Clare County Library
Clare History
Home | Library Catalogue | Forums | Foto | Maps | Archaeology | Folklore | Genealogy | Museum | Search this Website | Copyright Notice | Visitors' Book | What's New
Autumnal Rambles about New Quay, County Clare

“There, in that hollowed rock, grotesque and wild,
An ample chair, moss-lined.”

The Brehon's Chair, which is also known by the name “Daly’s Chair,” is near the little village of Finvarra, (people generally are led to believe that the name Finnavarra is derived from Fión, white, and Na Mara, the genetive of muir, the sea, with the article prefixed, i.e. "White of the Sea" a certainly not inappropriate name for the numerous submarine rocks which surround the peninsula of Finnavara cause the surface of the waves there to present a constant face of snow white foam. The name however seems to be more properly traceable to the circumstance of its' having been the locality where the Brehon held his sittings.

Finne signifies, attendance testimony and beara is a judge. The Four Masters (ad an. 1514) spell the name Finagh-Beara) about a mile west of New Quay. It is south-west by west of the summit of Bourneenhill, on the side of which it stands. The chair is a platform about seven or eight feet long by four feet wide, apparently carved by nature, in the side of a large rock overlooking a small amphitheatre shaped glen, in which used to assemble in days long gone by the parties litigant, as well as the people who desired to hear the laws propounded. The Brehon when seated here had an extensive view over sea and wild mountain scenery towards the south and west. The chair itself has an aspect looking south, 25 degrees west.

Brehon's Chair at Finvarra
Brehon's Chair at Finvarra
Click on image for larger view

In all probability most of those readers, who accompany us in this ramble, are already in some measure acquainted with that portion of the ancient history of Ireland, which relates to the administration of justice. Some of our readers, however, may not be so well informed, and they will no doubt, be glad to learn, even a superficial peripatetic lesson from their fellow rambler. The Brehon then was the judge who administered the laws amongst the ancient Irish, and it appears that some of the Irish Chieftains maintained that officer as an appendant to their regal dignity until a comparatively recent period. Thus in the year 1606 when it became necessary to ascertain what were the services and rents paid to M'Guire out of the territory of Fermanagh his Brehon, O`Brislann being sent for, brought the particulars on a roll of parchment with him. As the Brehon was the Judge who administered the laws, so the laws which he administered were stiled by the English settlers the Brehon laws. Edmund Campion, who in 1571 professed to write a history of Ireland, in his sixth chapter, entitled “Of the mere Irish,” gives the following account of the Brehons:—

“Other lawyers, says he, they have liable to certaine families, which after the custome of the countrie determine and judge causes. These consider of wrongs offered and received among their neighbours, be it murder, or fellonie, or trespasse, all is redeemed by composition (except the grudge of the parties seek revenge) and the time they have to spare from spoiling and preying they lightly bestow in parling about such matters. The Breighoon (so they call this kind of lawyer) sitteth him down on a banke, the lords and gentlemen at variance round aboute him and then they proceede.”

Writing of the Brehon administration of justice, Sir John Davies, who was Attorney-General in Ireland to Queen Elizabeth, uses the following words:—

“For whereas by the just and honourable law of England, and by the laws of all other well-governed kingdoms and commonwealths, murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and theft are punished with death; by the Irish custom, or Brehon law, the highest of these offences was punished only by fine, which they call an erick.”

In the first number of these rambles, some account was given of how the lands of Ballyvaughan came to be transferred by way of erick, in consequence of Lewis O'Loughlin, the owner of that townland, having received a cow, which had been stolen by the son of Madra Dun (the Brown Dog.) From the instance of the Brehon of M`Guire of Fermanagh, having so recently as 1606 been called on, it is evident that the Brehon dispensation of justice was in force in some places at least so lately as the beginning of the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, this must be understood as having continued amongst the Irish only, for the use of the Brehon law was made high treason, and as such, forbidden to the English resident in Ireland, by the statute of Kilkenny (c. IV.) passed in the fortieth year of the reign of Edward III.

The language of that statute is “And that no Englishman be ruled in the definition of their debates by the March law, or the Brehon law, which by reason ought not to be named a law, but an evil custom.” What a system of government was it to forbid under the penalty of high treason to an Englishman, as an evil custom that which was permitted to be used with impunity by the Irish, for whom at that period, A.D. 1367, anything was considered to be good enough! The late Doctor Ledwich wrote that the Brehon was reckoned amongst the nobility by Macpherson, and the Doctor himself thought he might be accounted noble, as he held of the prince by grand-serjenntry, which that writer appears to have considered a sufficient reason. The Doctor adds, “his office and property were hereditary. The Brehon sat on the summit, or acclivity of a hill, to hear causes which practice was copied from the Northerns. Stephanius supposes such places were chosen because ancient superstition adored hills, as well as groves and fountains, and it was believed the influence of magic was less in the open air than in confined places. It was common in Wales to throw up an earthen mount whereon the Judges sat, and this they called a Gorsedde.”

