Clare County Library
Clare Folklore
Home | Search Library Catalogue | Foto: Clare Photo Collection | OS Maps | Search this Website | Copyright Notice

County Clare Folk-Tales and Myths by Thomas Johnson Westropp


The Danish Wars and King Brian

In the district that produced ‘The Wars of the Gaedhil with the Gall’ as a pæan on the winning of its hard-won independence one would expect a mass of stories relating to the Danes and Norse. But this is so far from being the case that the very phrase ‘Danish forts’ is rarely used among the peasantry, though common in the mouths of ‘half-read’ persons. The ‘forts,’ in fact, are traditionally the homes of the Dé Danann, of the contemporaries of Fergus and Diarmuid, and of the early Dalcassians. Rarely indeed do we meet the term Caher Lochlannach or ‘Norse fort,’ (not Danish), nor have I found the name in any Clare record before the ‘Book of Distribution and Survey’ in 1655 (if, even there, ‘Caherloglin’ be not some such name as ‘Cathair lochlain’). I found the name in use only near Lisdoonvarna, where it was unmistakably Caherlochlannach. At Kiltumper the base of a little kerbed cairn called ‘Tumpers Grave,’ between Kilmihil and Doolough, was reputed in 1839 to be the grave of a Danish chief chased by a Dalcassian army from the stone ring fort of Cahermurraha (or Cahermurphy) to the Kiltumper ridge, slain, and buried there.[62] The ‘heathen Danes’ or ‘black Danes’ appear vaguely enough; they were ‘great druids’ (magicians), ‘made the heather into beer,’[63] and smoked the ‘Danes’ pipes.’[64] I hardly like to repeat a legend at Attyflin, before 1870, that ‘they (the Danes) rode eight-legged horses,’ yet where could the peasantry of County Limerick at that date have heard of Sleipnir? Even the gentry, I believe, were unacquainted with tales from the Edda, which I first heard of in 1878; at the earlier date I was also told about the Danes that ‘they used to swim in the ditches round the forts.’ In 1877 a retainer of the Morelands of Raheen on Lough Derg, and an old fisherman, on my first visit to Iniscaltra (Holy Island) in that great lake, told me of the Danes. No one would injure the fences at the churches ‘for the Danes made them’; the people were less afraid to injure the churches themselves, for ‘the saints are in heaven and will not come back, but who knows where the Danes are?’ ‘They put the forts to mark their estates, and maybe they’ll come back to claim them.’ ‘They killed all the clergy in the churches and the (round) tower, and burned them (the churches) all.’ The Danes were reputed to have tails, as I heard widely about 1870. The stone fort of Caherscrebeen, near Lemaneagh Castle, Inchiquin, had amongst its treasure caves and cells one ‘full of Danes’ beer, beor lochlannach, the best of all drinks.’ The old divisions on the hills were made by the Danes to mark out their heather meadows.

Such appear to be all the impressions that remain, upon the mind of the folk a thousand years later, of the two terrible half-centuries 810-50 and 900-70.

So far I can write with little hesitation, but in the legends of the great deliverer Brian, son of Cennedigh, the collector of folklore is in constant danger of deception. How far any of the legends are really old and independent of books, and how far apparently independent versions were derived from books in the early years of the last century, I cannot pretend to decide. Now the corruption is unquestionable; the popular press and many excellent little books, besides tourists and others who make enquiries not always judicious and even supply information directly, have in the last ten years overlaid nearly all the folk-tales.

The tale of King Brian best attested as traditional relates to the dam built by him across the outflow of Lough Derg to drown out his enemies living up the river, and to the fort of Ballyboru constructed by him to defend the end of it. The Halls and Windele found the tale existing over seventy years ago,[65] and I found it among the peasantry of Counties Clare and Tipperary near the fort, among the fishermen on Lough Derg, and among the old folk and gentry, never varied, from 1889-1906. Mrs. Hall was told by an old woman in 1843 that Balboruma was King Brian Boru’s dining room. Windele about 1839 heard that there were two sunken ways from Kincora to it,—along one of which the dinner was carried, the servants returning by the other,—but I always found Balboruma identified with Kincora. De Latocnaye in 1797[66] heard that the fort where the Shannon issues from the lake was ‘O’Bryan Borhom’s palace.’ O’Donovan was told that the walls of Kincora were of dry stone, but when he subsequently visited Killaloe in 1839 he found that no old person remembered the building as still standing; so it was evident that his earlier informant regarded Balboruma as Kincora.[67] There was said to be a passage under the river from the fort to County Tipperary, and on Craglea the precipice and well were still connected with the banshee. In 1893 the Grianan Lachtna fort was said to be a house of King Brian, the Parc-an-each his horse paddock, and the Clochaniona (cloch an fhiona) his wine cellar.[68] The last named is a late-looking ivied ruin across the river, in Tipperary. Thanks to Mr. Robert White of Kincora House, and the Parkers of Ballyvalley, I was put on the track of many local stories in 1892-4, before modern changes had affected them.

