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A Folklore Survey of County Clare by Thomas Johnson Westropp


Rocks, Caves and Stones

Rock Markings
The strange marks left in the flat crags by the weathering of softer portions and of fossils have caused numerous legends. The dish-like hollows in the crags below the hermitage of St. Colman MacDuach, at the great ‘Cliff of the Eagle,’ in Kinallia, the name Bohernameesh (bothar na mias, i.e. road of the dishes), and marks like the footprints of men and animals all seem to have been seized on by the saint’s biographers.[199] Colman, brother of King Guaire ‘the hospitable,’ of Hy Fiachrach Aidhne (the district round Gort), early in the seventh century retired to fast and pray in the wilderness. After a most austere observance of Lent, a companion monk yearned for meat, and Colman pitied him and prayed. The King’s Easter feast therefore flew to the hermitage, pursued by the whole Court. Terrified by the angry warriors Colman again prayed, and their feet and the hoofs of their horses stuck fast in the rocks. The legend is still told in a form identical with that in the Life.[200] The servant is said to have died from the feast, and his grave is shown beside the Boher.[201]

Where Burren and Inchiquin meet, on the Glasgeivnagh Hill, the marks on the fretted rocks are attributed to the grey cow of Lon mac Leefa (Liomhtha). It is a very lonely and impressive spot. Ascending at the beautiful waterfall of the Seven Streams in Teeskagh, (a curtain of silver network over a cliff, sheeted with long moss and ferns, with ledges white with anemones, in spring, and fields blue with gentians), the great triple stone fort of Cahercommaun is seen on the edge of the northern cliff, and the way passes another early enclosure, with ruins of huts, called Cahernaglasha, where the Glas cow was stabled and her seven keepers lived. The highest point of Slievenaglasha,—rising 700 feet above the sea, which is visible far to the west,—has fourteen cairns and overlooks a long shallow valley, with strange brown patches here and there and another strong ring wall over a little cave. The patches are the labbas or beds of the Glas and her calf, the waterfall sprang from the abundant milk of the cow, and the fort in Mohernagartan (‘the smith’s fort’), the residence of Lon the Smith. The footprints of the wonderful animal and the Lon’s seven sons are visible on every crag, and the cave with strange cinder-like débris is the reputed forge of the ‘dark brown Luno’ of (Macpherson’s) Ossian.[202] Vague legends are told of her living at Treanahow, Shallee, and Ballygannon.

At Ballynahown in Corcomroe, overlooked by the bold peel tower of Ballinalacken, are traces of the Heanbo (single cow), which differs from the Glas and gives its name to the Labbanaheanbo, a cave high up in the face of a magnificent cliff. In this bed the Heanbo will support the Leinster man who will win the freedom of Ireland in the last great battle. The cave is at the junction of three townlands, but is in none of them.[203]

On Scattery Island were two stones (still, I think, visible), one called Glun Senain because marked by the knee (glun) of St. Senan, and the other the stone on which St. Cannara [204] floated from Kilconry to the holy isle of the woman-fearing saint. Another knee-stone of St. Senan was beside the creek of Poulanishery on the opposite shore to Scattery. Between Dysert O’Dea and Rath Blamaic a rock with two basins bore the marks of St. Manawla’s knees when she carried off the round tower of Rath.[205] St. Columba’s thumb and finger marks are shown on a limestone boulder in the road fence near the lane to his entrenched church in Glen Columbcille. The bosses on the ‘plague stone’ at Tomfinlough church were the two plague swellings torn from a woman’s head and thrown against the stone by St. Luchtighern.

Not only the saints, but also Finn MacCumhail and his warriors have left marks on the rocks of Clare. A huge rock named Cloughmornia or Cloughlea, near Ballysheen and not far from Sixmilebridge, has in its sides long straight gashes where Finn and his band tried (or sharpened) their swords.[206] Finn’s fingerprints are visible on a rock which was brought to Cullaun House near Quin early in the last century by the facetious Tom Steele from Birr in King’s County, where it was seen by Thomas Dineley about 1680. The stone was called ‘the Navel of Ireland,’ [207] and the V-marks are now regarded as the footprints of the cock that crowed at St. Peter’s denial.


Hughey’s Rock, a great boulder on the brow of the ridge between Edenvale and Rockmount near Ennis, bears the fingermarks of Hughey, a giant who threw it at another giant from Mount Callan.[208]

I have heard at Newhall of a cave ‘between Ennis and Lisdoonvarna’ in which runs an underground river that makes old people young. The exact locality is unknown, as the people who have gone to use it have never been seen again. Lismulbreeda cave, in Dromcliff parish and near the Kilrush road, is marked all over its soft sandstone sides and roof with crosses, figures, and initials, which it is considered lucky to cut on a visit. Horses are said to have come out of the Kilcorney cave, and left descendants in the valley below.[209] The caves of the Broc-sidh and Faracat have already been mentioned.[210] There is a tale of a wild boar in a cave some miles to the north-east of Feakle.

