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Ring-Forts in the Barony of Moyarta, Co. Clare, and Their Legends
by Thomas Johnson Westropp

Part I.—From Loop Head to Carrigaholt

Loop Head and the Legend of Cuchullin

Keeping guard over the entrance of the Shannon, with its gigantic rock-tower, the Dun Brista of Munster, rising above the surf like the outwork of some huge castle, stands Loop Head, “the Leap of Cuchullin.”

Crossing brown moors and wind-swept uplands, carpeted with delicate flowers, stone-crops, and mosses, we reach its overhanging cliffs, with the great curve of the Hull Rock, like a vast overturned ship, and the wonderful rock-structure of the pierced headlands, bathed in clearer air and more dazzling light than the inland districts possess.

“And that dark fortress in the crispèd sea,
Fringed with perpetual foam,
Gives back a glory from its lichened dome—
Where no man’s foot may be—
And yon gaunt headland’s massive masonry
Towering on high above the sea-calf’s home.”

The very name “Loop Head” is bound up with Cuchullin, the grandest of our legendary heroes, the mighty Setanta, the Irish Hercules, the greatest of the knights of Emania. Probably the earliest mention of the promontory called after him is found in the Irish “Triads,” dating from the latter half of the ninth century, where the first of the “three conspicuous places—Cuchullin’s Leap—Leim Conculaind”—is given. [1] About this time it also takes its place in history; for the Norsemen under Baraid and Amlaibh’s men, with the Dublin fleet, after having ravaged Meath and Connaught, burst into Corcomroe, about 866, and continued their raid through Corcovaskin down to Leim Conchulainn, [2] probably accompanied by their fleet sailing down the coast. We have no details of this great raid; but the Corcovaskin attempted to withstand them, and were defeated, losing their chief, Cermad. Long afterwards, in 916, the Corcovaskin joined the men of Kerry, routed the foreigners, and slew their leaders, “Rot, Pudarall, and Smuralt” (as the scribes rendered the unbaptized names of the fallen vikings), thus avenging their former disaster.

Almost the only early mention of any inhabitant of the place is that copied by the “Martyrology of Donegal” where Mobaoi of Cluan-fionnabhair in Ui Muireadagh is named as son of Sinnell by a daughter of “Niall son of Meachar [3] of Corca Bhaiscinn, of the race of Conaire, of Léim Conchulainn”; the Naomhseanchas adding that he was of the race of Clan Rudhraige, perhaps of the chief house of Corcomroe.

The Norse name “Iolduhlaup,” supposed by some to be Loop Head, is identified by others (though without evidence) with Lough Swilly. [4] Cuchullin’s Leap appears as the limit of the diocese of Killaloe in the Acts of the Synod of Rathbreasail about 1116, [5] and is named “Saltum Congoluni,” in the charter of Donaldmore O’Brien, the last king of Munster, [6] to Forgy or Clare Abbey in 1189, and again given as the end of the kingdom of Donchadh Cairbreach O’Brien in 1241 in the “Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh.” Subsequent mention is common, but adds very little to our knowledge: we find Can Leame or “Lupas or Loopes Head” in the maps from 1540 to 1590, and “Leymeconcullen” in the Carew Manuscripts in 1574. A Hardiman map of about the same period notes it and “Kilcolgan (Kilclogher), the mouth of the Shannon—Bringing your wind with you, care not for the tyde untill you come to Tarburt.” It is Cap Leane alias Loop Head in “Hiberniæ Delineatio” in 1683. [7]

Had not the “Hound of Ulad” lacked an “inspired bard,” the world might look very reverentially on the headland for its connexion with his name. The local legend runs that a sorceress, “Mal,” falling madly in love with Cuchullin, to whom her advances were distasteful, pursued him down into the angle of land whence, as she fancied, there was no escape. The hero, however, avoided his too importunate lover, and sprang out onto the castle-like rock off the end of the Head. [8] She sprang after him; and by a mightier effort, he leaped back to the mainland; she followed, but, missing her footing, fell, and was dashed to pieces against the cliff. Her blood stained all the sea out to Hag’s Head at Moher, giving that part of the ocean its title, Malbay. The “Wave” at Loop Head was also called after her “Tonn Mhal,” and, like the “three Ancient Waves of Ireland,” was believed to raise a voice of unutterable anguish, foretelling death and disaster. [9]

To this belief, John Hoare (or Hore), a local bard, who died about 1780, alludes in a poem of unlimited hyperbole on Charles Keane of Kildimo, near Moyasta:—

“The wave of Malbay—proclaiming
That the whole world is in danger
From the active, brave hawk of Kildimo.”

The legend closely resembles an ancient one in the Dindseanchas, [10] in which Buan, the daughter of Samaera, seeing Cuchullin contending for the champion’s prize, loved and pursued him to Fichmbuana, on the Shannon, beyond Dromsna, in Leitrim, “and she leaped a fearful leap after him against the rock, and thereof she died.”

“Leaps” seem often connected by legends with prominent or fortified headlands and stacks. We find a “Priest’s Leap” at Doonaderrig promontory fort in Mayo; a “Leap of the Water-horse” at Dun Fiachra in the same county, a Cat’s Leap near Doonegall in Clare, and that of O’Brien’s Horse at Dunlecky. [11]

Thomas Dyneley, in 1680, mentions Loop Head as a promontory belonging to the Right Honourable the Lord Viscount Clare. “Here is a stone whereupon if anyone turns round upon the heel and thinks of anyone of either sex for husband or wife, are said never to fail of their thought.” Many cut their names on it, but never “ventured to make the turn, the stone being so dangerous an eminence over the water.” It was remembered in the middle of the last century as “Clough-an-umphy.” [12]

The earliest version of the tale of the “Leap” known to me is the imperfect one given by John Lloyd in 1779:—“The extreme west of this county is a peninsula, almost encircled on the north and south by Malbay and the Shannon. . . . . At the western extremity is a lighthouse, [13] tower-like, built on a rising plain, commanding the stupendous cliff of that notable point in the seafaring world, called Leap’s Head, which is a rock or small island, and within a stone’s-throw of the Continent: it is called by navigators Lupshead, the same appearing to them at some distance like unto a wolf’s head. The appellation of Leap’s Head properly originates from Congullus or Cuchollan (an Ultonian champion and chief of the Irish combatants of that era), who leaped from the opposite shore into that island, and since that time it is called by Irish antiquarians ‘the Leap of Cucholan.’ Note that this northern hero flourished in the beginning of the first century, and most probably the distance between the shore and the island widened considerably since that early period.” [14]

Michael Brennan, in his poem on the Shannon in 1794, and Theophilus O’Flanagan (famed for his wonderful version of the ogham inscription on Mount Callan), allege that Loop Head got its name because Cuchullin leaped from it into Kerry. Eugene O’Curry had heard no such legend in Moyarta, nor had his father, a good Irish scholar, who died in 1825, aged eighty-one. There was, however, an old tale that Finn MacCumhail could pitch a stone of a ton weight from Cnocanair in Kerry to Carrigaholt in Clare; [15] and strangers may have blended the two stories—a method far too common with the early nineteenth-century collectors of folk-lore. The old local legend confined “Cuchullin’s Leap” to the island, or the cliff near it, which seems to have been once called “Bullánneleime,” a name now applied to a little headland to the east of the “Hull Rock.” The name of Dermot and Grania’s Rock has been in use—at least on the maps—since 1839. We will not record the modern appellation—which, with infinite bad taste, tourists, railway companies, and professional photographers are endeavouring to inflict on so venerable a legendary site—as it is the duty of antiquaries to discourage this form of advertisement in nomenclature.