Emerald Isle

Red Mary

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales and Irish Ghost Stories

Marry in haste, repent at leisure

There once was a woman called Máire Rua, or Red Mary, since she was one of the McMahons and had hair like a fiery sunset with a temper to match! Many legends have grown up around this seventeenth century force of nature, some true, some maybe less so, and some she spread herself!

She made her seat in Leamanagh Castle, in the Burren in County Clare, and her first husband was arranged to be colonel Daniel Neylon, an English officer, but he perished young in the wars with Spain, leaving her with three children and large estates.

After that she married her cousin, Conor O'Brien of Leamanagh, by whom she had no less than eight children! He was not a man given to accepting the yoke of English rule lightly, so he financed and fought alongside rebel companies, stealing sheep, cattle, swine and other goods from English settlers, generally giving them a hard time whenever he could.

He built two great gates to command the road into and out of the of Burren,  and none could pass except they were granted leave by himself and his wife, but one of the Burren men gathered a force and, breaking the gates, made O'Brien swear free right of way for ever.

Those who came up on the wrong side of his blade held that his good fortunes in battle were due to his wife's witchcraft, and it would seem nobody could stop him! But his luck ran out when he joined the armies of King Charles II, dying the death of a hero after a battle against Edmund Ludlow.

He made his way home to his castle, and people say that Red Mary thought him dead, crying out to his servants with neither a tear nor a wail, “What do I want with dead men here?”

But when she spied he was alive she nursed him on his deathbed until he passed away. Then she adorned herself in her most magnificent silk and lace and went straight to Limerick, which was under siege at that time.

When she made it to the outer ring of soldiers, she was stopped by a sentry and screeched until the officers emerged from the tent where they were eating their dinners.

She then told them “I was Conor O'Brien's wife yesterday, and his widow today!”

“He fought us yesterday,” they replied, “how can you prove he is dead?”

“I'll marry any of your officers that asks me,” she answered!

Well one Captain Cooper, a man of uncommon courage, took her up on her offer and they were married shortly afterwards, by which means she saved her estates from Cromwell's depredations. Little benefit did he gain from the arrangement however, for he spoke ill of her former husband one morning and she killed him stone dead with a swift kick to the fork!

Twenty three more of Cromwell's finest did she marry after that, and not a one came to a good end, marrying all the later ones for a year and a day. One fellow was thrown out a window, while she challenged another to ride her wild, but completely blind, stallion to the cliffs of Moher! So fierce was this beast that there were special niches built into his stone enclosure where people could hide if he heard them passing.

She quarrelled with the protestant clergy and had her own private church built to spite them, and tales even tell her temper was so fierce that should a male servant displease her, he was hung by the neck, and if a female, hung by the hair from the corbels on the old peel tower, after being mutilated!

More tales are told about Red Mary than she had children, but strangest of all are the stories about how she met her end. Some say she was sealed into a hollow tree to starve to death, others say a tree opened up and swallowed her for her wickedness, while yet others say that she was flung from a horse into the forked branch of a tree where she choked, or hung by her own hair!

But most eerie of all, her shade is said to stalk the ruins of the old castle yet, accompanied by evil laughter and the screams of her supposed victims!

Whether her final resting place was in a tree near to her beloved castle or close to the old druids' altar, the former is marked on the map below.

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