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County Clare Folk-Tales and Myths by Thomas Johnson Westropp


Early Christian Period

Here we ought to be on safer ground, but at their best the records are so very imperfect down to the ninth century that we have to depend largely upon late documents, which are rather sermons than histories, though doubtless recording some facts. Older writers argue from the use of the present tense and from such statements as that the saint ‘is at’ a place that the ‘Lives’ are contemporary. But we, recognizing the vivid faith that a Saint was alive for evermore, or that his relics were at the place, must look for other proof. Wherever, as in the cases of St. Patrick and St. Columba, we can test the eleventh and twelfth century legends by earlier information, the result prescribes great caution in dealing with any late ‘Life’ without surviving predecessors. The ‘field legends’ were probably kept in shape by the lections of the clerics until, at any rate, the overturn of the old regime late in the reign of Elizabeth.[31] The Reformation, accepted from the English Government only in lip-service, affected neither the faith nor the services of the people until the wreckage caused by the Desmond wars about 1580 partly cleared its way. Even after the suppression of the monasteries [32] the traditions must have been kept alive by books until the hopeless ruin of the old conditions after 1651. By 1638 some of the ‘Lives,’ and notably that of St. Mochulleus, had disappeared, so that I am inclined to believe that the stories of the Saints became oral traditions from at least about the middle of the seventeenth century. The ‘Lives’ by which we can check the folk-tales are those of St. Senan (comprising a very early metrical one and others of the tenth to twelfth centuries), St. Mochulleus (written in 1142), St. Flannan (about the same date), St. MacCrecius (late), St. Endeus (about 1380), the latter’s sister St. Fanchea, and St. Tola,—( the last does not mention Clare), —all later than 1000. Isolated mentions of other Clare saints abound from ‘The Calendar of Oengus’[33] (soon after 800) downwards, and a few notes in the Annals are possibly contemporary with the saints themselves.

The County has no early tales of St. Patrick, nor dedications to him, thus bearing out the statement of the ‘Tripartite Life’ that he did not cross the Shannon. He baptized the Corcavaskin converts at Knockpatrick Hill near Foynes, in Limerick County, and blessed their country from its summit.[34] He also converted and baptized King Carthin and his son, Eochaidh Bailldearg, the over-chiefs, at the palace of the former at Sengal (or Singland) close to the modern city of Limerick. The widely-known old ballad—

‘A hundred thousand vipers blue he charmed with sweet discourses,
And lunched on them at Killaloe with soups and second courses’

has no reference to any Clare story.

Turning to local saints, we find many remembered in folk-tales, from the first known evangelist downwards. Earliest of all is Brecan, son of Eochaidh Bailldearg. ‘Now Eochaidh Bailldearg had two sons, i.e. Conall Caemh and Breasal, i.e. his name was Brecan of Aran, as the poet says,— ‘Brecan of Aran, son of Eochaidh, was a righteous true-judging Saint, . . . . high his dignity before he got the name of Brecan.’[35] He lived about 480, and is remembered as ‘Rikin’ at Clooney near Quin, and as Brecan at Kilbreckan and at the well at Toomullin near the cliffs of Moher. Clare and Aran were so closely connected, until the O’Flaherties ousted the O’Briens from the Aran Isles about 1585, that I include the story from Aran, where Brecan’s church is the chief of the ‘Seven Churches.’ The Leaba Brecain, his ‘bed’ or grave, an early enclosure with a richly carved but broken cross, yielded on excavation a slab with an early cross and ‘(S) ci Brecani,’[36] showing that he was early revered as a saint. The Clare stories, though vague, represent him consistently as a bright, joyful, affectionate man, hardly troubled by the more mundane temptations. He won crowds of converts by a tact, patience, and sweetness, and is said even to have tried to convert the devils who led forlorn hopes against his temper and patience. He won over the impatient, jealous St. Enda [37] by becoming one of his disciples and causing his own more numerous converts to pay reverence to that saint. He converted a chief (‘King’) whom Enda threatened with lightning, by thanking God for sparing the pagan, and then teaching the convert to do the same. These stories were told around Toomullin, but without the saints’ names, in 1878, and my notes of 1880 give the last incident as follows:—‘The King was going to curse and swear, when he stopped and asked the other saint if he had saved him . . . . and the King said to the saint,— ‘Ye know more about your Master than that other one, and talk as if you’d lived in His house. So I’m going to mind you this time out.’’ But I found no stories remembered at Doolin, near Toomullin, in 1905; the well was known as St. Brecan’s in 1839. At Cloony and Kilbrecan his is only recalled as that of the church-founder. Doora church near Kilbrecan was called Durinierekin in 1189.[38] In Aran the most definite tale is that Brecan and Enda agreed to set out from their churches at opposite ends of the island and to fix the boundary of their districts at the point at which they met. Brecan celebrated a mass early and set out, with the untiring energy ascribed to him in the Clare tales; but Enda prayed, and the feet of Brecan’s horse stuck fast in the rock near Kilmurvey, in the valley across the island below the great fort Dun Aengusa, until Enda came. At that point the island is fated to be broken asunder,—no improbable contingency, in view of the geology and the violent seas, for a great tidal wave, faintly recalled in tradition in 1878, passed over the island at this point before 1640.[39] The fourteenth-century ‘Life of Endeus’ does not name Brecan, so that evidently there was then the idea of the saints’ rivalry; the ‘Life’ is, however, sadly lacking in personal and local colour. The ‘Lives’ of St. Enda and of his sister St. Fanchea tally perfectly with the popular account of St. Enda’s angry, impatient character. Apart from his brother saint he is only remembered as the patron of Killeany church near Lisdoonvarna and the builder of its altar on which lie the curious ‘cursing stones’.

