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Curses on the McInerney family of Co Clare: A folktale from Sixmilebridge
by Luke McInerney


Commentary on the Text

The folktale is handwritten chiefly in English with Irish being the language of the seven ‘curses’. Written in Cló Gaelach the curses contain topographical and historical themes from which we can distill useful information. Connor Ryan recorded the poem in 1825 from a copy of the tale provided by a local woman, Miss Wilson. This fact hints at the likelihood that the folktale was in local circulation. The reference to Shepperton House, a late eighteenth century ‘big house’ of the Fitzgeralds, alludes to eighteenth century elements in the folktale. The placement of the McInerheney lands in the vicinity of Ballysallagh and Treannahow and their status as a landholding lineage is vindicated in the historical record prior to the mid-seventeenth century, testifying to the accuracy of folk-memory.[63]

Of particular interest are the curses of Caitlín on the McInerheney and O’Brien family branches. The curses, for the most part, centre on the themes of agricultural wealth and prosperity (or lack of it), sorrow and famine. To this end, they are typical of the repertoire of curses found amongst Irish folktales. Five curses are directed at the McInerheney branches of: Coonagh (‘Cuineach’), Middlethird Cratloe (‘Creatlighe meadhan’), Knockdurlus (‘Chnoc Duiluis’),[64] Smithstown (‘Baile na nGaibhne’) and Teermaclane (‘Tir mac calain’). Two curses were placed on the O’Brien family of Killone (‘Cileeóin’) and Knockanimana (‘Cnuic na nGíomanách’). It is significant that the first curse was directed at the ‘síol mbriain’ (progeny of the Uí Bhriain) of Killone. It was the ruling lineage of the O’Briens who founded Killone convent in the twelfth century.

It is clear that Connor Ryan was bilingual. However the text was probably in the handwriting of Sir Lucius O’Brien, presumably recopying Ryan’s original text into his collection of verse and prose. It is fortunate that an insightful document from 1820 has survived that sheds light on the prevalence of Irish in Co. Clare.[65] We can deduce that the eastern portion of Co. Clare was bi-lingual as was northwest Co. Tipperary. West of the Fergus River in central Co. Clare, however, the picture changes and Irish was the normal tongue for communication. A large population of monoglot Irish speakers existed from Drumcliffe in central Co. Clare to Rathbourney in northwest Co. Clare, and continued to expand on the back of demographic trends until the famine.[66] Individual Irish speakers can be identified in 1911 in Kilnasoolagh and adjacent parishes, while at Mooghane, north of Newmarket-on-Fergus, a Gaeltacht survived into the 1870s.[67]

We can speculate that the preservation of the curses in Irish in a folktale from Sixmilebridge may infer a general knowledge of Irish amongst the population there; this should not be stressed too much but it is curious that the curses were preserved in Irish. The rhyme and metre of the verses made them easy to recite in Irish and difficult to translate into English. This may attest to the survival of the oldest element in the folktale’s writing. The Irish used is corrupt in its form and obscure in parts; suffice to say that this might be the rump survival of a more elaborate poem or satire.

General themes that can be identified from the curses include curses on agricultural wealth and prosperity, sorrow and famine. Such themes are common to other Irish curses in the oral tradition and reflect the powers of the caileach or holy-women in the Irish church who exerted power through the threat of curse and satire. These ‘powers’ are not unlike those found amongst the learned classes of Gaelic Ireland such as the bardic poets whose verses were believed to have the power to wound and kill and who themselves were believed to have powers of divination.[68] The caileach in the Irish tradition has been argued to represent the feminine within what is perceived to be essentially a patriarchical culture.[69]

The location of McInerheney and O’Brien family branches set down in the curses is revealing. For example, the first curse directed at the O’Brien family of Killone underscores the connection between Caitlín the caileach (or nun) and the Augustinian convent. It also may have resonance due to the fact that Killone was founded by Donal Mór O’Brien in 1189 on lands belonging to the Augustinian monks at Clare Abbey. The convent served as a religious community almost exclusively for female members of the O’Brien household whose stronghold was located two miles away at Clarecastle.[70] When the convent was dissolved in 1543 the building and lands were granted to Murrough O’Brien, a descendant of the founder.

The O’Brien connection with Killone continued into the seventeenth century so it is not surprising that the folktale cites a branch of O’Briens at Killone; nonetheless what is surprising is that the family that occupied Newhall House at Killone in the mid-eighteenth century, the MacDonnells, are not mentioned. This curious fact points to a deep historical association with the O’Briens and McInerheneys to Killone which survived in folk-memory.

