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The Children of the Mermaid

Enniscrone, Co. Sligo

A mermaid found a swimming lad, Picked him up for her own, Pressed her body to his body, Laughed; and plunging down Forgot in cruel happiness That even lovers drown.
W. B. Yeats, The Mermaid, 19281

Click to explore the Children of the Mermaid site in virtual reality.

The seven stones traditionally known as the Children of the Mermaid are on private land and often are completely obscured in the brush. It is for this reason that by some accounts the legend associated with them has migrated, as did the mermaid in the story below, to a different group of stones at the tidemark on the beach below.2 The original stones, which may be seen in the virtual-reality environment at the left, are a group of six boulders and an outlier. These may have been originally associated with an adjacent mound called Cruchancornia, with a ditch and an outer bank. These may date from the late Bronze Age or the early Iron Age. The stones are not considered an alignment, as they do not seem to be arranged in any particular pattern.3 There are other stones featured in Voices from the Dawn that, in legend, were once human beings. In Co. Wicklow, the Athgreany Pipers Stones were believed to be dancers punished for violating the Sabbath. But the stones on this seaside bluff in Co. Sligo were not, in legend, people accused of any profanity. Rather, it was just a family of seven innocent children. The story is one still repeated by members of the ancestral clan of the area, the ODowds (O Dubhda). Its now found within online genealogical forums4 and websites assembled by local school children.5 The earliest version in print may be the one by W.G. Wood-Martin, who wrote in 1888 that the legend was still recounted by the country people. 6

In old days, when the ODowds were Lords of Tireragh, the then chief, when walking early in the morning along the sea-shore, discovered amongst the rocks a mermaid lying asleep, enveloped in a gorgeous mantle, Now everybodyor at least everybody in that localityknows that if one

can only get possession of this special article of a sea-nymphs costume she at once loses her aquatic nature both as regards form and disposition, and degenerates into an ordinary mortal! ODowd, therefore, stepped forward stealthily, and became the happy possessor of the magic mantle. In this case the wooing was not long in doing, for the chief took the metamorphosed nymph home as his bride, and carefully concealed the gorgeous garment.

Some of the mermaid's children are hidden in the brush.

Retribution, however, finally overtook him. His seven children were nearly grown to maturity, when, one day his youngest born saw him abstract the mantle from its hiding-place to deposit it where he imagined it would be still more secure. The youth, struck by the manner in whichas he gazed on itthe garment flashed, glistened, and changed huesran off to describe its beauties to his mother, who, thereupon seized with a sudden yearning to return to her native element, inquired where her husband had left it. On resuming possession of her long-lost garment she bade her children follow her to the sea-shore, and being now reendowed with all the attributes of a mermaid, she touched each of her children in succession with her magic wand, and thus changed them into seven stones, while she herself plunged into the ocean, and has never again been seen in Tireagh.7
In a coda to the story, found on an ancestry.com web site, the tale ends with Did the youngest child drown? Maybe not. There seems to be lots of ODowds around, and they are known to be quite fond of fresh fish. 8

"What's your name, my darling," says Dick.

This may be the only megalithic monument in Ireland connected to the mermaid, or merrow, in Irish murch. However Crofton Croker related a similar legend in 1834: The Lady of Gollerus. In this tale, the man seizes the mermaids cohuleen driuth, her enchanted red cap, which makes her unable to return to the sea. This story has a happier ending: when the mermaid finds her cap and returns to the deep, she leaves her children behind to live out their lives on land. (See illustration from the book, left.)9 The story of the mermaids transformation has parallels in many different folk traditions, as well as within the Disney vault. The Faroe Islanders believe that every ninth evening a seal would shed its skin, assume a womans form, and dance through the night. If a man chanced to come by while the creature was dancing, and seized its skin, he would have a wife. Until, of course, she happened to find her skin and use it to return to her briny home. A similar tale is told on the Shetland Islands. In Ireland, CroftonCroker explains, some families in Kerry (OFlahertys and OSullivans) actually believed that they were descended from marriages between men and Merrow.10 This may have been an effort of these important Anglo-Norman families to legitimize their political aspirations by combining the Continental seal woman tale with the more Gaelic notion of a mythical clan goddess.11 W.B. Yeats offers a further explanation of these folk beliefs:

