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


Historical Context

The corpus of folklore collected by the Irish Folklore Commission in the 1930s and 1940s relates primarily to the twentieth and mid-late nineteenth century. Older folklore accounts are few and generally confined to manuscript writings and miscellaneous recordings by antiquarians. Exceptionally, the Ordnance Survey carried out by Eugene O’Curry, a native of Clare, and John Donovan in 1839 expounded much locally derived information. As a consequence much local history is based on the exertions of these two scholars, including later works such as James Frost’s 1893 The History and Topography of the Co of Clare.[24]

The compiling, at a comparatively early date, of a folktale by a local man skilled in Irish and English credits Connor Ryan’s writing as a unique contribution amongst Co. Clare’s folklore. That the folktale was recorded prior to the Celtic Revival in the mid-nineteenth century and at a time when the collection of folklore was seldom of antiquarian interest is of relevance in establishing its credibility and authenticity. Equally, the fact that this folktale is found amongst the private collection of Sir Lucius O’Brien further adds to its reliability. Moreover, the folktale is of interest as it comprises seven ‘curses’ on the head branches of the McInerheney (Mac an Oirchinnigh) and O’Brien (Ó Briain) families in Irish (cló Gaelach). The remainder of the handwritten text is in English with Irish script used for place-names and surnames.

While the origin of the tale is obscure, Connor Ryan’s introductory remarks suggest that it was previously copied and circulated by ‘Miss Wilson’. A ‘Miss Wilson’ is recorded in the Tithe Applotment Books in October 1825 as residing at ‘Cappa[gh]’ North, a townland adjacent to Sixmilebridge. In addition, she occupied land nearby at ‘Ballyarrila’ and ‘Lisnavinana’.[25] The Wilsons of Sixmilebridge were originally an English planter family who served as land agents to the O’Briens of Dromoland.[26] This indicates that the tale was in local circulation in Sixmilebridge, probably in the guise of an older version which was subsequently transcribed by Connor Ryan.

A study of the internal evidence indicates that while the tale probably draws from surviving folk memory from the eighteenth century and earlier, it is corrupt in its form. There are specific historical associations in the text which can be explored for their factual basis. These include references to ‘Coiradh Chaitrin’ (Coradh Chaitlín, ‘weir of Caitlín’), the McInerheney family of Tradraighe district, and ecclesiastical links between the Augustinian convent at Killone and Ballysheen in Kilfinaghta parish (Sixmilebridge). There are also strong associations to Cowlclohy field in Kilnasoolagh parish.

Caitlín: patroness of Newmarket-on-Fergus
The text of the tale focuses on Caitlín, a holy woman associated with the parishes of Tradraighe, and her petitioning two landholders to build a church on their lands. The placement of Caitlín as a contemporary to Cormac, Archbishop of Cashel (d.908) and King of Munster, is probably to invent a historic context and link her to a tradition of local saints.[27] In the pre-Norman period local saints founded a succession of ecclesiastical sites in Tradraighe, including Tomfinlough (c.500s), Clonloghan (c.900s) and Kilconry (c.500s).[28] The folktale ascribes the name of Newmarket-on-Fergus village to Caitlín - ‘Coiradh Chaitrin’ - supposed patroness of Kilnasoolagh and Kilfintinan parishes and two obscure church sites: Templemartin and Templecatherine.[29] The folktale’s strong connection between Caitlín and Sixmilebridge is noteworthy and suggests a local origin for the folktale. In like manner, the implicit links to Killone convent are notable and warrant further explanation.

The folktale refers to Caitlín residing at Ballysheen (Baile Oisín, homestead of Oisín) in her youth and old age. Ballysheen and the adjoining townland of Sooreeny (Siúríní, little sisters) paid a rectorial tithe of the land to Killone convent prior to its dissolution in the 1543.[30] While the convent at Killone is not mentioned outright, the description of Caitlín as caileach (nun or holy woman) and the placing of curses on the O’Brien family of Killone confirms the connection. It can be surmised that the folktale represents a land dispute of late medieval antiquity - possibly fifteenth century - between the nuns at Killone[31] and the landholding branches of the McInerheney and O’Brien families in the vicinity of Newmarket-on-Fergus.