The references in the curses to McInerheney family branches is puzzling because the historical record does not support the presence of landholding branches of the family occupying lands at these locations. The 1641 Books of Survey and Distribution and the Inchiquin Manuscripts do not record these lands under McInerheney proprietorship. Rather, the patrimonial lands of the McInerheneys were clustered around Kilnasoolagh, Kilmaleery and Clonloghan parishes, with other parcels at Quin and Doora parishes.[71] Possibly, the locations of McInerheney branches in the folktale were derived from popular folk-memory that the McInerheneys were an important landholding lineage in Tradraighe district. Alternatively, the locations given may reflect nineteenth century realities of McInerheney landholding. It is also notable that Teermaclane appears in the seventh curse in relation to a McInerheney family branch there. While evidence does not suggest a pre-1700 connection with McInerheneys to this townland, Teermaclane is located in Killone parish and highlights the link to Killone convent in the folktale. In the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries McInerheneys were interred at Killone Abbey graveyard, including Joan McInerheny who was buried there in 1758 and Morgan McInerheny in 1793. Matthew McInerheney of Tiremeclane, Newhall, was buried there in 1786 and left a will in 1787. [72]

The folktale also makes reference to the pseudo-history of the McInerheneys. Using the popular form of the name in Irish - Mac an Oirchinn - the folktale recounts how ‘Thomas the Talian of Clann Tail, the ancestor of Mac an Oirchinn’ occupied the lands from the ‘Liberty of Limerick to Teermaclane’. This statement is consistent with historical evidence that the McInerheneys were an important landholding lineage in Tradraighe, southeast Co. Clare.[73] The reference to the McInerheneys as being descended from Clann Tail implies that they were of Dál gCais origin.

More intriguing is the reference in the text to the 800 monks at Quin Abbey. This tallies exactly with the dubious statement made by Franciscan Anthony Broudin that a monastic school operated at Quin Abbey in c.1640 and which had a population of 800 students before it was disbanded by Cromwellian soldiers in 1651.[74] Nonetheless, the consistency in the figures here is striking. This could be the case of a pseudo-historical truth influencing the folktale. A similar parallel can be drawn with the reference to Thomas McInerheney who appears as the main subject in the folktale.

c.1588 Genealogical Pedigree[75]

Tomás Mac an Oirchinnigh
The folktale is unique in its recording of Thomas McInerheney (Tomás Mac an Oirchinnigh). The folktale contains few details about Tomas. However, it mentions Thomas occupied the lands around Cowlclohy field in Ballysallagh West and the adjacent townland of Treannahow. These references accurately recount the historical locus of the Mac an Oirchinnigh sept in Kilnasoolagh parish down to the mid-seventeenth century. Further evidence can be distilled from a genealogy compiled by a hereditary chronicler to the O’Briens, Maoilín Óg Mac Bruaideadha.[76] According to this pedigree written in c.1588,[77] the landholding segment of the Mac an Oirchinnigh is set down in lineal form. The forenames in the genealogy can be cross-referenced against other genealogies, including in RIA Ms 23 L.37 whose original exemplar dates from c.1380.[78]

Tomás Mac an Oirchinnigh appears in the genealogy and, as this writer has discussed elsewhere,[79] Tomás was the common grandfather of two rival branches of the sept. Tomás’ descendants, who clashed over the proprietorship of the sept-estate, can be identified in the sixteenth century inquisition post mortem and Chancery Court material.[80] Their agnatic relationship is accurately recorded in the c.1588 genealogy; it is speculated that this genealogy was produced to support the land claims of the senior branch of the sept.[81]

The forename Tomás does not occur in the fifteenth century Mac Conmara or Mac Fhlannchadha (McClancy) genealogies[82] so its inclusion in the Mac an Oirchinnigh genealogy confers a degree of credibility on the folktale. By deducing from birth-dates given in the inquisition material and cross referencing with the c.1588 genealogy, Tomás was probably born c.1460-80.

According to two eighteenth century lists of castle builders, Tomás mac Sheaán Mhic an Oirchinnigh is credited with erecting towerhouses at Dromoland (‘Druim álain’) and Ballyconeely (‘Baile Uí Chonghaile’).[83] A second list dated to the nineteenth century credits Seaán Mac an Oirchinnigh as having erected a tower-house at Treannahow (‘Trien na hóighe’ [sic]).[84] It is unlikely that a tower-house existed at Treannahow as it was not recorded in the 1570 or 1574 list of tower-houses for the ‘Barony of Dangan-i-viggin’ (Bunratty Lower) and no such remains were found by the Ordnance Survey.[85] These accounts of castle builders are traditional and should be treated with caution. However, their value lies in the general point that the McInerheneys were responsible for erecting tower-houses in Kilnasoolagh parish and that Tomás son of Seán was responsible for this. Surveys of tower-houses in Co. Clare agree that the majority were erected in the fifteenth century.

Taken together these references pinpoint Thomas McInerheney of the folktale to a historical figure of the late fifteenth century. While only circumstantial, the singular usage of the forename Thomas (Tomás) in the Mac an Oirchinnigh pedigrees,[86] and the absence of the forename in the Mac Conmara and Mac Fhlannchadha pedigrees, supports the view that a fifteenth century ceannfine of Clann an Oirchinnigh built tower-houses in Kilnasoolagh parish. The folktale’s reference to Thomas McInerheney building a house at Cowlclohy field at Ballysallagh West (possibly confused with Castlekeale) and his occupation of the lands at Treannahow and “almost all the good ground between Limerick and Clare alongside the Shannon”, suggests a link to a historical fifteenth-century Tomás Mac an Oirchinnigh. It would not be productive to speculate further about an assumed association in the folk-memory with the historical Tomás; suffice to say that the historical parallels are compelling but the paucity of sources restricts further exploration.


Historical Context


Folktales of Killone