The Merrowfrom muir, sea, and oigh, a maid, is not uncommon, they say, on the wilder coasts. The fishermen do not like to see them, for it always means coming gales. The male Merrowshave green teeth, green hair, pigs eyes, and red noses; but their women are beautiful, for all their fish tails and the little duck-like scale between their fingers. Sometimes they prefer, small blame to them, good-looking fishermen to their sea lovers. Near Bantry in the last century, there is said to have been a woman covered all over with scales like a fish, who was descended from such a marriage. Sometimes they come out of the sea, and wander about the shore12
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The Children of the Mermaid, Co. Sligo Nearest Town: Enniscrone (Inishcrone) Townland: Scurmore Latitude: 54 11 35.26 N Longitude: 9 6 51.24 W

Clochafarmore Standing Stone


Knockbridge, Co. Louth

Cchulainn and his friends are historical characters, seen as it were through mists of love and wonder, whom men could not forget, but for centuries continued to celebrate in countless songs

and stories. They were not literary phantoms, but actual existences; imaginary and fictitious characters, mere creatures of idle fancy, do not live and flourish so in the worlds memory.
Standish OGrady, The Coming of Cuculain, 18941

There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.
David Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, 20092

Click on the image to explore the Clochafarmore Stone in virtual reality.

The ancient monuments considered in these pages were likely inspired by extraordinary individuals. They must have led lives of considerable importance for them to be memorialized by these imposing megalithic structures. Is it not likely that their names were still spoken many years after their deaths? Now, a few thousand years afterwards, there are still tales told about these monuments, and the warriors, witches, or giants whose deeds they commemorate or whose remains they shelter. These stories create, at least in the abstract, a continuation of the folk memory of the person buried in the tomb. These voices from the dawn are, within David Eaglemans construct, the words that postpone that awful final death, when the name of the deceased is never again uttered. The tragic end of Cchulainn, the half-human, half-supernatural hero of the armies of Ulster in the Tin B Cailnge3 is a case in point. This 3 m (10 ft) tall standing stone is known as Clochafarmore, or the Big Mans Stone. According to legend, the mortally wounded Cchulainn bound himself to this pillar, standing tall to keep his enemies at bay until the moment of his death.

One knows one will be long forgetting Cchulainn, whose life is vehement and full of pleasure, as though he always remembered that it was to be soon over.4
The story of the death of Cchulainn has provided a metaphor for the resolve of the Irish nation. A 1911 sculpture of the hero (below, right), bound to his standing stone, occupies a prominent spot at the General Post Office in Dublin, a hallowed scene of battle during the ill-fated Easter Rising of 1916.

The Dying Cuchulain (1911) by Oliver Sheppard, at the GPO, Dublin

Paradoxically, the same champion provides heroic imagery for those who were the fiercest opponents of the fight for Irish independence in 1916. Wall murals painted in the Unionist enclaves of Belfast (see photo in gallery) evoked Cchulainn, the Hound of Ulster,5 in their resolve to remain forever British. Cchulainn was born of a noble mother, Deichtine, the sister of the king who ruled Ulster from its capital at Emain Macha(Navan Fort). Cchulainns father, however, was the god Lug, who entertained Deichtine at his home in Newgrange, the great mound at Br na Binne (the Palace of the Boyne).6 While still a child, Cchulainn overheard the Chief Druid explaining to his pupils that whoever took up arms that particular day would be famous in Ireland forever. Cchulainn immediately ran off to enlist as a warrior. He did not stay to hear the rest of the druids explanationthat while his name would live forever, his life would be short. When he discovered this, Cchulainn replied, Provided that I shall be famous I do not care if I last in this world for only a single day. 7

When Cchulainn was growing out of his boyhood at Emain Macha, all the women of Ulster loved him for his skill in feats, for the lightness of his leap, for the weight of his wisdom, for the sweetness of his speech, for the beauty of his face, for the loveliness of his looks, for all his gifts. He had the gift of caution in fighting, until such time as his anger would come on him, and the hero light would shine about his head; the gift of feats, the gift of chess-playing, the gift of draught-playing, the gift of counting, the gift of divining, the gift of right judgment, the gift of beauty.8

Click to see in high resolution.

