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County Clare Folk-Tales and Myths by Thomas Johnson Westropp


Other Traditions up to A.D. 1270

The ‘Annals’ tell how, in 1086, three named Connaught chiefs fell in a raid into Corcomroe. Two curious stories, evidently genuine folk versions of the raid, are attached to the great cairn of Cairn Connachtagh in the marshy fields at Ballydeely between Ennistymon and Lisdoonvarna. I was told in 1878 (and Dr. W. H. Stacpoole Westropp remembered the legend as extant long before then) that the King of Connacht went to Loop Head and returned ‘with lots of men and cows chained together,’ and the Clare men (some said ‘under the O’Briens,’ comparatively late settlers in that district), attacked the Connaught men and killed all except three chiefs, and buried the dead (or the chiefs) under the big cairn. Others said only that a king was killed in a battle there and buried under it.[72] In 1839, and long after, it was told how a Connaught army hunted a big serpent to the spot and killed it, and buried it under the cairn.[73] The first story is probably to be connected with the tales of the raids of the three brothers of Loop Head against the plunderers of their flocks, as all the three opposing chiefs came from a few miles away. The cairn is almost certainly Carn mic Tail, the inauguration place of the Corca-Modruadh tribes.[74]

The Norman invasion has left in County Clare no traditions known to me. It hardly affected Clare in the time of King Donaldmore, while his two sons, and especially Donchadh Cairbreach, had more or less friendly relations with the foreigners. He was remembered as the builder of Limerick Cathedral, and a slab near the west door, with an encircled cross between four fantastic animals, was (at least in later tradition)[75] believed to mark his grave. None of his numerous Clare foundations,—Killone, Canon’s Island, Inchicronan, Clare Abbey, and Corcomroe,—was attributed to him, and the last named was definitely assigned to his grandson Conor. Donchadh Cairbreach was also forgotten as the founder of Ennis ‘Abbey.’

Croohoore na Siudaine
Conchobar Ruadh succeeded Donchadh in 1242. He was an able prince who forced the Normans to recognize him, and, aided by his gifted son Tadhg Caoluisge na Briain, expelled them from all their settlements in Clare. He fell in quelling a rebellion in 1269 at a place called Siudaine near Corcomroe Abbey,[76] and was buried in the chancel of that monastery, where his effigy still remains. He is locally remembered as ‘Croohoore na Sudany,’ and is reputed to have built the noble early fortress of Dun Conor or ‘Doon Croohoore,’ on the middle Isle of Aran. He may have repaired it, or added a late-seeming bastion to its outer wall, but the place is evidently of very early origin. In a poem by Mac Liac, King Brian’s bard, about 1000, the island was assigned to Concraid, son of Umor, a Firbolg chief at the beginning of our era. Probably the names Concraid and Conchobhar were confused in the popular mind,[77] and the close connection between Aran and Corcomroe familiarised the Aran men with Conor’s monument and history. Hugh Brigdall in 1695 notes ‘a monument or statue of ye O’Bryens in this Abbey nicknamed Concuba na Siudne.’[78] Local tradition in the middle of the nineteenth century said that he fell in battle and was buried where he fell, and the Abbey built over him.[79] A cruder story about 1849 said that he fell smoking, and was buried with a pipe in his mouth! This was still told at the Abbey in 1878, but it is hard to tell how it originated, as the face is clean shaven and unbroken. I found no trace of the pipe story in 1885, but by 1900 it had been revived among young men ‘guides,’ falsely so called, for the benefit of tourists.

