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The Poet's Well




“…a [bardic] satirist was dissatisfied with the food given to him in the house of a certain nobleman. ‘Shall salt be sprinkled on your food?’ said the servant. ‘No,’ said he, ‘for there is nothing to sprinkle it on, unless it be sprinkled on my tongue, and that isn’t necessary; it is bitter enough already.’”

Eleanor Knott, Irish Classical Poetry


I noticed it on the map and wanted to go there, but it proved elusive. I’m talking about the Poet’s Well, one of many archaic wells scattered throughout the Irish countryside. With a dot and the simple title “Holy Well,” the charts reveal a land freckled with reservoirs of the sacred. This particular dot, halfway along the narrow Sheep’s Head Peninsula of West Cork, wore a label less holy than lyrical, a powerful magnet for folks with literary inclinations, like Susan and me. Fulfilling my duty as navigator, I identified several rambles that suggested access to the site. It seemed easy enough on paper; however, we soon discovered that when signs and markers in the earth are not provided, you’re on your own in the wild mire of Ireland.

It took us three times, which seemed right for the land of triads and trinities. The first time we took a wrong turn at a junction of paths and because the way ahead offered a path of such green perfection, we ended up walking it to the next town, telling ourselves that we’d see the Poet’s Well another day. The second time, we tried to sneak in a walk between persistent rain squalls. We sloshed through wet grass along an exposed ridge and descended a path toward the location of the well, but the drizzle transformed into a dense, sideways mist resembling a car wash. With slicker hoods up and heads down, we stepped right over the well without even recognizing it. Besides, our thoughts were too profane for holy matters, focused as they were on getting back to our cottage and getting out of the damn rain.

The third time we used a methodical approach. The turbulent, unpredictable weather continued through the week, but on our last day it lifted enough to take a chance. Our method, difficult to define, started by walking down to the rocky beach of the bay where we wandered apart, lost in trance, evaluating the variety of driftwood, shells and seaweed tossed around the shore. My attention gravitated to the colors and shapes of the rocks. I kept picking them up and putting them in my pocket because they were special, then, after a while, discarding one or another because it was impossible to carry all the worthy rocks away from the beach. We reunited at the far end where giant slabs of stone bridged a stream. It was a good place to sit and compare our finds. We arranged them in rows along the bridge, admiring our choices. Susan noted that beach treasures appear remarkable at first sight but ordinary after a time, so we agreed to keep one each and leave the rest.

We climbed the path onto a grassy headland. There, tucked among the rocks under the crest of the hill, we found the crumbling remains of an ancient school. On some maps, this location is labelled “O’Daly’s Bardic Seminary” because it was associated with the renowned O’Daly family, bards to the MacCarthy clan, longtime kings in medieval Munster. The bardic tradition in Ireland is so old that no one knows when it started, but traces survive from pagan times to the present. 

The bardic school was a ruin of thick stone walls outlining the chambers where poets lived and trained. Any traces of roof had vanished, and the remains lay open to the sky, while vines and brush slowly pulled the stones back into the earth. I climbed up on top of the wall and gazed across the spectacle of Dunmanus Bay, a lovely sight and reason enough for the location of the school. It was easy to imagine dwelling in this place, until my contemplations fell on the modest chambers below my stance. They were barely large enough for a bunk or a pallet. Yet there the bards reclined in utter darkness all through the night, crafting poems in the mind, memorizing every word and phrase so it fit perfectly with the complex, rigorous forms of composition. Seven years of this kind of study and practice were required before a novice could take his or her place in society as a full-fledged bard.       

Bards worked for patrons, who supported them in exchange for praise poems extolling the deeds and noble character of the benefactors. Part of the job also involved creating satires, vicious lampoons aimed at the enemies of the patron, or anyone, really, who annoyed the bard. The most famous O’Daly bard, Aongus Ó Dálaigh, composed so many satires that he finally met his end when an aggrieved subject took offense at a cutting verse and stabbed him to death.

