This well takes a bit of finding! I first visited it about two years ago and went up and down tiny pot-holed roads clutching onto my map, where astonishingly it’s marked. Fortunately, as I was wandering down a very muddy boreen in the wrong direction I met two people who not only knew about the well but were prepared to take me there. This time I sort of remembered where it was but was delighted to find the same couple tending their garden.
They gave me permission to cross the land but warned me it was almost impossible to get to as it was so overgrown. It certainly was tricky – across very boggy land, over a wall, through a small stream, battling with gorse, brambles and bracken. The situation though is magnificent, the well in low lying land surrounded by lush pasture with big views out to Mount Gabriel beyond.
At first sight of the well itself is rather unprepossessing. In fact it looks like a careless jumble of rusty corrugated iron sheets abandoned amongst the bog grass and bracken. On closer inspection it’s a bit more exciting and unexpected. Under the crumbling sheets, the well is surprisingly large and well made, a square of sturdily constructed stone built walls. The water is abundant and clear. A pipe leading from it suggests someone is still using the water. In fact I was told that the water was considered to be exceptionally good, for humans and cattle, and it is meant to never run dry.
The well is known as Tobar a ‘Linn and means well of the flax. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars (early 19th century) there were 20,000 – 60,000 people in Ireland employed in flax production of some kind for flax was an essential ingredient in the making of linen.
Although the industry declined due to the introduction of cheap cotton from America, there were still several weavers in the area around Dunbeacon in the 1840s, especially in the nearby village of Durrus. Lord Bandon, the local landowner, was enthusiastic about continuing to develop flax growing in the area. He addressed a large gathering of the yeoman farmers at Carrigbui Courthouse on the 22nd February 1864 suggesting that there might be a small reduction in the growing of potatoes, and more in the growing of flax. Cotton was scarce at this time due to the American Civil War, and flax was seen as a viable alternative. This scheme never took off for cotton became cheap and accessible again after the War.
Part of the process of growing flax involves using a flax hole. Once flax was harvested it was left for one or two weeks to dry in the sun, then:
The sheaves of flax were then placed, weighed down with stones, in a large pool of stagnant water known as a flax hole which was generally twelve to eighteen feet wide and three to four feet deep. There the flax would remain for approximately two weeks during which time the smell and slimy nature of the water indicated the progress being made in the breaking down of the hard outer bark of the plant and the dissolution of the glutinous substances within. Following this retting process the sheaves were pulled out of the water by barefooted men standing knee high in the flax hole, and spread over the grass to dry or, less frequently, taken to drying kilns.
There are several flax holes in the area – could this have been the original purpose of the well? I’m not sure for it doesn’t fit with the description of the stagnant water which suggests just a filled hole. Here the water is fresh and flowing, and the well itself nicely constructed. It obviously had some connection with the flax industry but quite what seems to have been lost in time. If anyone has any information I’d love to hear it.