Tobar Iníon Baoith – Commons South, Killinaboy.

Holy Wells of the Burren - Tobar Iníon Baoith, Commons South, Killinaboy

Iníon Baoith is a localised female saint whose cult is mostly found in mid-Clare. The eminent local historian, Michael McMahon, has identified 17 holy wells dedicated to Iníon Baoith in the Ordnance Survey name books from the 1840s. The wells have a mid-Clare geographical bias. They are located at Killinaboy, Kilnamona, Glensleade, Kilshanny, Kilmanaheen, Inchicronan (Crusheen), Doora, Quin, Kiltacky More and Quakerstown. (2013, 32).

Killinaboy parish is home to the highest number of Iníon Baoith holy wells (4). Other Iníon Baoith dedications in Killinaboy include the medieval church site, Suíochán Iníon Bhaoith (a stone seat with healing powers) and the Tau cross, (formerly known as the cross of Iníon Baoith). The plethora of dedications would suggest that the cult of the saint was strongest in Killinaboy parish area.

Well house.

Iníon Baoith’s cult may have migrated from the south Limerick/North Cork area with the Uí Fidgeinte tribe when it settled in mid-Clare sometime before the ninth century. (Mc Mahon, 2013. 30).

A couple of of Iníon Baoith dedications survive in the south Limerick/north Cork region.  The Cork dedication can be found at a holy well in Dromtarriff, a few kilometres south of Banteer. The Limerick dedication is at Glenmore, Killeedy as Glenmore’s former name was Killinewee.  Killinewee is an anglicisation of the the Gaelic Cill Iníon Baoith, the Church of Iníon Baoith. (O’Riain 2011, 379).

Saintesses of greater renown than Iníon Baoith include St Brigid of Kildare, St Ita of Killeedy County Limerick and St Gobnait of Ballyvourney Co Cork. This “troika” are credited with founding nunneries (Condit and Cooney, 2007). There may have also been a nunnery at Killinaboy in the Early Medieval period (c. 400 – late twelfth c. AD).

The practice of christening girls with the name Innerwee, (anglicisation of Iníon Baoith),  faded in the 1800s. (Curry 1839, 12).  It is interesting also to note that the 19th and 20th century churches in the parish both eschewed the Iníon Baoith dedication. Very few people visit any Iníon Baoith sites in the parish today for ritual purposes.

Mc Mahon, M. (2013). The Parish of Corofin A Historical Profile. Michael Mc Mahon.
Ó Riain, P. (2011). A Dictionary of Irish Saints. Four Courts Press.
Condit T. and Cooney G. (2007).  ‘The Other Monasticism’. Archaeology Ireland Heritage Guide No. 38. Wordwell Books.
O’Donovan J. and Curry E(1997). The Antiquities of County Clare. Ordnance Survey Letters 1839. Clasp Press.

Landscape context with scrub encroaching.

The Early Medieval monastic site of Iníon Baoith consisted of just over 535 hectares. The monastery tenants also had access to another 365 hectares of ‘rocky pasture’ for their common use. The rocky pasture approximates to what we know today as the townlands of Commons North & Commons South (Mc Mahon 2013, 42-43).

Tobar Iníon Baoith is located in Commons South and is thus located on the monastic lands of Iníon Baoith. There are two other holy wells in Commons South – one named after the saint, Tobar Iníon Baoith whilst the other is called Tobar Bhaighdeán. Holy wells are often located near the ruins of medieval churches. (O’Sullivan and Downey 2006, 35-37).

Mc Mahon, M. (2013). The Parish of Corofin A Historical Profile. Michael Mc Mahon.
O’Sullivan M and Downey L. (2006). Know Your Monuments Holy Wells. Archaeology Ireland, Spring 2006).

A winter’s tale.

There is an elliptically-shaped dry stone construction enclosing the well. It is 2.8 m long and measures 2.5 m at its widest point. Access to the well is by an o.45 m wide gap in the structure.

The house is single stone-width (0.45 m approx) except for the rear wall which has a depth of up to 1.3 m of stone. The altar is a flat piece of stone (0.4 m by 0.2 m) which is known locally as “the flag”. The flag is inserted into the interior of the rear wall. It overhangs the well at a height of 0.29 m above the ground. The flag serves to denote the sanctity of the space but also acts a repository for devotees’ offerings.
There is a small depression in the pavement under the flag,  just behind the well water. This naturally occurring feature has been used by devotees as another point of deposition of offerings or “devotionalia”.

On a site visit of 7th February 2017, I recorded the following offerings –
a medallion and four religious figurines on the altar.
About 90 coins in the currency in use today in the small depression in the pavement behind the well.
Two small pieces of limestone and two other small stones – one red in colour, the other grey. These latter stones are from geological areas other than the Burren and were deposited as offerings probably because of their exotic look.
Two secular tokens – a plastic bottle top and an ear ring.
The following religious tokens – the Madonna in a grotto; a wooden crucifix; two metal crucifixes; six religious medals; a headless figure of Mary; a photo of the holy family Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

There were 20 coins clustered on the ground a few centimetres from the well.

Finally, one small piece of granite was recorded in the interior wall of the well house.

Well in the shape of a human eye..

“The well is a natural solutional hollow in the limestone. There are many similar features in the surrounding pavement. The hollow is fed by rainwater draining from the surrounding pavement at shallow depth (20-30 cm). This is known as epikarst drainage and it is quite common in the Burren karst.