In the Iron Age culture in which these stories are placed, around the first century CE, battle weapons included the sling, in which Cchulainn had acquired great skill. But his most extraordinary weapon was his horrible spear, called the Ge Bulga, which its victim could not extract from the wound. Thus it was always fatal. 9 The Ge Bulga would ultimately prove to be the heros undoing. At the age of seven Cchulainn was returning home from a great battle, in which he had taken many heads. Unfortunately, he was still possessed by his battle-rage, in which he could not control his super-human martial powers, and could not distinguish friend from foe. The men of Ulster {the Ulaid) devised a plan to bring him back to normalcy. First, they sent out 130 barebreasted women, causing him to avert his eyes in modesty. Then they grabbed him and plunged him into a vat of cold water, which immediately exploded. They plunged him into a second vat, which quickly boiled over. Finally, when they put him into a third vat, it merely became hotter than the average person could bear. But the fury had then left him. 10 Cchulainns battle-rage (also warp-spasm, or berserkers frenzy) was the signature behavior that would today provide him marquee status as a superhero. Like some Incredible Hulk of the Iron Age, he would become a fearsome shape-shifter when his anger came on him, and the flames of the hero light began to shine about his headand he lost the appearance of a man, and what was on him was the appearance of a god.11 In The Tin, his 1969 translation of the traditional tales, Thomas Kinsella conveys the power of this horrible transformation:

The first warp-spasm seized Cchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins and knees switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the frontHis face and features became a red bowl : he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane could not probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheekHis heart boomed loud in his breast like the baying of a watch-dog at its feed or the sound of a lion among bears.12
When Cchulainn finally came to his end, it was not due to any diminishing of his ferocious skills of battle. Rather it was a combination of trickery and magic that led him to his final hour, bleeding and bound to the Clochafarmore Stone in this field near what would become the town of Knockbridge in Co. Louth.

His life-long enemies gathered to conspire against him. Chief among them was Lugaid, whose father, C Ro, was killed by Cchulainn at his mountaintop fortress of Caherconree. There were other men as well, men made fatherless by the warrior prowess of Cchulainn. In the formulaic chivalry of these tales, fighters were bound by certain geasa, or taboos. For Cchulainn, there were two geasa that created for him a quandary he could not avoid. He could never refuse any hospitality that was offered him, and he could never eat the meat of a dog. Thus, when he encountered three one-eyed hags who invited him to join them at their feast of roast dog, he was forced to break one or the other of his geasa. After his first a bite of the dog meat the strength drained out of one side of his body. When the battle began, it first seemed that Cchulainn would again prevail, as he always had before:

Cchulainn came against them in his chariot, doing his three thunder feats, and he used his spear and his sword in such a way, that their heads, and their hands, and their feet, and their bones, were scattered through the plain of Muirthemne, like the sands on the shore, like the stars in the sky, like the dew in May, like snow-flakes and hailstones, like leaves of the trees, like buttercups in a meadow, like grass under the feet of cattle on a fine summer day.13

"So stood Cuculainn, even in death's pangs a terror to his enemies and the bulwark of his nation." (P. Tuohy, 1919)

He then encountered a Druid, in league with Lugaid, who asked Cchulainn for his enchanted spear. When the hero initially refused, the Druid threatened to compose a poem that would satirize him for his lack of generosity. At this, Cchulainn relented, and killed him with his spear. This, however, allowed Lugaid to obtain the weapon, and with it put an end to Leg, Cchulainn s faithful chariot driver. Afterwards, another Druid deployed the same ruse, giving his life so that Lugaid could again get his hands on the Ge Bulga, and with it kill the Grey of Macha, Cchulainns king of horses. Then, the last of Lugaids Druids, again using his trickery, goaded the hero into skewering him with the magical spear.

