Deirbhile, (pronounced Der-vil-a) the daughter of Conor Mac Daíthí, was of noble lineage. Having decided to devote her life to God and wishing to escape an army chief who intended to marry her, she headed westward.
So here comes Deirbhile astride her donkey (bicycles had yet to be invented) on the run from would be suitors.
She rides side saddle, enjoying the passing scenery but thinking mostly about the men she has left behind and not feeling one bit guilty about her thoughts.
She is not a saint yet.
A handsome woman with beautiful eyes, her trim figure causes no hindrance to the donkey who trots briskly westward.
Her astronomer maps their journey and at night points out to her the various constellations he is using to guide them.
But though she smiles and nods politely as if in agreeance, (for she is gentle and kind and wouldn’t like to hurt his feelings) she knows it is really God who is directing them.
As for the Astronomer? well he is wise, and knowing that she takes his science with a grain of salt, does not remark upon it, for, being a bit in love with her himself, he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings either.
He also knows that Deirbhile has given up on men and is giving herself to God instead so he is aware that his feelings for her are in vain. And being a man of rational accepts this and keeps his feelings to himself.
Yes, there she goes! trotting ahead of the posse (She has a large posse for she is a noble woman and her material needs of clothing, good hygiene, soft bedding, food and drink, must be met) and reaching the band of land which prevents Belmullet being an island she kicks her sturdy beast forward.
Not far to go now.
Her entourage traipse along behind her mostly on foot. Pulling along by the bridle, the other donkeys who in turn pull wooden wheeled carts piled high with the accoutrements for such a trip, they camp out most nights, only sometimes choosing the hospitality of the new monasteries which have begun popping up here and there enroute.
The year is 508 AD.
It is late spring. The peninsula of belmullet is probably a very different shape than it is today.
Infact it is probably more of a headland than a peninsula. Thickly forested with Birch, Oak, Alder, Willow, Ash and Scots pines, it is sparsely populated. Small wisps of smoke indicate the odd dwelling and these wisps are few and far between.
This is a wilder place than she has ever known.
The forest comes to an abrupt end and before her lies the sea.
Banks of short grass grow now instead of trees, which in turn give way to gentle undulating dunes beyond which lies a fair sized beach.
She notes that the sand is scattered with good sized stones, ideal for building.
She lifts her head to smell the salt air and as her donkey breaks into a trot down the hillside (she, giving unlady like yelps of glee) the sun breaks through and across the sea she spots the mauve outline of an island which appeared to hover over the water in a heavenly manner.
Oileán Acla (Achill Island)
Reaching the edge of the sand she slides off her donkey and lets the beast of burden free to crop the short grass but instead the donkey kneels and then lies down, rolling onto her back, legs kicking wildly in order to get rid of the feel of the saddle.
It has been many many days of travelling.
‘This the place my lady’
‘It is, God willing’ she smiles at her Astronomer and with that her entourage follow suite and soon the area is littered with tents and contentedly grazing beasts (Two cows, a young bull, a small herd of goats, a flock of chickens).
A young boy is given the job of herding the animals up the hill a bit and out of the way and keeping an eye on them.
He does so sulkingly, for he would rather be helping to hammer tent pegs into the ground. Sitting on the sandy grass, he roots around looking between the shells and stones and flowers for something of amusement.
At one particular place he noticed the ground is moist and spongy.
As he scratches at the soil, a pool of water appeared and he leans down to taste it. Excitedly he pulls the wooden beaker free from his belt and dips it in the watery hollow which was now filling rapidly.
He is not mistaken, it is fresh water with a sweetness of which he has never before tasted .
‘I have found good water’ he calls out proudly.
Deirbhile comes running across the grass and he reverently wipes the lip of the cup clean with his sleeve before passing it to her to taste.
‘Arah don’t worry about that child’ She chides taking the half wiped cup ‘We are all in the same boat here’ and she drinks thirstily.
‘Well done lad’ she ruffles his hair and calls for some implements and a helping hand.
