Your browser version is outdated. We recommend that you update your browser to the latest version.
The Well of the Holy Cross

The Well of the Holy Cross or Tobar na Croise Naofa is situated in the village ofHoly Well at CappaghHoly Well at Cappagh Cappagh, about a mile from the town of Dunmore and is one of the most important heritage sites in the parish. The term “Holy Well” is of huge significance in the folklore of any area where it is located, whether it is because of its particular name or some associated legend Stories of its healing qualities through the intercession of a certain saint, and ceremonies or rituals centred on the well site, add greatly to its importance.
In pre-Christian times, wells were sacred to the druids and they centred their pagan rituals on wells. St. Patrick also realised their rich symbolism in a Christian context, and many of his early converts were baptised at those same pagan druidic wells. It would appear that many of these converts were from the druid class and consequently, those sacred pagan places quickly became places of Christian worship. The great pagan feasts of Imbolc, Bealtaine , Lughnasa and Samhain, also became the focus of the Christian followers and in time were absorbed into the celebration of local feast days and pilgrimages or patterns to well sites.
A survey carried out in the early 50’s shows that there were over 3,000 holy wells in Ireland, more than any other country in the world! Many holy wells are dedicated to St. Patrick, St. Bridget or a local saint. The saints who preached the gospel blessed the waters of the well and then baptised the people. People visited the wells to be cured of various illnesses but the sceptics would claim that only those suffering from minor ailments were actually cured. However, one must remember that in times past, people suffered greatly from malnutrition, ill-health and life expectancy was very short. So in these circumstances it is no wonder that they had recourse to the holy wells for relief and healing.

Most of the well sites consist of at least three common elements-the well or spring, a holy tree and a hill or standing stone. The ritual of the pattern consisted of doing “Rounds” of these elements, reciting a required sequence of prayers and tracing a cross on a certain stone. As pilgrims did the “rounds”, they walked in a circular mode always “Deiseal”, or clockwise, in the same direction as the sun travels. It was common practice for those wishing to be cured to bathe in the well or drink some of the water. There was a little wooden cup beside the well for everyone to take three drops and then to hang a piece of cloth –a clootie-on the holy tree, believing that the clootie had absorbed their illness. A hairpin or a coin was thrown into the well as an offering.

The Cappagh heritage site contains the well, which is supposed to have been blessed by St. Patrick. There is a stone structure called the altar where mass was celebrated and another small mound near the ash tree which may have been used as a vestry; others would think that baptisms may have taken place there. At the other side of the road is a higher mound of stones, believed to be the grave of a dean. The traditional day for the Pattern at Cappagh was Garland Sunday, the last Sunday in July. The celebrations usually started with the religious elements, doing the “rounds” and reciting the prayers while walking round the well, the vestry and the ash tree. When that ritual was completed, the entertainmant or fun element began. Stalls were erected and blackcurrants, gooseberries and other different things were sold. There were hurling matches and faction fights and the evening usually ended with music and dancing on “Cnoc an Damhsa”.

The Primary Schools Folklore Collection (1936-1938), contains some very interesting information on this holy well. James Fitzgerald from Knockatee who was a pupil in Shanballymore N.S. wrote: “There is a holy well in Cappagh called “The Well of the Holy Cross”. It is said that a cross flew from this well and rested on another in Carnaseer .Ever since then it has been called by that name. This is how it came to be there first. A long time ago a strange bird came and lived near the place where the well is now. Nobody ever saw the bird before and the people wondered very much. The bird remained there and in about a month a well began to spring up. The people knew then that there was something mysterious about it. They tried to boil the water but could not. Someone in Cappagh interfered with the bird for no reason and the bird cursed him and he had no luck from that out. From that on, a great crowd of people used to gather at the well on the last Sunday in July. “

Mr. O’Donovan, the principal teacher in Shanballymore wrote an account, based on information he got from Michael Bowens, aged 30, Cappagh.
“At the present time there are two wells within a few feet of each other. One is surrounded by a wall, 4 feet high, with an opening, and steps descending to the bottom. There is also an opening like a window about 1 1/2feet square in the side of the surrounding wall. This well has dried up. One story has it that it dried up after a woman washed her feet in the water. Another story says that it dried when some young people misconducted themselves there. The wells are under an immense ash tree in a piece of waste ground. A few years ago, a neighbouring farmer took in a piece of this ground as an addition to his adjoining field. He sowed oats in the whole field but none grew in the new piece for years. Later on, crops grew in it but when the owner was making a stack in the new piece, he was mysteriously thrown against it and broke his leg. A few yards from the wells there is a horse shoe-shaped struct

Tobar na CroiseTobar na Croise

ure, the walls being four or five feet high on the outside, but the inside seems to be somewhat filled up. This is called “the Altar”. Across the “new road” there is a mound of stones about the same height, four-faced. On the western face there is a smooth-faced block of limestone inset. A number of horizontal and vertical cuts on the face of this stone make a number of crosses. When people are making the stations they make three crosses on this stone by drawing a finger vertically and horizontally, three times, on the lines. When pilgrims pass by the Altar, they throw a pebble near its mouth each time they go round. Tradition has it that when one of the trees was being cut down many years ago, by a man called Pigott, a chalice was found in a hollow in it. It is said that this chalice is now in London and that it was hidden in the tree at the time that the priest-hunters were busy.”
Mícheál Breathnach from the boys’ school in Garrafrauns wrote this account entitled “Domhnach a Tobair”:
“Domhnach a Tobair falls on the last Sunday in July. On this day, “cally” is made for the first time from the new potatoes and this Sunday gets its name from the “tobar” of butter and milk in the heart of the “cally”. Domhnach a Tobair” is the day for visiting holy wells in this parish. If palm grows near the holy well some of it is brought home. “Tobar na Croise Naofa” in Cappagh is visited by several people from this parish and other districts, because St. Patrick spent time there when he was on his way to Croagh Patrick. “

Many of the holy well sites have fallen into disrepair but in recent times, interest in the history and heritage associated with those sites has been revived and efforts are being made to restore them. The people of Cappagh deserve great credit and gratitude for the way they have preserved and protected their holy well and the surrounding area. The preparation work which was done before this year’s Pattern was very evident and made the whole event one in which they can feel justifiable pride. The Irish spirit of the “Meitheal” is truly alive in Cappagh and long may it continue.