Just a short drive from Sligo town you will find a hidden gem, a haven of tranquility, a place to reflect. Tobernalt Holy Well is a very special place and surprisingly not that well known. Just across from the shores of Lough Gill you will hear the water babbling as it makes its journey from the well to the river and finally to the lake. The trees shade the water, the candles gently flicker and you know that you have found a place of peace.
Tobernalt is one of the most picturesque holy wells in Ireland, the name derives from the cliff from which the well gushes from. The well has a double sanctity, for it was not only blessed by St. Patrick who, it seems, baptised his converts, but in the Penal days its waters were used in the celebration of mass. The history of Tobernalt Holy Well predates the advent of Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century. It is a natural spring well that established itself in a primeval forest.
Tobernalt became a secluded haven for the celebration of Mass in the early years of the eighteenth century when the penal laws were applied most severely. The faithful often set out the night before to journey in small quiet groups to be at Tobernalt before dawn. Originally the entrance to the holy well was down from Cairns Hill, at the back of where the crucifixion statue is now. The area was very secluded and far less developed from what we have today. Priests were hunted in penal times so the priest would be dressed in rags, step up to say mass and after mass would return to their rags and join the crowd to leave the Tobernalt.
I met up with Father Jim Murray, who has been the parish priest of Carraroe for over twenty years and he told me more about the Tobernalt Holy Well. Father Murray was based in secondary schools in Athlone before coming to Sligo. “It was completely different in Athlone but I was made very welcome by the people of Carraroe Parish and of Sligo. I love the Holy Well, it’s like looking after another church but an outdoor one which is very unusual. Our parish promotes Tobernalt in a gentle way and I’m happy to share the story with anyone who wants to know more about it.” Father Murray explains
“People come from all over the world to visit Tobernalt, I get emails every day from people asking me more about the history of the place. A lot of the visitors to the holy well tell me they aren’t religious but they find a great sense of peace there. I’ve noticed a lot of tourist buses that come to the area visit the Holy Well and we have some lovely comments left on TripAdvisor.”
I asked Father Murray if there are certain days that mass is celebrated in Tobernalt. “Mass is celebrated at various times on the Garland Sunday weekend, which is the last weekend in July. We have hundreds of people who attend the services on Garland Sunday. The most popular mass of Garland Sunday is the 6am service, there is a pilgrimage that leaves St. Anne’s Church at 4.45am to walk to Tobernalt. I’ve also spoken to people who have walked to the service from Ballisodare and Collooney.
“We also celebrate mass in Tobernalt on other occasions but these are not set dates and are usually on the request of groups that come from America and the U.K. or other parts of the world. We also have several groups that visit from Ireland.”
I’ve heard that there are finger imprints on top of the mass rock, do you know anything about them? “There are many stories and superstitions surrounding the area of Tobernalt. If you look directly at the top of the mass rock you will see the finger imprints which are said to be from St. Patrick’s fingers.”
For me, one of the most striking parts of Tobernalt Holy Well is the rag tree, could you tell me about that please. “ The rag tree is an old pagan custom which became christianised. If visitors to Tobernalt have a family member or friend who aren’t well they tear a piece of clothing or bring a religious medal belonging to the person and tie it to the tree. It’s said that the sickness will stay in the holy well. People also leave items for prayers and good intentions, sickness of prayer. Each item on the tree has a story of a special meaning behind it. I’ve heard lots of stories about people getting healed or going for the sense of peace. You couldn’t but have a sense of peace in a place full of prayer.”
“Tobernalt holy well is easily accessible. It’s near a road, there is parking and there are no steep hills to climb. We want everyone to feel welcome there and want to maintain the sanctity and dignity of the holy well, this is one of the reasons we don’t hold weddings at Tobernalt and we only hold baptisms on Garland Sunday.”
“Visiting Tobernalt Holy Well has become a tradition in families. The current generation tell their family and the tradition is kept going. After all we are all just passing through this life. Whether people come to do the stations, the rosary, say a prayer or just reflect on life. It’s a place for everyone regardless of their religion. Here we have a treasure; a pearl of great price, nurtured, cared for and loved by our ancestors. Here we are not only steeped in history and heritage, but we are also reminded that the future of this sacred place and the faith given to us rests in our hands.”
When you are driving past Carraroe Church you may have noticed the beautiful mural of Tobernalt Holy Well. This was painted by artist Nik Purdy in the last few years to brighten up the community centre wall and also because Tobernalt is very much part of the parish.
If you want to find out more about the holy well there is a book called Tobernalt Holy Well History and Heritage which is well worth a read, it’s for sale in Liber bookshop Sligo and also on the Tobernalt Holy Well website http://www.holywellsligo.com/
This article was written by Val Robus and was first published in Sligo Now Magazine, 2019