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A Folklore Survey of County Clare by Thomas Johnson Westropp


Place Names and Legends of Places

County Clare from the fourth century of our era was united politically with North Munster, Tuath Mumhain, or Thomond, though separated from it by the broad waters of the Shannon. Standing thus by itself, ‘isolated by the Sea, the River, and the enmity of Connaught,’ it might be expected that it would preserve until modern times an unbroken tradition from the prehistoric past, and that a survey of its folklore would show many traces of ancient beliefs still surviving. The battle goddess Catabodva, worshipped in antique Gaul, appears as the Bodbh of battle (cath) in the wars fought by the Princes of Clare in 1014 and 1317, and the spirit that washed the bloodstained clothes and limbs of the then living combatants still, I was told three years ago, foretells calamity by washing clothes in the same waters.[1] Péists or water snakes,—emblems, perhaps, of pagan islanders or devouring seas and lakes,—abound in the legends of a very early date, and are still reputed to seize the cattle, and even human beings, drowned in the lakes of Clare. The place names considered below will show to what an extent our present nomenclature records the mythology and sagas of early days, and I propose in the remainder of this first paper to deal with the banshee, the death coach, and the fairies. The bulk of the traditions since 1790 has been collected from the mouths of the people, and not from books nor from the notes of others, and I have tried, where possible, to gather various versions of the legends without the dangerous aid of ‘leading questions.’

Were we assured of the date of their origin, place names would be our most authentic, and perhaps our earliest, evidence of traditional beliefs and superstitions, but their first records only give a minimum date. To take a few examples:—if we may accept explanations earlier than A.D. 800, the name of Iniscatha, traceable from about 550, embodies the name of a monster, (probably the ‘god or demon of the flood’), dispossessed by St. Senan, the missionary of the Corcavaskin district.[2] Again, Craganeevul near Killaloe recalls the belief in Aibhill, or Aibhinn, ‘the beautiful,’ the tutelary spirit of the ruling house of the Dalcassians, the later O’Briens. If the ‘Life of St. Maccreiche’ be early, it bears out a later belief that the cave of Poulnabruckee, in Inchiquin, commemorates no ordinary badger, but the formidable ‘demon-badger,’ killer of cattle and men.[3]

Following certain topographical lines I give the names as they occur, rather than as grouped according to beliefs. I must also premise that the Dalcassian tribes virtually covered the eastern Baronies of Bunratty and Tulla, with part of Inchiquin, from about A.D. 377; the Corca Modruad, (the royal line of the mythical Queen Maeve and Fergus mac Roigh), were in Burren and Corcomroe from still earlier times, beyond the range of even historical tradition;[4] while a third great independent line, the Corcabaiscinn, occupied the Baronies known down to Tudor times (and still as a rural deanery) as Corcavaskin,—now Moyarta and Clonderlaw, with the Barony of Ibrickan, (which takes its name from a settlement of fugitives from the Norman conquest in Leinster about 1180).

Irghus or Eerish, a Firbolg in the oldest of Clare legends,[5] is commemorated by Caherdooneerish stone fort,[6] on Black Head. Finn MacCumhail gives his name to Seefin, on the same hills. The ‘silver bells’ of Kilmoon church are said to be recalled by Cahercloggaun fort and Owenacluggan brook near Lisdoonvarna. In Kilcorney Parish we have two forts, Lisananima and Caherlisananima, named from ghosts; the first name is older than 1652. Beara, another Firbolg, brother of Irghus, gives his name, (found in a poem dating before 1014), to Finnavarra Point,—but not to Kinvarra, which is akin to Kenmare and Kinsale, ‘Head of the Sea’ or ‘of the brine.’ The name Bohernamish, or ‘way of the dishes,’ with its legend of the miraculous rapine of King Guaire’s Easter banquet, about A.D. 630, is found in the mediæval Life of St. Colman MacDuach.[7]

The reef of Kilstiffin, Kilstapheen, or Kilstuitheen has a legend of a sunken church and city, of which the golden domes appear once in seven years. The submerged forests and bogs inside the reef in Liscannor Bay, and the record of the great earthquake and tidal wave that split into three Inis Fitæ [8] on the same coast (A.D. 799-802), incline one to believe in a basis for the legend. In Noughaval is a fort called Liskeentha, from ‘fairy songs’ heard there. Not far away, in Kilfenora Parish, we have a Boughil or ‘petrified boy,’ and in Carran Parish a Farbreag or ‘petrified man’; such names, originating in strangely-shaped rocks, are rather common. A third Firbolg brother, Daelach, gives his name to the little river Daelach and the townland Ballydeely. In Carran and Kilmanaheen the belief in the phooka or púca, a demon horse or goat, is stamped on the Poulaphucas, one of which has a fine dolmen; such monuments all over Ireland are found connected with the malignant prototype of Puck. Lisfearbegnagommaun, ‘the fort of the little men (playing at) hurling,’ commemorates fairy sports.

