Emerald Isle

Queen of the Banshees

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Mythological Cycle

A tragic beauty

Her name was Clíona or Clíodhna and she was one of the most beautiful women of the Tuatha Dé Danann, that vanished sorcerous race whose legends echo still from one end of Ireland to the other. Some even say she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and she was worshipped as a goddess by the pagans of Ireland who followed the fall of the Tuatha.

She was one of three daughters of Gebann, the chief druid of the sea-god Manannán Mac Lir, who had a particular fondness for her, much to her detriment, and was known for guarding against blighted crops and protecting animals, particularly cattle, from disease and from the evil eye. She was reputed to be able to change into a wren, as she did to escape one young mortal who had learned her magic, or a white hare.

She had three birds which ate from the fruit of a magical apple tree growing in Tír na nÓg, the Land of the Young, Tír Tairngire, the Land of Promise, and Magh Meall, the Pleasant Plain. Their bright song could sing anyone into a deep sleep which would heal all wounds, sicknesses and injuries.

Together with Aoibhell and Áine she was one of the three goddesses of Munster. She had a great rivalry with Aoibhell and both of the women fell in love with a young chieftain called O'Caoimh. His fancy was for Aoibhell though, and they were engaged to be married. Cliona called on the help of an old wise woman skilled in dark and twisting arts, and Aoibhell began to fade away.

Cliona told her she'd be cured if she renounced the love of O'Caoimh, but Aoibhell refused, so Cliona gave her a lash of a magic wand which turned her into a white cat. Later O'Caoimh, not knowing where his bride to be had vanished off to, agreed to marry Cliona, but the old wise woman confessed to her part in the crime, and gave him the wand to turn the cat back into a woman.

It was Cliona's turn to spend some time as a cat then, for when he heard the full story he tapped her with it and regained his bride in the next stroke!

She had many titles, among them Queen of the Banshees, for it was said she ruled those spirits who sent up a bone-chilling wail before a death among of one of the ancient families of Ireland. These were the sidheog, the fairy women of the hills, of South Munster, known as Cork and Kerry today.

Clíona would travel from her palace beneath Carraig Clíodhna, Clíona’s Rock, or send forth one of her sister-subjects when the shadow of death stretched its hand over the descendants of those who had worshipped her. It was said there was no morning of the year when Clíona wasn’t outside of that Carraig before sunrise, combing her long hair.

She was especially associated with the MacCarthys, FitzGeralds, O'Donovans, O'Collins, O'Keeffes and O'Learys, but in particular the O'Donovans who came south from Uí-Fidghente before Saint Patrick landed, abandoning their worship of the goddess Mongfind for the love of Clíona. In later times, Domhnall Ó Donnabháin was referred to as the "Dragon of Clíodhna".

Domhnall's son, dragon of Cliodhna, is guardian of the ancestral name,
he will remit his authority to none other - he has accepted the law of his dynasty.

O'Donovan, Four Masters, vol. V, p. 1548

Clíodhna’s Rock, anglicised as Carrigcleena, is a couple of hours walk southwest of Mallow in the parish of Kilshannig, and the nearby stone circle has a reputation as a “door to the Otherworld” where Clíona betimes leads her fairy women in slow dances under the waxing moon. Another rock, Carrigcleenamore, off Inch Strand, two miles south and east of Rosscarbery, is known by locals as the seat of this goddess and path to the underworld.

Her palace plays a central part in a story about a man called Seán Mac Séamas, an Irish prince. Bewitched by a beautiful stranger he met during a feast at his father’s hall, he bit a piece of apple she gave him before falling into a swoon.

Clíona took his prostrate figure and carried him away to the rock, trapping him within and inside the otherworld. In desperation he wrote a letter in blood, slipping it out of a crack and into the whipping wind, which carried to to a cowherd. Once the king heard about this, he sought the help of a wise woman, who went to the rock, and, waiting until Clíona was brushing her hair in the morning, grabbed a handful and twisted it painfully it in such a way that Clíona could not look at her, since her mother warned

“If she lays her eyes on you, you're finished!”

