25 November is honoured every year in Mitchelstown as Saint Fanahan’s Day. The name of the town’s patron saint, Fanahan, is an altered form of the early Irish Finnchú or Fionnchú, the name of a seventh-century monk who founded an abbey at Brí Gobann — now Brí Ghabhann or Brigown, the historical name of Mitchelstown parish. On nine days leading to the feast day, many local people leave the eastern perimeter of the town at Mulberry to take the invigorating 500-metre walk along a thousand-year-old causeway lined on both sides by stately mature beech trees. When walked in daylight, views beyond the northern colonnade of beeches are towards the Galty Mountains, with views through the southern colonnade towards the Kilworth Mountains. At the end of the causeway, pilgrims leave behind the townland of Brigown, stepping over a single-arched stone footbridge across Sruth na nÉigse stream to Saint Fanahan’s holy well, nestled in a delightful grove of trees in a corner of Ballinamona townland.
Tree-lined causeway, showing beeches apparently planted in the 1830s by parish priest Fr John O’Connell
The holy well is likely to have been a place of pagan worship in pre-Christian times. In the twentieth century, especially during the novena days leading to 25 November, people typically blessed themselves with the crucifix of their rosary beads after dipping it in the holy well, and then said a prayer before walking slowly three times clockwise on a narrow circular path through the grove behind the well, silently praying as they walked. The well was reputed to have curative powers for physical ailments. During the nine days leading to the feast day, two or three stalls provided glasses of water from the holy well, for which pilgrims left a couple of pence with the stall holder.
Sruth na nÉigse and pedestrian bridge at end of causeway
When the November novena was undertaken in darkness the pilgrimage was even more enchanting, as hand-help lamps guided walkers in both directions along the causeway, moving through silhouettes and dark unrecognized shapes of otherwise familiar neighbours, against a background of cosy, muffled conversations, or the occasional sound of curlews passing far overhead. On reaching the well area, walkers mingled with the pleasantly charged camaraderie of pilgrims praying in silence around the well, walking the three clockwise rounds, and finally pausing to sample water from the holy well while exchanging pleasantries about the weather and getting an update on when last the eel was seen in the well. Whenever someone alerted those around the well that they saw the eel — symbolizing Fanahan and a sign of good fortune — prayers would be temporarily suspended in the eagerness to get a glimpse of the eel. Ken Thompson’s stone-sculpted cross behind the well shows an eel beneath the feet of Fanahan.
Saint Fanahan’s Well, stone cross (1989), Sruth na nÉigse at left, circular path at rear
The enchantment of the well area is heightened by the accompanying sound of Sruth na nÉigse flowing under the bridge and babbling along the western curve of the grove to where that stream joins another stream from the eastern curve of the grove, and where it also joins the Gradogue river, just north of the circular path. Similar to the confluence of three rivers in other areas, this general area has been regarded as sacred from time immemorial. Even in our quite secular twenty-first century, Saint Fanahan’s holy well is still sacred to people from Mitchelstown; it is our own secret place, special to us and not promoted as a tourist venue to outsiders.
Happy Saint Fanahan’s Day to all from Mitchelstown!
John Mullins, Cork City Libraries, Saint Fanahan’s Day 2015
Header image: Panorama from stone bridge on left to circular walk on right
See below for more pictures. Photos taken by the author.
Ken Thompson’s sculpture of Saint Fanahan, photographed on night of pattern day
Meeting of three streams and three townlands: foreground centre shows small stream and Ballinamona townland, joining Sruth na nÉigse (Stream of the Sages) at centre left, with Brigown townland behind it at left, and stream from right joining the confluence to flow north and then west as the Gradogue river, with Kilshanny or Kilshanna townland in centre and right background
Nameplate of Mulberry Lane/Road.