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The Legend of the Glas Gaibhne of Burren:
A Plea for the Environment? by Michael MacMahon

Source: The Other Clare no. 39 (2015)

Burren Uplands (courtesy of Tim Robinson and Folding Landscapes)

The townland of Slievenaglasha or Glasgeivnagh Hill, on the ridge over Killinaboy, takes its name from the Burren’s most celebrated cow, the bountiful Glas Gaibhne (1). The cow was owned by a sword-maker or smith named Lon Mac Liofa. Though reputedly the very first person to make edged-weapons in Ireland, Lon cuts a remarkably grotesque and misshapen figure for he is described as having three hands and only one leg. The third hand grew from the middle of his breast and this he used to turn the iron on the anvil, thus leaving him with two free hands to hammer the metal into shape. Tradition locates his workshop or smithy on the same hill in a large stone fort marked Mothar Na Ceartan on Robinson’s map of the Burren. Random bare patches or pavement in the same area are pointed out as Leaba Na Glaise, reputedly where Lon’s cow habitually lay down. The cow was the most productive in all of Ireland, her owner claiming that at one milking she could fill any vessel, no matter how large. According to the story, all went well until one day a crafty old hag took along a sieve, having first slyly placed a wager that she would produce a vessel that the cow would not fill. It is said that after passing through the sieve, the milk divided into seven rivulets, which later turned into the clear streams of water known today as Seacht Srutha Na Taosca (the Seven Streams of Teaskagh), still occasionally resorted to for their supposed healing properties. Seeing her abundance thus abused, the cow is said to have resisted all subsequent attempts to milk her, and could never again be induced to give as much as a drop of her milk. We are not told what finally happened to the smith and his cow, but it is believed that the cow was stolen by a man from Ulster and that Lon was afterwards obliged to depend on his trade only for support. This in essence is the story of the Glas Gaibhne, though some versions of the tale contain a somewhat long-winded account of a meeting between the smith and the Fianna (2). Although this adds little to the story, it nevertheless serves the purpose of locating it at the very dawn of historic Ireland.
Taken down by John O’ Donovan in 1839 from the lips of Seán Rua Ó Catháin, a tailor in Corofin, the legend of the Glas Gaibhne was the very first folk tale recorded in Co. Clare. It belonged to the storytelling tradition of the Burren from a time out of mind, and it remained very much alive in the fireside tradition of North Clare down to our own day when storytelling virtually disappeared. That the story is undoubtedly of ancient provenance can scarcely be in doubt, since the focus is unmistakably on the two principal occupations of Early Historic Ireland namely cattle rearing and metal-working.
Before proceeding further we might do well to remind ourselves that the Irish folktale was largely an allegorical art form, one that is best characterised by a copious use of metaphor and symbolism. Characters and events might be used allusively by the storyteller as a form of verbal morse-code evocative of the old Irish adage: ‘is leor nod don eolach’ (a nod is sufficient for the perceptive listener). The story of the Glas Gaibhne manifestly accords with this template, and we soon begin to suspect that there is something more salient between the lines than a far-fetched and whimsical tale about a grossly malformed smith and his unlikely cow. For a start, the fruitful cow can quickly be decoded as simply a symbolic affirmation of the Burren’s well-known reputation as a premier cattle-rearing environment (3). It seems equally obvious that the portrayal of Lon, the smith, as an outlandish, almost bestial creature can scarcely be interpreted otherwise than as a deliberate and vehement caricaturing of his profession, the iron-workers of his day. All of this strongly suggests a tension or clash of interest between the cattle men and the metal workers of the Burren, the cause of which we will now attempt to explore.

A Delicate Environment
The antipathy towards iron-working will be more easily understood when one considers its effects, or more particularly its side-effects, on the delicate, glacio-karstic landscape of the Burren. The fragile soil-vegetation systems in the Burren are easily destabilised by inappropriate management such as, for instance, the cutting down of trees and other woodland growth that serve to hold the soil in place. Without the protective web provided by tree roots, not to mention the shelter provided above ground by their foliage, the thin soil cover can quickly become destabilised and washed down into the solutionally-enlarged openings or grykes in the limestone bedrock. This type of erosion can be particularly catastrophic on upland slopes and hillsides where it is intensified by the gravitational movement of groundwater. There the process of erosion would be greatly accelerated, the soil literally disappearing through the open fissures like water through a sieve. The alarming scale of this type of degradation was dramatically illustrated some years ago as a result of a test carried out in the Burren by Dr. David Drew of Trinity College. He found that in the space of just ten years following the felling of trees on a modest 10-degree slope, as much as 20 cm of the surrounding soil was washed underground, leaving a bare rock surface (4). And of course the effects of deforestation are not confined to soils and vegetation; they have serious implications for the water supply as well.

