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A Folklore Survey of County Clare by Thomas Johnson Westropp


Fairies and Fairy Forts and Mounds

MacCraith, in the ‘Triumphs of Torlough’, in describing the prognostics of the death of Prince Donchad early in the fourteenth century says that ‘lights shone on the fairy forts,’ and it has already been noted that the sidhs or fairy mounds were lodgings of appalling apparitions, like Bronach when not at her proper residence in the lower deep. The ‘Dindsenchas’,—that early encyclopædia invaluable for everything but the reliable account of the origin of place names which it purports to be,—describes how a lady dwelling in such a mound sprang out at her would-be lover in the form of a dragon.[35] Probably such beliefs, and the consequent fear of irate and deadly beings in earthworks, have helped until recent years to preserve the residential earthen ‘forts,’ although the ring walls were destroyed with but little scruple. Nevertheless the son of a farmer named Nihill told me in 1892 that, after some days wreckage and removal of the outer wall of the fine triple stone fort of Cahercalla, near Quin, his father was stricken with acute pain, and only recovered from his illness when the work was stopped,—whence this interesting ruin has been preserved to the present day. A certain landlord, still living, nearly lost the use of one eye from the dust of an explosion when blasting a rock in an earth fort which was being removed, and this incident has upheld the faith and fear of the fairies in north-eastern Clare. A locally famous ‘astronomer’ and weather prophet tried, many years ago, to blast a dolmen in Inchiquin Barony, and a splinter hit his hand, which was badly injured and afterwards festered. The wreckage of the dolmen was lying untouched on the ground a few years ago. The collapse of a calf shed on its occupants followed the demolition of Templenaraha oratory for building the unstable structure;[36] this might be ascribed to a more sacred anger than that of the fairies, but the oratory stood in a ring fort. Another case of supposed vengeance occured near Lehinch on the Atlantic. Some workmen were employed to level the earthworks of Dooneeva,[37] a fort on a low cliff at the end of the bay and near the modern Protestant Church. The man who originated this outrage was digging at the mounds when he fell to all appearance dead. The news was at once taken to his wife, a reputed ‘wise woman,’ and she ran to a ‘fairy spot’ and ‘did magic.’ She then went to her apparently lifeless husband, and ordered the fairies in a peremptory way to restore him at once and take his stick. Then, before everyone, the stick vanished, and the ‘dead man’ sat up none the worse for his ‘rapture to the land of faëry.’[38] The date of this event could not be fixed, but it seems to be attributed to the period before 1840, and Dooneeva seems to have been in its present condition in 1839.

Two forts named Lissardcarney and Ballyhee in Templemaley Parish were in 1839 reputed strongholds garrisoned by troops of fairies. The songs of the fairies were heard in Cahernanoorane in Inchiquin, and Liskeentha near Noughaval.[39] They danced in the Lisnarinkas, played ‘hurley’ in Lisfearbegnagommaun, and laid in wait to worry the belated traveller in Rathfollane and a small fort near the rectory, to the south of it, near Newmarket-on-Fergus. Fairies haunted the well of Tobersheefra, while even at the holy well of the powerful and vengeful St. Mochulla at Fortanne milk was once offered to them. The butter had refused to ‘come,’ and the mistress of the house, (a Protestant woman of good birth and fair education), as she told me herself about 1878, took some of the refractory milk to the well, made the sign of the cross over it, said the Lord’s Prayer, dug a hole in the mud at the well with her left heel, and went away without looking back. As might have been expected, the butter had ‘come’ by the time she had got home again, and she used to quote the case as ‘proof positive.’ Besides the forts and wells, the dolmens are believed to have been fairy homes, but in my enquiries since 1892 I have never been able to authenticate a case of offerings at them of milk and butter, although small basins like the Swedish ‘elf mills’ are found in the covers of more than one of these structures, and large bullauns or basins at others, such as Ballyganner Hill near Noughaval, Cappaghkennedy on the hills above Corofin, and Newgrove and Kiltanon near Tulla in eastern Clare. Food and drink, however, have been, until at least the present century, set out in plates and cups in Inchiquin and Moyarta Baronies, and in the latter, on the Shannon bank, the slops were thrown out and clean plates, water, chairs, and a well-swept hearth left by a punctilious servant for fairy guests in 1888 or 1889.

