Yesterday I visited my first pilgrim site of 2013, St Batholomew’s holy well or Tobar Phárthanáin. The well is to be found in the parish of Kinsalebeg in Co Waterford, a short distance from the village of Pilltown and a few miles from the town of Youghal.
The well is located in a field of rough pasture on the east side of the Blackwater estuary, close to a cross roads in the townland of Moord/Mord, (An Móird/An Magh Ard or “The High Plain”) about mile south of Piltown. It’s really hard to find, I was really lucky to meet a local man who despite being in a hurry brought me to the well.
The well is dedicated to St Bartholomew, who was one of the twelve apostles. The saints feast day is on the 24th of August. There are a number of accounts of pilgrimage to the well in the not too distant past, on this day. According to Power writing in 1937 St. Bartholomew was traditionally held to be the patron saint of the parish of Kinsalebeg. He also noted that his feast was kept by local people
on the 24th of August, by visits to the ” Blessed Well” dedicated to him and that on the Sunday nearest to the feast, a public ” pattern ” is held at the well and at the adjoining village of Piltown.
From the NE the well is hidden in a hollow in the field close to the boundary ditch. A short distance to the W is a small stream running into the estuary.
The well itself consists of a small of a rectangular stone and mortar built superstructure, with a triangular-shaped top.
There are two rectangular recesses one at the base where the water can be accessed.
The second recess sits just above the lower opening and below the apex of the structure. When I visited here a modern ceramic mug was housed within. The structure is white washed.
Stone flags act as steps to the well and divide it from the large rectangular trough located beside it.
The larger trough is cut into the earth and stone faced . The eastern face appears to have collapsed in but the side is still well-preserved. The west wall is stepped with stone facing sitting on top of three large flags which may have acted as steps into the trough. Perhaps in the past pilgrims would have taken water from the smaller trough and washed their limbs in this one.
FitzGerald writing in 1856 notes that the well
is greatly resorted to for ‘giving rounds’ at. It is celebrated for several cures, but especially for sore eyes.
A patron at the well is mentioned in a number of sources. The Ordnance Survey Letters of 1840, state that a pattern was last held here in 1812 on St. Bartholomew’s Day. FitzGerald in 1856 wrote ‘there is a patron held here every 24th of August’. Power writing in 1937 notes
This is a well-known holy well at which a pattern is held and “rounds” made on August 24th.
However the I.T.A. survey of 1945 noted that
up to about 50 years ago this well was held in high repute and hundreds of people came here to “make their rounds”.Of late years very few visit it’.
This may suggest the pattern was reviewed for a time after 1840 before declining in popularity in the early 1900’s. Today the well looks like it is maintained, the white washing of the masonry and the presence of the mug suggests its probable still used but I wonder by how many people. Despite the grey day it is really one of the nicest wells I have visited.
Rituals performed by pilgrims here in the 19th century involved the ‘making of rounds’ a tale told by Fitzgerald in 1856 suggests that the pilgrim landscape extended beyond the well.
“ when I visited it last, a couple of months ago, a very intelligent young man of the neighbourhood pointed out to me two houses some twenty yards from the well, which he said were built on the ground that was formerly taken in by the pilgrims in their circuit of ‘rounds’ , and that to his own knowledge the parties who made the encroachments all dwindled away to nothing – none of them ever had a day’s luck afterwards.”
I haven’t had time to consult the 1st or 2nd edition OS maps but it is interesting to note that a short distance from the well are two small cairn of what looks like building rubble .
The well was once associated with a rag tree which is unfortunately no longer in existence. Fitzgerald gives the following colourful description of the tree and its associated rituals.
the fine old venerable thorns which overshadowed it bore a most motley appearance, actually crowded with old red, blue, and green ribbons and rags, as if torn from the dresses of pilgrims, and tied up as a finale to their ‘rounds’ and prayers.
He goes on to describe a conversation with a lady that he meet at the well who described to him the meaning of this practice at the well.
An old crone engaged in giving her ‘rounds’ told me they were tied up by each to leave all the sickness of the year behind them.
This description of the tree sounds so very colourful and vibrant. It makes you wonder how many other wells also had rag tree that have disappeared.
St Batholomew’s holy well or Tobar Phárthanáin is a really peaceful and lovely well. If anyone has any other information about the well or modern traditions associated with it, I’d love to hear from them.
© Louise Nugent 2013
FitzGerald, E. (1856-7) Proceedings – “Jottings in archaeology”, JRSAI 4, 40-49, 289-91.
I.T.A. Topographical and General Survey of County Waterford. Ireland, 1945. [on-line] http://snap.waterfordcoco.ie/collections/efolders/155321/ita_survey.pdf [accessed 4/08/2012]
O’Flanagan, M. (Compiler) (1929) Letters containing information relative to the antiquities of the county of Waterford collected during the progress of the Ordnance Survey in 1841. Typescript. Bray.
Power, P. 1937. Waterford & Lismore : a compendious history of the united dioceses. Cork: Cork University Press, 128.