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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).
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.
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 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.
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:
But, as I followed the path down some steps and around a corner, this is what I got:
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
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:
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).
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.
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 Irelandwas 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…
Through the miracle of hindsight, I have realised that I was, perhaps, a little overly ambitious in planning my outings during my time in Ireland. I kept thinking, “It’s a holiday, so I should relax!”, followed by, “…but I’m in this wonderful new place, and I want to explore it!” The latter voice was louder than the former (as per usual), plus I was seduced by the Jack Roberts guides and their long lists of all the fascinating and mysterious sights for me to behold in Counties Cork and Kerry. As a result I had a couple of very long days during which I had some amazing experiences but pushed myself so hard that I couldn’t fully enjoy them. Note to self: You can actually have too much of a good thing.
The first of my unnecessarily intense days was Tuesday, my fourth full day in Ireland. It is probably no coincidence that this day fell after the Whiddy Island debacle; I suspect that I felt driven to overcompensate and therefore went just a tad overboard in putting together my itinerary. I had consulted various pamphlets, maps, guide books, and websites to draw up a shortlist of places that appealed. I hoped to take in the landscape while visiting an array of historical sites that would allow me to see all the different sorts of structures erected by early Irish peoples. Basically, I wanted to see a bunch of rocks arranged in different orientations in picturesque locations.
Some of my proposed destinations were GPS-able, but others were obscure to the point that I was having to rely on instructions posted online by locals who gave descriptions like “take the fourth road to the right, then the fourth left, after which you will come to a fork in the road where you should take the left and then drive until the road dead-ends at a gate” [I wish this were a joke, but those are actual instructions that I attempted to follow]. In some cases I knew the general vicinity of the landmark and just had to hope that when I got to the nearest town or road, I would see some signage to point me on my way, or perhaps find an information map with further instructions. You can probably guess already which of these methods of navigation worked better than the others.
Possibly you are, at this very moment, judging me for this ridiculous plan (or lack thereof). All I will say in my defence is that I knew from the beginning that it was very likely I would experience failure as well as success, and I was okay with this because even if I failed to find every site on my list, I at least would have had an opportunity to explore some very beautiful, and likely often overlooked, parts of the country. It was a high-stakes, large-scale treasure hunt, with the payoff being some excellent photography opportunities and some priceless memories. I was willing to take the risk.
The first place on my list, Ballynacarriga, was shockingly easy to find–not just because I could find it on Google maps and therefore benefit from satnav guidance, but also because it was very well signposted despite being in the middle of nowhere. I was interested in Ballynacarriga mostly because of its Shiela na Gig, which is one of only a few in the area where I was staying. I did not want to leave Ireland without having seen a Shiela, but I was also intrigued by the other complimentary things my good friend Jack Roberts had to say about the rest of the castle:
This is one of the finest castles in the southwest of Ireland. It is also the only castle that is owned by the National Monuments Commission. Standing on its rock beside the lake it is a fine example of the masterly technique of castle building in the 1500’s. Records show that it was built by Randal Hurley in 1585 but portions of the structure are said to be older. Its vaulted ceiling, the highest in this part of Ireland, supports the main hall which was used as a church.
My next port of call was supposed to be the Cahermore ring fort, which has been described as “particularly impressive” and “well worth searching for”. I’d love to be able to confirm those assessments, but, sadly, I was unable to find the fort. Even Google was not able to find it, so I don’t feel particularly inept. I do actually think I found the hill upon which the fort is located; however, the countryside was blanketed by thick fog, and there were no convenient places to pull over, plus all the land seemed to be privately owned, so I really had no choice but to throw in the towel. I had suspected from the start that Cahermore might not happen, so I hadn’t gotten my hopes up and I wasn’t overly disappointed. Instead, I set my sights on one of the jewels in the crown of Cork antiquities: Drombeg.