Ancient Parishes of County Clare
Ancient Parishes of County Clare
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Poulaphuca in Kilfarboy is, so far as I know, the only mythic name, but Doolough Lake (Nigricantis) is named in the early ‘Life of Senan’ [9] as the prison of the fearful ‘Cata’ of Iniscatha, while the ‘Legend of the sons of Thorailbh mac Stairn’ [10] locates the cavern whence the ferocious ‘Faracat’ launched itself on the heroes’ spears, beside its waters. Dunbeg Bay is the scene of a curious merman story.[11]

At Loop Head, the south-western extremity of the county, we find a Poulnapeiste and a line of forts,—Cahercrochain, Cahersaul, Dundahlin, and Cahernaheanmna,—connected with the monster killed by Dermod O’Duine and the brothers Crochaun, Sal, and Dahlin, whose sister (‘the one (lone) woman’) gave her title to the last fort.[12] Iniscatha commemorates its dragon, and Lisnarinka fort the ‘dances’ of its fairy dwellers.

Turning inland, up the Shannon and Fergus confluence, Tobersheefra (‘elf’s well’) and Poulaphuca are named from the fairies and púca, and Clondegad from two druids who competed in magic, making ‘two gads’ (or withes) to sail up the stream.

Passing on to the settlements of the Dalcassians, we find treasure legends at Cloghanairgid (‘rock of the silver (money)’) and Skeaghvickencrowe (‘MacEnchroe’s bush’). Cloghaphuca in Kilnaboy and Poulnabruckee in Rath, with Toberatasha (‘spectre’s well,’ perhaps recording an apparition akin to that of Avenel), represent various supernatural beings. Seefin, Caherussheen, and Tirmicbrain near Corofin commemorate Finn, his son Oisin, and his dog Bran. The old pre-Norman Fenian tale of Feis tighe chonain is located on the high ridge over Inchiquin Lake, and connects Finn with the district and with a ‘hunting lodge’ at Formoyle, but the first name (‘seat of Finn’) has been lost since 1839.[13] In the weird terraced hills of bare crag behind Kilnaboy legend meets us at every turn. Slievenaglasha, the Glasgeivnagh Hill, Mohernaglasha, Leabanaglasha, and Mohernagartan, ‘Smith’s Fort,’ commemorate the Irish Vulcan, Lon mac Leefa (Liomhtha), and the wonderful ‘glaucous cow,’ the Glas, whose hoof prints mark the rocks in every direction. Inchiquin Lake has a beautiful swan-maiden tale,[14] but it ‘names no name.’ Still in Kilnaboy we find, near the tall brown peel tower of Ballyportry, a Cloughaphuca and the enchanted Lake of Shandangan.[15] Ruan Parish has Cahernanoorane, taking its name from ‘fairy melody.’ Lisheenvicknaheeha (‘the little fort of the son of the night’) seems ghostly, but the constituent is also an ancient personal name, Macnahaidche, in use down to at least 1084. In Dysert, Crush banola and the basin stone near it are connected with a curious legend which I reserve. Banola or Manawla is really the historic Tola, living about A.D. 637. Drehidnavaddaroe Bridge may commemorate a ghostly ‘red dog,’ like the dogs of Cratloe and Ennistymon in this county, and the Maelchu of Kerry.

This small district, although containing the ‘capital’ of Thomond from about 1220, is of little note in names. Poulnaclug contains the hidden bells of Dromcliff Round Tower. Knocknabohilleen probably had a ‘Boughil’ or ‘Farbreag’ (see Corcomroe supra). Fairyhill Fort in Kilmaley, and Music Hill, are connected with the ‘good people.’ Knockananima near Clare Castle, though superficially a ghost name, is said to be Cnoc (or Cnock an) na h iomána or ‘Hurling-field Hill.’

Taking the Upper and Lower Baronies together, both here and in Tulla, we find an oblique allusion to the fairies in Gortnamearacaun (‘foxglove field’), called also ‘Thimbletown,’—the foxglove being the fairies’ thimble. Caheraphuca has a fine dolmen and haunted fort. Knocknafearbreaga derives its name and legend from the ‘seven’ (recte five) pillar stones, once the seven robbers who ill-treated St. Mochulla’s tame bull. It is noteworthy that the life of St. Mochulleus, (sought for vainly by Colgan about 1637 and only recently found in Austria and published), gives the seven soldiers and the slaying of the tame bull that ran errands for the saint.[16] In the Lower Barony the fairies are connected with Lissnarinka (‘fort of the dance’) in Clonloghan, and perhaps Caherfirogue (‘young man’s fort,’ 1617), which is now forgotten. Moyeir, Moyross Parks, and Moyri are variants representing the ancient Magh Adhair, the settlement of another Firbolg chief and place of the inauguration of the kings of Thomond from at least A.D. 847 to Tudor times. Slieve suidhe an righ or Slieve oided an righ (‘king’s seat’ or ‘king’s death hill’), in Glennagross, was connected with a legend, probably historical, that King Criomthann died there in A.D. 377 poisoned by his sister, who drank before him to disarm his suspicion and secure the kingship for her son.[17]

In the mass of hills near the Shannon, Carrickeevul, Tobereevul, and Glennagalliach (‘hag’s glen’) commemorate banshees (see below). Knockaunamoughilly is named from a ‘Boughil,’ and other ‘sham men’ appear at the Farbreagas in Cloontra and Cloongaheen. Seefin in Kilseily is another ‘seat of Finn.’ Some names are more doubtful. Lough Graney, the river Graney, and Tomgraney, are attributed to a suspicious solar heroine, the lady ‘Gillagreine’ or ‘Grainne of the bright cheeks.’



Chapter 2