The water drains horizontally and fills the hollow up to a depth of 15 cm before overflowing. Thus there is a mini-pool just below the surface with no outlet. Even with no inflow in dry weather, the water would take a month or two to evaporate altogether. As it never goes that long without rain in the region, the mini-pool never dries up” (Dr David Drew).

The stability of the water supply in the well remains the subject of comment today in the parish and was a source of fascination in the past…..
“And no matter how dry the weather is or how wet, the well would not get bigger or smaller” (The Schools’Collection, 1937/38. Vol  0614, p 345).


The Schools’ Collection, 1937/38. National Folklore Collection.

There are a number of similar solutions in the surrounding area which begs the question as to why the water from this particular hollow was ordained to be “blessed”. The answer lies in part in the permanence of the water as explained above.

However, another factor may be that the hollow is in the shape of a human eye. Holy wells, known to cure eye ailments, may on occasion resemble an eye (Bord 2006, 41). Other examples in the region of eye-shaped wells renowned for eye cures are St Colmcille’s at Crumlin, Fanore and St Fachtna’s at Fahee South, Carran. The natural likeness of the well to an eye helps to endorse it as a supernatural antidote to eye ailments.

Finally, another supernatural trait ascribed to Tobar Iníon Baoith was that its water could not be boiled (The Schools’Collection, 1937/38. Vol 0614, p 345). We are obviously in the realm of folk belief here rather than science. This non-boiling belief was common regarding the water of many holy wells and served to distinguish the blessed water from the secular, domestic water. The latter water “obliges” when one tries to boil it whereas the waters of the blessed well are believed not to.

The Schools Collection. (1937/38). National Folklore Collection of Ireland.
Bord, J. (2006). Cures and Curses Ritual and Cult at Holy Wells. Heart of Albion.

Mixture of secular and religious offerings on altar.

The well water is known locally to cure warts and sore eyes. (The Schools’ Collection, 1937/38. Vol 0614, 345).

The majority of holy wells are known to cure just one affliction. However, four of the nine holy wells in Killinaboy were renowned for both eye and wart cures. The other three “twin cure” wells are Tobar Bhaighdeán in Commons South, Bullán Phádraig in Poulnalour and St Anthony’s in Caherblonick (no longer extant).

A wart is an infection to a top layer of skin which causes the growth of cells. This growth of cells creates the wart. The portal for the infection is often cut skin. Good hygiene helps to stop warts developing in the first place. When contracted, the warts can be counteracted by tending to the cut skin. 
However, life in rural Ireland in recent centuries featured tough manual labour and poor hygiene conditions for the huge numbers of destitute. “Poor people were often dirty and were unable to heat water in the 18th and 19th centuries” (Curtis 1994, 47).  Warts were a much more widespread affliction in the past and explain the high incidence of wart wells.

Orthodox religious offerings.

Though wart wells are numerous, the most widespread holy well type in Ireland is the eye-well. The international situation seems to mirror that of Ireland. Varner ascribes the eye-well predominance to Vitamin A deficiency in the diet of the “commoners”. (2009, 110). The deficiency causes dry eyes. If the condition is left untreated, it causes ulceration and ultimately blindness. A lack of dietary diversity was certainly the lot of the rural poor in pre-Great Famine Ireland surviving as they did on a diet of potatoes and a liquid accompaniment.

The potato had been introduced into Ireland in the 16th century. However, it began to play a dominant role in the diet of the rural poor before the end of the 17th century. The rural poor accounted for more than 80% of County Clare’s population at the start of the 1840s – the decade of the Great Famine. (Mc Mahon 2010, 16).

The housing conditions of the same rural poor in Ireland were abysmal prior to the Famine. According to the 1841 Census, over 85% of the houses in the Burren parishes were fourth-class, defined as single-roomed mud dwellings (Smyth 2012, 187).

A minority of these houses had chimneys and fewer still had effective chimneys.  The smoky interior was a cause of eyesight deterioration and also helps explain why there is such a dense concentration of eye-wells in the countryside.

The terror induced by the thought of failing eye sight or blindness may also explain why eye-wells comfortably outnumber wells renowned for such as back, tooth and wart cures. The demand was reflected in the supply.

The Schools Collection. (1937/38). National Folklore Collection of Ireland.
Curtis, L. (1994). The Cause of Ireland. Beyond the Pale Publications. 
Varner, G. (2009). Sacred Wells A Study in the History, Meaning, and Mythology of Holy Wells and Waters. Algora Publishing.
Mc Mahon, A. (2010). The Rural Poor in Clare before the Great Famine. From The Other Clare. The Shannon Archaeological and Historical Society.
Smyth, William J. (2012). Variations in vulnerability. From Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Edited by John Crowley, William J. Smyth and Mike Murphy. Cork University Press.

Tobar Iníon Baoith Burren Holy Wells
Loose stones outside well house define path for rounds.

In order to get the cure, prayer rounds must be done at the site on two Mondays and a Thursday. The prayers invoked are one Our Father and three Hail Marys. On completing the rounds, the devotee must leave a blessed offering. Finally, the water must be rubbed “to the eye or the wart” (The Schools’ Collection Vol 614, 343).

The Schools Collection. (1937/38). National Folklore Collection of Ireland.

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