Drombeg is (so I have read) considered one of the finest stone circles in Cork, if not the whole of Ireland. It is a recumbent stone circle, which means that there is a horizontally-positioned stone located directly across from the entrance (the two tallest and most central stones in the photo above). Nobody really knows what happened in these circles back in their heyday, and, in particular, there is quite a lot of conjecture about the point of the recumbent stone. Was it a place where you left offerings for the gods? A table where you set stuff you needed to keep close to hand while you were visiting the circle? A spot for sacrificing victims (cremated remains have, in fact, been excavated from the site)? Perhaps all of the above? This particular recumbent stone has two shallow depressions which could be natural or man-made; these are also known as bullauns and they are another sacred stone feature you find all over the country. One of the most famous features of Drombeg is that it is aligned such that, on the winter solstice, the setting sun is positioned right in the middle of the recumbent stone and the (invisible) line, or axis, drawn between it and the portal stones.
In addition to the circle, the Drombeg site also features a fulacht fiadh, or “cooking site”. I put the term in quotation marks because there isn’t actually a lot of evidence–discarded bones, traces of animal fat, etc.–that cooking actually happened at these sites. However, some very thorough and enthusiastic researchers performed some experiments showing both that cooking could have happened, and how it might have happened.
A fulacht fiadh (which, by the way, can seemingly be spelled in about a half dozen ways) is basically just a hole in the ground. It tends to be located near or over a source of water and also a bunch of stones. The current thinking is that the hole would either naturally always be filled with water or could be filled by a group of industrious Bronze Age folk, whose boundless energy would also be turned to hefting some of the aforementioned stones into the middle of a large fire. Once the stones were heated, they would somehow finagle them into the pool of water, which would become really, really hot–a state it would maintain for several hours. At this point, the chefs could lower slabs of meat into the liquid and leave them to cook away for as long as needed. When I said that researchers had explored this possibility both thoroughly and enthusiastically, I was referring to the fact that investigators used this method to prepare meat that they actually ate. Despite their admirable commitment to rigorous methodologies, some colleagues are not convinced and claim that a fulacht fiadh might also be suitable for, say, taking a bath or brewing up some beer–neither of which, to my knowledge, has actually been field tested.
The timing of my visit to Drombeg was pretty perfect because I arrived just as a bunch of tourists left, and departed just as a whole new group was approaching. I didn’t have a long time to stand around and admire the ambiance, but I had just enough opportunity to revel in the blessed stillness of the remote countryside as it rested under its blanket of fog. Before I had a chance to wax too lyrical about the magic of the scene, I was distracted by nearly suffering a heart attack when a young boy climbed up one of the portal stones and was not admonished by his parents for doing so. Let me repeat: A child was romping on a 3000-year-old artefact and nobody but me seemed to find this inappropriate. I would say that I have no words to describe how I feel about this, except that I do and I just don’t want to publish them here because I know my grandma is reading and would disapprove.
During my drive to Drombeg, I’d seen many road signs for Baltimore, to which I spontaneously decided to make a detour. It is located at the tip of a peninsula that curls around towards several islands (most notably Sherkin and Cape Clear) and is, therefore, a popular destination for people who like to hike scenic coastal spots as well as for those who want to catch a ferry to the islands or take a cruise to see the wildlife living in the bay. I had been tempted by a sunset cruise because it is possible to see both whales and sunfish, which I have never managed to see elsewhere. However, the drive between Kealkill and Baltimore is not insignificant when done all in one go, and the idea of doing it in the dark after the cruise returned at 10pm was just not appealing. So, visiting in mid-afternoon when I was practically there already (by which I really mean “as close as my stone-circle-chasing was likely to take me”) seemed like a good compromise.
In driving between Drombeg and Baltimore, I purposefully selected a scenic route that hugged the coast and took me past Glandore and on to Leap before rejoining a major road that would get me to my destination more quickly. It was a pretty spectacular drive that looked out over quaint harbours, craggy overhangs, and mist-covered sheep fields; the views were about as Irish as you could imagine.
Based on what I’d read, and on what photos I’d seen online, I had expected Baltimore to be a bit more happening than it was. It was exceptionally small and most of the action seemed to revolve around water-based activities—or would have done if the fog hadn’t been so incredibly thick that nobody was interested in going out. It wasn’t, as I had imagined, a place where I could stroll around and take in the sights; all I had to do was stand in the car park and I could see pretty much everything there was to see.
