Emerald Isle

The Tragedy of Cairn Thierna

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland

A sorrowful tale in The Tragedy of Cairn Thierna

Near to the town of Fermoy in Ireland lies the great stack of Cairn Thierna, not as wide about nor as tall as some mountains perhaps but feared and respected by the local people nonetheless. For all around it and along its flanks are tall heaps of stones they say are the work of the fairy folk, or the old people who lived here long ago.

And you shouldn't think it was hard work that put them there, for in those days round towers sprang up like mushrooms and people played marbles with pieces of rock that today can be no more moved than the hills.

At the very top of Cairn Thierna is a tall mound of a ruin which is of more recent vintage, for we know well who built it there and left it half finished – a man called O'Keefe, who was Lord of Fermoy.

It was the custom in the area to bring any newborn children to see the old hag or wise woman who lived outside the village of Glanworth nearby, and she would tell the tale of that child's future, and give warning to be heeded, after the manner of the old Druids and their holy taboos, the geases.

Well that old woman peered into her rush-lined pool and squinted up a gimlet eye at Lord O'Keefe when he brought his only son to see her, and spoke to him these words which troubled him to his marrow.

Infant heir of proud Fermoy,
Fear not fields of slaughter
Storm and fire fear not, my boy,
But shun the fatal water.

His son was as fine a child as you could hope to see, with cheerful pink cheeks and a ready smile filled with innocent joy, yet the more he smiled the greater his father's sorrow became, for the hag's words weighed heavily on him.

The boy was carefully kept away from the river, and anxious watch was kept over every playful movement. The child grew in strength and in beauty, and every day became more dear to his father, who, hoping to avert his doom, prepared to build a castle far removed from lapping waves as possible.

The top of Cairn Thierna was where he chose to defy the prophecy, and he ordered his men to begin collecting stones and shaping them to build a house in the heights. The young lad came to watch the workers in their laborious task of raising mighty stones to the summit of the mountain, until the enormous pile which now crowns it was in place.

Just as the Lord's men were about to begin building, the boy, who was considered safe in the heights and so let run about as he wished, when he saw a barrel filled with water before him. He wondered at the glitter of the sunbeams on the surface and when he came close, he saw a strange boy in the same shape as himself gazing back at him.

When he jumped back, so jumped the other boy, and when he came close, the stranger approached, looking just as happy as himself. Eager to bid this newcomer welcome he reached out his hands and bent over the barrel, and losing his balance, the prophecy came to pass.

You can still see the Labacally or Witch's bed as it is known near the spot marked on the map below, where the old hag is said to sleep yet.


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