“This lonely and sequestered place, remote from habitation, is on the eastern bank of the river Barrow, one mile and a-half north of Athy town. In its solitude it is a scene of considerable beauty. The name Toberara, or as it was sometimes called Tobbera, probably signifies St. Bara’ Well (Tober-Bara), or according to Mr. Kingsbury in the Statistical Account of Ireland (1814), it means Holy Well; or the well by the Barrow (Tober-Berjos). A church was built herein a most remote age. No ruins now remain standing, but its site may still be traced by the raised surface where the surrounding walls fell in. The older part of the wall, on the northern side, is apparently a portion of the ancient church. The space enclosed is of considerable extent. The well flows from the middle of it, and sends forth a great flood of water constantly, and all the year round - sparkling, bright, and limpid. People came hither from far and near, in olden times, to drink the water and to pray. St. John was the patron saint of the place, and on his festival, the 24th of June, a great concourse of pilgrims was usually present, and this custom continued during the early part of the present century. But like other patron days, or as they were called “pattern days,” it grew to an abuse and had to be prohibited.”
So wrote Athy curate, Rev. J. Carroll in the Journal of the Kildare Archaeological Society in 1891. William Shaw Mason in his PAROCHIAL SURVEY OF IRELAND published in 1814 in relation to Toberara Well wrote: “a holy well among the Roman Catholics considered by them under the patronage of St. John. The Patron Day is 24th June. People come far and near to drink the water, pray and dance.” Dealing with the people of the area Mason acknowledged that “they are poor enough. Oatmeal, potatoes, herrings, eggs with some milk and butter constituted the food of the lower orders. Their fuel is turf, their clothing homemade frieze coats, cotton waistcoats and corduroy breeches, yarn stockings and brogues. The appearance of the women is much bettered, for about 20 years ago they were ragged and bare footed, now no country girl is seen without decent clothing, shoes, stockings, etc.”
Toberara Well had been the focus of public attention, local and regional, for many centuries prior to the clerical edict which put an end to the Pattern Day held each year on the Feast of St. John’s Day.. The details of the original Pilgrimage arrangements insofar as they related to Toberara Well were not to my knowledge reduced to writing and as over 175 years have elapsed since the local Parish Priest put an end to the local Pattern Day will now never be known. In common with other Irish Patron Days St. John’s Day would have been regarded in South Kildare at least as a day of rest. Treated as if it was a Sunday the day was set aside for the annual Pilgrimage to the Holy Well at Tobbera. Indeed throughout Ireland of the 18th and 19th century the 24th of June, St. John the Baptist Day, was a popular feast day. On the eve of 24th June the celebrations started with the lighting of fires on hilltops, a tradition with links to the pre-Christian celebration of the summer solstice. Whether or not this ritual was part of the St. John’s Day celebration in Athy I cannot say with any degree of confidence, but possibly it was. There is no doubt whatsoever regarding the popularity of the Toberara Well Pattern Day which became in time a mixture of religious ceremonies and social enjoyment. The local people gathered in great numbers on what was the feast day of the Patron Saint of the small Churchyard and Church at Tobbera, there to perform the Pilgrimage which had formed part of the local tradition for many centuries past.
We can visualise the shawl covered women and the frieze jacketed men attending at the holy well, probably doing the stations at various points within the Tobbera complex before concluding with the taking of the holy water and the fixing of an offering of cloth or other material on the nearby Whitethorn bush. Such was the traditional holy day pilgrimage of 200 years ago which in time degenerated into the social gatherings which was to cause much offence to the Catholic Church of the time. Drinking, dancing and faction fighting in time became an inextricable part of the Pattern Day, pushing the religious ceremonies into the background. It was all great fun, a great day out for everyone, but in time was suppressed by the local Parish Priest, owing it is believed to the loss of life resulting from faction fighting at the Holy Well.
The question must be posed as to why a graveyard and a Church were to be found in such an isolated spot next to the River Barrow at Tobbera. Churches were built to serve the needs of local people and were invariably located in areas of population. There are few houses in the vicinity of Tobbera today and it’s a difficult enough place to access. Was there a small village in the locality which has since disappeared, leaving only the last resting place of some of the villagers lying next to the tumbled walls of the Church? With a Pattern Day on St. John’s Day we can assume that the Church was dedicated to St. John the Baptist. This was also the Saint who gave his name to the Monastery established in the early 13th century in the shadow of Woodstock Castle and who is still commemorated in the name St. John’s Lane. There are a lot of interesting historical connections still to be unraveled and maybe in time and with some luck the links will be identified and clarified.
Next Sunday, 21st May, the Pilgrimage to Toberara Well anciently held on St. John’s Day will be reactivated after a lapse of almost 175 years. One of the great traditions of South Kildare will once again be revived, even if not to coincide with the traditional Pilgrimage Day under the auspices of our Parish Renewal and Development Group. For some time past a group from Churchtown assisted by FAS workers have been clearing and restoring the fabled Toberara Well in preparation for the Pilgrimage next Sunday. The gathering point for everybody taking part in the Pilgrimage will be St. Vincent’s Hospital which opened in 1841, some years after the last Pattern Day was held in Toberara. Here at 2.00pm next Sunday the First Station will take place before the Pilgrimage continues on foot to Cuan Mhuire for the Second Station. From there a leisurely walk will bring the pilgrims to the entrance to the field giving access to Toberara where another Station will be completed before everybody crosses the fields to the site of the ancient Church, Holy Well and Cemetery for the final Station. Sunday, 21st May has been designated as National Pilgrimage Day and will surely be a great day to celebrate the revival of an ancient South Kildare tradition of the Pilgrimage to Toberara Well.