Faithlegg’s ancient holy well

Many readers will know that we have a holy well in Faithlegg dedicated to St Ita.  January 15th is her feast day, (she reputedly died on this day in 570AD).  We looked at St Ita around the same time last year, and I left it with a question in terms of why the well is dedicated to her.  I still haven’t answered this to my personal satisfaction and have a few more thoughts on it, but to begin, here’s an overview.


Various sources state that Ita was born Princess Deirdre, to King Kennoelad and Queen Necta  of the Deise tribe in Waterford circa 470AD.  Her birth place is not certain but the majority of written accounts speculate that it was in or around Ballyduff, Kilmeaden.   A few online sources have claimed she was born in Faithlegg. 
Ita travelled throughout the Deise area and appears to have studied in Ardmore, Clashmore and Lismore, and eventually she settled down in Killeedy in East Limerick where she founded her monastery.  There she ran a school which was responsible for the teaching of many early churchmen and women, including St Brendan the Navigator.  So many passed through her hands that she earned the nickname “foster
mother of the saints of Erin”. St Ita is often described as the Bridgid of Munster, highlighting her position in the pantheon of Irish female saints, a close second to Bridgid of Kildare.  
Last year I speculated on several theories about the well being dedicated to her at Faithlegg. However this year I wanted to highlight what for me is an inconsistency. You see when Canon Power was doing his famous work on the Placenames of the Decies (published in 1907), he actually mentions several wells in the area, but omits any mention of St Ita.
For him, the well we now know as St Ita’s, is known as Tobar Sionnaig or the Well of the Fox.  What he actually says about it is this: “…though it is possible that the latter member of the name is personal.  This well, which is nearly opposite the church and on the west side of the road, had a reputation for sanctity.  Rounds or stations were said here, but have been discontinued for nearly a century”
I find it puzzling that Power would have no mention of a christian saint, if such a name was associated with the well at the time.  Maybe he was going with the earlier work of another renowned placename researcher John O’Donovan and the staff of Ordnance Survey Ireland who between 1829 and 1842 completed the first ever large-scale survey of an entire country. Acclaimed for their accuracy, these maps are regarded by cartographers as amongst the finest ever produced.   We’ve seen the lengths these early map makers went to for accuracy with the name of Faitlegg previously. 
OSI 6″ B&W with Tobarshorork opposite Faithlegg Church
Canon Power was well known for doing his research, and would seek out older members of the community or those with learning to seek further information.  He does decry the lack of native Irish speakers in the parish at the time, but surely Ita or Idé would be a name that even the corruption of it would have giving him a clue.  The
fact that Power was a local (Callaghan), would have surely strengthened his knowledge of the area.
Deena had a suggestion that Foxes were associated with saints and perhaps that would explain a connection.  She found stories associated with St Moling, St Kieran, St Patrick and even St Bridgid but none for Ita.  
I can draw no conclusions on this except to express the possibility that St Ita was a name of more modern origin, and one which O’Donovan and Power refuted, or at least ignored.  Is it possible that the Power’s of Faithlegg brought it with them, when
the moved into the area in 1819?.   Or is it an older name, that came to light after the efforts of the OSI and Canon Power.  Again, only more research will possibly tell.

The origins of Faithlegg

It is reputed that one of the earliest of the parishes to be
founded under the Norman system was at Faithlegg.  The lands (some 4000 acres [including 199 at
Cheekpoint and 353 at Faithlegg]) were granted by Henry II to Aleward Juevinis.  Henry had landed at Passage East in 1171.  Aylward was a merchant from
Bristol who had apparently donated a number of ships towards Henry’s imposing
entrance to Waterford harbour.  Aylward
built a Motte and Baily to secure his position and it became the centre of Faithlegg Parish, which existed until amalgamated with Crooke & Killea in the mid 18th Century.

old gates to Faithlegg House 1969.  Brendan Grogan

The name has featured widely down the ages, probably because of its strategic importance and the presence of Aylward and latterly his Bolton and Power successors.  Frustratingly however, each time it featured it seems to have had either variations of its present name, or widely different names.

These are very helpfully gathered on the Logainm website for your perusal,  Initially it seems to have been spelled as Fathelig and this name has had several corruptions.  But it has also been called BalyFalyng, Whalyng and even Thatlegg.