These were supposed to be giants’ graves, and, if called ‘altars,’ the word was understood in a Christian sense, with a belief that they had been used for the mass during the prevalence of the cruel penal laws. For example, Altoir Ultach was said to be named from an Ulster priest who served the mass there in the eighteenth century because the nearest magistrates were more tolerant than those of the north.[211] There is no evidence of any general popular belief that they were pagan altars, such an idea, where it existed, being derived from the ‘learned ignorance’ of the local gentry. The dolmens were, and are, called leaba (labba, ‘bed’) and leaba Diarmuid agus Grainne (lobba ‘iermuth a’us graunya) from the elopement of those famous lovers. Legend on the west coast of Clare told that Diarmuid, finding that Finn could learn all the movements of his wife by biting his prophetic thumb, put seaweed on the cover of the dolmen. Finn, finding that seaweed was over the lovers, imagined that they had drowned themselves, and gave up the pursuit.[212] Possibly the legend originated the association of indecency with the Clare dolmens found in 1808 by Hely Dutton.[213] A girl would not guide him to the fine one at Ballygannor until assured that he was a stranger, for, it was explained to him, a woman could refuse nothing to a man at one of these monuments. Some such reason probably lay behind the belief that, if a couple unblessed with childern went to a labba, the defect in their household was amended. I have been told that this belief existed in Clare, but got no direct evidence of it. The Tuam an goskaigh monument in Ballynahown was believed to be the grave of a giant buried with his great sword, to recover which certain young men dug and overthrew the stones; but they found nothing, and afterwards prospered so ill that they had to emigrate.[214] Grania was supposed to be a male saint near Feakle, and the ‘scoop’ in the west end of Tobergrania dolmen-well at Ballycroum was supposed to be the place where he put in his head to drink.[215] The long grave of Ballykelly, famed for its lovely outlook high over the woods and lake of Doon on the flank of Slieve Bernagh, was known as ‘Old Grania,’ but the term ‘Granny’s Bed’ was not unknown in East Clare. I heard no legend of a ‘hag’ at any dolmen. The alleged rites at the ‘Druid’s Altars’ at Maryfort and Carnelly have already been noted. When two blocks of the latter structure were removed for use as gateposts, they returned during the night to their original site, and were never again removed. The hand of the destroyer of a dolmen near Ruan was struck by a splinter and severely injured, [216] the remains of the blocks being left where they lay,—but no vengeance overtook those who levelled many dolmens at Miltown near Tulla.

Pillar Stones and Rocks
Boughils (‘petrified boys’) and farbreags (‘petrified men’) have been refered to in Section I.[217] A frog-like natural rock, close to the west side of the road from Kilkishen to Fortanne, was blasted and removed after 1887, but I have a sketch of it made in that year. There was a vague saying that it had been made, (and I think I was told also that it was a creature petrified when cursed), by some saint. The Coad stone is said to have been the same height (comfhod, ‘equal height or length,’ whence Co’ad), [218] as King Teige Acomhad O’Brien about 1460. It, the Cloghlea near Tomgraney, and the ‘cross’ near Kilmoon were evidently boundary marks of church lands. Another legend of Coad stone was that the liagaun [219] was exacted by a father from the slayer of his son, and was the length of the victim. The story of Prince Lachtna (ante 840) tells that an adviser of King Phelim of Cashel tried to arouse his suspicions of Lachtna by an alleged oracle of a pillar stone Liag na neasain, near Killaloe, against ‘a fair man from Craglea.’

Basin Stones occur not infrequently at or near dolmens, e.g. at Kiltanon and Newgrove near Tulla, and at Ballyganner and Cappaghkennedy on the borders of the Burren, at the last of which five appear in one slab. In the Life of St. Mochulleus,[220] written in 1141, a basin ‘like a large hydria’ was found in a polished block of stone when the saint was levelling the site of his church on Tulla hill. The basins were evidently regarded as very early in date even in the twelfth century.

Basin Stone. Magh Adhair
Basin Stone. Magh Adhair

The basin of Doughnambraher (Dabthach nam brathar) at Kyleeane has already been noticed.[221] A large block with two basin is amongst the remains at the place of inauguration of the local kings at Magh Adhair.[222]


Chapter 17


Chapter 19