A tale existed before 1870 which was curiously like the tales of Solomon putting Hiram and the temple-builders to death, the Strasburg clock, and so on. Conor got five skilled masons to build the Abbey of Corcomroe, and as soon as they had finished the chancel and east chapels he killed them, lest they should build similar structures elsewhere; this explains the rude, bald ugliness of the rest of the ruin and its beautiful east end. In recent years Donaldmore has taken Conor’s place as the slayer, because he is now known to be the actual founder.[80]

Torloughmore is remembered as the ‘founder’ (i.e. restorer) of Ennis Abbey. Strange to say, a few generations after his death an unflattering tale is told of this special favourite of Clare historians in the Appendix to a ‘Life’ of St. Senan. Theodoric son of Tatheus, enraged by the monks of Iniscathaigh permitting a husbandman to take sanctuary, invaded St. Senan’s termon at Cill mic an dubhain (Kilmacduan), and dragged forth the refugee. On the second night after the sacrilege, the saint appeared to the prior of Iniscathaigh, and said that he was going to punish Theodoric. The Prince saw that same night in a vision St. Senan, who rebuked him and struck his leg with the crozier. No doctor could cure the wound, which mortified, and Theodoric died.[81] No definite folk-tale seems to refer to ‘Torlough’s war.’[82] The second war is, however, well represented.

It is wonderful how deep has been the impression made in tradition by the war of Murchad, Prince of Thomond, (Torlough’s son) with Sir Richard de Clare in 1310-18. But it is confused and is centred on the Norman leader, locally known as ‘Claraghmore’ (the great de Clare), bearing no trace until recent years of deriving anything from the records. The second prose epic of Thomond, the ‘Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh’ (‘Triumphs of Torlough’), a bombastic but very reliable history (usually assigned to 1459 on the sole authority of a late eighteenth-century copy, but from internal evidence earlier than 1360),[83] has made no impression on the folk-tales down at least to 1891. A very vague memory of a battle near Clare Abbey is believed to refer to the fierce fight there in 1276, but the tradition gives no data. An equally vague tale [84] at Mortyclough has been referred to the decisive battle of Corcomroe in 1317, which, however, was certainly fought on the ridge close to the Abbey, between it and Bealaclugga creek, and not at Mortyclough. It is probable that the name Mothar tighe cloice (‘fort of the stone house,’ and in its phonetic form Mortyclough), suggested to someone the meaning Mortough’s tombstone, and was explained by the slaying of ‘Mortough Garbh O’Brien’ in the battle. He was a rather obscure adherent of Prince Donchad, and seems unlikely to have remained in popular remembrance.

In 1695 Hugh Brigdall records the local tradition near Dysert O’Dea that de Clare fell at Dromcavan.[85] At the stream bounding that townland and Dysert, old folk told in 1839 a tale, not found in the histories but evidently old, that when Claraghmore was coming to Dysert [86] a certain Conor more Hiomhair (locally ‘Howard’) advised O’Dea to lay a trap. He loosened the timber side beam of a wicker bridge over the stream, and hid in a recess on the bank under it, armed with his axe. As Claraghmore rode across, Hiomhair pushed out a prop and the structure collapsed, and as de Clare and his horse were struggling in the stream the Irishman split his skull.[87] The history makes it clear that de Clare had crossed the stream and fell in an ambuscade of the O’Deas in a wood towards Dysert. There was actually a contemporary Conchobhar na Hiomhair, who fought on the Irish side at the battle of Corcomroe Abbey in the year preceding (1317), but was too obscure to render his intrusion into local tradition probable, and hence may have been the real slayer of the Norman. The night before Claraghmore died, says tradition at Scool, about a mile and a half from Dysert, twenty-five banshees washed blood-stained clothes in the lake. This was told to Prof. Brian O’Looney before 1870, and Dr. G. U. MacNamara found it still extant some five years ago. In the history a banshee appears to de Clare. A story preserved in an Appendix to the ‘Life’ of St. Senan tells how the saint, to punish a violation of his sanctuary, drove Richard de Clare mad, so that the latter rushed heedlessly into a battle in which he lost his life; this story probably dates back to the later fourteenth century.[88]

There are some extremely unreliable de Clare traditions. Clare Castle and Clarisford near Killaloe were said to be named after ‘Clarence,’ for de Clare, in certain late English histories, had been transformed into a good ‘Duke of Clarence’ who ‘introduced civility’ into Clare, building market towns and castles and governing the country well; but the Irish were under no such delusions about the civilizing career of Norman conquest in Thomond.

