Tuesday, September 21, 2021
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Going in search of a watery past

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It’s been a long dry spell and warm this last week or so. There’s not a squiggle of water in the stream. Half a dozen Mourne ewes with lambs at foot need two to three buckets of water a day – I know because I’m carrying it to them.

The well along the road at the top of the fields is a blessing. While there has been much talk about townlands and townland names disappearing, there’s not a word about wells.

Townlands are the most documented entities on God’s earth and are clearly defined on every Ordnance Survey map – and indeed so are wells.

My ‘Red Book 1967’ tells me: “Wells and springs will be shown to scale or by a circle about 0.8mm in diameter if they are too small to be shown to scale.”

But wells, unlike townlands, are very easily destroyed. A bit of a swipe with the bucket of a digger and that’s that.

These were the wells that family’s used (right up into the 1950s) as their only source of water. I recall the white enamel bucket used for cooking and drinking water – and the grey tin buckets of water used for washing delft and such. All lined up with the covered crocks of milk at the door.

And while I’m at it, the varieties of tins bought from Travellers. Tinsmiths who made small mugs with handles, right up to cans suitable for taking tea to the field or to send a child to get water from the well.

I’m chastised by the effort of carrying water. It never dawned on me at the time. I suppose it was an engrained discipline. I’d forgotten how heavy a bucket of water is and how far many family’s had to carry it.

I know the country’s peppered with holy wells with all sorts of medieval saints’ names. St Blines and Saint Cooeys come to mind; but to me they are no more important than the wells that sustained family life.

The John Snow statistics map of 1854, that identified a water pump in Soho, London, as the source of a devastating cholera outbreak, is a sharp reminder of the importance of clean water.

And while I know there’s a truth in “it used to be you could drink the water out of the river, now you couldn’t wash your feet in it”, I very much associate small country lime kilns with the whitewash that disinfected the stones around the well.

I used to think the lime was principally for spreading on the fields but now I’m inclined to lean towards it being used as lime plaster in house building and as an all round suppressor of germs.

My present endeavour of carrying a few buckets of water has reminded me there was a time when I knew every well in Drumreagh and Knockbarragh.

And the other day, an exceptionally warm Sunday evening, Stasia and I took a jaunt around (she took the photographs) half a dozen of them. Wells that were close to the road. I was surprised how full of water they all were. When cleaned back a little with the palm of my hand, what clear clean water there was.

Some of the wells are gone; but many are ‘preserved through neglect’.

There’s a mare with a new foal in the field beside me. It’s a delight to see it stretched right flat out to enjoy every ounce of sunshine on such a wonderful day. And for fear that wasn’t enough – we heard the cuckoo.

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