A Return to the Source. Searching for the Mother Goddess at the Well
Recently, I set out to find an Ogham stone that is northward of Midleton in north-east county Cork. Funnily, it’s a 40 minute drive both from my home in Cork city and my family home in Mogeely . The townland is called Rathcobane and is a few kilometres from the village of Bartemly. The drive ended with a slow drive up a very narrow boreen/botharín (or one of those narrow roads that hints that it once had tarmacadem millennia ago) back in the which ended in a farmyard. Google Maps was saying that it was in a field that was full of cattle and there was no sign of a public access point (nor was there an OPW heritage signpost for it). I went up to the farmhouse and rang the bell. There was no answer and there was no sign of anyone around the farmyard. I waited for a bit in case that someone would eventually show but had to chalk it down for another time to visit. The 3D image and a small history of it’s discovery is found here Rathcobane ogham stone – Download Free 3D model by oghamin3d (@oghamin3d) [a20b515] (sketchfab.com) . But the journey was not an entire waste of time.
I came across an old grotto which was used by Catholics during the Penal Regime. After the time of Cromwell, there were laws passed that were anti-Catholic in both Ireland and Britain which one was that any kind of Catholic religious service was illegal and punishable (sympathetic protestant landowners turned a blind eye to this a lot of the time and let Catholics hold their rites in rural locations away from the public eye on their land). Nearly 500m down the road, there is a parking area for two cars and a small pathway with a sign reading St. Bartholomews Well. You follow a path through a field, over a small footbridge and then to a clearing with wooden benches that surround a natural spring well. The stone structure and steps are from the early 1900’s made by a local builder and there is a recess on the left of the entrance going down to the water which has a plastic jug. At the bottom of the well are plenty of coins left by modern day pilgrims (all Euro coins). The townsland is called Garrynataggart or , as gaeilge, Garraidh an tSagairt ( garden of the priest). This is not the only ‘Holy’ Well named after Bartholomew as there is another in Kinsalebeg, west county Waterford close to the Blackwater river and this one isn’t that far from that river either. According to Christian lore, Bartholomew was one of Christ’s apostles who brought Christianity to Armenia. Apparently, he was martyred by being flayed alive and then crucified as punishment for converting the Armenian king. His feast day is August 24th and the medieval pilgrimage to both sites (there are probably others).
‘Holy’ Wells are natural springs and have Goddesses usually associated with them. The most famous of Irish Tobair Naofa is the Well of Segais. According to medieval texts, this is the site of the death of the mother Goddess Boann which gave birth to the life giving river Boyne of the Lagan or Leinster area. Another is John’s Well up in Mushra mountain in north west Cork which I have written about quite a lot. It is originally the Well of Lasair, Inge Bhuidhe and Latharian who are associated with the harvest cycle or nature cycle which brings us to the characteristics of the mother Goddess archetype. The medieval pilgrimage here is at the Summer solstice. All of these Wells have legends of miraculous cures of afflicted pilgrims. A pilgrims reply to a blog linked below describing Bartholomews Well:-
“Your original blog post provided the knowledge and impetus. This evening, I travelled from Cork for my first ever visit to Bartlemy and to St. Bartholomew’s Well.
It was wet – both overhead and underfoot. When I first arrived, there were only four and I was told that one drank from the well but one should take the water from the flow of water over the rocks having left the well enclosure as it is there that the blind man is reputed to have stumbled and wiped his eyes with the water and regained his sight.
By seven, there were 25 – 30 present. Most appeared to know many present so I expect that the majority were local. The five joyful mysteries were recited followed by a man from the locality thanking all for attending and giving some history of the well.
The weather did not permit note taking so please forgive the missing bits but:
The well is located on private lands (Mr John Arnold who campaigned against the post office closure and regularly writes in the Evening Echo). The bridge was constructed about twenty years previously. Prior to that those visiting the well travelled down an old mass path from the main road up by the adjoining cross. The mass path would have been used historically by locals to attend the local church but would have fallen into disuse with the construction of the roads. One man present, who was resident in the locality for 40 years, recalled clearing the overgrowth from the path to access the well on the pattern day.
There was some thought as to whether the celebration at the well was carried out on seven (or maybe nine) days as a ‘rogation’.
There is a poem/song which includes reference in the first verse to the blind man who gained sight at the well.