The late sixteenth-century ‘court’ (possibly that of the Deans of Kilfenora), on the Fergus near Inchiquin Lake was called Cobhail [89] an Claraighmore (‘Great de Clare’s ruin’) in 1859.[90] At my earlier visits the old folk denied that it ever bore the map name ‘de Clare’s House,’ or had anything to do with Claraghmore, with whose name and fate they were familiar.

The north-east tower of Bunratty Castle was named ‘de Clare’s Tower’ by the Studderts; it is clearly of the late fifteenth century.[91] The name de Clare was used in the late times by the Studderts, who have of course no connection with the extinct Lords of Bunratty, and probably first applied the name to the tower with no better foundation than the recent ‘bathroom’ story possesses.

Conor O’Hiomhair figures in a second tale at Dysert Castle, in which a guest of O’Dea politely wishes the castle full of gold, and the chief in reply wishes it full of O’Hiomhairs.[92] A very modern and ill-attested story, which I did not find at Dysert in 1885 or 1895, says that O’Dea lured the English into a bog by setting bulrushes in the mire, so that de Clare, ‘knowing that such plants always grew in firm soil,’ rode in with his knights and became a prey to the Irish.

The tale of a great battle at Dysert Castle, and the human bones turned up round it, probably concern the battle fought there in 1562, but have been used by some to locate the decisive battle of May, 1318. The ‘stone of broken bones’ near Quin (where a Domnall O’Brien was taken by his enemies and his bones broken on the rock),[93] has been also asserted to refer to Domnall O’Brien, brother of King Torlough, who was slain by a Norman soldier, or mason, when peaceably buying wine at the Castle. I cannot trace the tale before 1860-70, when the history of the ‘Four Masters’ was well known, and, if the tale be genuine or even taken from some ‘knowledgeable person,’ it more probably relates to Domnall beg O’Brien, whose bones were broken with the back of an axe and he, still alive, hung in ropes to the belfry of Quin Abbey in 1584, by order of Sir John Perrot.

A very remarkable story, certainly genuine and evidently referring to the period of the Norman wars, attaches to a low hill with traces of entrenchment and, formerly, a deep straight ditch, between Loughs Bridget (Breeda) and Anilloon (Alinoon) between Tulla and Bodyke. It is called Kilconnell, and in 1839 Irish-speakers called it Cladh na ’n gall (‘Foreigners’ trench,’ or ‘defeat,’ said some). An English army encamped there and was destroyed by an Irish army from Tomgraney. Most of the English soldiers were slain and buried on the hill top, within the Cladh, where human bones have been found.[94] In 1891 the late Captain Charles George O’Callaghan, of Ballinahinch near Kilconnell (from whom I carefully concealed the 1839 tale and the history, although he said ‘tell me the story I’m to look for’!) gave me two tales to the same effect. Mr. Whelan of Kilconnell, and an old labourer at Ballinahinch, gave a version like that of 1639 [recte 1839], but added that the English first drove back the Irish into the swamp at Lough Anilloon below the hill, where many were lost. No period was fixed by the tale, but it tallies only with an event in 1315. Richard de Clare set out to fight with Edward Bruce, possibly intending to march by Scariff, Portumna, and Athlone. He entered Hy Ronghaile, camped in the very middle of it, and sent his Irish allies past Tomgraney to drive prince Murchad O’Brien from the ford of Scariff; but they got the worst of it, and were driven back in great confusion upon de Clare’s army, which fell into panic and retreated hastily to Bunratty. Kilconnell is ‘in the very middle of Hy Ronghaile.’


Chapter 6


Chapter 8