A Gossip at the Well

[From the Illustrated Dublin Journal, No. 4, September 28, 1861]

IN presenting our readers with a characteristic example of the ancient Irish wells-that of St. Senan, near Dunass, on the west bank of the Shannon, in the county of Clare-we avail ourselves of the opportunity to note a little of the fairy legends and folk-lore associated with them. From the patriarchal era every nation has ascribed an importance to their wells and fountains. In particular, in these lands which were the cradle of the human race, whether as the scenes which lent the assembly and covenant their sanctity, or the chosen halting places of nomade tribes, their history was ever distinguished by an interest to which it is certain is traceable the significance with which succeeding ages regarded them. Ovid alludes to the "Fontinalia," annually celebrated by the ancient Italians, in honour of the naiads and deities who presided over their wells, and these festivals probably dated from the period when Numa Pompilius was believed to hold mystical midnight interviews with the nymph Egeria, at the fountain in the sacred grove, while he was framing the laws of Rome. Horace has inscribed an ode to the fountain of Bandusia, which he regarded as the principal of all the wells of classical celebrity. The subject of Moore's "Evenings in Greece," were the fountain songs which are still so popular in that classic land. The spring of Claros, in Ionia, was consecrated to Apollo, who had an oracle there. The ancient inhabitants of Syra, one of the Cyclades, were worshippers of water, and many traditions are yet current relative to the fountain of Zea, an isle which acquires celebrity as having been the birthplace of Simonides. In the "Evenings in Greece," Moore has thus alluded to it:-

"Bright fount so clear and cold,
Round which the nymphs of old
Stood with their locks of gold,
Fountain of Zea!"

Even the fountain of Castalia, celebrated for the poetic influence of its "dews," and to which was also ascribed the gift of prophecy, for which purpose its omens were consulted by the Emperor Hadrian, was not considered by the poet comparable to that of Zea.

"Not even Castaly,
Fam'd through its streamlet be,
Murmurs or shines like thee,
Oh, Fount of Zea!
Thou, while our hymns we sing,
Thy silver voice shall bring,
Answering, answering,
Sweet Fount of Zea!"

Similar to these customs of the ancients was the hydromancy, or water divination, of the Druids, by means of which they presaged future events in wells and running streams, which were stirred with a "magic wand" or oak leaf, the auguries depending upon certain ripples or gargles of the spring, according to which the responses were favourable or otherwise. In his "Legendary Ballads," Moore notices one of these hydromantic rites:-

"Fly to yon fount that's welling
Where moonbeam ne'er had dwelling,
Dip in its water
That leaf, oh daughter,
And mark the tale 'tis telling.
Watch thou if pale or bright it grow,
List thou, the while, that fountain's flow,
And thou'lt discover
Whether thy lover,
Loved as he is, loves thee or no,
Loved as he is, loves thee."

The earliest reference in the Irish annals to wells is as remote as the first century, in the reign of Nuadha-Neacht, near whose palace was a fountain, which, according to the legend, none except the monarch and his three cupbearers were permitted to approach, the penalty attached to the non-observance of this order being an instant deprivation of sight. Determined, however, to unveil the mysticism attached to it, his queen, Boan, disobeyed the injunction. The charm was broken, the spring rose, and she was swept, sightless and mutilated, into the main of waters, which ever after, in memory of the fatal event, retained her name, the Boyne, while her hound, Dabella, which accompanied her, was metamorphosed into the present Da Billian rocks, at the mouth of that river. A somewhat similar legend is related of the well of Sliabh Bladhna (Slieve Bloom), the source of the Barrow, upon which if any person gazed, much less touch, the sky would continue to pour down torrents of rain until the tutelary deity was propitiated. According to the Leabhar na g-Ceart, or "Book of Rights," the seven prerogatives (buadha) of the monarch of Eire included the gift of the "water of the well of Tlachtgha"-the modern Hill of Ward-in the territory of Leog-haire, in East Meath, where the Druids annually lighted their fires upon the eve of the Feast of Samhain-All Hallows. The prohibitions (urgharta) of the King of Uladh (Ulster) counsel him not to

"Drink of the water whence strife ensues,
Of Bo Neimhidh."