The greatest fairy monarch in Clare was ‘Donn of the Sandhills’ (now the golf links), near the old castle of Doogh, (i.e. Dumhach or Sand Dune), near Lehinch. He, or one of the other fairy princes named Donn, appears in a list of the divine race of the Tuatha Dé Danann,[40] and is therefore of the family of the Dagda, and, it may be presumed, a lineal descendant of the ancient Ana, Mother of the Gods. A well-known Irish scholar and antiquary, Andrew MacCurtin, before 1730 addressed a political petition to Donn of Dumhach complaining, like most Irish antiquaries, of the neglect of the gentry, and praying for any menial post at his Court.[41] As there was none that answered, the petitioner had to rest content with the hospitality of the MacDonnells of Kilkee and the O’Briens of Ennistymon. Donn’s heartless conduct met poetic justice, for he has ever since ‘lacked a sacred bard,’ and, save for a slight uneasiness in a few poor old people passing across the sandhills after the golfers have left and the sun has set, he is now all but forgotten. In another poem of MacCurtin’s, on a monk’s horse ‘overlooked’ and killed by the evil eye, or by the look of a red-haired woman, or by ‘the stroke of a fairy,’ the poet recommends the holy man to get the aid of a local practitioner of renown, Peter the Fairy Killer.[42]

In recent years I have met only one sign of true respect for the ‘Sheevra’ race. A small patch of land was left untilled in the midst of a cornfield at the end of the steep descent from Carran old church to Eanty in the Burren. It was left for three years amidst the tillage, and then the field was allowed to return to grass. The owners obviously disliked to explain the matter, but the act was clearly understood in the neighbourhood as a concession to the spirits of the field when the grass land was broken up for the first time in human memory.[43]

The appearances of the fairies also seem now very rare indeed. At Newmarket-on-Fergus, a centre of much folklore, we find that, besides the two forts named above and a low earth mound (perhaps sepulchral), only one spot has been honoured by an actual apparition in the last ten years. In this case a man walking on the Ennis road, not far from Lough Gaish, saw a very little man neatly dressed in green and walking on the path. Suspecting the green man to be a leprechaun,—and hence an owner of gold,—the Clare man tried to grasp him, but the sprite vanished out of his hands.[44]

The ‘literary movement’ will probably affect the folklore very soon, as it is already affecting historical tradition,—which is shown by the variations in certain legends collected at long intervals at the same sites. By some the Danann have been identified with the Danes as ‘fort builders.’ If this were so, why did Dane’s fort become Caher Loghlanach, (Caher Loglin, 1652), and similar forms? The people once knew better, for forts were attributed to all sorts of times and races, not only to members of the Tuatha Dé Danann, but also to Firbolgs and mythical persons such as Aenghus, Eerish, Eir, Farvagh, and Croaghan, and Celts such as Lachtna (A.D. 820-840), and Brian Boru (A.D. 980-1014). In one notable instance, King Conor (A.D. 1242-69) is the reputed builder of the great stone fort of Dun Conor in Aran, which in the eleventh-century legend is evidently connected with Conchiurn or Conchread the Firbolg,—a relation accepted in 1685 by Roderic O’Flaherty, although he called its hero ‘Conquevar’ (i.e. Chonchobhar or Conor). Any modern allusion to the Danann is therefore ‘suspect.’ Many visits to the recesses of the hills in Burren from 1878 onwards,—and I may add that the same is true of the rest of Clare,—only gave me, in 1905, one direct reference to the Danann.[45] At the natural moat crowned by the small stone ring wall of Croaghateeaun, near Lisdoonvarna, we were told to cross ourselves as a protection against the Danann. The place was, nevertheless, undoubtedly regarded by the older people living near it as a most dangerous fairy fort, and we were told how certain badger hunters,—(who brought drink with them),—after a long festival on its summit got benighted there; they eventually returned home sobered by fright, as they suddenly ‘saw the whole fleet’ of ‘them’ coming up the mound, and escaped only just in time.

