The healing waters of Ballyspellan Spa, the stolen plaque and the missing brooches

PEERING in, with the morning sun in your eyes, from the public road, all you can see is a little stone hut with the remains of stone buildings to the front, surrounded by Connemaresque stone walls. Behind, there is a plantation of fir trees. That is all that is left of a place once celebrated throughout the English speaking world thanks to the “magical” properties of the water that flows in there. Throw in the link to one of Ireland’s most famous and enduring authors along with the mystery of a priceless piece of jewellery found nearby that catapulted Ballyspellan Spa into the spotlight.

PEERING in, with the morning sun in your eyes, from the public road, all you can see is a little stone hut with the remains of stone buildings to the front, surrounded by Connemaresque stone walls. Behind, there is a plantation of fir trees. That is all that is left of a place once celebrated throughout the English speaking world thanks to the “magical” properties of the water that flows in there. Throw in the link to one of Ireland’s most famous and enduring authors along with the mystery of a priceless piece of jewellery found nearby that catapulted Ballyspellan Spa into the spotlight.

Ballyspellan Spa is, alas, no more but the water that made it famous still flows into the well house at Ballyspellan. Slightly acidic and ever so slightly carbonated in taste, this aqua pura rises in the limestone rich Clomantagh hills and makes its way to Ballyspellan through fissurous rock until it comes to the brow of the hill and drops down from a height through brittle slate before it arrives at the spa and the little where people got their water.

It is sad to note that a triangular plaque which has hung in the spa for many years has been removed, presumed stolen.

Hard to believe that people from all over Ireland and Britain (including many British army vets) came here in their droves in search of a cure for various ailments. The claims made by “experts” about the miracle like powers of the water are incredulous. The spa provided income for a large number of families, kept one hotel in business and provided a good bit of business for two others in Johnstown village.

Just to give an insight into its popularity we quote Faulkner’s Dublin journal, May 25, 1742: “To all who have mind to drink at the famous Ballyspellan Spa in the County Kilkenny.. There is good fox and hare hunting, horse racing, dancing and hurling for the pleasure of the quality at the Spa.

Imagine, every young person for five to ten miles away, would descended on the spa every Sunday afternoon during the summer months where there would be Gaelic football and hurling played, dancing and general fun and we are indebted to Miss G Leahy a national teacher who wrote about this era in 1953.

Today, the place looks bleak and barren, except for a few cattle at the foot of the masts and wind turbines on top of the hill. The only vehicle that passed for half an hour was that of local vet, Pat O’Sullivan. Through out the site, you can see why various people abandoned attempts to build there over the centuries.

It was so famlus in its day, that a poem celebrating it was composed by Thomas Sheridan and Dean Swift, who wrote Gullivers Travels warote an answer to it in 1728. We publish both at the bottom of the page

The spa is located about 16 miles from Kilkenny and you pass through Freshford and on for Johnstown, resisting the temptation to turning left at Minister’s Cross. There is very little of note on the way that is left of the golden era of the spa except for the house on the corner of the byroad up the spa, the lovely ivy clad toe storey house was once called Rochford’s Hotel but is now better known as the place where Irish tenor, medical doctor, bone setter and double limb amputee, Dr Ronan Tynan was born.

When you enter the little arched doorway and see the actual spa, you are struck by the colour of the ground and the photo from Aran Hennessy above shows that perfectly.

As off-putting as it looks, one taste and you are immediately hit by a sensation unlike anything else on this earth. I don’t know if my taste buds picked it out or if it was my imagination but it did taste really refreshing, slightly acidic and a little carbonated. Does the fact you are drinking cool water from an uncontaminated source, play on your mind with no one to bother you except the native wildlife and the cattle braying a few fields away. Or is it the memory of what went on here in the distant past and the fact that in the Kilkenny Moderator newspaper of May 1874 it was said that a man with “a fatal illness” was cured by the water from the spa. The claim was made in the form of a letter which was part of an attempt to rejuvenate the spa which never happened. It seems to me there is a really good marketing opportunity here with a product that really is something special although I doubt if it can cure fatal illnesses.

Two centuries ago, Ballyspellan was the place to go if you had a medical complaint and had money to travel. It was spoken of in the same breath as the spa at Kirby, Westmoreland, England and Pyrmont, Germany. Looking at the old adverts it reminds me of the latest elixirs being offered from the pharaceutical companies, promising you immunity from everything bad known to man full of vital vitamins and other stuff. As much as things change, they stay the same.

A Dr Rutty, a well known writer on mineral waters substance in the late 1700s, claimed in print that the water from the spa cured pox, itch, boils, troubled minds and a variety of diseases from; “debilitated habits of the stomach in the intestines and the lungs.”

He observed the water’s impact on: dropsies, eruptions and blotches in the skin in a case of leprosy and in other inveterate relaxation. He claimed amazingly and now laughably that it worked wonders on obstructions of the liver and jaundice

The wealthy, famous and those genuinely in search of a cure for various ailments were frequent travellers to the spa.

