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County Clare Folk-Tales and Myths by Thomas Johnson Westropp


Finn Cycle

Clare has been less forgetful of the far later saga cycle referring to Finn mac Cumhail and his warriors, the events of which are attributed to the third century. Finn, Conan, Caeilte, Dermot, and Oisin have obvious traces in the place-names. The ‘Agallamh’ says that Cluan Chepain in the mountains of Echtghe was named from Chepan, son of Morna, who fell there.[15] The site is now forgotten, but was to the south of Lough Graney. The elopement of Dermot and Grainne, Finn’s wife, has given many names. I have already recorded their association with dolmens, at one which, Tobergrania, the use of a flooded dolmen as a holy well has replaced the pagan lovers by two Christian ascetics from Feakle. Several hill tops are called Seefin or Finn’s Seat, viz. on Slieve Bernagh, on Inchiquin Hill, and a cairn at Black Head.

The tale of the Glasgeivnagh, or Grey-green Cow, on Slievenaglasha has been already alluded to,[16] and runs as follows:-Lon mac Liomhtha (Loon mac Leefa), of the Tuatha Dé Danann, was the first smith to make an edged weapon in Ireland. He had only one leg, with which he could spring over hills and valleys, but as compensation he had a third arm and hand growing out of his chest, with which he held the iron on the anvil while forging it with the huge hammer held by his other hands. He had stolen a wonderful grey-green cow from Spain, and lived on its unlimited milk. After long seeking he found a ‘desert’ sufficiently fruitful to support her in Teeskagh. Many tried to steal her, but failed, because her hoofs grew backwards and she could not be tracked. One of Lon’s seven sons took charge of her on each day of the week, holding her tail while she grazed. When she reached the edge of the plateau, he pulled her round by the tail, and let her graze back to Lon’s fort, Mohernagartan (‘the smith’s fort’). She drank of the seven streams of Teeskagh,[17] and the rocks were marked in every direction with her hoof prints. At last the fame of Finn mac Cumhail reached Lon, and he, unlike the rest of his race, (who sulked in the fairy hills after their defeat by the Milesians), determined to recognize the chief hero of the new race and to make for him a wondrous sword. Lon set off to make himself known, and springing over the intervening plains and hills reached Ben Edair, the Hill of Howth, on the east coast. Finn and his warriors were holding a court when the strange being dropped into their midst and Finn demanded the name and errand of the intruder. ‘I am Lon, skilled in the smith’s craft, a servant to the King of Lochlan,’ the visitor replied. ‘I lay on ye a geis (obligation) to overtake me ere I reach my home.’ And off he sprung. The Fianna were soon outdistanced, except Caeilte ‘of the slender, hard legs,’ who came up with Lon hard by his forge, a cave with heaps of slaggy material in a nook still called Garraidh na gceardchan. Caeilte slapped Lon on the shoulder with the words, ‘Stay, smith. Enter not thy cave.’ ‘Success and welcome, true man of the Fianna,’ replied Lon, in delight. ‘Not for witchcraft did I visit thee, but to lead thee to my forge and make thee a fame-giving weapon.’ The two had already wrought in the forge for two days when Finn and his followers arrived, and Lon sold them eight swords. He resumed work aided by Goll and Conan, sons of Morna, but their mighty blows split the anvil and ended the work.[18]

The Scottish versions of this tale are well known, and have more classical analogies than the Clare tale.[19] In the versions of north Ireland the Glasgavlin cow descends from the sky, and more closely resembles the rain cows of the Vedas, to which also a striking analogy is found in a subsequent appendix to the Clare tale. The cow has habitats at Cluainte (Kerry), Howth (Dublin), Glen an Arrible (Waterford), Ballynascreen (Londonderry), and opposite Torry Island in Donegal, where she and another smith figure in the archaic tale of Balor and Mac Kineely.[20] The cow is also found in Kerry, and in Glenganlen in Cavan. Finn’s cow, the Glasghoilean, has a bed in the Isle of Skye. The tale was minutely localised on Glasgeivnagh Hill and Slievenaglasha before 1839. At first our enquiries seemed to show that the story had died out, but after a couple of years Dr. MacNamara found it still subsisting amongst a few old folk and herdsmen near Teeskagh. As neither of us referred to the 1839 story, we were much struck by the perfect agreement after the lapse of two generations. I took down one recension at Tullycommaun in 1896, from John Finn. The main story is identical with that given above, and it ends as follows:-‘At Slievenaglasha were the Glas cow’s beds. No grass ever grows on them. She used to feed near the herd’s house [at the dolmen of Slievenaglasha] and over Cahill’s mountain, where she could get plenty of water out of Teeskagh. And she went away, and how do I know where? And there were no tidings.’ Another tale, extant in 1839, tells that the cow could fill any vessel with milk, until an ill-conditioned woman brought a sieve; the milk ran through and became the Seven Streams; and the cow, mortified at being unable to fill the sieve, ran away and (or, in one version) died. With reference to another appendix to the tale,-‘an Ulsterman took the cow,’-I have already given the tale of the hero and wonderful cow concealed in a cave until ‘the last great battle.’ The Oughtdarra people say that this cow is not the Glas, but that the latter made the footprints on the neighbouring crags. There is mention of a cow near Shallee Castle, between Dysert O’Dea and Ennis, and at Ballymarkahan, near Quin.

