Tobar Chaimín, Caherminnuan West, Kilfenora.

Tobar Chamín, Caherminnaun West, Kilfenora - Burren Holy Wells

According to tradition, Saint Caimín is a 7th century monk – subsequently canonised with a cult limited to County Clare. Two other sites in the county are dedicated to him. They are both in the south-east of the county – Inis Cealtra (Holy Island) on Lough Derg and Moynoe in Scarriff.  The oldest church on Inis Cealtra is dedicated to Caimín whereas there is a holy well in his name at Moynoe.

Caimín’s cult survives to an extent today as his name is still used on occasion as a christian name for boys in the county. There are also at least a couple of modern dedications to Caimín in Clare – Saint Caimín’s Community School, Shannon and St Caimín’s parish church, Mountshannon.

Caimín’s feast date is March 24th/25th which happens to coincide with Spring Equinox, an important festival in the pre-Christian lunar year in Ireland.

Both Rynne (1970) and Sheehan (1982) referred to Kilcameen as an early church-site located within a stone fort. The place name is an anglicisation of the Gaelic Cill Chaimín (Church of Caimín).

The well house.

The fort itself is about 31 metres in diameter and is bound by a low wall of roughly coursed limestone boulders 1 to 1.5 metres high above the surrounding ground level.

A ritual monument, The Monk’s or Saint’s Bed, is located in the south-eastern corner of the fort. The Bed is a hollow bordered in part by large flag stones. The main goal of most pilgrims in Early Historic Ireland would probably have been the grave of the founding monastic saint (Harbison 1991, 147). The Monk’s Bed almost certainly functioned as the tomb-shrine of Caimín.

Tobar Chamín, Caherminnaun West, Kilfenora - Burren Holy Wells
Pillar stone.

A pillar stone stands on the southern part of Kilcameen. The stone is about 2 metres in height. It is mentioned in the Schools’ Collection – “Ta cloch mór fada in aice leis an tobar seo”  – translated as “there is a big, long stone near this well”.  (Vol 19, 100-101).

The stone may have been part of the suite of ritual monuments on site along with the well and the bed. Conversely, it may have been purely symbolic – a symbol of the sanctity of the place.

The fort also houses a killeen (unbaptised babies’ burial ground).
The holy well, Tobar Chaimín, lies about about 50 metres south of Kilcameen.

Rynne, E. (1970).  A Cure for Sore Eyes from North Munster Antiquarian Journal Volume 13. Thomond Archaeological and Historical Society.
Sheehan, J (1982). The Early Historic Church-sites of North Clare from North Munster Antiquarian Journal Volume 24. Thomond Archaeological and Historical Society.
Harbison, P. (1991). Pilgrimage in Ireland The Monuments and the People. Syracuse University Press.
The Schools’ Collection (1937/38). National Folklore Collection.

Tobar Chamín, Caherminnaun West, Kilfenora - Burren Holy Wells
Pillar stone with holy well left centre and another ring fort is back right.

Kilcameen is located in a field called Páirc Chaimín (Caimín’s Field) according to numerous collectors in The Schools Collection. The townland, Caherminnuan West, is less than two kilometres north-west of Kilfenora.

Caherballykinvarga is one of the most impressive rings forts in the region complete with chevaux-de-frise. It is located just a couple of hundred metres east of Kilcameen. 5 more forts are located within about 600 metres of Caherballykinvarga (Westropp 1897).

This rich complex of religious and secular monuments enjoy an elevated position on excellent farm land (glacial till over limestone bedrock) with clear views in all directions.

Tobar Chamín, Caherminnaun West, Kilfenora - Burren Holy Wells
Holy well in foreground. Pillar stone back left. Back right – vertical stone is part of St Caimíns Bed.

Moreover, Kilcameen lies only a kilometre north of the modern road Corofin-Killinaboy-Kilfenora. The main approach route to the Burren in medieval times seems to have been along an ancient route known as Bóthar na Mac Rí. The current road from Corofin to Killinaboy follows this ancient route. The road would then have routed westwards to Kilfenora just below Kilcameen. (Gosling 1991, 126).

The elevated position of the site on good farmland overlooking an ancient route was obviously a very attractive proposition for a medieval élite with their fortified farmsteads (forts).

Tobar Chamín, Caherminnaun West, Kilfenora - Burren Holy Wells
The holy well.

Westropp, Thomas J. (1897).  Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol vii., Fifth Series.
Gosling, P. (1991). The Burren in Medieval Times from The Book of the Burren. Tir Eolas

The well is a circular-shaped dry stone construction. The water lies a couple of metres below the ground level surrounding the structure. The well seems to collect shallow groundwater flow in a small rock basin which may be natural or artificial or some of both. (Dr David Drew).

