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County Clare Folk-Tales and Myths by Thomas Johnson Westropp


Period 1318-1500

Popular guide-books always follow the ‘Four Masters’[95] in attributing the Franciscan convent of Quin to Sioda MacNamara in 1402. It was certainly largely rebuilt and ornamented at that time, but the many earlier features show that Wadding is right in placing its foundation before 1350. The fact that it was built on and out of the ruins of a great castle was noted by Sir Thomas Deane in 1884.[96] I first identified the castle,—which he attributed to Brian Boru, but which is an unmistakably Norman court, with great circular turrets at three angles,—with the ‘round-towery, strong castle’ built by Thomas de Clare in 1280 at Cuinche. It is likely that the MacNamaras, after the fall of Bunratty in 1334 and before 1350, gave its site, as a thankoffering for their victory, to God and the monks of St. Francis, so I shall place the legends of the ‘Abbey’ in this period. Tradition near Tulla points to some enclosures, a little over a mile from the village and in low ground at the foot of ‘Abbey Hill,’ as the place where ‘the MacNamaras began to build Quin Abbey.’ The quarry from which its stones were drawn is shown on the hillside. At Quin it is said to have been built by the Gobbán saor, the famous legendary Master Builder, to whom so many Round Towers, churches, castles, and abbeys of the ninth to the fifteenth centuries are attributed. He twisted the spiral pillars in its beautiful cloister with his own hands. One of the builders fell from the roof and was killed, where an ancient tombstone, with an axe incised on it, marks the place of his burial. Several traditions are told about Sioda, near Kilkishen. He was said to have caught a water horse, and, after being ridden for many years, it ran away with him one day, dinting a rock with its hoofs as it sprang, with the chieftain on its back, into Cullaunyheeda Lake, thence called after his name ‘Heeda.'[97] Another tale says that Sioda was not drowned, but sleeps beneath the waters, not to waken until summoned to the final battle for the independence of Ireland.

The peel towers rising so numerously in the country mostly date from about 1430 to 1480. Tradition attributes Rossroe Castle to Sioda MacNamara, who built Quin Abbey in 1402. Danganbrack and Ballymarkahan are also rightly assigned to the MacNamaras, after Quin Abbey was erected, as I was told about Ballymarkahan in 1906. Near Clonlara seven brothers built ‘seven’ castles ‘against each other,’ and were ‘all’ killed by their brothers. I heard the story first in 1868, when a mere child, and think that there was a princess or a beautiful lady in it about whom the brothers quarrelled, but I barely recollect it, and in 1889 could not recover more than ‘the seven brothers who killed each other.’

Perhaps to this period should be attributed the tale of a certain monk of Ennis ‘Abbey’ trying to cross the Fergus during a flood. The current being too strong, he called to some men to help him over, but they refused, and he cursed Ennis that no man of Ennis should ever be able to do any good for the place.[98]

The monks of Ennis told in the seventeenth century how Conor ‘Nasatus’ (i.e. Conchobhar na Srona) O’Brien, Prince of Thomond from 1466, was on his death in 1496 seized by devils. Brother Fergal O’Trean, a man of holy life, when he saw them carrying off the prince, prayed earnestly for him, and that very hour a holy hermit at Lismore, where no one had heard of Conor’s death, announced that the prince’s soul was saved by the prayers of a holy monk at Ennis.[99]

O’Quin and the Swan-Maiden
The fullest and most beautiful of the Clare folk-tales is connected in its most popular versions with Tyge Ahood (i.e. Tadgh an Comhad) O’Brien, Prince of Thomond, who reigned from 1461-6. But it is not of his time, nor indeed of any historic time, but a local version of a world-wide myth.[100] The Inchiquin legend was first published by Dr. G. Petrie in 1840, and then in ‘Memorials of Adare’ by Lord Dunraven, who claimed descent from the O’Quins of Inchiquin.[101] 1 The best and fullest modern version is given by Dr. G. U. MacNamara, whose fields run down to the lake and have in view the castle of Inchiquin and the church of Coad. The ‘Ordnance Survey Letters’ give a recension of the same date as Petrie’s. I may add that the power of the O’Quins as a tribe was really broken long before 1460, in the opinion of some several generations before the Norman invasion, and in that of others as late as 1180. But at any rate the O’Quins were of good standing down to the Norman invasion. Edaom, daughter of O’Quin and Queen of Munster, died on a pilgrimage to Derry in 1188. The ‘Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh’ barely mentions the family as fighting at Corcomroe in 1317, when Mathgamhan O’Brien held Inchiquin and its island castle.