The Irish name for Newmarket-on-Fergus is Coradh Chaitlín; a point not missed by John O’Donovan and Eugene Curry who cite the reference in the fourteenth century Caithréim Thoirdhealbhaigh saga-text to Coradh Cille Subhalaighe as the old name of Newmarket-on-Fergus district.[32] It is generally understood that Coradh pertains to the ‘weir’ or crossing point of a stream and could have a connection to the water that flows out of Lough Gash, near Kilnasoolagh church.[33]

Kilnasoolagh itself may be derived from this stream - Cill Átha na Súileach, the church of the bubbling stream.[34] The Irish Coradh Chaitlín is first recorded amongst the Petworth House documents in 1619. Found amongst documents collective titled “Tibbott Ricrard Confession in 1619—touching my L[or]ds right to lands out of his possession about Belahinan”, it is recorded that “ the half-quarter of Corra Kattelin” was then in the possession of John Clanchy.[35] Subsequent recordings of Coradh Chaitlín include in a deed of feoffment in 1672 of Henry Cooper, gent., of Castlekeale (son of Máire Ruadh) and rendered as ‘Corrow Catlin’.[36] The 1659 ‘Census’ mentions a ‘Corraeathelin’ situated in Tomfinlough parish, though its population is given at only nine head of households, indicating a small settlement not commensurate with that of a market village.[37] In 1695 Sir Donogh O’Brien was granted the patent to hold fairs and a market at ‘Carrocatlen’.[38] It is interesting that the village’s first patent is recorded under its Irish name as two years later it was first recorded as ‘Newmarket’ and later known as ‘Newmarket-on-Fergus’, despite not being on the Fergus but on a stream which flows into the Fergus estuary.[39] In eighteenth-century documents it was also referred to as Boherone (Bóthar Eoin, Road of Eoin/St John).[40]

The folktale recounts that Caitlín desired to build a church at ‘Cowlclohy’, a field to the east of Shepperton House at Ballysallagh West.[41] According to Máire Ní Ghruagáin, a resident of Kilnasoolagh, the field is still locally known as ‘Cowlclogher’.[42] It may be no coincidence that the folktale refers to Tomas McInerheney building a house at Cowlclohy (Cabhail an Clochair, convent ruin)[43] in Ballysallagh West. There are ruins at Ballysallagh West (An Baile Salach, the muddy townland) of a fortified ‘hall-house’ known as Castlekeale (An Caisleán Caol, the narrow castle).[44] This structure served as a residence of the Mac Fhlannchadha brehon lineage in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[45] Later it served as a residence of John Cooper, husband of local notable Máire Ruadh, before falling into ruin in the nineteenth century.[46] Castlekeale, noteworthy for its narrow stone structure within a large bawn and possible multi-story tower,[47] situated adjacent to the McInerheney patrimonial lands at Ballysallagh East.

The proximity of Cowlclohy field to Castlekeale in Ballysallagh West, and the adjacent McInerheney lands at Ballysallagh East, anchors the folklore to a specific geographical locus. From this perspective, it could be suggested that the folktale links the ruins of Castlekeale to the unfinished ‘house’ built by Thomas McInerheney at Cowlclohy field. The remains of Castlekeale resemble that of a long narrow stone-house without a roof. Circumstantial evidence points to a link between Thomas McInerheney of the folktale and target of Caitlín’s curses and Tomás Mac an Oirchinnigh, a castle builder of the fifteenth century. This point is discussed later in the paper.

Kilnasoolagh Parish, Co. Clare

1. Ballygirreen 6. Carrigoran 11. Kilkieran 16. Lisduff
2. Ballynacragga 7. Corkanaknockaun 12. Knockmurragha 17. Kilnasoolagh
3. Ballysallagh East 8. Dromoland 13. Knocksaggart 18. Rathfolan
4. Ballysallagh West 9. Ing East 14. Latoon North 19. Trennahow
5. Ballyconneely 10. Ing West 15. Latoon South  

Fig. 1. Kilnasoolagh Parish, Co. Clare

Section of 1828 Map of the estates of Sir Edward O’Brien

Fig. 2. Section of 1828 Map of the estates of Sir Edward O’Brien

The earliest reference to ‘Cowlclogher’ that can be identified appears in an 1828 map by Michael Logan of Galway. The map, which surveyed the estates of Sir Edward O’Brien Bart., forms part of the map collection of the Inchiquin Manuscripts.[48] It identifies ‘Coolcloha’ field as a large sub-denomination of Ballysallagh West bounded by Shepperton House, the residence of Charles Fitzgerald Esq. to the west, and Kilnasoolagh to the east. This is in proximity to the modern Limerick-Ennis motorway, which underpasses a local road about 500 meters to the west of Kilnasoolagh church. The overpass marks the general location of ‘Cowlclogher’ field and is still known locally. In the 1828 map by Michael Logan ‘Coolcloha’ is recorded in the southwest corner, broadly consistent with the location of the modern-day smaller field that is pointed out as ‘Cowlclogher’.

