The R480 is a 16.4 kilometre long regional road stretching from Ballyvaughan in the north of the Burren to Leamaneh Castle in the south. It is the main arterial route in the Burren interior. In high season the road can be heavily trafficked.
The roadside is packed with outstanding National Monuments including the ring forts An Ráth, Cahermore and Caherconnell. Ireland’s oldest known megalithic tomb Poulnabrone, (5,800 years old), is also on the verge of the road. Poulnabrone attracts up to 250,000 visitors per annum. On the other hand, the holy well of Tobargahard remains a stubborn secret of the R480.
Tobargahard is located a couple of 100 metres south of Cahermore stone fort on one’s journey north towards Ballyvaughan. Access is on the left hand side of the road and is marked by a gap in a dry stone wall. Stones on either side of the gap are painted white in colour. There is a short, steep drop from the road to the well.
Tobargahard’s former landscape context was the classic Burren upland mosaic of limestone pavement and thin soil. However, the monument has been encroached in recent years by hazel scrub. The scrub is advancing due to the decline in the ancient tradition of cattle grazing in the uplands in winter. It may eventually occlude the well entirely from future generations. Hazel is a glorious native tree but it is an enemy of archaeology.
The photo above shows the drop from the road to the well below. Ballyvaughan and Galway Bay are in the background.
Tobargahard is an Anglicisation of Tobar go hArd which means the well on high. The monument is located just above Gragan Valley which was heavily populated prior to The Great Hunger of the 1840s. The well house is a dry stone construction. The entrance faces towards the valley.
Folk medicine was widespread in Ireland up to the 19th century and the Tobargahard well was renowned for cures for eye ailments. A disproportionate amount of Ireland’s 3,200-plus holy wells are associated with cures for eye ailments.
A container of well-used coins (votive offerings) was noted on a 2016 site visit. There were two religious figurines on the simple stone “altar” above the well. A rosary beads hung from a tree. However, a new religious offering was noted on a recent visit in November 2018. At least one pilgrim is still resorting to the site for religious purposes!
THE SCHOOLS’ COLLECTION
Precious information regarding the well is recorded in the National Folklore Collection even though the site is misleadingly said to be beside Gragan’s castle. The well is in fact circa 1.5 kilometres north east of the castle. The information in the Collection is in Gaelic.
I have translated it as follows- “There is a well beside Gragan’s castle. It is called Tobar go h-Ard. There is a cure there for eye ailments. A lot of people go there and they rub the water on their eyes. There is a little wall around the well and a nice tree growing over it. When people go there, they leave a lot of offerings. They drink the water and they take some away with them. The people say a lot of prayers at the well.” (The Schools Collection, 1937/38. Vol 0616, p 024).
The Schools Collection, (1937/38). National Folklore Collection.
Tobargahard is an almost abandoned sacred site… metres from a regional road which hums with the sound of passing holidaymakers in high season.