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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

Tobar an Bhile

The five rocky ridges that jut out into the Atlantic from Cork and Kerry have not just some of the best scenery in Ireland but unique traces of the country’s ancient past.

One seldom visited such place is 'Tobar an Bhile', 'Well of the Sacred Tree', at Coad near Derryane.

'A curious hermitage' is what one guidebook described it.

Usually a hermitage is called after a saint (this one was Crohan’s) but at Coad the centre of attraction has always been the bhile.  (A bhile is ‘an important sacred companion tree’ – probably companion to a holy well.)


They say it is impossible to burn the wood of the tree but people kept hammering coins into it as offerings, eventually killing it. When this happens it is replaced but the present young ‘bhile’, beside the saint’s grave, is fenced off by flowering shrubs so I could not get close.  


This remote site, on a hill over Kenmare Bay, is a bewildering repository of religious symbols and practices. A circular path follows 14 ‘Stations of the Cross’ among altars and stone heaps, leading back to Crohan’s grave, the holy well and the Tree.


Crohan was a man worthy of the spot. One of the earliest Christians in the area, he was cast off in an oar-less boat by locals who did not like his teaching and came ashore on Sheeps Head Peninsula 

There he built a hermitage, now called Kilcrohan (Crohan’s Cell), but later moved on (probably rowing a boat) around Dursey Island on the Bearea Peninsula to the south shore of Kenmare Bay.

Both Kilcrohan and Coad were hermitages, that is, not communities with a church, schools and hospitals but simple cells for a small group to study and prayer together.  They have not been forgotten.


Scholars say that Crohan's 'Pattern' celebrations date back to the Celtic feast of Lunasa (1 August), now they begin on 29 July. If you are around, be sure to join in the ancient ritual.



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