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County Clare Folk-Tales and Myths by Thomas Johnson Westropp


The Seventeenth Century

The only tale referring to the early years of this century is a bald one of Knockalough Castle on an islet in the lake of the same name near Kilmilie. ‘Torlough Roe MacMahon of Knockalough killed his wife and child with one blow.’[112] The ‘hero’ was living in 1611.

Maura Rhue
The most interesting group of tales is attached to Lemaneagh Castle, a fine, but bare, old mansion, with curious gardens, courtyards, fishpond, and outbuildings, between Inchiquin and Kilfenora.[113] An inscription over a gateway kept the remembrance green of Conor O’Brien and his wife Mary MacMahon, but the gateway has recently been carried off and rebuilt in a modern garden at Dromoland. The garden near the fishpond has a sort of summerhouse in one wall, with a niche on each side of the door, and tradition says that Maura Rhue (Mary O’Brien) built it for a famous blind stallion, so fierce that, when his grooms let him out, they had to spring up into the niches for safety.[114] Conor O’Brien built the gates to shut in the people of Burren, (for a road through the enclosures leads into that extraordinary mountain wilderness), and would let no one through who did not ask leave of him and of his wife; but one of the Burren gentry gathered a band of the inhabitants, broke the gates, and forced O’Brien to promise free right of way for ever.[115] ‘Maura,’—or, as she is known in East Clare, ‘Maureen’ Rhue (Little Mary), or, by some English-speakers, ‘Moll Roo,’—used to hang her maids by their hair from the corbels on the old peel tower,[116] (the nucleus of the building). Others said that she cut off the breasts of her maids. I was told in 1878-81 that she married 25 husbands, all the later ones for a year and a day, after which either of the pair could divorce the other. She used to put her servants into all the houses of her temporary husband, and then suddenly divorce him and exclude him from his property.[117] She was a MacMahon and had red hair (whence her name), and she and Conor O’Brien used to ride at the head of their troops in the wars.[118]

Her descendants at Dromoland and elsewhere told, in 1839 and later, a curious story of her and Conor. General Ireton was attacked by Conor O’Brien, who fell mortally wounded but would not surrender. His servants brought him back, nearly dead, to his wife at Lemaneagh. ‘She neither spoke nor wept,’ but shouted to them from the top of the tower,— ‘What do I want with dead men here?’ Hearing that he was still alive she nursed him tenderly till he died. Then she put on a magnificent dress, called her coach, and set off at once to Limerick, which was besieged by Ireton. At the outposts she was stopped by a sentinel, and roared, and shouted, and cursed at him until Ireton and his officers, who were at dinner, heard the noise and came out. On their asking who was the woman, she replied,— ‘I was Conor O’Brien’s wife yesterday, and his widow to-day.’ ‘He fought us yesterday. How can you prove he is dead?’ ‘I’ll marry any of your officers that asks me.’ Captain Cooper, a brave man, at once took her at her word, and they were married, so that she saved the O’Brien property for her son, Sir Donat.[119]

Lady Chatterton’s account in 1839 [120] tallies with that above. She says that Ireton sent five of his best men, disguised as sportsmen, to shoot Conor O’Brien, and one of them succeeded in wounding him. Mary captured and hanged the man, called her sons and advised them to surrender to the Parliament, and set off in her coach and six as described above, the rest of the tale being closely like the Carnelly version.

At Lemaneagh it is added that one morning, after her marriage to Cooper, they quarrelled while he was shaving, and he spoke slightingly of Conor O’Brien. The affectionate relict, unable to bear any slur on the one husband she had loved, jumped out of bed and gave Cooper a kick in the stomach from which he died.[121]

At Carnelly, in 1873 and later, it was told that Maureen Rhue was taken by her enemies, after killing the last of her 25 husbands, and was fastened up in a hollow tree, of which the site and, I think, the alleged roots were still shown. Her red-haired ghost was reputed to haunt the long front avenue, near the ‘Druids’ altar’ already noted, when I was a child.

Cromwell (who was never nearer to Clare than the extreme southern border of County Limerick, fifty miles away) is said to have marched to attack Limerick along ‘Crummil’s Road,’—not the road so named on the Ordnance Survey maps, but an old hollow lane, evidently of great antiquity, a little above it and on the top of the long ridge from Ardnataggle House to Ahareinagh Castle, to the west of Clonlara and to the north-east of Limerick City. He is reputed to have destroyed most of the ruined castles in south-east Clare, and to have knocked down Kilnaboy round tower with his guns. His men cut down the trees and killed the deer in the Deer Park of Lemaneagh. General Irayton (Ireton) was remembered for many acts of cruelty and violence in eastern Clare. Cromwell, or ‘an army of Cromwell,’ attacked the very curious stone fort called ‘the Doon’ at Ballydonohan between Bodyke and Broadford; the army destroyed it, and went on to Galway by way of Scariff, and a sword was found there (Ballydonohan).[122] I believe I gave offence locally by saying that Cromwell had never been in Clare.

In 1877 Mrs. Stamer, who was then 77, told me that, when a girl, she had heard how the wife of Col. George Stamer, about 1650, was standing on the battlements of Clare Castle when her baby sprang from her arms into the river and was swept away. Ever since on dark and stormy nights the mother’s ghost could be seen frantically searching along the bank. There is no basis for this story in the family records and pedigree.

