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



The fortuitous recording of a folktale in 1825[1] has been preserved amongst the collection of family documents relating to the O’Briens of Leamanagh and Dromoland, Co. Clare, in the National Library of Ireland.[2] The collection comprises a miscellany of verse, Ossianic poetry and tales in English from the oral tradition compiled by Sir Lucius O’Brien in c.1842. What is remarkable about this particular folktale is that it was committed to paper prior to the establishment of ethnographic folklore as a field of research. The folktale was recorded almost a century prior to the work of notable Co. Clare folklorists such as T.J. Westropp and Séamus Ó Duilearga, and prior to the Ordnance Survey visitation to Clare in 1839 which provided a ‘digest’ of folklore and topographical history of the county.

Antiquarian interest in the folklore of Co. Clare has a strong tradition. It was noted by John O’Donovan in 1839 when compiling the Ordnance Survey that the ‘ancient traditions [of Co. Clare] are very vivid’.[3] O’Donovan remained enthusiastic that the history of Clare was not extirpated due to transplantation and upheaval but still resonated on account that the “ancient proprietors were never driven out”.[4] A landed Gaelic gentry, though anglicized but conscious of its past, were sometimes sympathetic to rural traditions. The correspondence between William Smith O’Brien and Séamus Mac Cruitín in the 1840s serves as reminder of the interest in folklore traditions amongst the Co. Clare gentry.[5] The work of Robert W. Twigge, George Unthank Macnamara and Brian O’Looney in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did much to expand on earlier folklore gleanings. However, it was Thomas J. Westropp’s folklore survey of Co Clare[6] that augmented the modern study of folklore in Clare and pre-empted the later efforts of the Folklore Commission in the 1930s[7] and local contributors such as Máire Mac Neill[8] in the 1940s.

The folktale presented here was initially written in 1825 by Connor Ryan in his eighty-first year in the village of Sixmilebridge, but probably copied by Sir Lucius O’Brien in c.1842. Little is known about Connor Ryan, only that he authored another folktale that can be consulted in the Inchiquin Papers (MS G990) concerning the O’Halloran family of Faithche Uí Alluráin (O’Halloran’s Green) and that the writing of the manuscript Caithréim Gioll mic Moirne (‘Triumphs of Goll Mac Morna’) is attributed to him. This manuscript was subsequently copied by William Smith O’Brien at Dromoland in 1859.[9] Based at Sixmilebridge, Connor Ryan must have been in the possession of - or had access to - older manuscripts. This fact places him in the literary tradition of the bi-lingual Clare scribes of the early-nineteenth century. Connor Ryan also wrote under his Gaelic name Conchubhar Ó Riain and produced various manuscripts including a genealogy for Sir Lucius O’Brien in 1823, a copy of a poem by Aindrias MacCurtin, a copy Geoffrey Keating’s Eochair-sciath an Aifrinn in 1811, and a selection of Munster poetry copied in 1826.[10] In all, Connor Ryan penned five manuscripts for Sir Lucius O’Brien (1800-1872), most of which relate to O’Brien family history and genealogy.[11]

Connor Ryan’s contemporaries included notable Clare scribes such as Peadar Ó Conaill, [12] Mícheál Mac Consaidín[13] and the Sixmilebridge scribe Donnchadh Woulfe.[14] Other near contemporaries included the poets of the Ennis ‘court of poetry.’[15] Lesser known Gaelic scribes include Seaghán Mac Mathghamhna[16] and Conchubhar Mac In Oirchinne of Ballybaun near Ennis.[17] The latter penning his contribution in various manuscripts which he collected, included a manuscript with the poem La dá ramhamuir a nDun Bhaoi (‘The day we were in Dunboy’) which was procured by Seaghán Mac Mathghamhna in 1829.[18]

Manuscripts were circulated amongst like-minded copyists and poets, typically re-worked and glossed by a succession of owners and scribes. Much scribal activity centered on Ennistymon during the late-eighteenth century where a strong tradition of native learning survived.[19] The scribal tradition, alive in east Clare until the first half of the nineteenth century, provided an outlet for intellectual expression and was the chief reason why numerous manuscripts survive, despite their original exemplars being lost or destroyed.[20]

The folktale presented here contains internal evidence that is of interest to folklorists and local historians; the topographical remarks and recording in Irish of a series of ‘curses’ provides evidence of Irish nomenclature and toponymy. Elements of the folktale contain more than a kernel of folklorist interest, augmenting the already wide scope of recorded folklore for Co. Clare. For example, Cowclohy field in the folktale was recorded in the mid-1930s on the initiative of Patrick McCormack, school principal of Stonehall National School in Co. Clare, and its association with an ancient convent was recalled.[21] The folktale is also valuable in identifying local families of note and, approached with the usual caveats, the curses share some similarity with another folktale recorded by John O’Donovan in 1839. The survival of this folktale and its antiquity places it as a unique contribution in the folklore of Co. Clare and merits examination.

The purpose of this article is to glean the historical context and chief themes of the folktale. The article begins by discussing the historical link to the McInerheney (Mac an Oirchinnigh) lineage of Newmarket-on-Fergus. This section explores the references to the Augustinian convent at Killone and suggests a possible association between the folktale and Castlekeale, a ruined ‘hall-house’ of the McClancy (Mac Fhlannchadha) brehon lineage in Ballysallagh West. The second section includes a commentary on the text and evaluates the rich Irish used in compiling the curses and the similarity displayed between this and other folktales. The final section touches on Thomas McInerheney, the chief target of Caitlin’s curses, and identifies a possible historical link to Tomás Mac an Oirchinnigh, a fifteenth-century sept-head of Clann an Oirchinnigh. Tomás appears in a Gaelic genealogy from c.1588.[22] The article concludes that elements of Connor Ryan’s folktale may have a historical basis despite its disjointed form.

It is hoped that the publication, in full, of this hitherto unpublished folktale furthers the study of Co. Clare’s rich folklore. The paper also provides a translation of the Irish curses. The purpose of publishing this folktale is to demonstrate the utility of folktales as a useful source in terms of local nomenclature and historical themes; all this despite difficulties concerning historical evidence and integrity of orally-transmitted material. The historical context given below and exploration of the chief themes benefits from an article by Máire Ní Ghruagáin of Kilnasoolagh, Co. Clare, that first referred to the little known folktale and cogently noted that the ‘manuscript has been little studied to date’.[23]



Historical Context