We are as always indebted to the Kilkenny Archaeological Society and the Old Kilkenny review which brings out every year. In the 1953 edition Miss Leahy (NT) no less gives a splendid account of the cures associated with the water and its properties. And to the Kilkenny Moderator newspaper of may 1874 and to Susan Garret of Johnstown and Clomantagh Castle.

This is the poem by Thomas Sheridan

Ballyspellan

All you that wou’d refind your Blood

As pure as fam’d Llewellyn

By Waters clear, come ev’ry Year

To drink at Ballyspellan

Tho’ Pox or Itch, your Skins enrich

With Rubies past and telling,

T’will clear your skin before you’ve been

A month at Ballyspellan

A Ladies cheek be green as leek

When she comes from her Dwelling

The kindling Rose within it glows

When she’s at Ballyspellan

The sooty Brown, who comes to town

Grows here as fair as Helen

Then back she goes to kill the Beaux

By Dint of Ballyspellan

We Men Submit as they think fit,

And here is no rebelling:

The reason’s plain, the Ladies reign

They’re Queens at Ballyspellan

By matchless Charms, unconquer’d Arms

They have the Pow’r of quelling

Such desperate Foes as dare oppose

Their Power at Ballyspellan

Cold Water turns to Fire, and burns

I know, because I fell in

A Stream which came from one bright Dame

Who drank at Ballyspellan

No Politics, no subtle Tricks

No Man his country selling,

We ear, we drink, we never think

Of these at Ballyspellan

The troubled Mind, the puft with Wink

Do all come here Pell Mell in:

And, they are sure, to work their Cure

By drinking Ballyspellan

If dropsy fills you to the Gills

From Chin to Toe tho’ swelling

Pour in, pour out, you cannot doubt

A Cure at Ballyspellan

Death Thrown no Darts through all these Pats,

No Sexton here are knelling;

Come, judge and try, you’ll never die,

But live at Ballyspellan

Except you feel Darts tipt with Steel

Which here are ev’re Belle in;

When from their Eyes sweet Ruin Flies,

We die at Ballyspellan

Good Cheer, sweet Air, much Joy, no Care

Your sight, your Taste, your Smelling

Your Ears, your Touch, transporteth much

Each Day at Ballyspellan

Within this Ground we all sleep sound,

No noisy Dogs a yelling:

Except you wake, for Celia’s Sake

All Night at Ballyspellan

Here all you see, both he and she,

No Lady keeps her Cell in;

But all partake the Mirth we make

Who drink at Ballyspellan

My Rhimes are gone, I think I’ve none

Unless I should bring Hell in;

But since I am here to Heav’n so near

I can’t at Ballyspellan

Dare you dispute,

You Sawcy Brute,

And think there’s no rebelling

Your scurvey Lays,

And senseless praise,

You give to Ballyspellan

Howe’er you bounce,

I here pronounce

Your Med’cine is repelling

Your water’s mud

And sowrs the Blood

When drank at Ballyspellan

Those pocky Drabs

To cure their scabs

You thither are compelling

Will back be sent

Worse then they went

From nasty Ballyspellan

Lewellin! Why?

As well may I

Name honest Doctor Pelling;

So Hard sometines

You tug for Rimes

To bring in Ballyspellan

No subject fit

To try your wit

When you went Colonelling

But dull intrigues

twixt Jades and Teagues

They met at Ballyspellan

Out lasses fair

Say what you dare,

Who sowins make with Shelling

At Market-hill

More beaus can kill

Than yours at Ballyspellan

Would I was whipt

When Sheelah strip’t

To wash herself out Well in

A Bum so white

Ne’re came in sight

At Paltry Ballyspellan

Your Maukins there

Smocks hempen wear;

For Holland, not an ell in,

No, not a rag

Whate’er you brag

Is found at Ballyspellan

But, Tom will prate

At any rate

All other Nymphs expelling

Because he gets

A few Grisetts

At lowsey Ballyspellan

There’s bony Jane

In yonder lane

Just o’er against the Bell Inn

Where can you meet

A lass so sweet

Round all your Ballyspellan

We have a girl

Deserves an Earl

She came from Enniskellin

So fair so young

No such among

The belles of Ballyspellan

How would you stare

To see her there

The foggy mists dispelling

That cloud the Brown

Of ev’ry --------

Who lives at Ballyspellan

Now as I live

I would not give

A stiver or a skellin

To towse and kiss

The fairest Miss

That leaks at Ballyspellan

Whoe’er will raise

Such lyes as these

Deserves a good cud-gelling

Who faisly boasts

Of belles and Toasts

At dirty Ballyspellan

My thimes are gone,

To all but one

Which is, our trees are felling,

As proper quite

As those you write

To force in Ballyspellan

Is found at Ballyspellan