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A Folklore Survey of County Clare by Thomas Johnson Westropp



Above the Shannon gorge, overlooking a beautiful mass of mountains, the southern arm of Lough Derg, and the river and Killaloe with its weirs, rises the great brown and purple bluff of Craglea. Above the low earthworks and mound of stones that mark the ninth-century fort of Prince Lachtna ascends a rough lane. Further up on the east flank a little well, Tobereevul, gushes out from under a low rock amid the ferns,[18] and on the west side,—up a lonely valley, a long-forgotten battlefield, ‘Crag Liath where shields were cleft,’ in one of Brian Boru’s earlier combats with the Norsemen,—rises a high crag called Craganeevul. The names of both well and crag commemorate the tutelary spirit of the House of Cass, Aibhill or, more correctly, Aibhinn, ‘the lovely one,’ once, it may be, the goddess of the House.

On Good Friday, A.D. 1014, Brian, the aged monarch of all Erin, knelt in his tent praying for victory, while the battle raged over the low ridge now crowded by the houses of northern Dublin and on to the weirs of Clontarf. News came that his brave son’s standard had fallen, and his page entreated him to ride back to the camp. ‘Oh, God! thou boy,’ cried Brian, ‘retreat becomes us not, and I myself know that I shall not depart alive, for Aibhill of Crag Liath came to me last night, and she told me that I should be killed today.’[19] How many centuries of faith lay behind the king’s fatalism, who can say? As the Gauls worshipped another banshee, Catabodva, as their war-goddess,[20] so, before the baptism of King Cairthinn, (first Christian Prince of his House, about A.D. 430), the ancestors of the Dalcassians may have worshipped Aibhinn on her holy hill, and her equally lovely sister Aine, crowned with meadowsweet, on the tamer mound of Knockaney. Whether, if so, they found her already enthroned at Craglea on their conquest of the district, or whether the conqueror Lugad consecrated the mountains to his patroness, it is now impossible to guess. Aibhill, as banshee, held her own. We find her even usurping the place of the ‘Sybil’ in a translation of the Dies Iræ,[21] in unwonted companionship with King David, and she was a commonplace of local threnodies during the eighteenth, and even the nineteenth, century. In the lake below Rathblamaic in Inchiquin she has down to recent years been seen, with the twenty-five other banshees of Clare that call her their queen, washing clothes before any impending disaster.

The next appearance of a banshee in local history is of a very different spirit three centuries later. The ‘Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh’ (‘Triumphs of Torlough’) was written probably about A.D. 1350 by Seean mac Craith, the hereditary historian.[22] It contains accounts of three spirit women,—one, the ‘Sovereignty of Erin,’ being of surpassing loveliness, and the two others, (if not the same,— ‘Dismal’ and ‘Water Dismal’), of loathsome hideousness. The hags, however, probably survive, while the ‘Sovereignty’ has perished. Bronach (‘the sorrowful or dismal one’) of Ceann Boirne was known as the ‘Hag of Black Head’ from the modern name of the older Ceann (or Rinn) of Burren. She was in full repute in 1839, and I have heard of her vaguely about 1885 or 1887. In August, 1317, she was able to appear in ‘the dark before sunrise’ and fortell destruction by words or hideous action. The supporters of Prince Murchad O’Brien, (then absent in Dublin), under his brother Dermot invaded the territory of his rival Prince Donchad O’Brien. The latter got together an army, ‘even the man in the souterrain (uamh) of a fort’ being summoned, and marched round the site of the modern village of Ballyvaughan, his foe having sheltered in Corcomroe Abbey, in the nook of the bare hills some miles to the north-west. Approaching Lough Rasga, (still known as Rask), ‘they looked on the shining mere, and there they saw the monstrous and distorted form of a lone, ancient hag, that stooped over the bright Lough shore. She was thatched with elf locks, foxy grey and rough like heather, matted and like long sea-wrack, a bossy, wrinkled, ulcerated brow, the hairs of her eyebrows like fish hooks; bleared, watery eyes peered with malignant fire between red inflamed lids; she had a great blue nose, flattened and wide, livid lips, and a stubbly beard.’[23] The writer adds detail on detail (some 90 in all), many too disgusting to copy. The hag was washing human limbs and heads with gory weapons and clothes, till all the lake was defiled with blood, brains, and floating hair. Donchad at last spoke. ‘What is your name and race, and whose kin are those maltreated dead?’ She replied,—‘I am Bronach of Burren, of the Tuatha Dé Danann. This slaughter heap is of your army’s heads; your own is in the middle.’ The angry men raised their javelins, but she rose on the wind, yelling more and more words of woe till she vanished. ‘Heed her not,’ said Donchad, ‘she is a friendly Bodbh of Clan Torlough’ (his opponents). The army hurried on to the ridge of the Abbey, where Donchad and all his kindred, save one brother, were slain before evening.

Not to the Irish alone did the banshee fortell ruin. In May, 1318, Richard de Clare, leader of the Normans, was marching to what he supposed would be an easy victory over the O’Deas of Dysert. The English came to the ‘glittering, running water of fish-containing Fergus,’ when they saw a horrible bedlam washing armour and rich robes till the red gore churned and splashed through her hands.[24] Calling an Irish ally to question her, de Clare heard that ‘the armour and clothes were of the English, and few would escape immolation.’ ‘I am the Water Doleful One. I lodge in the green fairy mounds (sidh) of the land, but I am of the Tribes of Hell. Thither I invite you. Soon we shall be dwellers in one country.’ Next day de Clare, his son, and nearly all his English troops lay dead upon the fields near the ford of Dysert for miles over the country in their flight.