Sixth-Century Saints
Greatest of all the saints at this period was Senán, son of Gerrchin of Iniscatha or Scattery, who died about 550. His ‘Life’ [40] is of great interest, and gives what seems to be a genuine picture of his time, showing the chiefs living and exercising hospitality in their forts, the lesser gentry employing their sons to herd cattle on their detached pasturages, the boys, spear in hand, driving herds across the tidal creeks, and all the men commandeered for a raid against the neighbouring tribes of Corca Modruadh in Corcomroe. The tradition of the Kilrush district, collected by the Rev. John Graham before 1816,[41] said that Senán was born in Moylough (Maglacha in the ‘Life’), and spoke before his baptism, when, his mother having eaten some wild fruit, he said to her,— ‘You have an early appetite, mother!’ ‘You have old talk, my child,’ she replied, and named him Senán, (from sean, old). He told her to pull up three rushes, and the present lake, still called Loughshanan, broke out and he was baptized in it. He dedicated Kilmihil Church to St. Michael, because the archangel helped him in his combat with a monster. At present, save where the ‘book legend’ has established itself, he is remembered only as a church founder (Kiltinnaun), healer (‘Sinon’s Well,’ Kilkee), woman-hater, and, above all, a dragon-queller. Along the Shannon banks you hear of his fight with the Cat, the Cathach of the older story, which dates from 800 (being known to Oengus[42]). At Doolough, near Mount Callan, the peasantry told of his chaining the peist, and throwing it into the Lough, which in storms the monster still makes to boil like a pot. Senán then built the churches on Scattery, besides those at Kiltinnaun, Kilrush, and Kilmihil, and the Round Tower of Scattery. A woman disturbed him just as he was completing the cap of the Tower, and he left it unfinished.[43] As a boy I heard in 1868 and 1872 endless tales of him from fishermen and donkey boys, but forgot them before I began to make notes. In 1878 I heard how the dragon slept with its body looped round Scattery and its tail in its mouth; how the angel brought the saint to Knockanangel hill (and church), and helped him to drive out the monster; how Senán would not let the lady saint (Cannara) land on his island, and only let her be buried where the tide ebbs and flows over her tomb-stone; and how he let no women enter the church. At that time no one prevented girls from entering Teampul Shenáin, and the holy elder bush, from which in earlier days it was reckoned fatal to break a twig, was a mere memory. St. Senán’s bell, folk told, came down ringing from the sky upon a roadside altar between Kildimo and Farighy. The late Rev. Sylvester Malone heard from Dean Kenny how his curate, the Rev. S. Walsh, about 1827 first persuaded some women to enter Senán’s church.[44] Soon afterwards their families were evicted. At the patterns the women used to wait at the Cathedral while the men finished their devotions at St. Senán’s grave and church, for they held that any woman intruding was either struck barren or met with some other disaster.

Caritan, Senán’s disciple, is vaguely remembered as ‘Credaun’ at Kilcredane near Carrigaholt. In 1816 he was known as Credán neapha (naomh, holy), and by his well cured sore eyes and rickets, giving its waters a circular motion which kept the tide from uniting with them.[45]

The tale of ‘St. Senán’s Warning’[46] tells, as by Tom Crotty, an old guide, how thirteen boats full of people came to ‘make rounds’ and merrymake upon one Easter Monday; one man, who only came for sport and did no reverence to the saint, got drunk and was drowned on his way to land. The guide gives a circumstantial account of the saint’s appearance to his father, Dan Crotty, but it was probably at least ‘dressed to amuse the quality,’—a pestilential custom, encouraged by former generations of thoughtless gentry and originating many a sham legend. The convivial Senán in it is the antithesis of the preternaturally austere saint of other modern tales and of the ‘Lives.’[47]

St. Columba, the apostle of the Hebrides, who died in 597, is remembered as the builder of Crumlin oratory, opposite the Aran Isles, from which he came, landing at Lacknaneeve (‘the saint’s rock’) on the shore below. At the opposite (eastern) side of the great terraced hills of limestone, he gave his name to Glen Columbcille, where he built the church and left the (six) marks of his fingers on a block of stone by the roadside.

