Emerald Isle

The Cu Sidhe

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from Irish Gods and Monsters

The black dog of the mounds

One of the great terrors of ancient – and not so ancient! – Ireland was the Cú Sidhe, or the hound of the Sidhe. This monstrous beast was known in all of the lands once ruled by the Gael, being called the cù-sìth in Scotland and the Cŵn Annwn in Wales. They were also known as the Coinn Iotair, Hounds of Rage, which were the legendary hunting dogs of Crom Dubh, old black twist of the many glooms.

A powerful brute, the hound was said to have a dark green or black coat and to be the size of a small horse, with burning fiery eyes and paws the size of a man's hand. Some of these beasts were white, with one red ear and one red eye. It would make its home in rocky crevices and clefts, and roamed the moors and bogs when it wasn't out and about on fairy business! It was also known to haunt ancient roads, gallows trees and crossroads, and it loved storms better than any other weather.

It hunted in deadly silence but when it drew close to its prey, it would let out three howls or barks which could be heard for many miles, even far out at sea. Those who heard the barks or howls would be overcome with great fear, until by the last howl, they might perish from terror alone!

They were employed by the fairies of the mounds in hunting and kidnapping human women, who were then used to nurse fairy babies. If a husband heard the three howls on a dark and stormy night, he might well stand over his wife with whatever weapons he had to hand, for fear of what might burst through the door!

The Cú Sidhe were said to appear and vanish as they wished, and to lead the souls of the pagan departed to the afterlife, and the sight of it was said to portend death for someone nearby.

And not alone was it confined to the realms of the ancient Gaels! A frightening incident was reported to have occurred in the usually quiet market town of Bungay, in Suffolk, England in the late 16th century. During the Morning Service at St. Mary’s Church a terrible and violent storm broke out. The sky darkened, thunder crashed and rain fell heavily from the skies. Lightning flashed wildly as the storm broke upon the church. Inside the congregation knelt to pray.

Suddenly to the horror of the congregation from out of a flash of lightning there appeared in the church a huge and monstrous Black Dog. Howling wildly as the lightning flashed and thunder pealed the beast ran amok attacking the terrified parishioners and causing havoc.

Two people at their prayers were killed and a third man was badly burned from being mauled by the beast but survived the ordeal. There was great damage inflicted upon the church as the tower was struck by lightning and the clock destroyed before the Black Dog finally ran wildly from the church to the relief of the petrified congregation.

Around twelve miles away in the Holy Trinity Church at Blythburgh, at a about the same time the Black Dog, or another beast like it, appeared and also attacked the frightened congregation at prayers killing three people. There are scorched scratch marks on the church door that can still be seen to this day.

Early Christians in Ireland sometimes remained attached to their old ways after Saint Patrick arrived, and some say they would sacrifice a black dog when a new church was built, burying it on the north side of the graveyard. The spirit of the dog would then become the guardian of their dead, keeping the church and grounds safe from the devil.

It was also a superstition that the first person to be buried in a churchyard would have to guard anyone buried afterwards, so it was the custom to sacrifice a dog to serve as a substitute – specifically a completely black one without a single white hair – and bury it in the foundation of the church.

There are as many tales of the Cú Sidhe as there are crossroads in Ireland. Once there was a fellow by the name of John Toler, born in County Tipperary in the mid eighteenth century. He became a solicitor in 1770, and since he strongly supported the crown he was granted many offices and was eventually made the Earl of Norbury.

By bribery and deception he became a corrupt and much-feared judge. He wasn't much of a lawyer but he used his power to intimidate lawyers and defendants with his sarcastic wit and twisted sense of humour. His courts were like a wild theatre. His most famous trial was that of Robert Emmet, in which Norbury continually interrupted and abused Emmet when he was making his speech from the dock, before sentencing him to death.

Norbury wrongfully convicted an innocent young man from Blanchardstown of the capital crime of sheep-theft. The man was hanged and his distraught widow survived him by just a few months. On her deathbed she cursed Norbury, vowing to haunt him from beyond the grave until the end of time, promising that she would never let him have another night’s sleep.

Norbury was said to have suffered from chronic insomnia after that, a deserving end to a brutal despot. When he died at the age of 85, they do say Norbury was changed into a phantom black hound condemned to roam the streets of Cabra forever, dragging a heavy chain behind him.

The inspiration for the death-hound of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles was the tale of a Dartmoor black dog.

On the Isle of Man, Moddey Dhoo, the black dog, roamed Peel Castle. Every night it warmed itself before the guard room fire, and at first the soldiers were afraid, but eventually they got used to it.

Then one night, during the reign of Charles II, a drunken soldier boasted that he would patrol the castle alone, and dared the dog to accompany him on his rounds – he would find out whether it was a real animal or a demon. The ghastly dog arose from his place by the fire and followed the man.

Fearful cries and screams issued from the corridor, but not a man dared venture from the room. The foolish soldier returned white and gibbering. He died three days later, never speaking of what he had seen. The black dog has not been seen since, but some say it still haunts the castle, unseen.

For he was speechless, ghastly, wan,
Like him of whom the story ran,
Who spoke the spectre hound in man.

Sir Walter Scott, The lay of the last minstrel, Canto VI, v.26.

There are many places where ancient creatures are said to yet walk the earth in Ireland, and  Tuamgraney Woods in County Clare is one of them. On All Hallows Eve the woods come alive with strange beasts, dark of fur and red of eye. Not so long ago, a young man decided he'd take a walk through those woods on that fateful night, but he got more than he bargained for!

A great black dog arose before him, as well as a black hare and a black ram. He swung his stick at the ram but it passed through the shadowy form as though it was nothing but thin air, although the ram's horn gored him well enough! He fled from that place with the howling of the black dog in his ears, like hell's own laughter.

Tuamgraney Woods can be found on the map below!

More Irish Gods and Monsters

If you'd like to leave a tip, just click here!

Archaeological information is licensed for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence from the National Monuments Service - Archaeological Survey of Ireland.

Note that this license DOES NOT EXTEND to folkloric, mythological and related information on the site. That data remains under full private copyright protection