The performing of stations at the well was “almost given up” by the 1830s. (O’Donovan & Curry, 1839, 90)

Tobar Chamín, Caherminnaun West, Kilfenora - Burren Holy Wells
The Saint’s Bed.

However, the demise of the well must have been a gradual affair as two locals (Michael Hogan and Michael Quinn) are recorded as having been cured of eye ailments on foot of a visit in the 1930s.  “People visit the site on Thursday and any Sunday. When they visit, they must recite prayers and take home water and moss. They have to wash their eyes with the water. The visitors leave offerings – including pictures, bones, holy books or rosary beads. The Saint’s Bed is there too and the people have to lie in it. Michael Hogan and Michael Quinn visited the site in order get cures for eye ailments. Three days later, their eyes were clear”. (1937/38 Vol 19, 100-101). (Translated from the Irish by Tony Kirby).

I have heard of the use of moss as a remedy at other eye wells including St Fachtna’s in Kilfenora. A genus of the moss species, sphagnum moss, was used widely as a herbal remedy during World War 1. The plant was prized for its absorptive and antiseptic qualities (Boissoneault, 2017).

Tobar Chamín, Caherminnaun West, Kilfenora - Burren Holy Wells
Another perspective of the Saint’s Bed.

Offerings mentioned in other accounts are “money and little pictures” (Vol 0619, 084) and “coppers and pins and hairpins” (Vol 0619, 087).

The well was “still resorted to apparently to good effect”  in 1970 (Rynne, 1970).

According to locals interviewed by Rynne, the well and the Bed must be visited on two successive Thursdays and on the Monday following. If this prescription is not suitable, one can visit the site on two consecutive Mondays and on the Thursday following.

An Act of Contrition is recited at the holy well and then a Creed. The visitor must then walk slowly around the well in the sun-wise direction. Five Our Fathers, five Ave Marias and five creeds are recited during each round.

The pilgrim then resorts to The Monk’s Bed. He or she lies down in the bed, head to the east and feet to the west. Nine Ave Marias are recited here in order to complete the ritual.

The ritual at the Monk’s Bed is recorded on one occasion in The Schools Collection and it differs somewhat from Rynne’s description. The monument is described as a “bed of grass with a low wall around it”. After each round the visitor lies on his/her face in the bed for 5 minutes. The visitor should then leave something near the bed. (1937/38. Vol 0619, 091).

Whereas, Rynne records the ritual days as two successive Thursdays and the following Monday or two successive Mondays and the following Thursday, The Schools Scheme has many other claims as to which were the prescribed days – 2 Sundays and a Thursday or 2 Thursdays and a Sunday (Vol 0619, 080) ; every Thursday and Sunday (Vol 0619, 081) ; the 8th of October (Vol 0619 084) ; Monday, Wednesday, Friday, St Patrick’s Day, Easter Sunday (Vol 0619, 087) ; between Easter Sunday and Trinity Sunday (Vol 0619 091).

I have just one more version of the Kilcameen ritual to throw in to the mix – for the moment at any rate! It is the following – “you must visit the well on two consecutive Thursdays and the following Monday. Each time when you pray, you must walk five times around the well (clockwise or deiseal) and repeat the prayers five times, making twenty five.

When this is done you must go to Cill Chaimín and lie in the monk’s bed there and pray some more”. (Meehan, 445-446).

Tobar Chamín, Caherminnaun West, Kilfenora - Burren Holy Wells
A nearby ringfort

Whilst most accounts indelibly link the site with eye cures, a couple of the accounts in the Collection suggest that the well’s powers extend further – “sore eyes, warts and sore hands” (Vol 0619, 081) ; visitors drink the water for sore eyes but other requests are granted also (Vol 0619, 080).

Jack Flanagan, like Rynne, asserts the well was still being frequented by locals in the early 1990 (1991) .

However, it is natural history rather than human kind which is very much in evidence at the well these days. The shade provided by the well house and the damp provided by the water mean that conditions are optimal for the flourishing of primitive plants like ferns and mosses.

O’Donovan, J and  Curry, E, (1997). Ordnance Survey Letters 1839 from The Antiquities of County Clare. Clasp Press.
The Schools’ Collection, (1937/38). National Folklore Collection.
Boissoneault, L. (2017). How Humble Moss Healed The Wounds  Of Thousands In World War 1.
Rynne, E. (1970).  A Cure for Sore Eyes from North Munster Antiquarian Journal Volume 13. Thomond Archaeological and Historical Society.
Meehan, C. (2002). The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred Ireland. Gothic Image Publications.
Flanagan, J. (1991). Kilfenora : A History. Ennistymon Printing.

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