St. Maccreiche, venerable monk about 580, was, according to his ‘Life,’ brought to Corcomroe from Emly, with St. Luchtighern of Tomfinlough, to go on an embassy to Aedh, king of Connacht, to recover certain cattle ‘lifted’ by the king’s subjects. He and his disciple Mainchin are locally remembered as building the churches of Kilmacreehy, Kilmanagheen, and Inagh; their heads are carved on the former church, where they lie buried on either side of the chancel. Maccreehy (but his name is forgotten) chained the destructive Demon-Badger of Bruckee (Broc-sidhe) in its cave Poulnabruckee, near Rathblamaic church in Inchiquin, and hurled it into Rath Lake. The tale is also told in older written legend, and the head of the Bruckee is supposed to be represented in the carvings of large-eared dragons at Rath and Kilmacreehy.[48]

St. Colaun of Tomgraney, who died at that place on Oct. 24th, 551, of yellow jaundice, gives his name to Tobercolaun, the well-house on the road between his church and Bodyke. Some call him St. Colman.[49]

St. Luchtighern Mac Ua Trato [50] of Tomfinlough or Fenloe in south-east Clare, though appearing in the Calendars and the ‘Life’ of St. Maccrecius, has little other record. His name was forgotten at Tomfinlough until revived by one of my papers,[51] but he played an anonymous part in a local tale in 1839, not quite forgotten fifty years later. Once on a time a horrible plague invaded Erin, large lumps coming out on the heads of the victims, who soon died. The saint told his flock one Sunday that any who got the disease should come at once to him. Soon afterwards, as he and his two deacons were making hay in the church field at Tomfinlough, they saw a woman running up with two big lumps on her forehead. She fell at the saint’s feet, and he prayed, signed the cross, and pulled off the lumps, which he flung against the church, where one of them burst. The woman at once recovered. One of the deacons knelt and glorified God and the saint, but the other mocked. ‘I will carve our three heads over the door of the little church,’ said the holy man, ‘and let Heaven decide who is right.’ Next day the carved features of the scoffer were worn away.[52] The stone, (with two bosses, one round and one flat), built into the wall near the south-west angle of the graveyard, and the three carved heads, of which one is worn flat, may still be seen. The ‘plague stone’ is believed to keep disorders out of the parish, which certainly was hardly affected by the destructive ‘Great Cholera’ in the last century.

Seventh Century
After 600 several saints of great note appeared in Clare. St. Colman mac Duach founded in 610 the famous monastery of Kilmacduach, not far over the borders of Clare, and died in 630. I have already told how he miraculously brought away the Easter Day feast of his brother, King Guaire the Hospitable, from Gort to his hermitage under the cliffs of Kinallia. The story is still told, and the track in the rocks is called Bohernameesh (bothar na mias, way of the dishes, or altar vessels). The grave of St. Colman’s servant is seen near it.[53] The little oratory, the altar with its votive offerings and round stones, the well, and the saint’s cave, under a huge boulder below the Eagle’s Cliff, are still to be seen.

St. Mochuille, Mochulleus, or Mochulla came into Clare about the same time, 620. His father was Dicuil, or Dicaldus according to the ‘Life’ of 1141, which tells how Mochulleus struck the hillside and three streams broke out and ran down to the lake (stagnum), north of Tulla. He made a church with levelled-up platform and earthworks, with the aid of seven soldiers of King Guaire (Guaraeus), who had killed his tame bull when sent to arrest the saint, and were converted. The ‘Life’ was recently found in Austria,[54] Colgan having sought for it vainly in Ireland in 1637, so the local tale is an actual tradition. It was told to me in 1892, long before the ‘Life’ was published, by some road-menders near Carrahan and Clooney, and is attached to the pillars on Classagh Hill called ‘Knocknafearbrioga’, the hill of the farbreaga or false men.[55] ‘The saint, who was building Tulla church, was too busy to cook the bit he ate. So he used to send his blessed bull to the monks of Ennis Abbey for food. Now there were seven thieves kept about this place in old ancient times, and they went to rob the bull, and he roared so loud the saint heard him over in Tulla. And he stopped building and knelt down, and he prayed and cursed at the one that was hurting his bull all he could. And the thieves were struck, and became farbreags or sham men.’ The two springs forming St. Mochulla’s well are on the eastern shore of Loch Graney, and the earthworks are still traceable round the church of Tulla (Tulach nan easpuig, rendered ‘Collis Episcoporum’, in the ‘Life’). The saint is also commemorated by Temple-mochulla in south-east Clare, and by no less than fifteen holy wells near Tulla. He avenged an injury to the well at Fortane [sic] late in the eighteenth century.[56]