In equal measure with the spelling, there seems to be as many variations with the origins of the name. For  example I came across this account many years back online.  As far as I can recall it comes from the Journal of the Waterford & South East Archaeological Society.  Full account here.  The excerpt below: 

Faithlegg.-In your January number, Miss
Hickson’s interesting 
paper on (( Danish Names in Waterford
and Cork” discusses 
the probable derivation of the name ‘(
Faithlegg.” I think she
rightly assigns it to be of Gaelic and
not Scandinavian origin. Dr.
Joyce ((‘ Place Names,” Vol. I., p. 494)  Fethard (Fioth-ard) signifies (I High-wood.” In the County
Donegal there is a wellknown 
mountain called (I Slieve-league,”
which signifies (( The 
Mountain of Slates.” Following these
two clues, we make Faithlegg 
(Fioth-league)–” The Wood of the
Slates.” Anyone who has
observed the geological stratum of the
wooded hill of Faithlegg 
will at once perceive that this name,
as Miss Hickson says of Gaelic 
place-names generally, gives a perfect
word picture of the physical
features of the place, the hill being
composed of layers of thick 
slates or flags. It is not necessary, I
think, to go further for an 
explanation of the name.

I think that this account is a bit wide of the mark.  From a desk you might think it makes sense, but knowing the geography of the area and the amount of pudding stone found on the summit, would challenge it.  The slate mentioned is found on the Northside, but down towards the river on the Glazing wood side.  I’d imagine it’s related to the quarrying that went on to build the marsh embankments, than anything older.

Pudding stone, old volcanic rock on the summit of the Minaun

Br Lawrence O’Toole (responsible for the creation of the secondary school in De La Salle College) in his  “The Faithlegg Story” agrees.  He goes on to consider that Minan Fheilinn may be an origin.  The Minaun obviously which he equates with height,  but who or what is Fheilinn.  A person perhaps?  Br O’Toole also considers that it might be a Gaelic term for Woodbine or Honeysuckle.  Woodbine does grow on the Minaun presently but I don’t think anyone would say that it grows to such an extent that you would name the area after it.  Perhaps in the past?

View from the Deerpark of Faithlegg and the river

Canon Power tends towards the woodbine theory, but interestingly he also thinks that the name may not be gaelic at all!  His Place Names of the Decies here.  So is it an old danish name or the tongue of some other tribe, who settled the area in the past and left a name to posterity.

None other that John ODonovan of the original ordnance survey, and noted Irish placename scholar was of a similar opinion.  But he felt that the anglicised spelling of the placename as he found it, was closest to the original meaning, whatever it was, as listed in the older documents that he had access to.

So for now we might leave it to Canon Power who noted that “The name…has long been a puzzle, which we can only hope future investigations may solve”

Cheekpoint placename

Cheekpoint is both a village and a townland, and for many’s the year there has been two explanations to the origins of the name, a practical, geographical placename and what is probably best described as a romantic version.  The name Cheekpoint derives from Pointe na Sige or in other cases Rinn na Sige. Sige, phonetically is pronounced “she-ge”.

According to Canon Power, and his book the Placenames of the Decies, the name derives from the river that flows past the village, and in particular the eddies and currents that are caused as the river flows over the Sheagh (pronounced she-egg) rock, which is an outcrop at the Mount, below the village.  As the tide flows over the rock it causes a distinctive streak in the tide, which the learnered priest considered the origins of the placename, the point of the streaks.  Its hard to discount the theory, as you can see from the photo a streak is very distinctive, and indeed locally we call this, to this day the Stroke.  It’s slightly different to the streaks that are caused as the tide ebbs over the rocks.  However it is easy to see where Canon Power was coming from, that the first settlers to the village would have come by water and would have named the landing point by a distinctive riverine feature.

Sheagh Rock and “the stroke”

Against that however, is the fact that strokes can be seen in the river at various spots and at all different times of tide.  And rocks and outcrops cause eddies and marks in the river at other locations too, such as the point light, Snowhill, etc.  To be honest, to a fisherman there’s nothing too special about the river as it flows there, except for the strength and flow of tide.

