This well is easily accessible and lies just off the Sheep’s Head Way as you approach Kilcrohane. The terrain is boggy and brackeny, a small valley between the hills with views out to Dunmanus Bay. Everywhere the sound of running water. The well is a small rectangular basin marked by a large upright stone. Smaller quartz stones have been placed to the west of it. The water is cold and fresh and seeps out over the basin into the surrounding land. Mosses and grasses decorate the site, bog asphodels and bog cotton appearing in the early summer.
Tobar na-n-Duanairdhe translates as well of the poets and refers to the nearby ruins of an ancient Bardic School – 500 metres west, across the road and up the hillside. The ruins looks small and not particularly significant but once the school was renowned as a place of learning. It is said that a king of Spain sent his two sons here to study. Sadly they drowned in the nearby Lake Farranamanagh but happily turned into swans and can still be seen there to this very day! How the alpacas fit into the story I don’t know! An unexpected sight.
The Bardic school in Dromnea flourished between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. Training was long and hard, between seven and twelve years, and subjects studied included Irish language and literature, history and (Brehon) Law.
The writing of verse, held in higher esteem than prose in Irish literature at this time, was also a difficult and long business. Robin Flowers in his book The Tradition describes the process:
… poetry was an hereditary profession, and the students gathered in some remote place far from the resort of people, and worked in a large structure divided up into cubicles each furnished with a bed, lying upon which in complete darkness they composed their poems on themes set by the master. The poem composed, lights were brought and they wrote it down and presented it to the master for criticism in the main place of assembly.
Each poet was dependent on a local chief for patronage and was employed to write and recite poems in his honour, mainly about the folklore and history of the tribe. This special collection of poems was known as a Duanaire. They had to be learnt by heart and delivered in an entrancing way and a good poet was held in almost mystical reverence.
In Dromnea, the O Daly family were the traditional and hereditary bards to the O Mahony family. They were a powerful and wealthy sect and the scant remains of their castle can be seen in the field behind the lake.
The most famous, or possibly infamous, O Daly poet was Aenghus Rua (the red haired), also known as Aenghus na nAor – Aenghus of the Satires (1570 – 1617). It is said that he drunk the waters of the well to get his inspiration. This can’t be seen as much of a recommendation for his fierce satires eventually got him into a lot of trouble. He wrote The Tribes of Ireland – possibly coerced or bribed by the English commander Carew in order to discredit Irish ruling families– which describes some of the less than pleasing hospitality given to him as he travelled through Ireland. Here’s an excerpt:
To Roche’s country of the clear roads
I came (and that was my mistake)
Just as well for me I don’t like butter
For if I did, I didn’t get it.
Dunboy of the sour old wines
That the fool’s of Ireland praise;
Than that of Dunboy, I bet you,
Hell is a hundred times better.
Three reasons why I skipped
The country of Bantry and Beara,
Soft tasteless lumps of dumpling
Long-divisioned out of milk and water.
Easter I spent in the house of Mac Donough,
A friend indeed, my belt he tightened;
His people and feasts were as mean
As if Easter were another Good Friday.
The old rags of O’Keeffe of Clarach
Are no shelter against the wind,
Although there is a grey head on his shoulders
There is no shortage of lice in his clothing.
The poem proved to be his undoing for a servant of one of the master’s so slated eventually stabbed him to death. Probably best to leave the waters untasted.
We also tried to find another well in the vicinity – Tobernasool, an eye well in the townland of Aughaleigue More. This proved to be quite a challenging exploration as we climbed gates, ducked under barbed wire, squelched through bogs and scrambled over streams. Sadly, although we were tantalisingly close according to the GPS, the undergrowth proved too dense to identify the well. A shame for it was obviously once frequently visited.
There is an interesting passage in Jack’s World by Sean Sheehan which describes the power of the well. Jack, aged 8, remembered being taken by his mother. They were going on behalf of his four year old brother who was too small to make the journey. His mother warned him that they were to talk to no-one on the journey for that would undo the power of the well.
There was a shorter way but a farm house on this path had to be avoided in case someone might be around and not speaking would be embarrassing. When we got to the well there was a path around it decorated with ribbons, some bottles and cups, and some pennies were strewn around. My mother walked around the well and said some prayers then took a bottle of water from the well and we set off home. On the way back she said we can talk to everybody.
This was written as part of Jack Sheehan’s fieldwork for a Certificate in Local history 1993. The time described would have been the late 1920s. So frustrating not to have actually identified it today.