The well is understood to come from a deep spring as the height and temperature of water tends not to vary much with the seasons. The well enclosure was constructed in around 1900 upon the direction of Fr. Barry – a priest who is buried in the grounds of the local church and is apparently well known for his deeds. A mason’s name is on a plaque at a nearby well (I cannot recall the mason’s name but it may have been Greaney or similar) and it is assumed that he also constructed the enclosure.”
There is no known explanation as to why the well is called after St Bartholomew – he being one of the apostles, then known as Nathaniel. He headed east to Armenia where he was burned alive and so martyred. He is the patron saint of butchers and so his image generally has a butcher’s knife.
The date of celebration of St. Bartholomew was 4th September but was brought back to 24th August with the Gregorian Calendar.
I was unsure as to which came first – whether the well was named in honour of St. Bartholomew after the name of the village or whether the village (and associated horse fair) were named after the saint.
The well is located in a glen. It is thought to possibly have pre-christian origins as many such traditions were encouraged, adopted and Christianised by the church.
It was an evening where I learnt much but also realised that there is very much more to learn
Here is a link to Medieval Pilgrimage Ireland detailing Bartholomew’s Well both at Bartemly and Kinsalebeg St Bartholomew’s Holy Well « Pilgrimage In Medieval Ireland (pilgrimagemedievalireland.com)
What is interesting to note is that the Christian pattern was originally in September or Mean Fomhair (mid harvest is the direct translation for the month in Irish). Was the Well originally associated with the autumnal equinox? There are some passage tombs dotted around the country which were constructed to herald both equinoxes at sunset as were some larger stone circles (the Dromagorteen stone circle that I visited in Bonane, county Kerry is one such example). The autumnal equinox is also the Irish mid-harvest celebration before the end of harvest celebration of Samhain. I am not claiming that Bartholomew’s Well is traditionally associated with this celebration but local folklore does often hold hidden clues to the past of that particular area. It’s best to look at the river Blackwater. It is 168km long and originates in the Kerry mountains of Mullaghareirk. It travels along north Cork and exits into the Celtic Sea by Youghal town on the Cork/Waterford border. The Blackwater or An Ábhainn Mhór, has a legend associated with it:-
“The ancient kingdom of Caoille covers approximately 250 sq miles of the Blackwater Valley. In the 3rd century AD, High King Cormac mac Airt decided to raise taxes from Fiacha, King of Munster. Fiacha felt that he paid enough tax, and so inevitably, they went to war. Cormac’s Druids made the river and springs run dry, thus depriving the people of Munster access to water. Fiacha called upon Mogh Ruith, a powerful blind magician, for help. Mogh Ruith restored the water and conjured up terrible magical hounds that devoured Cormac’s Druids. His breath turned into storms which blew devastatingly over Cormac’s warriors, turning them to stone. Cormac was defeated, and Fiacha gave the lands of Caoille to Mogh Ruith in reward.”
If we look at this legend, Mogh Ruith’s daughter is Tlachtga, who is a famous and powerful druid who gave birth to three sons and died on the hill in county Meath which is named after her but that is too far from the south of Ireland and rules her out as the associated Divinity.
Fermoy town has a medieval history associated with it and has a historical link with monastic orders such as the Cistercians and neighbouring Carmilites. Viking raids were frequent via the Blackwater from the Youghal Viking port. Fermoy has two female saints associated with it, Cranat and Canir. Both are holy virgins which hints at a Christianisation of Goddesses of Nature such as the famous Brighid and also the three nuns of Mushra, sisters of St. John as well as many others in Ireland. Both of these ‘saints’ defy the typical submissive female role of medieval Irish writings.