She refused to release Clíona until the young prince was freed, and so it was done.

She was also said to lure young men to their doom in the watery grave which claimed her mortal form – for she left the safety of her fairy country to pursue a young man called Ciabhán of the curling locks, but Manannán Mac Lir grew jealous! So while her lover was away hunting, she rested her head on the strand Trá Théite at Cuan Dor or Glandore, the Harbour of the Oak Trees, between Skibbereen and Clonakilty.

Treacherous Manannán sent his mystical bard Iuchna to play magical music which put her into a far deeper sleep, and then she was drowned by a great wave! She swore a prophecy thereafter, that one day all of Munster would be swallowed by a terrible wave. And to this very day, every ninth wave, the strongest, or any particularly loud wave in the area is called “Tonn Clíona”, or Clíona’s Tide.

Fishermen in Cork still think it’s bad luck to see a woman on the shore before you set out to sea.

Nor was her power forgotten until long after the Christianisation of Ireland! For it was Fat Cormac McCarthy who ran into legal trouble while building his castle at Blarney in the fifteenth century, and he beseeched the ancient power for help.

She appeared to him, kissed his lips, and told him to kiss the first stone he he found in the morning on his way to court. As a result, he pled his case with great eloquence and won, finishing his castle shortly after that. Thus the Blarney Stone is said to grant "the ability to deceive without offending", and Cormac was so pleased that he had the stone built into the wall at Blarney Castle, where countless numbers people visit every year to kiss the stone and get Clíona’s gift for themselves.

So powerful were its effects that even Queen Elizabeth said in frustration that she could not complete a negotiation with Cormac MacCarthy and get her hands on his seat at Blarney Castle, since everything he said was “Blarney, as what he says he does not mean”!

Some stories about Clíona show her as dark and sinister, a dangerous and fatal figure, while others speak of her love and kindness, which may be why she remains so fascinating to this day. Among those who took a special interest in her were Irish revolutionary Michael Collins, who hear about her in the Rosscarbery school he attended and they took Sunday trips to Clíodhna's rock. Here, according to Michael's friend Piaras Béaslaí

Michael heard many a wonderful tale of Clíodhna's enchantments, of wrecks and perils, and drownings and treasure trove.

Collins was descended from the Ó Coileáins of Uí Chonaill Gabra. Both the Uí Chonaill and the Uí Donnobhans were tribes within the Uí-Fidghente, and some have wondered whether that great son of Ireland heard the mournful song of the banshee before his fateful last day!

One midsummer's eve, when the Bel-fires were lighted,
And the bagpiper's tone call'd the maidens delighted,
I join'd a gay group by the Araglin's water,
And danced till the dawn with O'Donovan's Daughter.

Have you seen the ripe monadan glisten in Kerry,
Have you mark'd on the Galteys the black whortleberry,
Or ceanabhan wave by the wells of Blackwater?
They're the cheek, eye, and neck of O'Donovan's Daughter.

Have you seen a gay kidling on Claragh's round mountain,
The swan's arching glory on Sheeling's blue fountain,
Heard a weird woman chant what the fairy choir taught her?
They've the step, grace, and tone of O'Donovan's Daughter!

Have you marked in its flight the black wing of the raven,
The rosebuds that breathe in the summer breeze waven,
The pearls that lie hid under Lene's magic water?
They're the teeth, lip, and hair of O'Donovan's Daughter!

Ere the Bel-fire was dimmed or the dancers departed,
I taught her a song of some maid broken-hearted:
And that group, and that dance, and that love-song I taught her
Haunt my slumbers at night with O'Donovan's Daughter.

God grant, 'tis no fay from Cnoc-Firinn that woos me,
God grant, 'tis not Cliodhna the queen that pursues me,
That my soul lost and lone has no witchery wrought her,
While I dream of dark groves and O'Donovan's Daughter.

If, spell-bound, I pine with an airy disorder,
Saint Gobnate has sway over Musgry's wide border;
She'll scare from my couch, when with prayer I've besought her.
That bright airy sprite like O'Donovan's Daughter.

Edward Walsh

Carraig Clíodhna is marked on the map below!

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