Emerald Isle

The Spirits of the Gearagh

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

The last of the great old forests of Ireland

Ireland is full of strange little corners and odd byways that only a few know about, and one such is a mysterious place called the Gearagh, or An Gaorthadh, meaning the wooded river bed, in County Cork. Once it was part of the first forests in Ireland, home to verdant giants that grew after the great ice melted away, but now all that remains is a small patch, although still with its own secrets.

It can be found where the river Lee descends from the mountains and widens out in the flatlands below, that same river Lee said to have been formed by the lashing tail of a great fiery wyrm defeated by the mighty Saint Finbarr as Christianity spread across Ireland.

Until recently it was full of the oldest oak trees and the last full oak forest in western Europe, descended without interruption from primeval oaks which grew more than ten thousand years ago, the only remaining pure riverine forest. These flourished among an enormous maze of many-branching swift streams and small but deep rivers, wetlands and dangerous mud holes that could swallow a man whole – and his horse too!

The nature of this wild place made sure it was never deforested or turned to agricultural use, and even men of the law had a hard time chasing their quarry into its gloomy depths. It became a refuge for outlaws, highwaymen, and rapparees, which were Irish guerillas fighting the English occupation.

So secure was it as a hideaway that the illegal spirits brewed there by the likes of Jamsie Kearney, may God rest his soul, called poitín, gained quite a reputation for high quality!

The main risk in distilling this potent drink lay in moving it from the Gearagh to the local taverns and inns, for people say that the area is still haunted by meascán mearaí, mischievous spirits of a different sort! They would deliberately confuse and lead travellers every which way, so that no revenue officer might ever find what they sought within the boundaries of that most elder of forests.

A man would do well to be on good terms with the meascán mearaí before he set foot in that ancient place, lest he might lose himself and come to a sorrowful end! And just such a man was Finian O’Sullivan, who sent a young lad out with a barrel of his finest for delivery to a local farmstead.

Warned not to set foot in the Gearagh itself, he went on his way down the road but had the bad luck to meet the gauger on the road, one whose job it was to regulate liquors and beer. Caught out in the open, he thought quickly then doffed his cap and came forward with a smile on his face.

“Bless you your honour, I have a barrel of the finest for your cellars here!”

The gauger, being as bent as most officials of the time in Ireland were, gracefully accepted the bribe and slipped the young man a key from his pocket, telling him to give the key to his wife across town and that she should put this keg in the room with the other keg.

Tugging his forelock, the young man made his delivery to the farmstead as he had intended, then went to the gauger’s house and gave the man’s wife the key.

“Didn’t himself give me this key for you – he said you are to open the door this key unlocks and give me the keg within.”

She did just that, so he hefted the keg up on his shoulder and away he went to sell that one too!

Another famous inhabitant of this mysterious wilderness bridging ancient times and new was a fellow by the name of Seán Rua an Ghaorthaidh or na Gaoire, and little he cared if he got lost, for he would hide in there from British soldiers, so the more lost he was the better as far as he was concerned!

Yet the meascán mearaí, those spirits of confusion and befuddlement, must have smiled upon him for he even had a little house built up in one of the trees where he lived, in the eastern part, today called Illaunshaunroe –  Oilean Seán Rua (Seán Rua's island).

He was a rapparee, one of those lone warriors who kept fighting the English colonists even after the great battles were lost. They would appear from thin air and vanish like smoke in the wind, leaving the ruin of British ambitions smouldering behind them.

Very like Robin hood was Seán, for he stole from the rich and gave to the poor people of the area, and he was known as the best shot in all the land.

When Hedges White, who owned Macroom castle, and some of his friends were dining within their fortress one night, Seán rode boldly up outside the walls when the bells tolled midnight and fired a shot from his gun through the narrow and distant window, quenching a candle on their table and scaring the living daylights out of them!

Not to be outdone, the English sent for an officer who was himself a famous shot, and enlisted him in the hunt for Seán. This officer boasted that should he catch sight of even a square inch of the famous rapparee he would have him, dead or alive.

The strange rivalry between the pair resulted in a two day pardon being granted to Seán so that he could meet his opponent in Macroom town square and test which of them was the better shot.

Hundreds and thousands thronged around the town on that day, and around two of the clock, who should wander in but Seán Rua himself, fully armed and masked with a cloth.

Then the trial began.

A crown piece was placed on the castle wall which was shot off by Seán and the officer in quick succession. Then a penknife was placed on the wall with a similar result. Seán then took a penknife from his pocket and placed it edge forward on the wall.

The officer took careful aim, fired, and missed by a narrow margin, but Seán Rua stepped up and casually fired quickly. The referee was astonished to find the bullet stuck in the board behind the knife, split evenly in two. He thus declared Seán Rua the winner, but Seán was no fool and trusted English promises as much as he should, so he stayed to collect neither accolade nor award, but vanished into the crowd which surged forward at his victory.
Some say his real name was O’Sullivan or Murphy, but alas today much of his home is open water, for in 1954 the area was flooded to provide an upper reservoir for two hydro electric power plants, resulting in over half of the original forests being cut down, leaving only an eerie landscape of blackened stumps when the water level is low.

Still though, the forest is returning and if the water was drained it would be restored to its full glory. Today many species of plant, animal and fish can be found there, as well as innumerable birds – wild garlic, Irish spurge which was used by poachers to stun fish, salmon, trout, otters, and many others.

But do the meascán mearaí still giggle and whisper among the leafy boughs? Well, I’ll let researcher Kevin Corcoran answer that one:

“One time I got lost and, no matter what way I went, half an hour later I’d come back to the same point.”

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