Why do people travel from all over the country to a fresh water well in Co Kerry?
A NEW television documentary sets out to examine why generations of people have visited a fresh water well in Co Kerry in an effort to treat their mental illness.
To evaluate the supposed beneficial effects of the well in question, called Tobar na nGealt (translated as “well of the mad”), the programme makers commissioned scientific analysis of the well water and came up with some interesting results.
For centuries, it is known locally that mentally ill people have travelled to the well in search of a cure, with some of the earliest written references to Tobar na nGealt dating back to the 16th century.
One of those who has visited the well in recent times is Dingle-based writer Dairena Ní Chinnéide (43), who was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder almost two decades ago. Ní Chinnéide grew up near a well and her father instilled in her some of the traditions about wells and rural life.
“I went to some wells and connected spiritually with them, but the one in Kerry is in a wild barren valley and has no religious association, unlike many of the others,” explains Ní Chinnéide.
“I liked the water and I felt there was something very cleansing to it. At times when I felt very low, I would visit it and it gave me peace of mind.”
Ní Chinnéide is careful to highlight the fact that she remains under psychiatric care and continues to take conventional medicine for her illness.
Her visits to the well are used to complement, rather than replace, her prescribed treatments. “I have a bottle of water from the well in my bag, and first thing I do in the morning is take a little sip and maybe say a poem and it helps me regain my equilibrium. I grew up near the sea so visiting the well calms me a lot. It is like a soothing thing, and I’d always have at least a litre of the water in the house. I am on psychiatric medication and I would be careful to follow the advice of my psychiatrist as well.”
Some studies in the past on well water have shown up high levels of metals such as lithium in the water supply, which may in some way explain the supposed beneficial effects of the water. It was for this reason the programme makers enlisted scientist Dr Henry Lyons to conduct tests on the well in Kerry and his results are presented in the programme produced by Dingle-based company Sibéal Teo, to be broadcast on TG4 later this week.
One west Kerry resident, Brigid O’Connor, who grew up close to the well, says as a child she would see many people accessing it and her father made sure a bottle of the well water was in the house at all times. She has also noticed that the number of people visiting the well has increased dramatically in recent years.
“Before there were any hospitals or proper treatment for mental illness, it was natural people would come to a well like this for ‘cures’,” she says. “We still see a lot of cars parked in front of the well and the number plates could be from Dublin or Cork or anywhere. In my father’s time they firmly believed there was a cure in the well.
“When a test was done on the well a way back, they found a high content of lithium in the water, but it is good to have more scientific data now from this programme.”
Many people visit the well for historical reasons also, and are intrigued by the fact that it has never run dry.
“As children we always drank the water,” says O’Connor. “My mother lived to be 96 years old and if she had an upset stomach, she’d send us down to get water from the well. They believed in it that much.”
The scientific analysis carried out on behalf of the TG4 documentary confirms the presence of lithium in the well water, perhaps going some way towards explaining the link between the well and people with mental health issues through the centuries.
Consultant psychiatrist Dr Rose Shinkwin, who also contributes to the programme, has long held a fascination with the well and others like it, and says they were nicer alternatives for many people to help them recover from low points in their lives, when compared with some of the institutions providing mental health treatments in the 1970s.
She says that water has been central to wellbeing for centuries and that a clean source of water, such as that available in the well, would have been heralded and protected. She also points to a number of studies in recent years, which examined the presence of lithium in public water supplies and compared this data with levels of mental health or suicide in a particular area.
Not all these studies have been conclusive though and it remains a contentious issue. “In the 1930s, the Folklore Commission would have documented the wells in the country and there were some 3,000 of them and these all pre dated Christianity,” Shinkwin says.
“The healing powers were thought to have been linked with the presence of certain minerals such as sulphur and lithium. I think this area needs further study and there have already been some interesting studies in Japan and the United States looking at public water supplies.”
Given the levels or presence of certain minerals in the tested wells, this water alone would not be high enough to have an impact, but when combined with other treatments, it could be said to be beneficial. “I think that for someone who has an acute illness, of course water from the wells alone wouldn’t be helpful,” says Shinkwin. “It is about balance, but something like this, which has been going on for centuries, has to be respected also.”
Gleann na nGealt will be broadcast this Sunday at 9.30pm on TG4