McInerheney family of Kilnasoolagh parish
Historical sources indicate the McInerheney (Mac an Oirchinnigh) sept-estate comprised Ballysallagh East, Carrigoran, Corkanaknockaun and Clonconnell in Kilnasoolagh parish.[49] Additional lands belonged to the sept at Clonloghan, Kilmaleery, Doora and Templemaley parishes, with a sizable demesne at Ballykilty in Quin parish.[50] As an erenagh sept (airchinneach, steward of church lands) the McInerheneys were an important vassal lineage of the ruling Mac Conmara Fionn.[51] Surviving documentation suggests that the McInerheneys still held ecclesiastical land in Kilnasoolagh parish up to 1617, but whether they were recognized as an erenagh sept at that late date is uncertain.[52]

Circumstantial evidence points to the McInerheneys being based in the vicinity of Ballysallagh in Kilnasoolagh parish since at least c.1400.[53] Land transactions among McInerheneys there occur up until 1655.[54] It is not known when these lands were initially occupied by them, but the conventional historical view is that the Mac Conmara re-settled Tradraighe with allied septs in the wake of the collapse of De Clare’s Norman colony in 1318.[55]

As the chief patrimony of the McInerheneys, Ballysallagh is divided into east and west. In 1586 Ballysallagh East was known locally as ‘Ballysallagh McEnerhine’ presumably to differentiate it from the western part of the townland occupied by the McClancy (Mac Fhlannchadha) brehon lineage.[56] Ballysallagh West comprised the McClancy estate and fortified residence of Castlekeale, but their principal residence was located nearby at Urlanmore (An Urlann Mhór, large open green) tower-house.[57]

The fifteenth-century Papal Letters and petitions known as Regesta Supplicationum record McInerheney clerics being appointed to the vicarages of Kilnasoolagh, Kilmaleery, Kilfintanan, Clonloghan and Bunratty and to the rectories of Quin, Bunratty, Drumline, Tymorlogyg and Uí Chormaic.[58] McInerheney clerics are first recorded in the published Papal Registers in 1411,[59] with clerics of the name described as the ‘offspring of a noble lineage’ (de nobili genere procreatus existit).[60] The Papal Letters reveal that the McInerheney sept supplied a steady stream of clerics to local benefices; this is not surprising considering that the McInerheneys were an established landholding sept.

Records demonstrate an enduring medieval connection with the McInerheney family and Ballysallagh in Kilnasoolagh parish. This suggests a historic basis to the folktale. That Caitlín is described as caileach with its connotations of holy-women or a nun, and the focus on Cowlclohy field which was contiguous to the McInerheney sept-estate, is probably no coincidence. Interestingly, the epitaph caileach is preserved in the nomenclature of the local landscape; Ballynacally in the parish of Kilchreest derives from Baile na Cailí, (townland of the nuns) and paid a tithe to Killone convent.[61]

Taken together these points suggest an association, albeit somewhat confused, between the nuns at Killone and the roofless ruin of Castlekeale in Ballysallagh West. There is also an association with the McInerheney ecclesiastical connection at Kilnasoolagh parish and their hereditary estate at Ballysallagh and the adjacent townland of Treannahow (Trian na hAbhainn, the third by the river). Stripped down to its basic element these references suggest an old historic association with the McInerheneys and their ecclesiastical origins.

While only circumstantial, internal evidence in the folktale intimates a link between Caitlín and the O’Brien-controlled Killone convent, and their rectorial possessions in the vicinity of Sixmilebridge (ie. Ballysheen and Sooreeny). The folktale also infers an ecclesiastical link with lands in Kilnasoolagh parish and the McInerheney family, as well as the presence of a narrow roofless ruin that, in the author’s opinion, is perhaps confused with the present ruins of Castlekeale.[62] This fortified house of the Mac Fhlannchadha situates in the same townland as Cowlclohy field. These points lend credence to the suggestion that the folktale contains elements of historical fact, despite being corrupted and disjointed in its historiography.




Commentary on the Text