In 1839 the tale was located at the rock platform, at the upper end of the lake, called Doonaun, or, at that time, Duneán ui chuinn (‘O’Quin’s rock fort’).[102] Conor O’Quin, the chief, walking by the lake, saw a lovely woman on the south shore, combing her hair. She vanished on his approach. This happened three times. O’Quin was consumed with love for her, and at last, seeing her take off a dark hood, he succeeded in stealing upon her and catching up the hood so that she could not escape. He seized her ‘without even saying ‘your servant, ma’am!’ or any other decent good-morrow,’ and asked her to be his wife. She consented, and they were married and lived most happily for several years. At last O’Brien of Lemeneagh and others got up races at Coad, and O’Quin went to them, after promising his wife not to invite any guest nor to accept any man’s invitation. He forgot his promise, asked O’Brien back to a sumptuous feast, and played cards with him. His wife took her hood, stole out, and disappeared. O’Quin staked all he had on the cards, and lost. He lived on, a lonely and miserable man, as a dependent of O’Brien, who allowed him to dwell in ‘de Clare’s Court’ or ‘O’Quin’s Ruin’ on the Fergus just above the lake.[103]

Petrie tells how a young chief of the O’Quins saw a number of lovely swans sporting on the western shore of the lake. He caught one and brought it to his home, where to his amazement it threw off its downy covering and appeared as a maid of the greatest beauty. Madly in love he proposed marriage, and she accepted him on the three conditions that (1) the marriage should be kept a secret, (2) he should never ask O’Brien to his house, and (3) he should avoid all games of chance. Some happy years passed by, and brought two children. Then there were races at Coad, O’Quin asked some O’Briens to his house, and his wife after preparing the feast resumed her swan dress, wept over her children, and plunged into the lake. O’Quin, ignorant of his loss, commenced gambling, and lost all his property to ‘Tiege an cood O’Brien,’ the most distinguished of his guests. Petrie is inclined to rationalize the tale, and to suppose that, in consequence of the chief’s concealed and probably lowly marriage, the tribe repudiated him, pointing out that the O’Quin pedigree given by MacFirbis breaks off about 1460. But the widespread occurrence of the tale does not favour a local source, although it may have been locally adapted with that love for definite topographical and historic setting so characteristic of the Irish.

Dr. MacNamara took pains to get the best modern recension, so I give this in preference to my own scanty notes made in 1884 at Kilnaboy.[104] The young chief of Clan Ifearnain was hunting deer on Keentlae, and in his eager pursuit of a stag got parted from his companions. As he wandered along the shore of the lake he saw five beautiful swans playing in the water. They came ashore, took off their plumage, and became maidens of exquisite beauty. After a moment’s amazement he ran out. They threw on their feathered robes,—all save one,—and flew away. O’Quin had seized one dress, and the four other swans, with plaintive cries, disappeared, leaving their sister weeping. O’Quin led her back to his castle, comforted her, and won her love. But she asked two pledges before her marriage,—that it should be kept a secret, and that no O’Brien should be admitted under their roof. Seven years passed by, the pair and their two beautiful children living in ever-increasing happiness. Then, one fatal day, there were races at Coad, and O’Quin met Teigue an chomad O’Brien, brought him home, drank freely, commenced gambling, and lost all his lands and property. The ruined man rushed to his only remaining possession, his wife and children, but to his horror found his wife in her swan dress with a cygnet held under each wing. She gave him one look of sorrowful reproach, flew out over the misty lake, and disappeared forever.

Lord and Lady Dunraven have published an artificial-seeming story of the O’Quin’s ruin, but neither Dr. MacNamara nor I ever found any trace of it among the people of Inchiquin.[105] According to this story, Rory the Black, son of Donal O’Quin, gets into the wilds while hunting, meets Merulan the wizard and revives him after a bad fall, and is given a magic jewel (a golden butterfly). He saves a girl from drowning, and finds that she is Enna, daughter of a wood kern but of rarest beauty. He marries her secretly, and then finds that his father has betrothed him to Maud, daughter of O’Brien, King of Thomond. He refuses the princess, and is imprisoned until weary of his dungeon, although the jewel lights it brilliantly. He yields, and determines to repudiate his low-born bride. As he rides to O’Brien’s Court, he gets benighted, but no ray shines from the jewel; this awakes his conscience, and as he repents the light returns. He puts off his visit until his old father dies, and, as chief, avows his marriage. O’Brien hurls an army against him and seizes his territory, and the hapless chief flies with no other possessions than his talisman and the love of his wife. This tale seems to have been either invented, or recast from ‘a forgotten memory’ of the real folk-tale, probably by Lady Dunraven.

In the versions which I heard of the genuine story in 1884 the number of the swans was seven, but, as will have been seen above, the older versions mention one and ‘a number,’ while Dr. MacNamara heard of five. The lake actually abounds in these beautiful birds. I have myself often seen more than forty wild swans at one time sailing or playing on the waters.


Chapter 7


Chapter 9