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County Clare Folk-Tales and Myths by Thomas Johnson Westropp


The Sixteenth Century

The great religious changes of this period, although ever since constantly before the people in religious teaching and polemical literature, have left no clear independent tradition. It is usually ‘Cromwell,’ not Henry the Eighth, ‘who destroyed the Abbeys,’ just as in County Limerick the Cromwellian war has obliterated the remembrance of the far more cruel Desmond wars. The stories of Henry and Luther were usually comic, pretending to no historic character and of no wide acceptance. The only curious, and probably native, tale is that already told about ‘Anne Bulling’ winning and keeping the love of Henry by means of the pennywort. Her enemies put her in prison where she could not get it, and Henry turned against her and hanged her, ‘as she deserved.’ This I heard both near Sixmilebridge about 1877, and some five years later near Carrigogunnell in County Limerick, but the penalties incurred by me for inadvised introduction of anti Protestant stories and rebel songs (gathered from my kind friends among the peasantry) into my very Protestant and loyal family circle have obliterated the little I heard before my juvenile researches were nipped in the bud. Queen Mary had no place in Clare story, but Queen Elizabeth was widely remembered as the Cailleach or ‘Hag,’ and as ‘The Red Hag,’ but I can recall no definite story about her. The tale of a battle at Dysert Castle is almost certainly about that of 1562; Professor O’Looney thought it to relate to de Clare, but could not be certain that ‘Claraghmore’ was actually named by his informant. The ‘flagstone of the breaking of bones,’ near Quin Abbey, as I have noted, was, if not a modern ‘book legend,’ perhaps a reminiscence of the horrible execution of Domnall beg O’Brien by Sir John Perrot in 1582; I have never heard the name near Quin myself, and the incident has no similarity to the stabbing of the earlier Domnall O’Brien.

The only tangible stories relate to the Armada late in Elizabeth’s reign (1588). The fishermen at Kilkee told my people in 1868-72 of the screams and wailing of the Spaniards lost in the ‘Big Ships’ in the mist, or by night, at sea off the coast. In 1878 I heard round Doolin, to the north of the Cliffs of Moher, tales of the Big Ships and the Spaniards wrecked at Doolin, and how at the mound of Knock na croghery (cnocán na crocaire, ‘Gallows Hill’), at St. Catherine’s, somewhat inland, ‘Bœoshius O’Clanshy hung the Spanish grandee.’ In later years I heard further that a Spanish nobleman got leave to fetch away the body of his only son, but it was indistinguishable from the others ‘in one red burial blent,’ whose bones are often found at the hillock. Near Miltown, Kilfarboy church was said to be the burial-place of the yellow men (fear buidhe) from the Big Ships. Kilfarboy is, however, really ‘the church of Febrath,’ the Beal an febrath or Belfarboy pass running to the upland behind it, so that the false interpretation has evidently given rise to the story, just as Killaspluglonane has become Killsprunane (‘Gooseberry Church’), and Cnoc uar coill (‘Cold Wood Hill’) Cnocfuarchoill or Spansel Hill. There were graves called Teampul na Spanigg at two places, one near Doolin and one near Miltown Malbay. I heard the name last near Miltown in 1887, when the graves were almost obliterated, but could find no trace of it by diligent search in 1908. From the eighteenth century to the present day Spanish Point has been connected with the wreck of a Spanish ship (or ships).[106] A carving of a cornucopia, flowers, and bales, long preserved by the Morony family as a relic of the Armada, is considered by Count Lorenzo Salazar, the Italian consul in Dublin, as very probably of the proper period and comparable to other Spanish work.[107]

In 1887 I was told of another Spanish wreck near Mutton Island, and ‘its guns’ were shown faintly blue through the clear water in a rock pool. The wreck was, however, that of a ‘coastguard vessel’ in or soon after the Napoleonic wars, which had attracted to itself the older tale. There were faint traditions of the wreck of the Big Ships from Dunbeg to Killard in 1894, and of the ghosts of the crews at Kilkee.

A remarkable ancient table at Dromoland, figured by Count Salazar,[108] was according to tradition given to the then O’Brien of Lemaneagh by his brother-in-law, Bœthius Clancy. It is certainly Spanish, and the tradition may probably be true. I heard no tale in Moyarta of the Big Ship really lost there, but found similar tales along the Kerry coast beyond, as I did in Mayo and on the Ulster coast. In 1878 the ‘Calendar of State Papers’ was unknown, and no local history told the true story, so that the mention of ‘Bœoshius O’Clanshy’ seems like genuine tradition. No wreck is recorded at Doolin, but, when the Zuniga took shelter in Liscannor Bay, not far to the south, wreckage and an oil jar floated in,[109] so a wreck is not impossible. A ship was wrecked opposite Tromra Castle in the Sound, near Mutton Island, and another at Dunbeg; a third was set on fire by its crew and allowed to drift on shore in Moyarta Parish on the Shannon. The letters of Bœthius MacClanchy, the sheriff of Clare, and others give very full details.

A second tale, evidently old but less authentic, is told of Dunlicka and Carrigaholt Castles in nearly identical forms. The older is given by Rev. John Graham of Kilrush in 1816.[110] Teig MacMahon of Carrigaholt being implicated in the Desmond rising and absent in Kerry, his followers committed outrages on some collectors of the chief rents. The Earl of Thomond sent his brother, Henry O’Brien of Trummera Castle, to complain to MacMahon. While waiting for MacMahon’s return, Henry fell in love with the chief’s beautiful daughter, and the lovers agreed that, if MacMahon on his return showed hostility to Henry, the lady should hoist a black handkerchief on the west side of the Castle. O’Brien, returning from hunting, forgot to look for the signal, and was attacked on entering the courtyard, the gate being shut behind him. He rode his horse into the river, and swam across the creek, but was again attacked and wounded, his servant being killed. He laid a complaint before the Queen in person, and she outlawed MacMahon, and granted all his estate to O’Brien. Meantime MacMahon had fled to Dunboy, where he was accidentally shot by his own son.[111] So O’Brien on his return found all opposition at an end, and married the lady of his choice. This tale differs too much from history to be ‘book legend.’ It is true that MacMahon got into trouble for capturing Daniel O’Brien (brother of the Earl of Thomond), and that the estates were eventually granted to his prisoner, but the anger of the Crown against MacMahon arose from his capture of an English ship, and his relations with the rebel James ‘Sugan Earl’ of Desmond. Teig MacMahon died in 1601.

In 1875 I heard a similar story about Dunlicka Castle from some of my brother’s tenants at Moveen, near Kilkee. O’Brien of Carrigaholt fell in love with the daughter of MacMahon of Dunlicka. She used to hoist a flag on the Castle when her father was away, but the chief heard of it and himself gave the signal. O’Brien rode into the Castle and was attacked, but leaped his horse over the chasm of Poulnagat to the north of the Castle and escaped unhurt.


Chapter 8


Chapter 10