Well, well, well! My story of wells!

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What is it about any type of well that interests me and yet history has taught me there can be dangers attaching to wells too?

The confirmation today that people living in areas in which there is not a piped water supply are to be given DRD/DARD grants to bore holes in their own streets has stirred ancient memories in me as a young boy reared on the side of a hill in South Armagh. We had running water in our farm  dwelling but it ran down the walls unfortunately, not through the house.

We had two wells which provided us with water: one down the wee lane at the side of the house and the other, a spring well about five minutes walk further up the loanin’ leading onto the Legmoylin Sliverbridge artery. The well nearer our house serviced us with water for washing and cleaning. It was not a ‘spring well.’  In our heads it lacked purity, less close to nature even though it acted as a receptacle harvesting the water crop of the fields rolling down into.

Our drinking water, or water for domestic use, came at a heavy price. We had to hawk it for quite a distance and that distance necessitated the mother of invention busying herself.

I recall our late mum and all of us as children, all of us who were big enough to carry galvanised buckets and a tin bath heading for that well. Our  buckets and bath were sculptured by Davy Joyce and his family, ‘gipsies’ as they were called then. They were excellent tinsmiths. As Seamus Heaney observed of the ‘gipsies’ or travellers – they brought that ‘extra-ness’ when they landed for a while in our neighbourhood.

Our mission was to bring back as much fresh water as possible in one ‘go.’ After our cupping our hands to capture several swallows of ice cold fresh water we filled up the buckets and the bath and readied ourselves for our weighted journey back to the house. I feel I was reared between two buckets. Again Seamus Heaney puts it so beautifully and so aptly “two buckets are easier carried than one.”

I spoke earlier too of necessity being the mother of invention: quite often having filled the bath up to the brim with fresh spring water we would thread the two handles of the bath with a long hazel rod, thus affording us greater leverage for carrying it.

Those country wells held mystery for us: there was a profundity in them: they seemed to hold their secrets in cool dark places: we heard stories too that some men had drowned themselves in wells.

Many a time as we disturbed the tranquility of our well it received without resistance, an Olympian frog diver. That was fine: we didn’t complain. That well had willingly yielded up its liquid silver to slake our thirst: mindful of all this I come to Seamus Heaney’s mouth watering recollection of his world, of wells in:


“Personal Helicon for Michael Longley”


As a child, they could not keep me from wells

And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.

I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells

Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.

I savoured the rich crash when a bucket

Plummeted down at the end of a rope.

So deep you saw no reflection in it.

A shallow one under a dry stone ditch

Fructified like any aquarium.

When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch

A white face hovered over the bottom.

Others had echoes, gave back your own call

With a clean new music in it. And one

Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall

Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,

To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring

Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme

To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.


Again I yield to another Heaney poem which emits a healing feeling:


‘At the Wellhead’


Your songs, when you sing them with your two eyes closed

as you always do, are like a local road

we’ve known every turn of in the past –

That midge-veiled, high-hedged side-road where you stood,

Looking and listening until a car

would come and leave you lonelier

than you had been to begin with. So, sing on,

dear shut-eyed one, dear far-voiced veteran,


Sing yourself to where the singing comes from,

ardent and cut off like our blind neighbour

who played piano all day in her bedroom.

Her notes came out to us like hoisted water

ravelling off a bucket at the wellhead

where next thing we’d be listening, hushed and awkward.


That blind-from-birth, sweet-voiced, withdrawn musician

was like a silver vein in heavy clay.

Night water glittering in the light of day.

But also just our neighbour, Rosie Keenan.

She touched our cheeks. She let us touch her braille

in books like books wallpaper patterns came in.

Her hands were active and her eyes were full

of open darkness and watery shine.


She knew us by our voices. She’d say she “saw”

whoever or whatever. Being with her

was intimate and helpful, like a cure

you didn’t even notice happening. When I read

a poem with Keenan’s well in it, she said,

“I can see the sky at the bottom of it now.”

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I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.

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