Video: My mission to visit all 357 Holy Wells in Cork

Cork history buff Amanda Clarke tells NOEL SWEENEY abut her fascination for the Holy Wells dotted around our landscape - and why they still have relevance for us today
Video: My mission to visit all 357 Holy Wells in Cork

Amanda Clarke at St Olan’s Holy Well in Ahabulogue, with a willow growing from it

THERE are 357 holy wells logged in Cork and Amanda Clarke has left her home on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula to go in search of every one of them.

And she’s showing no signs of stopping any time soon, with her meanderings continuing on well into Kerry and Limerick.

Amanda is documenting each visit as she goes on her website,

One of her entertaining reports on it states: “Tobar Luráigh looked remote and difficult to find on the map, and it was. It was a long, soggy trek through the fields and the well was a disappointing boggy area when found. 

"On my return, the cattle were waiting for me and, to my horror, I saw behind them an enormous black bull, already snorting. They all came rushing towards me!

“No way could I consider going back through the field, so plan B arose: escape through what I hoped was a derelict farmyard. There was not a soul around, but my hopes were dashed by the walls being too high to climb and the large metal gates being firmly padlocked.

“Thwarted. I was just pondering my fate when a man emerged from the nearby bungalow. I think he was Dutch. We had an interesting discussion as I tried to explain I was looking for a holy well!”

That unfortunate happenstance took place while Amanda was seeking a holy well in north Kerry - of course, that would never happen in Cork!

So what keeps her touring the wells, even after getting chased by a bull?

“I was really surprised by how few people knew where their local well was,” says Amanda, who has a degree in history. 

“I was curious about that, and when I visited a few, I realised many of them were neglected. I wondered what the state of wells were in Co Cork. 

"And Cork, having the most wells in the country at 357, is recorded in the archaeological inventory. I thought it would be interesting to try and visit them all.”

Looking at a map on Amanda’s website that highlights the location of every known holy well in Ireland, it seems none of us are ever far away from one at any one time. Each well is affiliated with a saint and some are said to have healing properties; offering cures for particular ailments, such as poor eyesight, toothaches, and even rheumatism.

Amanda and I chatted at St Olan’s Well in Aghabullogue in north-west Cork. There are other wells in the surrounding area, St John’s Well near Millstreet being one of them. .

“Many wells are dedicated to saints and Cork has a huge amount of saints attached to its wells - 61, which is amazing!” she said.

“You didn’t need to be canonised in order to be a saint until the 10th century, so you became a saint on your good deeds and reputation. So this well is St Olan’s and he his feast day on the September 5.”

Not all wells are associated with saints, but most are. In Cork, the most common saints associated with them are Blessed Mary, followed by St John and St Brigid. There are then a lot of saints local to an area that are affiliated with wells, such as St Olan’s in Aghabullogue, near the village of Rylene.

So who was St Olan, and what is his connection to the well?

Amanda, who is well versed in his story, explains: “The story goes that St Olan was herding cattle, stopped at a well for a drink and fell asleep. But before he fell asleep, he put his staff into the water. When he woke, he saw that it had turned into a magnificent tree. It was originally an ash tree and, because it had saintly connections, it was said to have healing powers and be very blessed in its own right. 

"And like many blessed trees, it was said never to burn. It would also protect a house from burning, so people would come and take twigs and take it back to their house for protection.

 "They would also take some water, which held a cure for sore eyes, toothache and warts. So you were doubly protected if you had the water and the tree.”

Most of the wells in Ireland date to the pre-Christian era, and many of the traditions associated with them. The best known tradition of walking three times around a well while praying, or ‘doing the rounds’ as it’s known, is believed to date back to Ireland’s Pagan past. It is thought the saints associated with them retained these traditions and Christianised these rituals.

“If you had a particular illness, say you had a sore shoulder or something like that, you would rub the rag onto your shoulder. You would bring it, pray the rounds and then tie it to the tree, hoping the tree would then take on your illness. And as the rag disintegrated into the tree, so too did your illness, you hoped,” Amanda says.

When we spoke, she had visited 325 of the holy wells of Cork. The remaining 22 have simply gone or cannot be found. There are six holy wells in the vicinity of the city centre, with one of them being in the beer garden of the Fransiscan Well brewery pub.

What’s next for Amanda?

“I have started to venture into Co Kerry and even parts of Co Limerick. And I’m hoping to release a book very soon.”

National Holy Wells Day fell on June 18, and Amanda says it may help retain the culture around them.

“Holy Wells Day is important to rejoice in them really. People are going to them today to practice the same things that were being practised there hundreds of years ago.

“Holy wells are often dismissed as superstitious nonsense, but I think more and more people are beginning to realise how important they are. I think they can be useful to anybody.

“You can go to a well for whatever reason; it can be for religious reasons, it can be for peace and quiet, or you can just appreciate the surroundings. So they are still very relevant, and I think they are evolving to suit people of today.”

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