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A Folklore Survey of County Clare by Thomas Johnson Westropp


Supernatural Animals

There is a rich fauna of supernatural animals in the county, even snakes being represented in it. There can be little doubt that the highly imaginative early Irish personified the more terrifying powers of nature, such as the sea, the storm, and the thunder. The roaring, writhing waves in a sea creek or river swirl may have suggested some great creature, (too great to be natural), wallowing under the waters, and so given rise to the endless péist names and legends, in which a distinction is never drawn between the spectral and the natural.

'Peists'. Dysert O'Dea
'Peists'. Dysert O'Dea

Ireland, although free from serpents at all times known to science, was yet much dominated by them mentally. Probably no lake of any importance in Clare was untenanted by a serpent, a wonderful animal, or a city. A péist could, however, be chained or slain by a hero or saint, and the majority of the péists were believed to have been eliminated by such warriors in the same way as the bear and, later, the wolf were cleared away by ordinary mortals. Péist only meant beast, and seems to mean no more in many place-names not belonging to lakes or river pools. Cappanapeasta near Inchicronan need not imply a monster, but Poulnapeasta we may always venture to translate as ‘water dragon’s lair.’ There are many examples in tradition of the ‘dweller in the waters,’ ‘the serpent-god of this hallowed stream.’ In the ‘Hunting of Sliabh Truim’ we find a péist with ‘ears as large as the gate of a Cathair’ (stone fort) and ‘tusks as big as a tree.’[65] The saga of ‘Da Derga’s Hostel’ brings into one the Norse, Irish, and Hebrew beliefs of the péist, Midgard Snake, and Leviathan by its tale of the ‘Leuidan, that surrounds the globe and strikes with its tail to overturn the world.’[66] The ‘Feis tighe chonain’ and ‘Hunting of Sliabh Truim’ are full of allusions, and contain a dialogue with a Grecian péist, and tell how Finn slew spectres, arrachs, and aimids (women bugbears), and ‘banished from the raths (earth forts) each péist.’ Even in a nearly contemporary history of a hero of the time of Canute, a Clare prince Murchad, son of King Brian, and, like his father, slain at the moment of victory in 1014, is described as ‘the second powerful Hercules who destroyed and exterminated péists and monsters.’[67] It is interesting to note how the deserted forts, even in pre-Norman times,[68] were believed to be the haunt of strange monsters, and to afford an equivalent to ‘big game shooting’ for the local warriors:

‘He slew the spectre of Drom Cliabh,
And the spectre and serpent of Lough Ree.
Fionn banished from the raths
Each piast he went to meet.
A serpent in the refulgent Shannon
He slew by frequenting the ‘lake.’’[69]

First in importance amongst the péists is the ‘Cata.’ St. Senan (about A.D. 500) found that this monster dwelt in Iniscatha, now Scattery, in the estuary of the Shannon, where Finn had killed a like infester. The Cata devoured the saint’s smith, Narach, but Senan brought him forth again alive. The subsequent combat promised great things, but ended tamely. The Cata advanced ‘its eyes flashing flame, with fiery breath, spitting venom and opening its horrible jaws,’ but Senan made the sign of the cross, and the beast collapsed and was chained and thrown into Doolough near Mount Callan (the black lake, ‘Nigricantis aquae juxta montem Callain in Tuamonia’).[70] In the oldest (metrical) Life of Senan, the péist appears as the ‘immanis bellua’ or ‘bestia,’ while Iniscatha is rendered ‘Belluanam Insulam.’ The legend is alluded to even in the late eighth-century ‘Calendar of Oengus’ under March 8th, ‘Senan of InisCathaig gibbetted Naroch’s foe.’ The story is remembered widely, and among all classes at Scattery and along both banks of the river, at Kilkee, Kilmihil, and round Doolough and Miltown Malbay. In the fifteenth-century details of the ‘Cathedral’ of Scattery a large-eyed dragon with crocodile jaws is conspicuous; there was another carving at Kilrush; and a third,—the ‘pattern-stone’ removed from Scattery and until lately at Kilkee,—showed the Cata as ‘the amphibious beast of this blessed Isle,’ a nondescript creature with spiked back, scales, fish tail, nose curling up spirally, and clawed forefeet.

St. MacCreehy, a generation later than Senan (about 580), rivals the latter as a ‘dragon queller.’ He subdued the ‘Bruckee,’ a demon badger (broc sidh), at Rath Blathmaic near Inchiquin, which slew men and cattle and resisted the prayers of six local saints.[71] MacCreehy by his holiness soon overpowered and chained it; the aged saint then threw it

‘Deep in that forgotten mere
Among the tumbled fragments of the hills’

below the hill of Scamhal (or Scool) where its den Poulnabruckee (Poll na broic sidhe) is still shown. As already suggested the Bruckee may have been a bear, and ‘a terrible bear,—he is death to a herd of cattle’ in ‘Bricriu’s Feast’ [72] sounds like an allusion to a common occurrence. The Bruckee on ‘MacCreehy’s tomb’ in Kilmacreehy church, on the shore of Liscannor Bay, is exactly like the Cata carvings in Scattery, with long pointed ears, large eyes, and huge jaws blunt-ended, but bristling with pointed teeth. In the fifteenth century it had become a dragon in local belief.