One of the chief localized tales was about the ‘Graves of the Leinster Men’ and Lachtrelyon on the flank of Thountinna mountain in Co. Tipperary to the north-east of Killaloe. At the former were some low standing stones and an old avenue, and at the latter a huge rock behind which were traces of cairn. The latter was called in English ‘The Leinster Man’s Grave’ and ‘The Leinster King’s Grave,’ or, in Irish, Knockaunrelyon and Lachtrelyon (cnocán or leacht-righ laighean). When the cairn was partly removed, a large human skeleton and rusted iron weapons were found. These were given or sold to a Mr. Molloy, but I could not trace their ownership in 1892. The tale then ran that King Brian Boru engaged his daughter to the King of Leinster who came to fetch her. But Brian’s wife did not like the match and sent soldiers to hide on the hill. They attacked the Leinster Prince, and after ‘a big fight’ several of his men were slain and he was mortally wounded. He entreated his men to carry him to the head of the pass so that he might die in sight of Leinster, and they did so, and buried him there, facing Leinster. They also buried their slain comrades down the hillside under the stones called ‘The Graves of the Leinster Men’.

Such was the older story, evidently not derived from a book, but now there is an altered version. In 1906 I heard that the King of Leinster came to pay his rent to Brian Boru, and brought a ‘maypole’ as a present. When he came to Kincora, ‘Brian’s bad wife’ called him ‘a sneak’ for paying taxes and sent him away, and then told her husband that the King would pay no rent. Brian, in a passion, went with all his men by the short cut under the river from Ballyboru to Rine Innish, and caught and beat the Leinster men. And when their king fell ‘badly hurt,’ ‘Brian came to abuse him and heard all, and he was very sorry and carried him up to where he could see Leinster,’ and ‘set by him till he died, and buried him there.’ The tales vary on the mountain as to Brian’s subsequent meeting with his wife; ‘he ran and broke her head,’ says one, and ‘she ran off to the Danes when he offered to bate her,’ says another. My uncle’s gamekeeper at Townlough said that old people told how ‘they’ dug behind the Knockaun ‘and got big bones there.’ As will be seen, the early story is free from all those details from ‘The Wars of the Gaedhil’ with which the later version is amplified and overlaid.[69] Possibly the original tale did not refer to King Brian at all, as the cairn burial seems to date it long before 1014.[70]

In 1889 it was related at Killaloe and O’Brien’s Bridge that Brian Boru broke down the curious half-rebuilt O’Brien’s Bridge to escape from the hot pursuit of a great Danish army from Limerick. The stone-vaulted romanesque church beside the Cathedral of St. Flannan was said to be ‘Brian Boru’s vault,’ and the far later richly-carved doorway of the older Cathedral was said to have been made for him as a door for his palace, and some said that he was buried under the early Celtic tombstone in its recess. He was, of course, actually buried at Armagh Cathedral, in accordance with his will.

I got a doubtful story, from a suspected source near Broadford, that Brian hid his cattle from the Danes in the fort called Lisnagry (‘cattle fort’) near the pass of Formoyle. I learn from Dr. G. U. MacNamara that Brian Boru’s well at Elmvale near Inchiquin Lake is locally said to be named from a red cow (bo-ruadh) and not from the King. The modern story that ‘Brian Boru was made King of County Clare’ at the mound of Magh Adhair did not exist there in 1891, and I forced the old man who told it to me to confess that he had ‘got it from a knowledgeable man, a sapper’ on the Ordnance Survey, about 1895. Much history, spread during this survey, is becoming bogus antique tradition.[71]


Chapter 5


Chapter 7