Her women, down dipping their tired feet in the sea, whilst also picking shell fish for the tea, come running back up across the sand and between the lot of them they dig back the scraw and reveal the spring.
The children are given the job of finding smooth stones and they carefully line the hollow turning it into a deep clean well.
That night they sit around the fire eating a supper of fish and shell fish with various seaweeds and praise the wonders of God (The astronomer praising the wonders of nature though naturally under his breath) while the boy who doesn’t care one way or the other, has place of honor and is the center of attention.
His small belly is filled to bursting as they fuss and feed him as though he were a prince.
Over the days that follow, Deirbhile leads them in the hard work of marking out an area for the church, two fields away at a place called Fál Mór.
They set to with stones and sand and when thirsty fill their cups with the sweet well water.
Late spring moves into summer and they are happy in their work.
Then one day the boy who had been attending his expanding flock (The cows have calved successfully,some eggs have been saved and they have hatched and the goats have kidded) comes running over the hill.
‘Look over there! A man on a horse!
Deirbhile who has thrown off her veil and tied up her long tresses (making it easier to place each stone eveningly) straightens up from her work and shading her eyes looks in the direction the boy is pointing to.
Finbar, an army chief has been her most persistent suitor.
Not one to give up easily and certainly not a fellow to like being denied what he wants, he has at last tracked down his would be bride.
He slips off his high horse and lands with ease on the soft ground of the dunes.
Sweeping off his hat he bows low to Deirbhile who, despite streaks of mud across her pink cheeks and hair that was cascading untidily down her back looked as beautiful as he remembers.
‘I have already said no, and no means no’ Deirbhile stamps her foot.
‘It has always been presumed that when women say ‘no’ they really mean ‘yes’! She places her two hands defiantly on her hips’Well I say that is a load of tripe’
She glares at him and continues
‘We are busy here and everyone knows if they are offered mead and they say no the first time, they won’t be asked a second time. We have done away with that silly irish tradition of saying no to things first time round for fear of appearing greedy’.
‘When I say no! I mean no’
‘NO NO NO!’
She pauses to catch her breath whilst he thinks she looks even more beautiful when she is angry.
‘What is it you find so beautiful about me anyway’ she enquires waspishly
His gazes at her countenance with admiration.
‘It is your eyes’ he sighs at last ‘They are as blue as the sky and as clear as the sea in front of us’.
‘Oh really?’ She retorts ‘Well here! have them so’
And with that she gouges out her eyes and throws them in front of him.
Being a very squeamish man, with a leaning more towards poetry than war he is horrified and leaping on his horse, he gallops away, the hooves of his horse spraying those nearest with sand, so fast does he leave his intended.
And he is never to be seen again.
As the pain begins to set in, and Deirbhile starts to regret her hasty action, the boy, tears streaming from his own eyes, runs with a cup of water from the well to cleanse her bloody cheeks.
And as soon as the water touches her eye sockets, and before the eyes of her weeping followers, her sight is returned.
I like to think that this is the sequence of events though the story says that where her eyes hit the ground water sprang up through the ground to form the well and her sight was then returned, but I think that’s a bit far fetched.
And just because I love a happy ending (and because I have already taken an artists licence with my telling of the story) I like to think she marries her astronomer (though she also continues to be devoted to God) and they adopt the boy and all live their happily ever after in a large commune beside the sea.
1,508 years later, I sail down the very hill she trotted down (except I am on the yellow bicycle instead of a donkey) and as I gaze across the same sea at the same cliffs on Achill island I can imagine how she felt.
It’s a most beautiful vista. The sun sparkles on the water. The Minaun cliffs, mauve against the blue sky, sweep down dramatically before dipping into the atlantic.
I stand for a while breathing in the salty air.
Then crossing the patch of short sheep cropped grass, I lean into her well and splash some of the sweet spring water on my eyes.
Cycling back to the church at Fál Mór, I pass a heap of stones and read (without glasses) that this is known locally as ‘Glúin an Asail’ the place where the donkey knelt upon her arrival all those centuries ago and rested after her long journey.
Three weeks later and I STILL don’t need reading glasses.