“Cranat, a saint of only local importance, was affiliated to Fir Maige Féne, a mid-ranking Munster people who have given their name to Fermoy. The saint, who seems to have flourished in the sixth century, is not mentioned in the annals and was probably little known outside Fir Maige. Her two major church dedications, Kilcranatan (Cell Cranatan) and Hermitage (Dísert Cranatan), are in that people’s territory. Indeed, the link between saint and Fir Maige is underlined by the claim that Cranat was the uterine sister of their king. It is possible, although unlikely, that she is the same as the Cráebnat commemorated on July 17 in the Martyrology of Donegal. Meagre details can be supplemented by a short later medieval Life of Cranat that draws on early medieval traditions and is certainly indebted, as will become apparent, to the Lives of Brigit. There is no reason to think it is anything other than a male product. The question remains as to whether it records female aspirations. The Life is no more than an anecdote which purports to describe the defining moment in Cranat’s career, a moment when she successfully opposes Cairpre Crom († 579/80), King of Munster, and asserts her autonomy. Cairpre attempts to marry the saint against her will, with the full approval of Fínán, her half-brother and king of Fir Maige Féne. Cranat, being a woman, would have been legally at the mercy of her male kindred, but she is more than a woman and, as a saint, adopts miraculous strategies. She decides to preserve her virginity through the tried and trusted ascetic method of self-mutilation. Cranat’s mutilation is arresting—she plucks out both her eyes. This is described in the following scene: … ro chinn ina menmain na raghadh go fer 7 nach millfedh a hoige… Ocus ro bhen a dí súil asa cinn 7 dosfucc i llaimh na dí chailleach battar ina farradh .i. Maelbracha 7 Laithche. …she made up her mind that she would not go to a man and that she would not ruin her virginity…. And she struck her two eyes out of her head and she put them into the hands of the two nuns, Máel Bracha and Laithche, who were in her company.
Canir was a little known saint of Benntraige in south Munster and, if her association with Senán is anything to go by, she flourished in the sixth century. Senán was a major saint and his monastery, Inis Cathaig on Scattery Island in the Shannon Estuary, was a major church. Canir appears in an episode towards the end of his medieval vernacular Life. It bears the hallmarks of being an originally independent anecdote, particularly as Senán is not portrayed in the normal heroic light. The episode describes how Canir, a holy virgin, is praying in her Benntraige hermitage when she has a vision of all the churches in Ireland. A pillar of fire rises from each, but the highest blazes from Inis Cathaig and Canir decides that she wishes to die and be buried there. The saint travels north until she reaches the Shannon Estuary. This is no obstacle and she walks across water, only to be accosted just before landfall by an unwelcoming Senán. He refuses to allow Canir ashore, simply because she is a woman. Senán’s overt misogyny is overturned by Canir in the following dialogue: ‘Ni thiagat mna a n-indsi-sea’, ol Senán. ‘Cid dia ta latsa sin?’ ol Canir. ‘Ni messa Crist, ar ni lugha thainic do thathcreic ban inás do thathcreic fher. Ni lugha roces ardaigh ban inás ardaigh fher. Robhatar mná oc umaloid 7 oc timterecht do Crist 7 dia aps[t]alaib. Ní lugha, dano, thiaghuit mna isin bhflaith nemhdha inait fir. Cidh, dano, arna gebhtha-sa mná cucat at indsi?’ ‘Is talchar atai’, ar Senán. ‘Women do not come to this island’, said Senán. ‘Where did you get that arrangement?’ said Canir. ‘Christ is no worse than you, for he came to redeem women no less than to redeem men. He did not suffer less for the sake of women than for the sake of men. Women have given humble service and ministration to Christ and to his apostles. Women then, no less than men enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Why, then, would you not take women to you onto your island?’ ‘You are stubborn’, said Senán. Senán acquieses. Canir steps ashore, receives the sacrament from him, dies and is buried. One of the most noteworthy aspects of this episode is the way Senán ignores Canir’s walk across water, a miracle that marks her out as a saint and imitator of Christ. Instead it is her verbal abilities that convince the male saint and leave him, for all practical purposes, speechless.”
The above is taken from the published work of Elva Johnston, Dept. of Early Irish History, University College Dublin and her paper “Powerful Women or Patriarchal Weapons?”.
These are local folklore of the township Fermoy or the thuath Fir Maige Féne. The two saints described above do bear striking similarities to the christianised aspects of the mother Goddess archetype. There are two aspects that stand out. First with Cranat and that is she had two other nuns with her which gives us the 3 aspects of Nature( as with Lasair, Inge Bhuidhe and Latharian of Mushra). The second is with Canir and that is that she was walking on the surface of the water(even though that is not what impressed Senán but her verbal eloquence which was more valued by the medieval monastics. It would be my guess from the above that the Wells of Bartholomew are associated with one of these as an Irish Goddess of Nature.
Seán Ó Tuama