The stained glass window of the saint in Castletownsend
The coastline of West Cork is rugged and picturesque, with beautiful scenery and the Atlantic’s roar, but nestled in Castlehaven is a secluded little bay. It takes its name from the haven provided by the bay and the castle originally built by the O’Driscoll family, but now in ruins. Its original name was an Irish name for Glenbarrahane that derived from the deep rocky glen that in times past was dedicated to Saint Barrahane (or Bearchán). The scenery in this area is impressive, with three distinctive rocks known as ‘the stags’ and a cluster of small islands. The sea around this coastline can be quite treacherous at times, but this peaceful and very sheltered bay is the perfect spot for boats and the depth of bay has been exploited in the past.
Part of the Battle of Kinsale, which was to finally cement English rule in Ireland under Elizabeth I was fought here in 1601. The Battle of Kinsale essentially started as far back as the twelfth century, when England began a programme of attempted consolidation of the power of the monarchy. English monarchical rule relied upon the eldest child receiving all the power, wealth and title inheritance with all its benefits, but many were aware of the Irish system of chieftains where power and title were only granted through a complex series of elections involving all parts of a relevant community. Kings were also elected in the same way in Ireland (at least in theory!) and there were and could be multiple kings, even for the same area. The idea of an English monarch being a single monarch for a large area and to be granted a right by inheritance was an anathema to many Irish people, and as soon as England began it’s campaign of consolidating power to a single monarch for Ireland, the chieftains kicked back and were able to claim that they were defending their ancient rights and customs. As time trundled on, the rhetoric quickly turned to war.
The ruins of Glenbarrahane church
By the time Henry VIII was on the throne in England the whole of Europe was rife with religious and political tension and paranoia. It was during this time that Henry was most keen to consolidate the power of the English monarchy in Ireland and he knew that the only way to break the power of the chieftains was to remove them - permanently; an idea that he carried out with exacting ruthlessness. Henry’s actions were to cause much disquiet in Ireland and by the time Elizabeth I came to the throne there were fears of uprising, but Elizabeth favoured a different route and sought to belittle and dilute the chieftains power through the plantations. But Ireland was not to remain as quiet as she had hoped. In 1590 the English experienced the most significant resistance to date from forces in Ulster under the direction of Hugh O’Neill (Aodh Mór Ó Néill). At this time the English hoped to establish a series of strongholds to strangle and thwart the Gaelic rule of the chieftains, but the Irish used ambush tactics to destroy supply lines to the garrisons, sometimes resulting in major casualties. In the end the English had to sign a humiliating truce in 1599 under the command of the Earl of Essex, but the tide was to turn on O’Neill. The Irish were very effective in their ambushes and their knowledge of the lay of the land, but in the open battle field they would be utterly humiliated and defeated. The Ulster rebellion came to a crushing defeat.
Crossing the stream to the well
By 1601 the Irish were desperate. Fears of a French or Spanish invasion of England using Ireland as a stepping stone began to surface, but the paranoia of the English on this matter was to turn into a horrifying reality. The Gaelic Earls shook the hand of the devil, and in exchange for gold accepted the military support of the Spanish and their King, Philip III. The Spanish had little interest in Ireland, other than making use of it as a distraction for English forces while it waged its war with the Dutch elsewhere for shipping rights, spices and the delights of the East that promised glory and wealth. With England tied up in a war in Ireland it could sink it’s ships in the East without fear of repercussion and throw all its might at the Dutch. The war of distraction for the Spanish centred on the town of Kinsale. The Spanish general, Aguila, was quick to surrender to the English as he began to realise the power of the Irish chieftains was already decimated before they had even arrived to give aid. The battles and clashes were bloody and costly, and finally resulted in the ‘Flight of the Earls’ - the end of Gaelic rule in Ireland.
On the path to the well
Castlehaven was the site of a significant battle in this whole affair. O’Driscoll, who was Lord of the Fort at Castlehaven, was lavished with gold from the Spanish and he was quick to announce across the area that he was in full support of the Spanish forces. Baltimore, Innisherkin and Dunboy quickly followed his lead. The Spanish exploited the deep waters of the bay in Castlehaven and arranged their fleet in its shelter. The English Admiral Leveson arrived with his fleet of ships, but the wind was blowing them away from the coast. Despite the weather acting against them, they managed to sink every last Spanish ship in the bay, but arrangements had been made for a battery on the shore and Leveson's ships were seriously damaged and sent limping back to Kinsale. Due to the sinking of the Spanish ships in the bay there was no one left to return to Kinsale to join the battle there. The plan had been disastrous and in 1602 all surrendered. For Spain it was costly, but nevertheless something of a success as a war of distraction. For Ireland it was a terrible tragedy that cost many lives and by consequence hammered the nail in the coffin of the system of chieftains. On Castlehaven beach, Hugh O’Donnell joined the rest of the earls of Ireland, and fled in fear to Spain.
Saint Barrahane's Holy Well
Today the bay has little sign of such a turbulent past. The ruins of the castle are almost hidden by ivy and a small ruin of an old Church of Ireland parish called Glenbarrahane parish sits amidst ancient tombstones, slowly decaying. From the beach up to the church ruin is a concrete path and road with a low wall, but turning into the church grounds you should be able to make out a small path through the grass towards the back of the church where there is a gate. This gate leads across a small stream and the path heads up a densely wooded and very damp glen. Across a small wooden bridge and on the other side of the glen lies the well, noticeable by the objects left at it. The well itself is very small and at quite a high elevation from the surrounding waters, shrouded in shrubs and trees. There has never been a pattern observed at this well, probably because the date of the feast day of Saint Barrahane has been long forgotten, but fishermen frequent this well to pray for safety at sea, and a tradition of using water from this well in Castletownsend parish for baptism is maintained to this day. The Church of Ireland parish, dedicated to Saint Barrahane, also boasts a fine stained glass window of the saint by Harry Clarke.
Virtually nothing is known about Saint Barrahane. There are two Saint Barrahane’s from Offaly and another from Roscommon, but the Barrahane of Castlehaven is quite different. We do not know when he was born or when he died, but we can conclude that he was of the relatively early period of Christianity in Ireland. Local records try to make a claim of a fine genealogical background, but in many other records he is simply recorded as the son of Fiachre. He does not appear to have moved from the area during his life and appears to have had no significant missionary activity, so perhaps can be assumed to have been a hermit. Whatever the truth may be, this mysterious saint found a spot of solace, peace and prayer in Castlehaven.
This area has had many significant losses to the sea in the fishing industry, many have died in truly tragic circumstances, so it seems fitting at this well to pray for the safety of those at sea by this well surrounded by nets and floats.
O God, who brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea and carried them safely through the deep as the sang praises to you, guard all your servants who make their living on the sea, and having repelled all dangers, bring them to the desired port after a calm voyage; through our Lord, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, world without end.
How to find it:
From Catletownsend, take the L4218 and turn left after about a mile at the signpost for Catlehaven Castle. Travel down this road to Caslehaven until you reach the bay. Go through the church grounds (now a ruin) and enter the gate, crossing the stream and following the path up through the glen. The well is a short walk up the other side after crossing the wooden bridge