The belief of the early eleventh and fourteenth centuries is still extant, for local legend near Dysert tells how Aibhill and twenty-five banshees washed blood-stained clothes in Rath Lake before ‘Claraghmore’ (de Clare) fell, and that they still do so when mischief is afoot.[25]

For nearly 300 years there is no other Clare banshee tale, till the famous one of 1642 in the ‘Memoires [recte Memoirs] of Lady Fanshawe’, (published in 1665).[26] It is so well known that a brief abstract will suffice. Her Ladyship, staying with some of the O’Briens, was sleeping in a room, of which the window overhung water at some height, at a castle, perhaps Bunratty or Castle Lake. She was awakened by a horrible scream, and saw a girl outside the window. The apparition was pale, rather handsome, and with her reddish hair hanging dishevelled over her shoulders. After some time the unwelcome visitor vanished, with other gastly shrieks. In the morning Lady Fanshawe, telling her tale, was told of the death of a relative of the family whose illness had been concealed from her. The spirit was that of the peasant wife of a former owner of the castle, drowned in the moat by her husband and of evil omen to his descendants.

The next story was told in my own family and, I understand, in that of the Ross Lewins. I have traced it to a daughter of Jane Ross Lewin, one of the girls who saw the banshee. It related to Jane’s father, Harrison Ross Lewin of Fortfergus, who probably died in 1776, as his will, dated November, 1775, was proved in March, 1777; but I have hitherto been unable to verify the circumstances or place of his death. Mr. Ross Lewin had gone to Dublin on business, the journey at that time taking five days, and the several stages being Limerick, Nenagh, Mountrath, Kildare, and Dublin. In his absence the ‘young people’ went to a friend’s house for the evening. The road passed an old church (Kilchrist), which was unenclosed, standing in an open field. As the party returned under bright moonlight, they were startled by loud keening and wailing from the direction of the ruin. Coming in sight, all clearly saw a little old woman with long white hair and a black cloak running to and fro on the top of the side wall, clapping her hands and wailing. The young men, leaving the girls together on the road, sent some of their number to watch each end of the building, and the remainder entered and climbed up on the wall. The apparition vanished as they approached the church, and, after a careful search, could not be found. The party, thoroughly frightened, hurried home, and found their mother in even greater terror. She had been sitting in the window when a great raven flapped three times at the glass, and, while she told them, the bird again flew against the window. Some days later, news arrived from Dublin that Ross Lewin had died suddenly on the very evening of the apparition and omen.

It is curious that an English family, no matter how long settled in Ireland, should have acquired the ministration of a banshee, but, besides the Ross Lewins, both the Stamers and the Westropps were so endowed in Clare.[27] The Westropps had also death warnings in the shape of a white owl and the headless coach. This bird last appeared, it is said, before a death in 1909, but it would be more convincing if it appeared at places where the white owl does not nest and fly out every night. The banshee has been conspicuously absent of late years, although on the death of my father, the late John Westropp, at Attyflin, in 1866, keening and weird lamentation, (probably of some of the country folk who held him in deep affection), were heard the same night by the servants and some of the family. When Mrs. Stamer died at Stamer Park, Ennis, in January, 1883, the banshee and death coach were also supposed to have been heard,—though far more satisfactory explanations of the noises were forthcoming. The popular belief in Clare is that each leading Irish race had a banshee, Eevul, the banshee of the royal O’Briens, ruling over twenty-five other banshees always attendant on her progresses. The stream from Caherminaun to Dough, (the Daelach), was called the ‘Banshee’s Brook,’ and when, as sometimes happens after an unusually dry summer, the water gets red from iron scum, everyone is on the alert to hear the rustling flight of the banshee, (not apparently Eevul), and her attendants through the air. In the prevailing suspense someone generally succeeds, and then there is unrest and fear until a death removes the uncertainty. There are many other modern tales of banshees. Mr. Casey of Ruan heard a banshee cry at the death of his father. The late Dr. MacNamara of Corofin was similarly honoured; indeed, when his family lived at Ballymarkahan, near Quin, there were numerous ‘authentic instances’ recorded. The Corofin banshees, however, did not lag behind the age by maintaining aristocratic prejudices, for one, at least, used to sit near the cross road leading to the workhouse and foretell the deaths of the poor inmates.[28]

The most recent visit of a banshee told to me was in 1905,[29] and is sadly tame with the stories of MacCraith and Lady Fanshawe. Some scattered cottages form a sort of suburb to Newmarket-on-Fergus at a temporary lake (or turlough) called Lough Gaish. The inhabitants were greatly alarmed by the loud and ghastly wailing of some unknown being on several successive nights. Local panic spread, and few ventured out after dark. Had any tragedy happened, the reputation of the banshee would have rested on a rock of belief for another generation; but nothing occurred, and it is now doubted ‘whether it was a banshee at all, at all.’


Chapter 1


Chapter 3