It has not, we believe, been ascertained in what part of Ulster this well was situated. Amongst the thirteen "Wonders of Ireland," enumerated in the "Ogygia," was a fountain in Sligo, which, although unconnected with the ocean, had alternate influxes of fresh and salt water, and another in Leinster, by which

“The hazle tree,
To ash transformed the traveller may see."

Fairy spells were once usual accompaniments to wells. When a child pined away, it was said to have been struck with an elf-head, or carried off by the fairies (daoine maethe), who substituted a sickly elf of their own race. Thus Ben Jonson in the "Sad Shepherd:-"

"There, in the stocks of trees, white fays do dwell,
And span-long elves that dance about a pool,
With each a little changeling in their arms."

Shakspeare, in the "Midsummer Night's Dream," represents Titania, queen of the fairies, as being addicted to thefts of this kind:-

"She, as her attendant, hath
A lovely boy, stol'n from an Indian king:
She never had so sweet a changeling."

Sam Lover has happily illustrated this propensity of the "good people:-"

"A mother came when stars were paling,
Wailing round a lonely spring,
Thus she cried, while tears were falling,
Calling on the Fairy King:

'Why with spells my child caressing,
Courting him with fairy joy;
Why destroy a mother's blessing,
Wherefore steal my baby boy?”

Caxton thus writes of Lough Neagh: "There is a lake in Ulster and moche fysshe therein, whiche is xxx myles in lengthe and xv in brede. The river Ban runneth out of the lake into the north ocean, and men say that this lake began in this manner: there were men in this contie that were evyle lyvinge,-and there was a wele in ye land in grete of olde time and always coured, and yf it were left uncoured, ye wele wolde rise and drowne all the lande, and so id hoped yd a woman wente to ye wele for to fetche water, and hyed her fast to her childe yd wepd in ye cradle, and left ye wele uncoured; then ye wele sprynged so fastly yd drowned ye woman and her childe, and made all ye contie a lake and fysshe ponde. For to prove this, it is a grete argument that when the weder is clear fysshers of yd water see in ye grounde under ye water rounde towers, and hyghe shapen steeples and churches of yd lande." There is a similar legend relative to the origin of the Lakes of Killarney. In a certain valley there was for ages a fairy well, inaccessible until after sunset, when special care should be taken by those frequenting it to replace the stone which covered it, when they had filled their pitchers. It was a favourite trysting-place, and one evening a maiden who had been there illustrating the "old, old story," returned thence, to awake and discover that she had forgotten to comply with the fairy injunction to replace the stone. She frantically returned to rectify her error, but it was too late. The calm fountain was now a raging torrent, beneath which the beautiful valley was for ever submerged. At May-time it was a popular custom to watch the wells all night, as a charm against the Gaesa-Draoidacht, or sorceries of the Druids, and lest the "flower of the well" should be "skimmed" at sunrise on May morning by some "possessed" hag, in which case the milk and butter of the ensuing year would be valueless. There was another method of proving the efficacy of wells, which is thus alluded to by Chaucer, in "The Pardoner:"-

"If that the goode man that a beest oweth,
Wol every wike, er that the cok him croweth,
Fastinge, drynke of this welle a draught,
His beestes and his stoor schal multiplie."

Mo nuar ! true it is, and "pity 'tis 'tis true," the realms of faery have faded like "unsubstantial pageants." Very gradually did other notions diffuse themselves; but if they spread gradually they spread surely. The sidh-dhruim, or fairy hill, the rath, and the well, nestling in the quiet glen, or amidst the stern sublimity of the mountain, overshadowed by a gnarled oak or blighted ash, are deserted;

“The quaint mazes in the wanton green,
For lack of tread are undistinguishable;"

the banshee is silent, and the leprechaun and the phooka, with their hidden treasures and midnight stampedes, are amongst the things that were.