Editor's note: In May 2022 our sister publication, Ireland of the Welcomes, celebrated its 70th anniversary. To mark the occasion, we dipped into our decades of archives and found incredible articles like this and others written by famous Irish figures such as Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh, and Paul Henry.
Meegan’s Well, Cassidy’s Well, Feehan’s Well - these were famous wells in my youth. They still survive in my imagination as well as in reality, though the well as we knew it is giving way to the laid-on supply of water. It is a pity, of course. It is not merely the clear spring water with a possible trout in it for decoration or the thorn bush overhanging it, but something more. Perhaps the thing I most recall is the gossiping women at the well.
I never liked the chore of walking a crooked path of five hundred yards to Meegan’s Well, which gave us our regular supply, and I often dreamed that it would be wonderful if there was a spring under our house and we could have a pump put in there. Actually, there was a powerful spring under the house and in front of it too, but Nicholas Kearney, the water diviner, was unable to find water anywhere about our house but on the unsanitary site of the dunghill (nowadays known, in the deference to niceness but not to vividness, as the compost heap). Not so long ago the present occupiers of that house got another diviner who found the spring mentioned from which the water is now piped in.
Looking at this spring I thought of all the times I had carried two tin cans of water from the distant well and I was reminded of a rhyme that was in an old schoolbook:
There was a man who had a clock, his name was Mathew Mears,
He wound it regularly every day for four and twenty years;
At length his precious timepiece proved an eight-day clock to be
And a madder man than Mathew Mears you wouldn’t wish to see.
And so by me and the well. I felt that I had been put to so much unnecessary work. But it was worth it.
Beautiful things such as wells have ways of surviving. There is first the idea of the holy well of which there are many in Ireland. There has been up to this present day, the belief that it is unlucky to close a well even when it is in the middle of a field and a hindrance to tillage. A well so placed has or had the privileges of “long bush”.
One of the most beautiful of holy wells is Father Moore’s Well beside Kildare town. One day in the summer of 1954 a friend who was driving me to Limerick suggested that we visit this well of which I had not heard before. And whatever may be the orthodox holiness of it, its natural beauty flashed into my mind.
The man who told us about the well and the priest after whom it is named did not know much about Father Moore whose biretta and other vestments are to be seen beside the well. But he did tell us that you couldn’t boil the water, a quality attributed to most dedicated wells, and which keeps them from being disturbed. The idea of a well having a dedicated purpose makes it more beautiful than normally; we see it as all beauty must be seen, obliquely: it enters our mind sideways, shyly.
In my native area, the most famous holy well was (and is) Lady Well near Dundalk. On the eve of the Feast of the Assumption, the people from the neighboring counties of Monaghan, Armagh and parts of Cavan and Meath visit it at midnight to bring home bottles of the water. This water was in my time used to sprinkle on sick animals as well as on humans.
In the days of my youth, which was still the days of the horse-drawn vehicle, the eve of the Fifteenth of August was an exciting time. In my memory are two visions of that hour. In one we are finishing the cutting of our acre of con-acre oats in the top end of Wood’s field. Red Rooney is finishing the cutting- with a scythe. I remember the length and texture of that oats because it was an important evening. I can hear and sometimes see Terry Lennon getting ready the horse-cart to drive his family to the Well. The rain looks like holding off, though it was a tradition for rain to fall on that evening.
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In a short while the cart rattles down the lane loaded with about six women on two seat boards, the three back passengers facing backward. It took a horse about three hours to make the Journey one way and that was a long time to live in the contemplation of nature. That slow movement taught us something that in the afterlife we are apt to run short of, the patience to be alone, the patience to realize that we live long, not through speed, but through still contemplation. The proceedings at Lady Well in those days were rather rough, but they exuded sincerity and a vital tradition. It was a cultural entity that was around us there. We all spoke with the same accent and had the same patterns of living. Lady Well itself is covered over with a little house and this prevents its well qualities displaying themselves fully. But it is a true spring well all the same, and it evokes in my mind a whole countryside with all its life.
Archbishop Healy published a pamphlet on the Holy Wells of Ireland which is a rare publication. We owe a good deal to Philip Dixon Hardy for his little book The Holy Wells of Ireland which is easy enough to come by.
Hardy was a stupid fellow not given to analyzing his real motives who said that his object in writing about these Holy Wells was to “hold up to the eye of the public the superstitions and degrading practices associated with them”. In the course of being angry and self-righteous, he gives us a good deal of information. “It is indeed impossible for any traveler to pass over any considerable part of the country, more especially in the South and West, without meeting with numerous Holy Wells.”
He tells us of the pagan origin of well worship and mentions the Pattern of St. Michael’s Well, Ballinskelligs, on the 29th of September, the feast of St. Michael the Archangel “which concurs with the Autumnal Equinox and consequently with the Baal Times of the Druids”. But I do not claim to be a scholar. I only say a well is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. And I am aware of the high justice of the fact that the most sacred place of pilgrimage in Christendom is Lourdes, centered around a well.
But such considerations are too vague for me. I think of the common wells again; Tommy Connor’s Well was beside the railway, and Rooney’s Well was in a hollow among blackthorns. As I remember it Mary Rooney (who spoke Irish) is standing beside the well with a red handkerchief around her head and she is telling me of the prophecy that a coach without horses would go along the road and that it would pass through Owney McGagon’s very house. That was the railway from Inniskeen to Carrickmacross, not then built and now closed.
At this point, I must remind myself not to be too generally enthusiastic for all wells. For therein lies Essayist’s Whimsy. Beauty is personal, and sometimes of no interest to others. However, I am glad I brought the waters to life.
Of wells that were known to me once by taste and by sight
The hawthorn on the flagged roof
Saying here is the place of Love
And you will never get over it quite.