The UK press got very excited recently when it was revealed that most of the UK’s water companies use water diviners to find leaks. It prompted Christopher Hassall of Leeds University to say: “This isn’t a technique, it’s witchcraft” and “The statutory bodies need to be stepping in. It is analogous to using homeopathy and reiki on the NHS. These are unproven practices that waste time and money.”
Seemingly, only Northern Ireland Water and Wessex Water “did not rely on esoteric energies to find their leaks.”
How times have changed, here in the province.
Back in the 1950s, those responsible for providing water for homes and schools - and even hospitals – in rural parts of Northern Ireland would often employ water diviners.
We had a lot of faith in their abilities. For example, in May 1953, when a sub-committee reported to Derry Rural Council that the water supply to council owned houses in Edenreagh had dried up and that their engineers had drilled three wells without finding water, the council recommended that “the services of a water diviner be sought.”
Such was the strength of our faith in the diviners, that when those digging a well failed to strike water, it was rarely considered to be the fault of the diviner who had divined its location. In September 1951, at a meeting of the Tyrone Education Committee, when it was reported that, despite following the water diviner’s directions to the letter, the contractor had failed to strike water after sinking a well to 43 feet - by the diviner’s “calculations,” he should have struck water at 36 feet, the committee recommended that the contractor continue digging.
And in August of 1951, contractors working on behalf of Cookstown Rural Council had sunk a well to a depth of 70 feet – twice as deep as the diviner had specified, without finding water. The diviner complained that the contractor had dug the well two feet from where he had been told to dig it. So, at the 35 feet mark, the contractor began tunnelling. Still he found no water. The council’s solution? Keep digging.
Not everyone shared this faith in the diviners, however. At a meeting of the Dungannon Regional Committee in August 1939, the committee were trying to establish who was to blame for the waterless 60 feet deep well at the new primary school in Ballynahaye. Mr Leebody said the contractor was to blame because he had sunk the well, at a cost of £102, instead of boring it, which would have cost £24. But Mr Busby blamed the diviner, and the punishment, he believed, should be severe. “I wouldn’t give you much for divining,” he said. “There should be an Act of Parliament decreeing that all sorcerers and such like should be burned. I don’t believe that any man can divine where there is water, because it is only savouring of witchcraft.”
But, at the end of this meeting, despite Busby’s feelings on the matter and Leebody expressing that “the whole procedure in connection with the well had been irregular,” the committee decided that, regardless of who was to blame, another diviner should be hired.
Why this strange devotion to these waterfinders? Why, as the Rev. David Graham asked the County Armagh Education in June 1954, “in these days of modern science, is it still necessary to employ a water diviner?”
Cost, Graham was told: geologists could find water, but diviners were cheaper. But is that accurate? Is that the only reason?
What if an organisation had the funds to hire a geologist and a diviner?
This was the scenario in Tyrone in September 1951, when the West Tyrone Hospital Committee was wrestling with the problem of the hospital’s inadequate water supply. According to the diviner they had hired, there was spring water, at a depth of 30 feet, in the ground of the hospital. Ballcocks, said the geologist who had surveyed the area.
The committee favoured the opinion of the dowser and instructed that digging should begin at the site he had identified.
When January came and they still hadn’t found water, rather than cut their losses, swallow their pride and bring back the geologist, the committee decided that the best course of action was to hire “one of the very best water diviners in Ireland,” Archdeacon Pratt from Enniskillen.
I have no idea if he was successful. If he was, the committee kept it to themselves.
- The Derry Journal, 4 May 1953
- The Guardian, 21 November 2017
- The Londonderry Sentinel, 24 January 1952
- The Mid-Ulster Mail, 12 August 1939, 18 August & 29 September 1951
- The Northern Whig, 19 September 1951
- The Portadown Times, 18 June 1954
- The Telegraph, 21 November 2017