Thus far for the general nature of the office of Brehon. Our next inquiry is directed to ascertain, if we can do so, who was the Brehon that sat in the Finvarra judgment chair. It is, of course, probable that this chair was occupied by a succession of these judges. Nevertheless, as tradition continues to denominate it “Daly's Chair,” it is exceedingly likely that some Brehon of that name was either the most eminent, or last who occupied it. The offices of Brehon and Poet were sometimes united in the same person. We have the authority of a poem of G. Comde O. Cormaic for making this assertion. He tells us that Amergin was both a judge and a poet.

“Primus Amerginus Genucandidus author Iærnæ,
Historicus, Judex Lege, Poeta, Sophus.”

Hence it is not very improbable but the chair now being written of, derived its name from Carroll O'Daly, called in the transactions of the Iberno Celtic Society, the Poet of Corcamroe. O’Reilly tells us that several of this poet’s poems and tales were repeated from memory by the common people of the country. He died in the year 1404, as did in the same year Donald, son of Donough O’Daly, who, from his facility in writing verses was nicknamed "Bolg an Dána'', signifying in Irish the same as “A wallet of poems,” in the English language. But Loughlin O’Daly, who flourished about the middle of the sixteenth century, has a stronger claim to having given a name to the Finvarra chair than any other person of whom we have met with any account. This poet was author of the poem Fogur Cabhair do chriuch Boirne “Assistance is near the country of Burrin.” He also composed some other poems mentioned in the catalogue published in 1820, by the Iberno Celtic Society, and compiled by the late Mr. Edward O’Reilly, then their Secretary. The verses just referred to were written on the family of O’Loughlin of Burren, with which, it is probable, Loughlin O’Daly was connected. Walker (hist. of the Irish Bards, page 73), relates the following anecdote of the O’Dalys, who, he says, were hereditary bards of O’Loughlin of Burrin:-

“By means of a train of circumstances, the O’Daly’s rose to affluence and power, and instead of being retainers themselves, they entertained domestic bards, and were visited by itinerant minstrels.

About the close of the last century a wandering musician presented to the head of this family a dan or panegerick, which the old gentleman having read, turned to the bard and said, ‘Friend, I admire your composition, and thank you for the honour you do me. As a reward I will give you some advice — the profession of a bard is now but a precarious means of subsistence, relinquish it, therefore, for a more profitable one. We ourselves (meaning his own family) pursued the profession only while it was attended with emolument.’ ”

There were several poets of the same name, who flourished at different periods; but none of them seem to have as good pretensions to the Finvarra chair as those already mentioned. The reader who is willing to trouble himself with further inquiry about them, may consult O’Reilly’s Chronological account of Irish writers at the years 1387, 1415, 1420, 1430, 1520, 1570, and 1680.

Having written thus much relative to the bardic pursuits of the Daly family, we must not pass over Carol More O’Daly, who was brother of Donogh (the learned Irish scholar Dr. O'Donovan in the pedigree of O'Kelly appended to the tribes of Hyllaine, at the subdivision headed "O'Killy of Callow," writes, "Teigue roe O'Kelly of Callow, he married Raghnailt Ny Brien, with whom the O'Daly's first came into Conought from Finnvarra in the barony of burren and County of Clare where they had been for ages as poets to the O'Loughlins of Burren"), a turbulent Conought Chieftain the reign of Queen Elizabeth. — Carol was amongst the most accomplished men of his time, and excelled most persons in poetry and music. He was author of the beautiful words to the so much admired air Eileen-a-ruin. That melody began “Dtiucfa tu a bhfanna tu Eilin-a-ruin.” I.E. “Will you stay or come with me Ellen my dear?” The song owes its existence to one of those crosses so often experienced by lovers. Our bard paid his addresses to Ellen, daughter of a Chieftain named O’Cavanagh. She was amiable and lovely, and returned his affection. Her friends, however, disapproved of the match, and O’Daly having left the country for some time, they availed themselves of the opportunity his absence afforded to impress on Ellen’s mind a belief of his inconstancy. After some time she consented to marry another person. O’Daly, however, happened to return the evening previous to the day fixed for the nuptials. In the anguish of despair, heightened by a love still ardent, though disappointed, he retired to the wild sea coast and there gave vent to his feelings by composing the song in question. Next night, disguised as a Harper, he mingled with the crowd which thronged the wedding, and his harp gained him admission. It so happened, that Ellen Cavanagh herself accidentally called on him to play. She was ignorant who he was. It was then, as we are told, ”that touching his harp with all the pathetic sensibility which the interesting occasion inspired, he infused his own feelings into the song he had composed, and breathed into his softened strain the very soul of pensive melody.” The meaning of the words ”Will you stay or come with me Ellen my dear?” could not be mistaken. Miss Cavanagh recognised him through his disguise, and acknowledging the force of his minstrelsy, went secretly away with him before the hour came for the marriage ceremony between her and O’Daly’s rival.