The ‘whirlwinds’ along dusty roads and sudden gusts were not long ago everywhere supposed to be caused by the progress of fairy beings. The older folk believed, and trembled,—crossing themselves, or saying a word of prayer,—while the younger folk, more than half in jest, raised their hats, as is still sometimes done to the unlucky ‘single magpie’ and the weasel. I know of two cases of reputed changelings. My second sister, whose delicacy, when an infant, excited remark, was, about 1842, taken out by a servant to be exposed on a shovel on the doorstep at Carnelly. The angry and hasty intervention of another servant saved the child, but the would-be ‘exposer’ was convinced of the propriety of her attempt ‘to get back the real child’ from the fairies. A very old woman, Kate (Geerin) Molony, a henwife at Maryfort, near Tulla, whom I faintly remember in 1869, was many years before anxious about her little daughter’s failing health, and went to a ‘wise woman,’ who assured her that the child was ‘changed.’ She spoke of this on her return, and unfortunately the patient was old enough to understand the fearful decision. The poor child turned over on the bed with a groan, and was a little later found to be dead.

I have dealt with place names and legends of names, banshees, the death coach, and fairies, and I propose to deal mainly with other appearances of a spectral or spiritual character. In doing this it is necessary carefully to avoid attributing to older writers beliefs which they never held. It is more than probable that the writer of the ‘Wars of the Gaedhil with the Gaill’, and Seean MacCraith, the author of the ‘Triumphs of Torlough’, were no more under a delusion when they personified the spirits of Valour, Bloodshed, Terror, and Sovereignty than the modern journalist who writes of ‘Public Opinion sitting in judgement,’ or the ‘Spirit of Loyalty attending King George.’ The first ancient writer, describing the terrors of the deadly combat of the Irish and the Norse in 1014, tells us that there was ‘a bird of valour and championship fluttering over Murchad’s head and flying on his breath.’ He also tells how there flew a dark, merciless, (and many more adjective-endowed) bodbh, screaming and fluttering over the combatants, while ‘the satyrs (bannanaig), the idiots, the maniacs of the glens, the witches, the goblins, the ancient birds, the destroying demons of the air and sky, and the feeble demonic phantom host’ arose to accompany the warriors in the combat. He probably meant little more than ‘Amazement in the van and Flight combined with Sorrow’s faded form and Solitude behind,’ though possibly the various uncanny ‘creatures of the wild’ were real to him in their proper places in the hills and glens, but not in daylight on the fields beside Dublin. The second writer (circa 1350) describes King Torlough, about 1286, returning from a successful raid, which has left its mark very clearly on the legal rolls of the day, ravaging the English lands round the mountains of eastern County Limerick and northern Tipperary, and marching up the western (Clare) shore of Lough Derg. A lovely maiden appeared, ‘modest, strange in aspect, glorious in form, rosy-lipped, soft-taper-handed, pliant-wavy-haired, white-bosomed.’ She was the ‘Sovereignty of Erin’ come to rebuke the chief for letting de Burgh dissuade him from attempting the reconquest of all Ireland, and vanished in a lustrous cloud. The author’s intent here is unmistakable. MacCraith has one other passage, so suggestive and remarkable that it can only be regarded as a literal statement of the beliefs of the warriors at the burial of some of whom his father, Ruadri, presided, a few years later, in 1317. Donchad, a prince of the Clan Torlough line, aided by William de Burgh, gave his deadly enemy, Richard de Clare, a severe defeat near Bunratty in 1311. At the moment of victory de Burgh was captured by the foe, and the victors fled in undescribable confusion,—the English to their nearest castles, and the Irish to their stone strongholds, the great terraced mountains of Burren. De Clare and his protegé, Prince Dermot, camped on two ridges at Cruchwill and Tullycommaun, a long ridge capped with tumuli, dolmens, and ‘forts.’ Donchad lay across the valley and lake on the spurs of Slieve Carran opposite. The soldiers of Donchad, we are told, ‘were disturbed by phantoms and delusive dreams, lights shone on the fairy forts,’ the waves of Erin [46] groaned, ‘the deep plaint resounded from the woods and streams,’ shades were seen, and hollow groans were heard. This is evidently a true tale of the reminiscences of the depressed and anxious men who lay looking at the foes’ camp fires opposite. I have often heard with wonder on these lonely hills

‘undescribed sounds
That come a swooning over hollow grounds
And wither drearily on barren moors,’

the noise of the winds in the rocks and bushes, the strange prattle of streams in crannies deep down in the rocks, the cry of night birds, the whisper and rustle of the wind on the grass and heather, and those weird sounds, booming and sobbing out of nowhere, which are supposed to arise from underground streams and caverns.


Chapter 3


Chapter 5