St. Caimeen of Iniscaltra was half-brother to King Guaire the Hospitable, and died about 653. He is remembered as building the Round Tower on Iniscaltra in Lough Derg. There was some trace of a tale like his legend in ‘Silva Gadelica,’ the king wanting the church filled with soldiers, and the saint preferring it full of books.[57] There is also a story to account for the ‘unfinished’ round tower, and similar to that about Scattery (supra).[58] He drowned a gentleman and his assistant who tried to carry off a girl from his pattern on Holy Island over a century ago.

The founders of Killaloe, SS. Molua and Flannan, and the patroness of Kilnaboy, St. Findchu, daughter of Baoth (inghean baorth) belong to this century. All are remembered, but I heard only that St. Molua blessed the beautifully variegated ivy on Killaloe cathedral, and that St. Flannan lies buried in the stone-roofed oratory. The ‘Life’ of St. Flannan is extant. He preached also in the Scotch islands, and the Flannan Isles and their boat-shaped early oratory recall his labours.[59] St. ‘Inghine Baoith’ used to sit on a natural seat in a ridge of rocks on Roughan Hill near her church, and her name (Ennewee) was given to women in her parish as late as 1839. Her ‘seat’ cures back-aches.

Eighth Century
St. Tola, son of Donchad, died in 734 or 737. He founded Disert Tola, now Dysert O’Dea. The cross near his church is called Cros banola. O’Donovan regards this name as meaning ‘the white cross of Tola,’ but the people suppose it to mean ‘Cross of Banola’ (or Manawla), a female saint whose crozier was preserved locally until secured for the collection of the Royal Irish Academy. People told in 1839 how St. Blawfugh of Rath, (Blathmac, son of Onchu), built that church and two round towers on the ridge not far from Dysert. St. Manawla coveted one of his towers for her own monastery. Under cover of night she stole up to Rath, uprooted a tower, slung it in her veil, and ran down the hill. Despite all her care, she woke St. Blawfugh, and he ran after her at full speed. The ‘poor weak woman,’ hampered by her unwieldy burden, was on the point of being overtaken when she mustered her strength and flung the tower to Dysert, where it stuck, right end up, beside the church, the top being broken by the shock, as may be seen to this day. In throwing it she lost her balance, fell on a rock, and dented it with her knees; the rock, with two bulláns or basins in it, existed in 1839,[60] but I could find no trace of it in 1885 or since.

With Tola we part company from the saints in order of time, but some undatable stories remain. Templenaneave and Kilcoan, near Ross in the extreme south-west angle of Clare, were built, the former by nine saints (whence its name ‘Tempul an naomhar naomh’), and the latter by Coan, the survivor of the group. Coan had fallen into sin and was banished, but, repenting, built Kilcoan at the opposite side of the bog and regained enough repute of sanctity to render his church a more popular burial place than that of the nine just saints who needed no repentance. The tale was told in 1816. About a century before, any body buried at Ross persisted in coming up above ground, even after repeated re-burials, so that the people deserted the unrestful cemetery.[61]

At Clondegad two saints (or druids), Feddaun and Screabaun, had a bitter quarrel, and decided that the greatest miracle-worker should retain the place. Twisting two ‘gads’ of osiers they made rings, and Screabaun’s gad swam up the river against the current, and gave the place the name Clondegad (plain of the two gads). Feddaun retired and built Kilfiddaun (church of the streamlet). Screabaun’s bed is shown in a cleft of the rock, under a fine ash tree and above a waterfall, not far from Clondegad. Screabaun may be a real person, as there is a holy well named Tobersreabaun, and in the Papal Taxation of 1302 a place ‘Eribanub’ (perhaps Scribanus) is named with Clondegad. I found no personal traditions attached to the other saints whose names are given to churches and holy wells, except that Senán Liath of Kiltinanlea is said to have been a brother of Senán of Scattery. St. Forgas is apparently purely mythical, his name being derived from Loch Forgas and the river Fergus.


Chapter 4


Chapter 6