Updated: Jan 15
What do Joni Mitchell and Sunday’s Well have in common?
‘They paved paradise and put up a parking lot’ from Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell is a suitable analogy when describing the demise of the holy well that Sunday’s Well was named for. While the age of information may have made us better connected and informed, it also means distracted living has become an everyday thing. As people cross Wellington Bridge in Cork City, turn left, and navigate on foot or by vehicle up Sunday’s Well Road; they probably will fail to notice the semi circle pattern on the footpath and the plaque on the wall just across from the entrance to Daly’s (Shaky) Bridge. These remnants are the only reminder of the holy well that was a place of spiritual devotion for our ancestors.
Figure 1: Plaque reading IHS, Sunday's Well, 1644.
Tobar Ri an Domhnaigh
Sunday’s Well or 'Tobar Ri an Domhnaigh, in Irish, which translates as the Well of the King of Sunday, referring to Jesus Christ in the Tridentine Catholic Church. The name Sunday’s Well can also mean Saint Dominic’s Well, who was often called St Sunday in English during the early modern period.’ In 1946, road improvement work was carried out on the Sunday’s Well Road near its western end, to ‘give extra width for the carriageway and footpath’. ‘The holy well was exposed to view for the first time for a considerable number of years. A masonry structure covered the well, this was removed, and the hill behind the old retaining wall cut back. During the excavation works, a shell midden was discovered which varied in thickness from three to twelve inches.'
Figure 2: Holy Well, Sunday's Well, with Masonry Structure, 1945.
Middens are characterised by accumulated shells and this midden at Sunday’s Well was no different as it composed mainly of
‘common oyster, and bones of ox, sheep and pig, many of them obviously deliberately split to facilitate the extraction of the marrow. There was evidence that fires had been lighted and it was possible to ascertain that the midden was modern because of the occurrence all though it of shards of glazed pottery, typical of the 17th and 18th centuries A.D. Because of the stratigraphical relationship of the midden to the well, it is possible that the refuse was left behind by pilgrims who came to make rounds there.’
The presence of oysters in the midden would not have been unusual, as in the early nineteenth century according to James Hingston Tuckey ‘the river Lee has a course of about fifty miles, and would be navigable for small craft ten miles above Cork, were it not for the salmon weirs that cross it. The salmon of the river are abundant, and the oysters of the harbour are much esteemed.’ Archaeologists suggest that ‘middens may have been seen as ancestral places of central importance of the family, community or society, and the location of the midden at Sunday’s Well certainly supports this statement.
Figure 3: Outline of the Holy Well, Sunday's Well, 2017.
Sunday's Well in Text
The earliest suggested reference to Sunday’s Well was in the Middle Irish text Aisling Meic Conglinne, where Conglinne was ‘taken, bonds and guards and all, toward the Lee. When he reached the well, the name of which is Ever-full, he doffed his white cloak, and laid it out to be under his side, his book-satchel under the slope of his back.’ The next reference to the well is from 1644 when French aristocrat and traveller Boullaye Le Gouz wrote,
‘a mile from Korq [Cork] is a well called by the English Sunday spring, or the fountain of Sunday, which the Irish believe is blessed and cures many ills. I found the water of it extremely cold. Sunday’s Well is at the side of the high road, and is surrounded by a rude stone building, on a tablet in the wall of which the letters IHS mark its ancient reputation for sanctity. It is shaded over by some fine ash trees, which render it a picturesque object.’
The symbol IHS ‘originated in a medieval cult of the Holy Name of Jesus as a Latinized version of the Greek abbreviation I H (Ʃ O Y) Ʃ for JE(SOU)S' and it is incredible that the tablet Le Gouz wrote about nearly three hundred years ago is still on view today. According to Oscar Wilde’s mother, Lady Francesca, ‘whenever a white-thorn or an ash-tree shadows the place, the well is held to be peculiarly sacred; and on leaving, having first drunk of the water, the patient ties a votive offering to the branches – generally a coloured handkerchief or a bright red strip cut from a garment; and these offerings are never removed.’ Lady Wilde also notes that the ritual performed at holy wells entails going around the well, either three or nine times, on all fours, from east to west (following the motion of the sun) whilst reciting prayers. At the end of each round the devotee builds up a small pile of stones and then descends the steps of the well, bathing forehead and hands in the water. 
