By Dr Jessica Cooke
Water has always been the source of life. In turn, wells for drawing water, the sole source before the advent of indoor plumbing, were the heart and hub of every community. When you come across these wells, what is striking is how beautiful they are, how individual and unique, how lovingly cut the stones. Though built for everyday use, they are also overlooked examples of architecture, of the melding of engineering and sculpture, which were created not by specialists from elsewhere, but by people from within each community.
The 1840 Ordnance Survey map for County Galway records a startling number of water wells in the parish of Annaghdown. Far from being unusual, this profusion was the norm for every parish in the country. Each well on the map is symbolised by a little circle enclosing an off-centre thick black dot. Where clusters of rectangles depicting houses are drawn, the little circles can be as close together as two hundred feet, incidentally demonstrating how far water could be carried before a new well had to be dug. What do these wells look like? From what we have seen, the wells are horseshoe-shaped and stone-lined, with cut stone steps leading down into them. They vary in size, and some are very deep, depending on the water table levels. Many were situated by the road for ease of access, but others were dug in fields and meadows, quiet and out of the way.
In our era of piped water, there will be younger people who have never used or even seen a water well, though the seniors of our parish keenly remember depending on them as children. Many of the wells on the 1840 map have disappeared or been filled in, as they fell out of use. But a surprising amount survive and can still be seen, if you ask people in the know, and if you are willing to climb through weeds and bushes. Coming across one feels like rediscovering a hidden treasure, like your great-grandmother’s locket, long-lost, with a sepia picture inside.
Despite their clear cultural and architectural value, these monuments are not protected by the state in any way. To our knowledge, there have been no studies made of them. While some books about Irish holy wells have been published, none seem to have been written about the holy well’s poor cousin, the water well of the Irish community. As a result, little is known about the age and construction of these monuments. They could be a hundred years old or many hundreds; their technology could be sophisticated or simple. We just don’t know. In addition, the memory of these wells, both of their location and use, is fading, and if we don’t make an effort to record them, many will be lost altogether.
In recent years, one such well, known as Tobar a’ Bhaile, behind Cunniffe’s of Cloonboo, has been relocated and wonderfully restored by the Cloonboo Tidy Village committee, for everyone to see and enjoy. It is particularly appropriate that the restoration work was carried out by members of the Scully and Greaney families, whose forebears originally used and maintained the well. This restoration informs us about more than just Cunniffe’s well: oriented at the end of a lane leading from the cluster of cottages behind Regan’s, it shows us the community the well was designed to serve.
Inspired by this, the Annaghdown Heritage Society this year began a project to locate, record and map as many water wells in the parish as possible, to be entered on a database accessible via the Society website. In this way we hope to preserve the memory of these monuments, both for members of our own community, and for the wider world diaspora of people whose forebears hailed from Annaghdown parish. With the support of Marie Mannion, the Galway County Council Heritage Officer, we applied for, and received, support for this project from the Heritage Council, which was hugely encouraging. Echoing the 1930s Irish Folklore Commission schools’ project, we circulated a questionnaire to the national schools of the parish, tasking the children with gathering information about their local water wells from family members, especially seniors. In addition, we hope to chat with members of the parish Active Age group, in many ways the most valuable repositories of information about the wells in the community!
Our project is only the start of an initiative to gather material about the water wells, one which we hope will continue long into the future. We really hope that this project appeals to the community, and inspires members to jog their memories and get in touch with us about their local wells, either in person, by post to the Heritage Room, Old Girls’ School, Corrandulla, or via our website, annaghdownheritage.ie. We look forward to hearing from you!
For updates, see the project website.The support of the Heritage Council is gratefully acknowledged.
This article first appeared in our Summer 2018 Newsletter.