Rath-Blathmaic. 'Broc-Sidhe' and 'Sheelah'
Rath-Blathmaic. 'Broc-Sidhe' and 'Sheelah'

Another Bruckee haunted Shandangan Lough near Corofin, a little pool famous, when I first knew it, for remarkable changes of colour. There are two funnel holes, eight to ten feet wide, full of water, in the soft ground near the pool which are still regarded with fear and suspicion. Ned Quin of Coad, a honest truthful man who died about eight years ago, firmly believed that he had seen the Bruckee in this lake. When he and a man named Pilkington were passing by, they saw a brown hairy monster swimming and plunging in the water, and it had eyes as large as turnips.[73] It was probably a ‘tussock’ of peat and coarse grass that had, as often happens, fallen off the crumbling shore. There is no tradition that this pest was confined by the local sainted lady (Findclu) Inghean Baoith.

John Windele, amongst much speculation as to there being a dragon temple (dracontium) at Scattery and others at Loop Head in Clare and at Dun Farvagh in the Middle Isle of Aran, asserts, on the authority of ‘The Adventures of the Three Sons of Thorailbh’, a romance written in 1750, that several other formidable monsters belong to this district.[74] These were the Faracat,[75] Fearboc or Fearbach, and three other dragons, the spawn of the ‘all-devouring sow, on the rock of Cruine’ reared by ‘the red demon of Doolough.’ Comyn, in the same romance, derives the name of Illaunmattle, an island off the neighbouring coast, from the Matal, a formidable beast, (perhaps a demon boar), defeated by the same heroes.[76] How far those of Comyn’s stories without local attestation are genuine folklore is doubtful. Akin to these monsters is the mighty serpent hunted and slain by the O’Briens’ army down the valley of the Daelach in Corcomroe. They stoned it with rocks which still form the great cairn of Carnconnachtach, near Ennistymon, over its remains.[77] This cairn, being at Ballydeely (Daelach’s town par excellence), may have been the reputed tomb of the Firbolg chief Daelach, son of Umór, and is almost certainly the ‘Carn mic Tail’ where the O’Conors of Corcamodruad inaugurated their chiefs.

These beliefs are obviously early, as in the ‘Agallamh’ of ‘The Book of Lismore’[78] is a lough péist which kills men and hounds, and ‘The Book of Feenagh’ tells of ‘Loc na pesti,’ where a hideous péist slew 900 youths as they bathed. The ‘Seanchus Mór’ has a lake monster, the Murdris, which expands and contracts like a smith’s bellows. The same idea takes shape in the reputed gigantic (if not supernatural) eels and pikes in certain lakes. An enormous pike haunts Gurteen Lough, an old property of the Stamers, in Lower Bunratty. The peasants dare not bathe in its waters, and believe they have seen in the dusk a huge misty form in the lough and even crawling up its shores, whence it has frequently carried off lambs, and even calves.[79]

In ruins and hollow trees sometimes a strong breeze from some particular point will cause a deep intermittent bellow, which might originate a belief in ghostly bulls. At Rosslara (Fortanemore) Castle near Tulla we have heard the wind from some undetermined point towards the north-west, when sufficiently strong, raise a roar so mighty as to be audible far from the ruin. I traced the noise to a small deep window nearly filled by a slope of earth and stones. The Castle enjoys the fame of being haunted, but I have heard no bull legend. At Rinroe (or Elmhill) Castle near Clonlara, the bull was seen about 1890 by the then owner of the farm on which the ivied tower stands. Having missed several ‘trams’ of hay, the farmer was lying in wait in some bushes in the Castle field, and at last saw a huge black bull come out of the ruin, and throw its tail round a ‘tram’ of hay and draw it into the castle.[80] There is an old lane way at a beautiful spot on the shore of Lough Derg opposite to the ‘Holy Island’ of Iniscaltra with its lofty round tower and clustered churches with their noble setting of lake and mountains. In this old road are two dreaded spots, one haunted by a ghostly black bull with fiery eyes, and the other by a less awe-inspiring object ‘a ghost like a turkey cock’! Farther north is the scene of a curious variant of the Bishop Hatto legend, with frogs instead of rats and a brutal boy in place of a cruel prelate.[81]

Water Cattle
I have not found a water-bull legend clearly told in Clare, but cow’s horns are seen over the waters of one lake and ‘something roared’ under the waters of another.[82] In 1877 I heard of cattle coming out of some lake near Kilkishen, (perhaps Cullaun, with its enchanted city or palace), but I could not recover the story when searching twenty years later. ‘Loch na bó girre which is called loch Gréine’ is given [83] as an old name for the large lake of Lough Graney in the Aughty mountains on the north border of Clare. This probably implies that it had a legend like that of Lough bo Girr, near Cahir in County Tipperary, whence an enormous long-horned cow used to issue.

