The surrounding world has always acted as a source of inspiration for the folk imagination. This can apply to natural features, such as lakes, mountains and the sea, but can also apply to man-made structures, ancient and contemporary alike. While the origin and use of many ancient monuments may be unclear to us, these structures retain something of an air of importance, and the folk imagination attempts to fill these gaps in our knowledge. In the face of huge monuments and other impressive landmarks, it seems impossible to imagine that any feat of human strength could be responsible, and so their placement is often attributed instead to acts of strength by our mythological ancestors. The landscape as we know it today appears shrunken under their giant presence, as they leap from summit to summit and throw boulders from impossible distances.
One such figure is the Cailleach Bhéarra, a mythological hag primarily associated with the Beara Peninsula in Co. Cork, though she is known throughout the country. A story describing her meeting Fionn Mac Cumhaill takes place on Slieve Gullion. Her home is also supposed to be found at the summit of the mountain. In Cork, there is a stone in Kilcatherine, where the Cailleach Bhéarra was frozen forever by a monk, occasionally as a punishment for the destruction of religious texts and artefacts. In folk tradition, she is the creator of the cairn on Sliabh na Caillí, Loughcrew, Co. Meath, when stones carried in her apron pocket fell and have remained there ever since. She is said to have hurled stones across great distances, and even rearranged mountains, as in the extract below from the Schools’ Collection:
‘Do bhí bean ana-láidir i mBéara fadó agus do ghlaoití Cailleach Bhéarra uirthi. Lá dos na laetheanta do chuimhnimh sí dá mbeadh ruainne do Bhéara curtha le Ceann Bhólais go mbeadh foithin ag Béara ón ngaoth aduaidh. Do chuir sí téad timpeall air smut do Bhéara agus do thairig sí léithe é. Do bhíodh ruainne dí ag titim i gcónaí acht fé dheireadh thit plannc mor dí agus is é sin Oileán Duínis. Do bhraith sí an tulach ag eadromú annsan agus do bhain sí stracadh as an dtéad. Lena linn sin do bhris sí é agus do béigean di é fhagaint annsan. D’fhill sí tharnais chun téad eile do fáilt acht pé ní do bhain dí níor tháinig sí tharnais riamh o shoin. Acht dá ráineodh léi a bhreith go ceann Bholais bheadh cuan Bhaile an Sceilg ‘na chuan bhreá. D’fhág san Scairbh agus Duínis mar a táid riamh ó shoin.’
‘There was a very strong woman in Bear long ago named the Cailleach Bhéarra [The hag of Beara]. One day it occurred to her that if a bit of Beara was put to Bolas Head, that Beara would have shelter from the north wind. She drew a rope around a little bit of Beara and proceeded to pull. It moved a little bit, but at last a large piece of it fell, and this is Dinish Island. She felt the hill get lighter then and gave the rope a sharp jerk, and in doing this, broke the rope and had to leave it where it was. She went to find a new rope but whatever happened to her she never returned. Had she succeeded, Baile an Sceilg harbour would have been a great harbour. This left Scariff and Dinish Island as they are today.’NFCS 478: 222. Cinn Aird, Co. Chiarraí
Like the Cailleach Bhéarra, giants have also had a significant impact on our landscape, their immense size and strength makes them a perfect explanation for the larger landmarks in the country. Some monuments are said to be the graves of giants, whereas other large marks or holes are attributed to the giant’s footprint. They have also left many boulders in their wake, and created many of the natural features we know today. One explains the creation of the Isle of Man, stating that a sod of earth or clay was hurled by one giant at another retreating into the Irish Sea. The sod became the Isle of Man, while the space left became Lough Neagh.
The great hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill is also credited with the creation of the Isle of Man, and like the giants, many large stones in the landscape are there as a result of his feats of strength, including the Giant’s Causeway, Co. Antrim. Hurling rocks as part of a competition often proved his strength, while on other occasions his temper is the cause of a new landmark. Indentations left on these rocks are said to be the marks of his fingers.
‘There are many Fenian stories connected with this locality, but perhaps the most interesting is the one about Fionn’s Stone. At the foot of Arkill mountain there is a huge round stone which people say must be over a ton in weight. On this stone there is the track of a man’s hand. This track must have been made by the hand of a giant. The thumb being fully ten inches long. People say it is the track of Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s hand. The story told is as follows; One day when Fionn was in pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne he went up on Bruse Mountain to view the countryside. He saw Diarmuid on Arkill mountain and taking up this huge stone in his hand he hurled it at him. The stone fell at the foot of Arkill which is about ten miles away and remains there to this day with the track of Fionn’s hand in it.’NFCS 982: 184. Corlismore, Co. Cavan.
This short extract refers to the Fenian tale, Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne, or ‘The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne’, and the stone at the Arkill mountain is not the only landmark to be associated with this story. Many dolmens and wedge tombs are called ‘Leaba Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne’, or the bed of Diarmuid and Gráinne, as the couple were said to have slept there while on the run from Fionn Mac Cumhaill.
Folklore, as illustrated in the Irish word ‘béaloideas’ (directly translated to mean ‘oral education’), is reliant on the oral tradition, rather than written tradition, for its survival. Certain aspects of tradition do write themselves into memory in different ways, and local legends often attach themselves to significant elements in the landscape, cementing themselves in memory. To learn more about stone structures and monuments you can view our recent National Heritage Week project – ‘Written in the Landscape – Stones in Irish Folk Tradition’.
This post was written by Ailbe van der Heide, Cúntóir Leabharlainne | Library Assistant, Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann | National Folklore Collection.
Ó hÓgáin, D. 2006, The Lore of Ireland: An Encyclopaedia of Myth, Legend and Romance, Collins, Cork.
Zucchelli, C. 2016, Sacred Stones of Ireland, The Collins Press, Cork.