In the collection of ancient Irish deeds from the pen of that excellent antiquary, Mr. Hardiman, published amongst the transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, pages 87 to 92, a copy is given of an assignment dated in 1612, of Gortnadrise, part of the townland of Finvarra from Donogh MacLoughlin Roe O’Daly of Finvarra, to Anthony Fitzjames Fitzambrose Lynch of Galway, merchant, and also of a mortgage, dated in 1608, from Donald O’Daly and Cormac O’Houroune to the same Anthony Lynch of the same premises (O'Daly of Corcomroe, i.e.: Teige the son of Donough, son of Teige, son of Carroll, a professor of poetry, who kept a house of general hospitality died in his own house at Finagh Beara (Finnvarra) and was buried in the monastery of Corcomroe. Annals of the Four Masters at year 1514).

The writer of this ramble has at present in his small collection of coins, two, which were found a short time ago at Finvarra, not far from the Brehon’s Chair, on the demesne of William Skerrett, Esq., to whose generosity he is indebted for the possession of them. The one is a copper penny token without date, and apparently of that class struck by merchants and traders about the time of the restoration. The words “Bartholomew French, merchant, lat of Galway,” are very legible upon it. -The other was struck in Limerick, and has inscribed around an embattled tower the words “City of Limerick.” On the reverse is “1659,” within the words “Charity Change.”

In all likelihood, the Brehon Daly was interred at the little mound of earth situate on Pouldoody Bay, where the erection called “Daly’s Monument” stands. This monument is a low hexagonal pillar, elevated on a flight of stone steps of a similar form. It seems not to be of modern formation, although it possibly was built on a site of some more ancient testimonial. In the field close by Daly’s monument are the ruins of some extensive building which tradition says was once a school. Here also yet remains an excavation in a large rock, resembling a huge Apothecary’s mortar. It was probably used for bruising corn (it more probably was one of those Rock-basins coeval with paganism in Ireland). There is likewise an underground cave, seemingly of the mithric kind in the same field.

Between the Brehon’s Chair, and the Flagged-shore, is a fresh water spring. It rises on the margin of a lake, the water of which is salty and brackish. From this fountain most of the fresh water used at New Quay is procured. At some little distance from the well there is a very curious piece of limestone rock to be met with. — It lies horizontally amidst the strata of the same kind of rock, and is 47 feet in length, while its sides, which are equal form a square base of only two and one half feet to the side. If it were set up perpendicularly it would be a not unworthy imitation of Cleopatra’s needle, and would be a certain means of attraction to draw visitors to New Quay. Many large boulders of granite seemingly brought from the Connemara shore, present themselves on the limestone rock in this neighbourhood, and are a strong proof that the sea at some distant period overflowed this district. Indeed, it appears as if the several flats of rocky land between Bourneen and the sea arose from the ocean by the repeated efforts of some upheaving power exerted at different times. The Bourneen hill returns an excellent echo, repeating a few syllables loudly and with great distinctness. Here,

“Echo in other’s words her silence breaks,
Speechless herself but when another speaks;
She can’t begin but waits for the rebound
To catch the voice and to return the sound.
Hence, ’tis she prattles in a fainter tone
With mimic sounds and speeches not her own.”

It is said that the remains of an ancient wood, consisting of oak trees laid side-long, and without leaves or branches, has been discovered in the sea under low water mark, about half-way between the Flagged shore and Finvarra point.

The Four Masters have ad an: 1245, Cearbhall buidhe mac taidhg mic aongusa findabrach uí Dhálaigh décc. i.e, Carroll Boy, son of Teige, the son of Aengus Finnabhrach O’Daly, died.

The annals of the 4 Masters thus, at the year 1244 record the death of Donagh More O Daly; Donnchad mór ua Dálaigh saoí nár saraigheadh, agus nác sáireochar lé dán do écc, agus 7 adhnacal hi mainistur na búille. i.e. “Donagh More O Daly, a poet who never was, and never will be surpassed, died, and was interred in the abbey of Boyle.” The annals of Clonmacnoise designate him as “Chief of Ireland for poetry.” O Donovan in a note to the annals of the 4 masters says “According to tradition preserved in the north of the Co. Clare, he was the head of the O`Dalys of Finnyvarra in the north of Burrin, where they still point out the site of his house & his monument. He is the ancestor of the O`Dalys of Dunsandle, whose ancestor came from Finnyvarra with Ranailt Ny Brien, the wife of Teige Roe O`Kelly of Callow in the latter end of the 15th cent'y.

O’Donavan in n.z. to 4 .Mast. ad an: 1514 writes of the before ment’d Teige O'Daly that Finnyvarra is near New Quay, & that at this place was in his (O’Donovan’s time) shewn the site of an old stone house, (in which O’Daly was said to have kept a poetical or bardic school); and near it, at the head of an inlet of the sea was shewn the monument of Donough More O’Daly, a poet & gentleman of much celebrity in his time, of whom many traditional stories were told in the neighbourhood.

The O’Daly monument or pillar was in existence when I was last in that country.

I lodged in a cottage within 20 yards of it and my lamented son Thomas Cooke having died there in 1844. I never returned to that country since.

T.L. Cooke

<< Autumnal Rambles about New Quay, County Clare