Púcas and Horses
Though the púca has influenced very often the place-names of Clare, its legends in the county are dry and vague. One man near Clonlara had the misfortune to become its sport. It took the form of a pony, and, finding the man searching for treasure in a gravel-pit, in which he had dreamed that gold was concealed, bore him away on a long rough ride and dropped him at the spot from which it started, where he was found bruised and insensible next morning.[84] The púca also appears as a hideous goat. I was told by a servant, about 1870, of a demon ‘black puck-goat with fiery eyes’ appearing to a poor country woman on a roadside bank in the Cratloe hills.[85] The tale was very blood-curdling, but, doubtless to my relief then but regret now, I put it out of mind, and now forget its details. The púca always puts its hoof on the blackberries at Michaelmas, after which they become unfit to eat.[86]

A recent apparition of the púca of Clonlara was described to me in 1911 as a dark, shadowy horse near the bridge over the Blackwater, about two miles to the south-west of the village. My nephew, Dr. Hugh Gerald Westropp, heard of similar appearances about 1888.

Of spirit horses other than the púca, I have heard of one at a deep gravel quarry, near Trough in the same hills. The ghostly presentment of a Limerick gentleman, a Mr. Furnell, appeared one moonlight night on horseback. He rode at full gallop, with hounds in full cry, and the sound of horns, across the upper field, leaped the fence, and disappeared into the quarry with a crash and groan. Mr. Francis Drew of Drewsborough, who was driving past with a friend, recognised and called to the ghostly rider; when he saw the supposed accident, he ran into the quarry, but could find nothing. Next day he heard of the death of the hunter, but far away from the quarry.[87]

Supernatural, but evidently material, were the horses which came out of the caves of Kilcorney in the heart of the Burren,[88] 8 for they left descendants, noted for their high spirits and fierceness, by earthly mares in the valley. A similar tale of sea-horses coming out of Galway Bay was told some thirty-five years since, and we owned a reputed scion of their race, a cob from Connemara on the opposite side of the Bay.

One spectral dog haunts the road between Carrigaholt and Ross in the long peninsula of the Irrus, and is believed to be the spirit of a comparatively recent local celebrity, ‘Robin of Ross,’ of whom many tales are told. He was a member of the Keane family, and one version makes his ghost a different dog from the one near Carrigaholt.[89] Another dog accompanies a human ghost on its nightly patrol between the railway bridge and the cemetery at the venerable church and shattered round tower of Dromcliff. The precincts of Ennistymon House were haunted by the spectre of a large black hound, quite harmless.[90] Once very famous, but now nearly forgotten, was the ghostly ‘Black Dog of Cratloe.’ Many believed that they had seen the apparition, which used often to accompany the D’Esterre’s coach and the mail car. My mother and my brother Ralph Hugh Westropp, who travelled through the great floods of the Shannon on February 1st, 1869, told a very circumstantial tale of the dog.[91] I was present at its first telling, before they heard from our old servant, Mrs. Julia MacHugh, of the local belief. The tale, I have heard, was fully confirmed by their driver and a guide, a workman of the D’Esterres, who piloted them along a flooded and unfenced reach of the road a little to the east of Bunratty. A large, dark, shadowy dog seemed to run upon the moonlit water, first to one side and then to the other of the carriage, and was more than once lashed at by the driver. It disappeared near where the road ascends from the low marshy ‘corcasses’ along the foot of the Cratloe hills. Julia MacHugh, a woman of wide local knowledge, at once ‘explained’ the apparition and said that the omen was good if the dog ran alongside, but bad if he leaped at the carriage or horses. On one occasion he leaped at the mail car, and soon afterwards its driver was thrown off and killed on the spot. I recently learnt that a ghostly black dog haunts by night the lonely road above the old ruined house of Glenomera.

The belief that seals are disguised human beings prevailed, I am told, in Clare forty years ago, at least along the Kilkee coast.[92] I never heard it myself from fisherfolk. A little further north, from Connemara up to Mayo, the Kinealys are reputed to be descended from a beautiful seal-woman. The belief is nearly universal, and is attached even to a few of the family in Clare.

Early this year a clever intelligent man, near Ennis, went with a boy and a ferret to shoot rabbits from a fort. Three ran out and were shot at and missed. The man then called the boy to come at once, and ran off in great excitement and fear, saying that the rabbits were fairies. Some such belief must be widely spread, as Mrs. MacDonnell of Newhall told me that, when a girl, she took up a small and very tame white rabbit in the glen at Edenvale and immediately afterwards found that she had lost a ring. The people who helped in the search, and her father’s gamekeeper, were convinced that the rabbit was a fairy and had taken the ring with it.

I have read of an enchanted bird which was caught in the cave of Kilcorney and spoke with a human voice.[93] The ravens and owls connected with the Ross-Lewins, Westropps, and other families as death warnings have already been referred to.


Chapter 7


Chapter 9