A Degraded Landscape
It must be obvious to anyone visiting the Burren today that the present physical landscape is greatly at odds with the past cultural landscape as represented by the archaeological record. For instance, the areas of densest megalithic tomb distribution in the Burren are the very areas of least human settlement today. From this it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that many of the ancient monuments and settlements that still survive in the Burren, were built in response to a more hospitable environment than the bleak and degraded surroundings that in general they occupy today. The evidence therefore suggests that large expanses of the Burren have indeed suffered dramatic environmental change largely in response to human activity. The process would almost certainly have begun in Iron-Age times when wood was increasingly required to fire the furnaces of the metal-workers.

Green People
Just as in our own time we have people willing to take up the cudgel on behalf of the environment, it seems only reasonable to accept that in Lon’s day, too, there were at least some people similarly motivated, willing to speak out if they perceived the natural world to be under threat. Though the term was not then known, these were the conservationists of their time, persons apprehensive about the sustainability of their way of life, believing that Ireland’s burgeoning Iron-Age was exacting a heavy price. Thoroughly familiar through centuries of farming experience with the ecological and agricultural nuances of the Burren, they would quickly become aware that a virtual golden goose, a most favourable cattle-rearing environment - one that uniquely facilitated a year-round growth of grass - was increasingly being put at risk by deforestation. This inevitably leads us to the question whether the story of the Glas Gaibhne - albeit told after the allusive fashion of the folktale – is in reality a cleverly-crafted Environmental Impact Statement on the effects of industrialisation on the sensitive ecosystem of the Burren, and, by the same token, a stinging satire on the excesses of the new industrial society with its disregard for the environment. Indeed, at this point in our discussion, there is another question, too, that will most likely suggest itself to the reader familiar with the area. It is this: is it simply a coincidence that the great stone fort of Cathair Chomáin, sometimes described as Co. Clare’s first industrial estate, is but a mere stone’s throw from Slievenaglasha?
In attempting to resolve these questions let us return briefly to the story once more. As we have already seen, the owner of the cow was a smith, a metal-worker. His three hands are powerfully evocative of the acquisitiveness of the new industrial age, when - to paraphrase Yeats - men were now busily ‘fumbling in the greasy till’ (5). This was the era of Ireland’s very first ‘Celtic Tiger’ when every smith needed virtually three hands in order to keep pace with the demands of the new industrial society. In the first flush of the Iron-Age orders were no doubt pouring in, not only for domestic tools and gadgets, but also for swords and weapons for the Fianna, Ireland’s first rapid-reaction force or ‘flying column’ drawn from the new, upwardly-mobile warrior aristocracy. According to one version of the tale, Lon had gone to meet the Fianna at Binn Eadair (Howth) (6). One might wonder if this was a ‘trade mission’ for the purpose of explaining his newest product, since no doubt each new-fangled sword that came on the market was as much a ‘must have’ to the Fianna as the newest mobile ‘phone is to the ‘cannot wait’ customer today!
In spectacular contrast to his three hands, however, the smith had only one leg. This, we suggest, is a further lampooning of the new work force by means of a manifestly sarcastic insinuation that two legs were no longer necessary since the nomadic pastoral way of life of the drover was now yielding to the new industrialization of the Iron Age. No longer obliged to trudge over long distances chasing after their herds or driving them to winter and summer pastures, men were now stuck in one place, standing, gander-like, at the anvil - ‘working from home’ to use a modern term - or apprenticed to the local smith. Another matter which should not escape notice is the cow’s name: Glas, which literally means ‘green’ or ‘fertile’. It also has a secondary meaning of a water source or spring (7). The abuse of a valuable natural resource, symbolised by the milking of the cow into a sieve, proclaims the unsustainability of cattle rearing in an environment degraded by soil-erosion caused by cutting down trees to burn them for charcoal. The water sources, as we have seen, were also becoming affected, the rivers diverting and splitting into a multiplicity of mere trickles depending on the season. Everywhere she sought to graze, the former bountiful cow (emblematic of the renowned Burren livestock in general) was increasingly finding a degraded, porous soil - a sieve - beneath her. Even her leaba (bed), was now little more than cold limestone pavement. She no longer gave of her munificence and Lon, her owner, his ancillary source of income now having collapsed, was thenceforth obliged we are told, ‘to depend on his trade only for support’. Without unduly labouring the pun, it might be said that he no longer had a second leg to stand on!

1. O’ Donovan & O’ Curry, The Antiquities of Co. Clare, (Clasp Press, 1997), 23.
2. Westropp, Folklore of Clare, (Clasp Press, 2000), 82-83.
3. For a description of the unique practice of ‘outwintering’ and other farming practices in the Burren, see Dunford & Feehan, ‘Agricultural practices and natural heritage: a case study of the Burren Uplands, Co. Clare’ in Tearmann: the Irish Journal of Agri-Environmental Research, vol.1, no.1, (Dublin, 2001),19-34.
4. Drew, ‘Environmental Archaeology and Karstic Terrains: the example of the Burren, Co. Clare’ in Martin Bell & Susan Limbrey (eds.) Archaeological Aspects of Woodland Ecology, BAR International Series 146 (1982),117.
5. Yeats, Summer 1913
6. Westropp, Folklore, 83.
7. e.g. Tír Dhá Ghlas (Terryglass, Co. Tipperary), land of the two springs.

Folklore of Clare