Charles the Second has no place in Clare folk-tales, but the story I have already told about the Westropp ring may be placed about 1670. Lady Wilde tells a legend of Querin [123] (which I have myself never heard in Moyarta parish), dated in 1670, but, if genuine, evidently of far earlier origin. On November Eve a kern went to shoot wild fowl on the shore, and saw four men carrying a bier on which lay a body wrapped in white. He fired and the bearers ran away, and he found a beautiful girl apparently asleep. She neither spoke nor took food or drink for a year, and on the following November Eve her preserver overheard the fairies talking in Lisnafallainge fort, and learned that she was the daughter of O’Conor Kerry and could not recover till she ate off her bier covering, which was her father’s tablecloth. The kern broke the spell accordingly, and ultimately won her for his bride.

Sir Donat O’Brien of Lemaneagh looms large in the popular memory. He made the old straggling lane-way, traceable in fragments sometimes a mile apart, from Lemaneagh over Roughan hill and north-eastward through the barony of Inchiquin, and it is known as ‘Sir Donat’s road.’ He bought Moghane Hill near his property at Dromoland for threescore cows and twenty bullocks.[124] His mother, Maureen Rhue, apprenticed him to a London goldsmith. When the later Civil War broke out, Sir Donat and his (apparently elder) brother, Teigie O’Brien, doubted sorely which side to support. At last Donat suggested that the brothers should take opposite sides, so that, whichever won, the family would have a friend at Court.[125]

The unfortunate James the Second was the object to the peasantry of contempt and dislike far stronger in story than aversion to his triumphant son-in-law. In Moyarta the loyal Lord Clare and his yellow dragoons (Dragon buidh) were remembered, and in 1816 a proverb ran,— ‘Stop! Stop! Yellow Dragoon,—not till we come to the Bridge of Clare, not till we come to the pass of Moyarta!’ It was believed that the ghost of Lord Clare nightly drilled his phantom army before Carrigaholt, and the belief was not forgotten round Kilkee in 1875. Graham [126] heard that the ghostly dragoons were seen ‘to traverse ‘The West’ in the winter nights, and plunge at the dawning of the day into the surge that foams round the ruins of Carrigaholt.’ The drill field was said to have been to the east of the Castle, where the harbour lies and the great river breaks against the low banks, all having now been swept away. The Barclay family of Ballyartney had in Graham’s time (1816) a definite legend of the war. Their ancestor, a clergyman, was expelled from his living, and his successor, a priest, was very strict in exacting security from Barclay for the payment of his tithe. In the summer of 1691 the priest objected to the securities offered, and Barclay left for home in low spirits. On his way he heard from Captain O’Brien of Ennistymon that the Irish army had been defeated at Aughrim. So he returned to the priest and offered as his security ‘the great King William,’ and threatened that if his tithe books were not returned in ten minutes he would have the intruder hanged on the high road of Kilmurry. Lord Clare’s dragoons galloped through the village in confusion, confirming the news, and Barclay was reinstated.[127]

A ferryman at Kilquane named Macadam helped the Williamite ‘Dutch’ army over the Shannon in 1691. He was richly rewarded, but, when he died, people cut on his tomb ‘Here lies Philip who lived a fisherman and died a deceiver.’ Down to about 1850 pious old people, when visiting Kilquane graveyard, used to pray at the Macadam tomb for the soul of the man ‘who sold the pass.’ An old poem on the stone exists,— ‘If all that were killed, O stone! by the dead man under thee were alive!’[128] There is no other documentary or epigraphical evidence to support the popular tradition. The place where William’s army crossed the river, and shut off the city from Clare, is well-known. A great stone called Carrigatloura (carraic an t slabhra, the rock of the chain) is shown to which the pontoon bridge was fastened on the Clare shore.

William of Orange is in popular memory identified with the ‘violated treaty’ of Limerick. The table on which that document was actually signed was long preserved, but ultimately the present treaty stone (an old mounting-block by the roadside),[129] became the subject of bogus tradition and undeserved tourist interest.

Mrs. Stamer, of Stamer Park and Carnelly, heard from her husband’s aunts, granddaughters of William Stamer, that the latter and his brother Henry Stamer of Lattoon, with a few soldiers, swooped down on Quin Abbey, surprising the monks and the people at vespers. The laity fled, but the priest continued the service till Henry Stamer dragged him away. The old man clung to the altar for a moment, praying that Henry might have no family and that William’s name might die out in three generations of one male each. The Stamers then expelled the monks and burned the Abbey. The prophecy was not made ex post facto, as Mrs. Stamer assured me, but her only son predeceased her husband, who was William’s grandson. The monks survived at Drim, in the neighbourhood of the Abbey, until 1828, when the last, Father John Hogan, died. I knew two persons who remembered him; he was buried in the cloister, where a long epitaph records his life, ending with the pathetic text, ‘Qui seminat in lachrymis exultatione metet.’

There was a tradition in the Ross Lewin family of Fortfergus and Ross Hill that the French landed at the former place, took all the butter out of the dairy, wrapped it in sheets, and burnt it and other things on the lawn. This agrees with an early deed of Du Guai Trouin, who, when a mere lad of twenty in 1692, entered the Shannon, sacked a chateau in Clare, and did not retire until a detachment of the Limerick garrison was sent against him.[130]


Chapter 9


Chapter 11