Figure 4: Common ash (Fraxinus excelsior) near the Holy Well of St. Flannan in Inagh (Clare).
A century after Le Gouz wrote about the well, Charles Smith noted,
‘to the N. W. of the city, several houses and pleasant gardens, which form a pretty hamlet, called Sunday’s-well, lying on a rising ground, and command a view of the city and river. Here is a cool refreshing water, which gives name to the place; but it is hard and does not lather with soap; this, together with all the springs on the N. side of the river, issue out of a red stone rock. Here are very great plantations of strawberries, of the largest and finest kind, as the chilli, and the hautboy strawberry. The planters of those fruit, pay considerable rents for their gardens, by the profits arising from them alone, and they have also great plantations of them round other parts of the city.’
These strawberry plantations were located in the area known as Strawberry Hill just north of Sunday’s Well.
Figure 5: Holy Well, Sunday's Well, with Masonry Structure, 1946.
In 1789, French scholar, Charles Étienne Coquebert de Montbret was appointed consul in Dublin and a year later he visited Cork. Coquebert reported that water supplies were carried in underground wooden conduits along the northern bank of the Lee and could be obtained by households prepared to pay a guinea a year for the service. He relates that he found a fine fresh spring at Sunday's Well, where in former times, miraculous powers were attributed to a holy well located in the area. He also notes his surprise to see that Cork people have not the slightest scruple in using their holy well for washing and cooking, whilst in other parts of the country people ‘would refuse to use such a well for profane purposes; and would even force anybody who attempted to do so to return the water to its source.’
In 1848 Windele reiterates what Le Gouz wrote two hundred years earlier and notes that
‘Sunday’s Well is another remarkable outlet of this quarter of the City. It occupies the south side of the green hill, which stretches westward on a line with the river. It takes its name from one of those ancient fountains, which, long ere the Christian faith was preached in Ireland, was held sacred by its Druids and people. The exertions of the first missionaries were ineffectual to prevent their worship, devotion, and substituting objects of Christian reverence. Sunday’s Well, in Irish, Tobar Righ an domhnach, i.e. the fountain of the Lord, is one of those converted shrines. It is a small circular building, capped with stone, and shaded by an elm, and two ash trees. On a tablet, in the wall, is inscribed under an I.H.S. Sunday’s Well. Early in the morning of the summer Sundays, may be seen the hooded devotees, with bead in hand, performing their turrish, or penance, beside this little temple; and the votive rag, as in India, and as seen in Africa by Mungo Park may be observed attached to one of the hanging branches of the trees. That water is clear and wholesome… It should be observed that Smith is very incorrect in stating that it does not lather with soap.’
Whilst you may not be able to discover whether the water at the holy well lathers with soap, the next time you are in the vicinity of Sunday’s Well, keep your eyes open for the evidence of the holy well and imagine your ancestors praying for their special indulgences. I will leave the final word to Father Prout (Francis Sylvester Mahony) who wrote the following:
In yonder well there lurks a spell,
It is a fairy font;
Croker himself, poetic elf,
Might fitly write upon’t.
The summer day of childhood gay
Was spent beside it often;
I loved its brink, so did, I think.
Maginn, Maclise, and Crofton.
Of early scenes, too oft begins
The memory to grow fainter.
Not so with me, Crofton, nor thee,
The Doctor or the Painter.
There is a trace time can’t efface,
Nor years of absence dim –
It is the thought of yon sweet spot,
Yon fountain’s fairy brim.
'Lines written in a lady's album, opposite a sketch, by Crofton Croker, of Sunday's Well o'ershadowed by some fine trees.'