In one of the 1839 addenda, apparently now forgotten, O’Donovan and O’Curry were told that the Tuatha Dé Danann posted ambuscades to waylay Finn and his men at the fords of the Fergus opposite to the Glasgeivnagh Hill at Corofin (Coradh Finne), Corravickeown (Coradh mhic Eoghain), a mile to the west of the former, and Corravicburrin (Coradh mhic Dhaboirean), at Kells Bridge, to the east of the first named. The attempts failed, and in a pitched battle on the summit of Keentlae (Ceann t sliabh, ancient Cenn nathrach) [21] or Inchiquin Hill the Fianna slew all their enemies, whose bones are still turned up at Seefin or Keentlae. The same summit is the scene of the early saga ‘Feis tighe chonain’ and Finn’s fatal feast, but the site of Conan’s house is forgotten and the saga only known from books. Finn’s gifted son, the bard Oisin, dwelt in a large two-ringed fort, hence called Caherussheen (Cathair Oisin), close to Corofin, and Finn’s hound Bran gives the name Tirmicbrain to a small basin-like tarn in a marshy valley and evidently the remnant of a larger lake. The hero and his soldiers hunted a magic deer (white, with golden hoofs), which fled to Keentlae with Bran in close pursuit. All the men save Finn were outpaced, and he and the quarry and dog reached the eastern brow of the hill as the sun set, and then dashed down the slope. At the cliff of Tirmicbrain the deer made a wondrous leap into the pool, and Bran followed. Neither was ever seen again.[22] Finn had ‘hunting lodges’ at Formoyle to the west of Inchiquin, and at Shallee (Selga, a hunting seat). In eastern Clare Finn, Oisin, Dermot, and Grainne were in my boyhood usually described as giants.

The next important Finn saga is found at Loop Head, where in 1839 it remained much the same as written by Comyn about 1750 in ‘The Adventures of the Three Sons of Thorailbh mac Stairn.’ Crochan, Sal, and Dahlin were three brothers to whom a druid foretold a fearful end if their beautiful and only sister ceased to be a virgin. Accordingly, they built a fort for her, still called Cathair na haon mna (‘the fort of the lone woman’), and three other forts to guard her at Cahercrochaun (‘the fort of the knoll’), Cahersaul (‘the fort of the brine’), and Dundahlin. For long they guarded her, until their cattle were carried away by three other brothers,-Ceanuir of Liscannor, Ruidhin of Moherui ruidhin at the giant cliffs of Moher, and Stuithin of Kilstuitheen (now under the waves of Liscannor Bay). The Loop Head chiefs overtook and slew two of the raiders (Stuithin escaping to his magic home, which sank under the waves), and returned home with the spoils. Now the amorous Diarmuid Ua Duine was waiting on Mount Brandon, and, as soon as he knew of their absence from his ring,[23] he set off in his magic square currach (boat) of wax. He choked with his ring the hideous piast Dabhran which opened its jaws to seize him at the cliff, and reached the lady. She consented gladly to fly with him, and her brothers returned to see her landing far away in Kerry. They tracked her footsteps as far as Aill an triur, where yawned the deep chasm of Poulnapeiste, the dragon’s lair. Fearing a worse doom, they seized each other’s hands, and sprang over the cliff into the hungry waves.[24]

An old tale of the same neighbourhood related that Finn threw a ‘finger stone’ of a ton weight across the Shannon from Knockanure in Kerry to Carrigaholt in Clare. A similar story was told to me in 1869 by an old man, Shaneen O’Halloran, a retainer of the Stacpooles of Edenvale. A giant named Hughey in the days of Finn threw an enormous boulder from either Mount Callan or Loughnaminna Hill at a hostile giant whom it just missed, breaking into two. The pieces stand at the northern end of the Edenvale ridge, opposite the Kennels. The ‘Irish militia’ (i.e. Finn’s troops) made the huge, mysterious, many-gated stone fort on the summit of the Turlough Hill, south from Corcomroe Abbey; so I was told by an old herdsman who crossed the ridge while I was plotting the fort in 1905. Other rock memorials of Finn I have already mentioned, and the Dindsenchas gives a similar legend of another rock, the Cloch nan arm, ‘on which the Fianne ground their weapons yearly.’ The tale previously narrated about the Tuam an goskaigh stone may belong to the Finn period, as it is placed in a Glasgeivnagh locality. The same nameless ‘champion’ is commemorated in Barnagoskaigh; he was defeated and slain at Doonaunmore fort because he had lost his ‘druid’s staff.’

The sentence in certain copies of ‘The Battle of Magh Rath,’ which states that Chonan maol, the Thersites of Finn’s court, was, while worshipping the sun, slain and buried on Mount Callan, is undoubtedly a forgery of the late eighteenth century. It is by no means so certain that the ogham stone, so long read, ‘Beneath this stone lies Conan the fierce and swift-footed,’ is also forged.[25] The name on the stone is very doubtful, and possibly Collas, and the epitaph probably a late scholastic freak. It played a great part in Irish archaeology by reviving an interest in oghamic script, but all legends connecting it with the band of Finn are probably later than the earliest accounts of its discovery in 1778.[26]

Hence I hesitate even to name the Finn items in the tale of the sinking of Kilstapheen or Kilstuitheen as being of any great age, though the main tale is doubtless ancient. In 1839 men said at Lehinch that the golden key of the enchanted island of Kilstapheen lay under Conan’s tomb.[27] The present-day tale narrates that in the battle of Bohercrochaun [28] Stapheen, attacking the spoilers of his cattle, lost the golden key, and his island and fort immediately sank under the waves.[29]


Chapter 2


Chapter 4