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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales and Legendary Places in Ireland
One of the richest places of legend in Ireland
Ireland's bones are made of stories, you can hardly step over a rock or walk past an old mound but if it could speak, it would tell you tales you could hardly imagine. But of all the legended glens and fields misty with memory in this ancient nation, there are few with as many secrets hidden in their depths as Lough Gur in county Limerick.
Situated between what we today call Herbertstown and Bruff, it is a lake in the shape of a dragon's mouth yawning wide, although it formed a perfect circle until it was drained for agricultural purposes in the 1840s, which exposed many of the treasures hiding below its waves.
In the middle of this once-circular lake is the hill of Knockadoon, upon which stands the Suideachan Bean-tí, the Housekeeper’s Chair, also called Áine’s birthing chair and the Old Hag’s Chair, which is the seat of the fairy Áine, upon which no mortal may sit without losing their wits entirely!
Nearby can be found the largest Neolithic stone circle in Ireland, Grange stone circle, also known as “Lios na Grainsi” or the “Stones of the Sun”. These were used for rituals and are aligned with the summer solstice, and were the site of great Aenachs, or festivals, where bonfires were lit and sporting events took place.
The lake is surrounded by great dolmens and pillars, ring forts, ruined castles, ancient farmsteads whose outlines can still be seen – the spectacles – and crannógs on their artificial islands, as well as a wedge tomb where once the bronze sickles of the druids shone wetly in the silvering moonlight.
People have lived here from the very earliest times, for six thousand years or more, and they hunted the giant elk whose bones still litter the area. It was said to have been sacred to the Tuatha Áine, daughter of Dagda and brother of Fer Fi who once led the Tuatha. Her legend echoes even to this day, and she is known as the white lady, Bean Fhionn, or the lady of the house, Bean Tí.
Once every seven years she was said to summon a sacrifice to the lake and take them below to her country, as described by Mary Fogarty, born nearby in 1858:
“...some say that in ancient days there was a city where the lake is now, before an earthquake threw up the hills and filled the hollow with water so that the city was submerged. Even now, the peasants say, when the surface of the lake is smooth one may see from a boat, far down and down again, the drowned city, its walls and castle, houses and church, perfect and intact, waiting for the Day of Resurrection.
And on Christmas Eve, a dark night without moon and stars, if one looks down and down again, one may see lights in the windows, and listening with the ears of the mind, hear the muffled chiming of church bells.”
No poet or writer in Ireland will sleep on the shores of that lake, for fear of the visions they might have, or worse, that the lady might take too much of a liking to them! Such is told of the fate of Gearáid Iarla, the third Earl of Desmond, who helped to write the cruel Statutes of Kilkenny, intended to cause division and strife between the Norman invaders and the native Irish. For you see, the invaders were becoming more Irish than the Irish themselves!
He made it illegal to:
- Marry an Irish person
- Adopt an Irish child
- Use an Irish name
- Wear Irish clothes
- Speak the Irish language
- Play Irish music
- Listen to Irish story-tellers
- Play Irish games
- Let an Irish person join an English religious house
- Appoint any Irish clergyman to any church in the English settlement
- Ride a horse in Irish style, that is, without a saddle.
And if that wasn't enough, the man was reputed to be a black magician who sought to bind the Sidhe Áine to his will and to be his mistress by stealing her cloak as she bathed under the starlight. Of course that was never going to end well, and despite his best precautions he was drawn into the lake to become one of the undead, only allowed to gallop wildly around the edge of the lake once every seven years.
The silver horseshoes by which he sought to flee in superstition are now the chain that binds him, for he can never return to the land of the living until they are worn away from the hooves of his horse entirely! Some say he will restore the House of Desmond when he is finished with his midnight rides, but you could be forgiven for doubting it.
Áine herself was said to have been the mistress of no less than Crom Cruach, or Crom Dubh, old black one eye of the many glooms who was worshipped by some in Ireland in times past. And neither did they come to a good end, as with the Milesian King Tigernmas, who perished dreadfully in his dark festivities, along with most of his men!
The largest stone of the one hundred and thirteen in Grange stone circle rears up more than four meters in height and is called Rannach Crom Dubh, or the division of Crom Dubh, and weighs more than forty tons.
Another manuscript tells a tale from the eighth century, when Christianity was almost spread throughout the whole country – but not yet to every last corner! For a king of Munster whose name was Ailill Olom fell asleep on Cnoc Áine during the Samhain festivities, and found all the grass was gone from the hill when he opened his eyes!
Unable to explain this turn of evens, he sought the counsel of a wandering seer, Fergus mac Comáin, who suggested they go back and see if it happened again. Well the king fell asleep but the seer did not, instead hiding himself in the bushes so he was able to see the Sidhe King and Áine come forth from the hill!
The seer wasted no time but hopped out and murdered the Sidhe King, while Ailill Olom came awake and, unable to restrain himself, ravished Áine. In her fury at this assault she, in turn, ripped off his ear, and after that he could no longer be king, for it was forbidden that any man should rule who was not whole in body.
Across from the hill of Knockadoon is another hill, called Knockfennel, which is also said to be hollow, although there is a small opening near the summit which grants access to any with the courage to enter the fairy otherworld. Fires were lit here on Samhain night, and six nights after the sick were brought out to be healed. If they were not healed by the ninth day of the moon they would hear the ceol Sidhe, the Suantraighe, ancient music Áine played to comfort those who were about to die.
Other stories tell of the Bean an Tí sitting upon her throne, having come up from the lake, combing her hair with a beautiful golden comb. A shepherd boy watched from a distance, and when he saw that comb, he knew he had to have it for himself, so he crept up behind her and stole it while her attention was elsewhere!
After that he had a terrible life filled with misfortune and failure, but before he died he ordered that the comb be thrown back into the lake, and so Áine got her comb back.
A poet-harper named Thomas O’Connellan, who died during a feast at Bouchiers Castle around 1700 is buried nearby, and it was written:
..”in that churchyard by Lough Gur’s romantic shore,
where the shamrocks and the ivy every grow
where the wild dove and the raven
like protecting spirits soar
o’er the green graves of silent Teampall Nua”.
But perhaps strangest of all is the finding of the Lough Gur shield, or the sun-shield, which is a magnificent bronze age shield perhaps more than three thousand years old. It is one of a few of the same style found as far abroad as Scotland and Denmark, which tells of a single people united in their ways and beliefs across all of the north and west.
It was, so they say, fished out of the lake with a gaff hook in 1872 by a young man called Cathal Hayes, who traded it to the historian Maurice Lenihan in Limerick for the price of a boat ticket to America. While he was there he kept the company of the Mayor of Boston, who married Josephine Hannon, whose father had been born at Lough Gur, and whose grandson became none other than US president John F Kennedy!
Lough Gur can be found on the map below.
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