My first stop of point on the recent expedition out in Meath was to the ancient Royal City of Tara. But firstly I wanted to see if I could find the place where according to Ancient Irish lore Fionn Mac Cumhaill caught the legendary Salmon of Knowledge. I won’t go into the details of this story here as I could probably write an entire book on just Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge, and it might take away from this article, but maybe if enough readers would be interested I might post this story later on in the week? I have narrowed my search for this location down to two Holy Wells nearby the ancient Royal City. Unfortunately the first site which was the most probable of the two, is on Private grounds and I was unable to arrange access on this occasion, so I hope to make a return once this has been arranged. The second well is just a stone’s throw away from the car park at Tara and is known locally as the ‘’Well of the White Cow’’. Although this well was not as high up in my expectation as the other, it has a fascinating past which only added to the experience. There is believed to have been up to several such wells dotted around this ancient city, many of which were either filled in or dried up and where forgotten. Thankfully this one has survived the sands of time mainly due to the help of the landowner, whom back in 2002 granted permission for the National Well Restoration Society and The friends of Tara Group to restore the well. Prior to this the well was just a puddle in a field were cattle grazed and drank from its waters. Now as you can see it has been remodelled and landscaped to provide a place of peace and solitude, away from the sometimes crowded site of Tara, which is a huge tourist attraction in the area. Entry is via a little gate in the wall, and there is enough space for about two cars to park safely off the road. The site is protected from the surrounding pastural land by a small hedge and there are a number of trees and park benches situated along the path which leads up to the well, many of which have been dedicated to people’s memory. One such tree is in fact named after the farmer whom made this all possible Dinny Donnelly. The engraved stone underneath it bears his name. The well itself has a small protective gate set into the earthen mound which houses the well. Although the water looks clear, I was hesitant to sample it, mainly because being surrounded by grazing cattle the water table could quite possibly be contaminated. There are only a few small signs of offerings being left at the well, with a number of coins and sea shells in the well itself, and some ribbons and rags tied to the gate. Whether or not this was once the site where Fionn caught the Salmon, I guess we will never know for sure, but I guess it only adds to the mystique and attraction of these ancient places.
The Well of the White Cow has been known by many different names throughout the ages, from ‘Liagh’ – Well of the Healer, ‘Dearg Dubhe’ – Well of the Dark Eye, ‘Caprach Cormac ‘ – Cormac’s Well after one of Tara’s High Kings, it was even named after the nasty figure falsely known as St. Patrick for a time. One trivial account from medieval times see’s it being called ‘Tocair Na Tuiliche’ or Trial by Ordeal. It is said that if you entered its waters and emerged unblemished you were not guilty, but if you emerged with a black spot you were guilty? Many of these medieval trials by ordeal were quite laughable and this one would appear to be the opposite side of the coin when compared to the ordeal suffered by witches whom where immersed in water. If they drown they were not guilty, but if they survived, they were found guilty and burned to death. Bit of a raw deal if you ask me? But the most common name for which it is known was Tobair Bo Finn or Well of the White Cow. And for good reason too. There are a number of fascinating stories which are attributed to how the well got its name.
There are many legends in Ireland from our ancient past that relate to Bulls and Cows. Cattle were in fact of huge importance to our ancestors along with being a sign of wealth. The more cattle one held, the more wealth you had. As a result there are many places around the country which contain the Gaelic word Bo. You just need to look at the Táin Bó Cúailnge to see how important Cattle were in ancient Ireland. Many of the associated stories tell of a Mystical Cow or more importantly a White Heifer. This particular tale tells of a maiden arriving out of the sea on the west coast of Ireland. She was so beautiful that the people of the land from miles around gathered to see her. The local King took her into his home and treated her like a Queen. This woman told the people that she had been sent to them to announce the arrival of three cows. ‘Bo Finn’ White Cow, ‘Bo Ruadh’ Red Cow and the ‘Bo Dhu’ Black Cow. These sacred cows would go on to populate the lands of Ireland with the best of Cattle. After staying with the people of Ireland the beautiful woman for some time she asked to be allowed to leave and return to her people as she had grown homesick. Before returning home she told the people to return to the same spot by the sea on the same day the following year when the tree Cows would arrive, after which she plunged into the sea and was never seen again. As foretold, exactly a year to the day three cows emerged from the sea. A ‘Bo Finn’ White Cow, ‘Bo Ruadh’ Red Cow and the ‘Bo Dhu’ Black Cow. They were said to have been magnificent to behold and were perfect in every way. After some time each cow left the shore heading in different directions. The Bo Dhu went north to Ulster, whilst the Bo Ruadh’ headed south to Munster. The final Cow headed off to the center of the land and stopped when she arrived at the home of the King, (Sounds like Tara to me). It is said that every place she passed was named after which explains the abundance of Bo place names in Ireland. Eventually the mystical white heifer gave birth to twins, a male and female calf and it is from these that Irelands cattle stock are said to descend from. What happened to the Bo Finn is somewhat of a mystery, whilst some say that she disappeared into a cave by the sea where she remains in an enchanted sleep until the true king of Ireland comes to wake her. I believe that this account is far too similar to many other tales such as that of the legendary Irish Hero Fionn MacCumhaill or indeed the Wizard Earl of Kildare Another account claims that it was the Kings own daughter whom was taken away under enchantment in the form of a cow and that she will never awake until the rightful king of Ireland can wake her from her sleep and bring her to a special place where she will be restored to her original form. Both tales although sounding very familiar and lacking any credibility are still rather nice stories and will hopefully stay alive as long a people’s imaginations allow them too.
One final story connected to our well concerns Bóinne, a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann who became the spirit or Goddess of the River Boyne. According to the Lebor Gabála Érenn she was the daughter of Delbáeth. Her husband was said to have been Nuada. She was said to have had a relationship with Dagda, and bore him a son known as Aengus. In an attempt to hide the affair, Dagda is said to have made the sun stand still for nine months, and so Aengus was born in just one day. According to the Dindseanchas, this contains the ancient lore of places. Although forbidden from doing so, Bóinne went to the magical Well of Segais. For some unknown reason she challenged the spirit of the well which caused its waters to erupt and rush out to sea. This was the Birth of the River Boyne, and in the ensuing flood Bóinne lost her life. Bóinne’s name has been interpreted as meaning white cow. From the Dindseanchas Bó fhionn and Bó find. So was this ancient well in fact the magical Well of Segais? I can’t say for certain, but what led me to believe that this may be the site of where Fionn caught the Salmon of Knowledge is the mention in ancient lore of Hazelnuts which would fall into the well of Segais from surrounding Hazel trees. These were in turn consumed by a speckled Salmon. Now if you look at the symbolism of this, both the salmon and hazel nuts represent wisdom in Irish mythology. So perhaps this might be a clue to the actually site I am looking for?