Of course the romantics prefer a more elaborate origin.  The gaelic Rinn na Sige may also suggest the headland of the fairies, or the fairy folk.  Interestingly the Loganim site records a reference to “the landing place of the fairies”  Si, Siog or Sidhe (which is very close to the phonetically spelled Sige above – “She-da”) suggests a connection to the other world or fairy folk,  The Sidhe were a mythical people who were thought to have been the first settlers to Ireland and were defeated by the coming of the Gaels to Ireland.  The disappeared into mounds or hills but emerge in times of need.  Their ring forts and fairy paths still exist and to interfere with them is a cause of great harm to an individual.  I was reared on such stories in the Russianside, particularly by our Granduncle Christy Moran who, if he didn’t believe the stories must have been a great actor.

Now the reference to a landing place provokes another speculation on my part.  My cousin Jim Doherty passed on a newspaper article from the mid 19th C which attributed the coming of an ancient tribe to Ireland via the harbour and which landed at Cheekpoint.  Cesaire, Granddaughter of Noah, built an ark to carry her and her lover Fintain and fifty followers.  They left 40 days before Noah and at his direction sailed west.  According to the story, they landed up after much adventures at Cheekpoint, at the confluence of the three rivers and there they settled.  In time Cesaire died and was buried at the foot of the Minaun.  The book of invasions has a similar story, but without Cheekpoint!

Is it possible that the placename Cheekpoint, anglicised but still retaining is older origins may hint at a much more ancient past, a past that includes remnants of the foundation story to the earliest settlers in this area?  We may never know, but what I can say for certain, that the location which was of such strategic importance in the centuries past must have a lot stories yet to be brought to the surface.

I guess the version you prefer depends a bit on your personality.  But as a certified romantic and dreamer, I have to say I tend towards the version that includes the Sidhe!


I was never great at school.  But one specific class I can remember as a highlight was a lesson one day on placenames.  I don’t recall if it was a planned session, or if it was an aside.  But Michael White who was principal at Faithlegg was talking about how important it was to appreciate the Irish language, when it came to an analysis of the origins of placenames.  He gave a brilliant example, Knock Boy or in Irish Cnoc Bui.  The cartographer obviously hearing the name spoken in Irish tongue, completely twisted a beautiful geographic description of Yellow Hill, to a totally irrelevant English language replacement.  I found the translation, of what in my minds eye was a hill festooned with in-flower gorse, and that heady coconut like smell on a hot day, an insult to those who had gone before.

The townland I was born and raised in is called Coolbunnia.  Its a strange enough name, and not one I have come across elsewhere.  For some reason our area doesn’t seem to fall neatly into so many of those obvious Irish placenames such as Rath, or Ard or Dun.  Mind you we do have a Kil.

Canon Power in his Place Names of the Decies decried the fact that during his studies that native Irish speakers were not to be found in our area.  No surprise in a Barony called Gaultier; land of the foreigner.  With so much settlement and trade, the pressure on a native tongue must have been pronounced down the years.

For the learnered priest then, Coolbunnia, despite the fact that he didn’t have a native speaker to pronounce it, suggested to him the “Ridge back of the stream”  The Stream I have always thought is that which flows from below Everetts, now Malachy and Michelle Doherty’s.  It flows down to the left of the road as you drive towards Faithlegg and flows under the road at the “bridge” and then down the Glen and to the Suir.  The stream rises in the fields below Malachy’s and in years gone by a well was oft used to quench your thirst, fed from the source.  The ridge in this context of course is the Whorthill which winds its way towards Passage high above the estuary.

According to Power it didn’t actually exist at the time of the Down Survey.  Then the entire area was known as Faithlegg.  So sometime in the past two hundred years we have had the two local townlands added, Coolbunnia and Cheekpoint.  The following map highlights the extent of it, spreading from Tom Sullivans to the ditch at Vic and Eileen Bibles and from there back to the River.

Of course Canon Power could be wrong. He spelled it Cúl Buinne.  But the Irish placenames site, Loganim considers it Cúil Boinne.  The Cúil in this case is considered a nook or a corner,  They also provide several other spellings including Couboyngne and Coolbunna and interestingly the name Coulboygun is dated to 1313.  Another interesting fact is that it’s the only Townland placename of its kind in the country.

I often wondered if I had picked up more Irish would I have had an advantage in deciphering placenames.  But for the last eight years I have sat beside a native Irish speaker in work and she has reminded me several times that such queries are the gift of specialist people, so many complexities and variations are involved.  So I can let go of that bit of guilt anyway.