From there we walked down the far slope of the headland and up the hill toward the mapped location of the Poet’s Well. Legend has it that Aongus Ó Dálaigh stopped regularly to lap up its water for inspiration. Like the other holy wells of Ireland, this one continues to receive the visits of pilgrims, including local members of the ancient families. This time we approached with caution, ruling out rock piles along the way. Every boulder and outcrop was a candidate. Is this it? No, let’s go on. Around a bend and there it was, unmistakable. Baffling that we’d missed it before; we had literally stepped across it to walk the trail. But, true enough, then it had just been another wet, muddy spot in a wet and muddy land. Today, as the sun pried through the rising mist, the well gleamed at us. At the base of a pale boulder was a neat, square pool of spring water rimmed with stones set into the ground, forming a basin about two feet deep. Next to the pool a modern coin sat on a flat rock, an offering left by another seeker. We looked at the well and looked at each other, then took out our treasures, placing them alongside the coin: a quartz-veined beach stone and a perfect scallop shell. Parting with them seemed much harder than parting with money; they were, after all, precious and irreplaceable. We then walked clockwise around the well. I thought about tasting the water, but the presence of a fuzzy green growth floating on the surface made me shy. I settled for anointing the tip of my nose.

Satisfied with our explorations and not wanting to press our luck with the weather, we walked back to the village and considered our options for lunch. As it turned out in this sleepy hamlet, there was one option: a pub that suggested many items on their outdoor menu with the disclaimer “depending on availability.” We entered the deserted pub to meet Mary, who informed us that the only thing available was a toasted cheese sandwich. We chose the toasted cheese sandwich, then trooped outside to avoid the blaring television. Next to the road two picnic tables offered a prime view of town doings. The entire time we sat there, eating sandwiches and chatting, two cars drove past. A busy day.

After she delivered our sandwiches, Mary sat down next to us, and talked at a ferocious pace. She informed us that she would never live here in Kilcrohane because of the bustle and noise; she preferred her isolated home on the other side of the peninsula. We also learned about the troubles of running an inn, especially the washing, which was endless and difficult to dry in the climate. She extolled the virtues of her fish dinners, regaling us with exotic menus that were currently unavailable. She worked her way up to what was for us the crowning moment of her presentation, an anecdote about two women tourists who insisted on adequate nourishment before setting out on their day hike. They ordered bowls of porridge, followed by the full Irish breakfast. Mary used her hands to demonstrate the size of the porridge bowls, certainly ample enough to feed a hog. She then recited each element of the full breakfast. It’s an interesting concept, this breakfast, which turns out to be the same as the full Welsh breakfast and the full English breakfast. This typically consists of two eggs, ham, a slab of bacon, potatoes, peas, a mound of mushrooms, tomatoes, and miles of toast. It seems a suitable morning meal for farmers, day laborers, and others who have no need to tally cholesterol or carbohydrates. By any reckoning, it’s a formidable serving. Mary was keen to convince us, though we were already well convinced, having previous knowledge of the meal, that the full breakfast following a bucket of porridge was undoubtedly excessive. And yes, she tried to talk them out of it, but they were having none of it. It was the porridge and the full breakfast, or it was nothing. With the glee of moral reckoning, Mary reported that when she ferried them to the trail head one of them fell asleep in her car and had to be pried out of the back seat. With much head shaking, Mary pronounced the shameful outcome: they were unable to complete the three-hour walk in less than seven. Where we could insert a word edgewise in this story, which was nowhere and required us to talk against the tide of Mary’s voice, we agreed that walking on a full stomach was a taxing business.

Mary’s way of talking was circuitous and repetitive, cultivating a jungle of verbosity occluding the central subject and harvesting the maximum amount of gab from the minimum amount of content. Since the monologue cycled rapidly, it was difficult to anticipate an end to the experience. We finally settled for walking away from the pub without waiting for a pause. Mary followed us to the middle of the road, talking the entire way. She seemed unperturbed as we waved goodbye and crossed the street, leaving her in mid-sentence.

We took refuge in J. F. O’Mahony’s post office and general store, a well-worn village establishment where one can purchase anything or nothing, depending on whether they have what you want. Which, for the most part, they don’t. As we entered, Frank O’Mahony, the proprietor, fixed me in the eye. With a look of concern, he asked, “Do you know the way to the nearest hospital?”

I felt the tug on my leg immediately, but his game was uncertain. I was sure that a winning response was impossible, so I chose caution. “There must be one in… Cork?”

This was an incorrect answer, and the question was repeated. “But do you know the way to the nearest hospital?”

Frank very much had the best of me and there was no way I could emerge with points for cleverness or wit. I muttered something idiotic about needing to return to the States to take advantage of my health insurance.

Frank, satisfied with his victory, provided the context. “But did you eat one of Mary’s sandwiches?”

I looked at his face for a moment and burst out laughing. Here was the bard himself, serving up a satire in that sly, sharp way that no one does better than the Irish. I guess Frank judged that Mary was a subject safe enough for ridicule, but I wasn’t so sure about that. It wouldn’t surprise me if she made a few trips to the Poet’s Well herself. Only later did it occur to me that I was the true object of the satire.