whiddy Island disaster earlier in the week (not that I was still bitter or holding any grudges), I had discovered a most convenient and seemingly little-used parking lot in Bantry, so I was easily able to deposit my car and head off in search of Kilnaruane. Because it was close to a well-known town, I was feeling optimistic about finding it. Shockingly, it was as easy as I’d hoped.

Kilnaruane carved pillar stone

Although I almost walked right past it, there was a helpful signpost on the road pointing towards the field in which the monolith stands. There was no more signage inside the field, however, so once I’d entered the gate I had no idea which direction to go. I also have this problem when I go hiking in the UK, and I am beginning to wonder if I am the only person in the British Isles who doesn’t intuitively know whether to cross a pasture along the left edge or the right edge or straight across the centre, etc. If it isn’t just me, then why doesn’t somebody put up some signs to provide this information?

Bullaun at the Kilnaruane site; this one is confirmed, but there is also a second suspected bullaun

Anyway, Kilnaruane. In the 6th Century, there used to be a monastery here. Given the way in which important religious locations seem to have been recycled over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if the area was also important to the pre-Christian faiths of the regions; in fact, the presence of one and possibly two bullauns at the site suggests that possibly it was.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the stones are just random outcroppings in a pasture, but the pillar is pretty clearly something special. It is carved on both sides, though most of the markings are pretty difficult to make out in person because they are so weathered. I imagine that rubbings would be pretty illuminating, but in the absence of tracing paper and crayons, I simply took a digital photo and then cranked up the contrast.

The “front”, or southwest face, of the Kilnaruane pillar stone

There is a small fence around the Kilnaruane stones (presumably to protect them from grazing cows), and the gate is located across from the southwest face of the monolith. I don’t know if that was actually designed to be the “front” of the pillar, but that is certainly the impression that you get when you see it. The dominant feature, towards the middle, is a pretty obvious cross. More difficult to make out were the other three panels: some Celtic-style knot work at the top, a praying man, and then, at the very bottom, Saints Paul and Anthony in the desert.

I am not going to lie to you: I struggled to make out the people, and so I am quoting the experts here when I describe what these images show. That said, if you look at photos taken in better lighting, or if you see hand-drawn sketches of the engravings, it’s much easier to see some definition.

It was even harder to interpret the scene on the opposite face of the stone:

What have we here?

On the northeast side, you’ve got some more Celtic knot work and two pairs of sheep / goats head-butting each other. The largest and most dominant image is that of a boat carrying five people (four rowing, one steering) through a sea of crosses. Obviously. One of my guide books states that this is the earliest Irish image depicting a boat; the specific boat in question is a currach, which consisted of animal skins stretched over a wooden frame.

There are various theories about who is portrayed in this carving, but St Brendan the Navigator is a good bet; he is one of the people thought to have potentially founded the monastery at Kilnaruane, and he was a Cork boy born and bred. A statue of Brendan–who sailed around spreading Christianity to, among other places, an island that is thought to not actually exist (never let details get in the way of a good story)–can be seen down in the main square of Bantry:

St Brendan the Navigator, king of the wooooorld

Interestingly, despite its current prominence on the hilltop, the monolith was not an original feature at the Kilnaruane site; it was likely not erected until the 8th or 9th Century. It may have been the vertical portion of a cross, and some of the other stones nearby may have been used to attach the horizontal arm(s).

A better view of all the various stones comprising the Kilnaruane collection

While I was inspecting the monolith and trying to imagine how the Kilnaruane site must have looked in its better days, the weather rapidly took a dramatic turn for the worse. The already intense wind became even more frenzied and began to blow heavy, dark clouds across the bay and onto the land. I figured that was my signal to high-tail it back to my car.

This photo only captures the beginning of the intense weather that nearly blew my cabin off the mountain later that evening

On my way back through town, I serendipitously discovered a book shop where I was finally able to purchase something I had been looking for since I arrived in Ireland: a good book about its ancient sites. Christine Zucchelli’s Sacred Stones of Ireland was a great find because it provides an introduction to all the different sorts of sites and structures I’d been visiting and planning to visit. Rather than focusing specifically on the history of key places (e.g., Drombeg vs Kilnaruane), it takes a broader view and explores the different categories of sacred stone (for example, ballaun vs monolith) and contemplates the relevance of the different materials, arrangements, locations, and associated practices. It was a really fascinating and illuminating read–the perfect thing to curl up with that evening as the wind and rain raged outside my cabin like an angry pagan god seeking retribution (sorry, the Irish landscape inspires drama). In addition to helping me think about what I had already seen, the book provided some great recommendations for where else I might go later in the week…