There were, however, two exceptions, and I investigated both. The first was the ruin of a church (Tullagh) on the outskirts of town. I had been tempted to visit it after seeing a sign on my way in, but I hadn’t read about it anywhere in all of my research on Baltimore and so I thought perhaps it wasn’t worth visiting. It was, however, featured on the info map in town, and so I thought perhaps my instincts had been right to begin with. It was only a ten-minute walk from the car, so I figured there was no harm in investigating.
Happily for me, the ruined church was pretty photogenic and, what’s more, offered great views of the waterlogged ship I had seen in the harbour on my drive in. There were a couple of guys working in the graveyard and when I arrived they greeted me—in French. I replied in French, probably while wearing a very strange expression, and they responded by sharing their own strange expressions in return. I hastily wandered off so as to avoid any further awkward discussions, wondering if they were French, or whether they merely thought I was French (there were, indeed, a lot of French tourists around Cork), and whether I had just engaged in a French conversation involving three English-speakers. It is as great a mystery as the purpose of the fulacht fiadh.
In retrospect, I probably should have ended my visit to Baltimore there. The day was getting on, the rain was picking up, my energy was flagging, and I still had a long drive home. But I had been sitting in the car for so long and I wanted to stretch my legs and enjoy the fresh (if extremely damp) air and see the last remaining point of interest in Baltimore: the Beacon. It is one of several structures erected along the Irish coastline to prevent shipwrecks, and was built shortly after the 1798 Rebellion. Frankly, I didn’t care about seeing the Beacon itself so much as seeing the views from the promontory where it is located.
Google, which is sometimes my best friend but other times the mouthpiece of Satan, first lied to me and told me the Beacon was a relatively short walk from the cemetery, and next lied to me about the direction in which I should head to get there. For a brief while, its story was corroborated by some signage which, just when I needed it most, completely vanished and left me wondering which path to choose at a fork in the road. It turns out the answer was neither, since the left branch was a dead end (yep, I verified this in person) and the right morphed into a driveway (ditto). I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much, because I did actually get the exercise that I had wanted; I just didn’t manage to get it in the direction of the Beacon.
When I got back to the car park and opened the satnav to set my route home, it occurred to me that perhaps I was having technical difficulties because of the bad weather. Sure enough, when I did another search, I found a whole new route to the Beacon–one that had previously not been an option and, what’s more, one that allowed me to drive there. The words I uttered in response to this discovery were…celebratory. Yes, let’s go with that.
The Beacon itself is not a particularly fascinating structure, though it is interesting to know that it is also called “Lot’s Wife” for obvious aesthetic reasons. Unless you’re a real history or maritime culture buff, I think probably the most appealing thing about visiting the Beacon is seeing the scenery, which is fairly dramatic:
The thing is, I found it a little too dramatic. There are some pretty extreme cliffs with long, sharp drops into the rocky and turbulent waters below, but absolutely no safety measures. I’m not saying that there should be a bunch of unsightly fences everywhere, but I am saying that I was strolling along calmly and suddenly found myself close enough to the ledge that I had a bit of a panic. Though I am not afraid of heights, I was nearly frozen with terror and an almost absolute certainty that if I moved I was going to trip and go flying over the edge. I overcame this by crouching down, distracting myself by photographing a small flower at my feet, and then crab-walking backwards until I could no longer see the drop-off. At that point I was still feeling a surge of adrenalin but was able to stand up and walk back down to the car park and the blessed enclosed safety of my car. I was probably never in any real danger, but the experience did make me wonder how a site like that, with absolutely no barriers to the sea far below, could possibly be considered safe–especially in the thick fog that descends so frequently. This is the point at which I realised that I’ve been a British citizen for only two months and am already obsessing over health and safety; the transformation is complete.
That unnerving experience depleted my remaining energy reserves and I properly hit a wall. Unfortunately, I still had a 90-minute drive home along winding roads, in heavy rain, guided by a satnav that kept losing its signal. I had intended to make a couple more stops just outside Bantry as I drove past on my way home, but those plans went out the window because all I could focus on was the promise of a nice cup of tea and a nice soft sofa and a nice warm blanket and, most of all, a nice long break from being behind the wheel. I promised myself–not for the first time, and not for the last–that I would definitely be staying in and relaxing tomorrow. Really. For sure.