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The Burren: Legends of Maire Rua

The most interesting group of tales is attached to Lemaneagh Castle, a fine, but bare, old mansion, with curious gardens, courtyards, fishpond, and outbuildings, between Inchiquin and Kilfenora. An inscription over a gateway kept the remembrance green of Conor O'Brien and his wife Mary MacMahon, but the gateway has recently been carried off and rebuilt in a modern garden at Dromoland. The garden near the fishpond has a sort of summerhouse in one wall, with a niche on each side of the door, and tradition says that Maura Rhue (Mary O'Brien) built it for a famous blind stallion, so fierce that, when his grooms let him out, they had to spring up into the niches for safety. Conor O'Brien built the gates to shut in the people of Burren, (for a road through the enclosures leads into that extraordinary mountain wilderness), and would let no one through who did not ask leave of him and of his wife; but one of the Burren gentry gathered a band of the inhabitants, broke the gates, and forced O'Brien to promise free right of way for ever.

Lemaneagh Castle
Lemaneagh Castle

'Maura,'-or, as she is known in East Clare, 'Maureen' Rhue (Little Mary), or, by some English-speakers, 'Moll Roo,'-used to hang her maids by their hair from the corbels on the old peel tower, (the nucleus of the building). Others said that she cut off the breasts of her maids. I was told in 1878-81 that she married 25 husbands, all the later ones for a year and a day, after which either of the pair could divorce the other. She used to put her servants into all the houses of her temporary husband, and then suddenly divorce him and exclude him from his property. She was a MacMahon and had red hair (whence her name), and she and Conor O'Brien used to ride at the head of their troops in the wars.

Her descendants at Dromoland and elsewhere told, in 1839 and later, a curious story of her and Conor. General Ireton was attacked by Conor O'Brien, who fell mortally wounded but would not surrender. His servants brought him back, nearly dead, to his wife at Lemaneagh. 'She neither spoke nor wept,' but shouted to them from the top of the tower,- 'What do I want with dead men here?' Hearing that he was still alive she nursed him tenderly till he died. Then she put on a magnificent dress, called her coach, and set off at once to Limerick, which was besieged by Ireton. At the outposts she was stopped by a sentinel, and roared, and shouted, and cursed at him until Ireton and his officers, who were at dinner, heard the noise and came out. On their asking who was the woman, she replied,- 'I was Conor O'Brien's wife yesterday, and his widow to-day.' 'He fought us yesterday. How can you prove he is dead?' 'I'll marry any of your officers that asks me.' Captain Cooper, a brave man, at once took her at her word, and they were married, so that she saved the O'Brien property for her son, Sir Donat.

Lady Chatterton's account in 1839 tallies with that above. She says that Ireton sent five of his best men, disguised as sportsmen, to shoot Conor O'Brien, and one of them succeeded in wounding him. Mary captured and hanged the man, called her sons and advised them to surrender to the Parliament, and set off in her coach and six as described above.

At Lemaneagh it is added that one morning, after her marriage to Cooper, they quarrelled while he was shaving, and he spoke slightingly of Conor O'Brien. The affectionate relict, unable to bear any slur on the one husband she had loved, jumped out of bed and gave Cooper a kick in the stomach from which he died.

It was told that Maureen Rhue was taken by her enemies, after killing the last of her 25 husbands, and was fastened up in a hollow tree, of which the site and, I think, the alleged roots were still shown. Her red-haired ghost was reputed to haunt the long front avenue, near the 'Druids' altar' when I was a child.

Thomas J. Westropp, 'Folklore of Clare'. Ennis, Clasp Press, 2000.

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