You do your kindness unkindly, Cchulainn, said the Druid, as he fell. Then Cchulainn drove for the last time through the host, and Lugaid took the spear, and he said: Who will fall by this spear, children of Calatin? A king will fall by it, said they

Then Lugaid threw the spear, and it went through and through Cchulainns body, and he knew he had got his deadly wound; and his bowels came out on the cushions of the chariot, and his only horse went awayand left his master, the king of the heroes of Ireland, to die upon the plain of Muirthemne.14
Cchulainn, mortally wounded, received Lugaids permission to quench his thirst in the nearby lake, promising to return. He then saw near the lake a tall pillar stone, marking the grave of a warrior slain there in some ancient battle. He staggered to the stone, and removed his girdle and used its cords to bind himself to the pillar. With his dying breath he gave a great sigh, forming the crack in the stone that may be seen today.15 From a distance, his enemies were watching him.

So afar they retreated, when they beheld him standing with the drawn sword in his hand, and the rays of the setting sun bright on his panic-striking helmet. So stood Cchulainn, even in death pangs a terror to his enemies and the bulwark of his nation.16
It was three days later when the Morrgan, Celtic goddess of war and fertility, appeared as a raven and landed on his shoulder. Only then did his enemies believe that he was dead, and dared to approach him. But as Lugaid went over to the Clochafarmore Stone to cut off the head of his vanquished enemy, the hero-light burned around Cchulainn one last time, and his sword fell from his grip. As it fell, it severed the hand of Lugaid. And only then was Cchulainns hero-light finally extinguished. With his one remaining hand Lugaid was able to take the head of Cchulainn.

"Cuchulain in Battle", 1911, by Joseph Christian Leyendecker

Lugaid may have intended to take his prize away with him as a gift for Queen Maeve at Rathcroghan. But Cchulainns death was quickly avenged by his brother-in-arms, Conall Cernach, who killed Lugaid and took the head and the right hand of Cchulain and buried them at Tara, with his shields fill of earth being used to cover them. Cchulainn, the Hero of Ulster, died in his 27th year.17 The various stories of Cchulainn and the other tales of the Ulster Cycle come from manuscripts dating from the twelfth century or earlier. It is believed that the stories themselves were almost always known from older sources. For example, the story of Cchulainns birth is from Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow, c. 1106), where it is claimed that the story originated in a lost text,The Book of Druim Snechta, said to date from the eighth or ninth century.18 The Ulster Cycle historically was the literature of the aristocracy and the clergy. By the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when Cchulainn appears at all in popular folktales it is as a caricature of the hero of the original stories, perhaps even as a stupid or pompous giant. But by the time of the Gaelic Revival in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Cchulainn of the Iron Age was re-emerging. The original spirit of the stories of the Ulster Cycle were being presented to a new audience, with

translations and re-workings of the material by Lady Gregory, W.B. Yeats, Standish OGrady and, more recently Thomas Kinsella andCiaran Carson. Some of these are excerpted here.19 Nearby the Clochafarmore Stone in the 1920s someone found an ancient bronze spearhead.20 Could this have been evidence of the long-ago battle? Unfortunately the spearhead was given to the parish priest for safekeeping rather than to a museum. It was subsequently lost. Is it possible that the legendary hero tales of Cchulainn were based, at least in part, on folk-memories of the exploits of one or more flesh-and-blood Iron Age warriors? It is not easy to say. It may be just as likely that his character was invented in the early years of the Christian era so as to provide Ireland with a mythological analog for the classical Achilles. While the personages may not have been real, there is no argument about the certainty of the places. The Clochafarmore Stone, in its hard-edged reality, most likely was erected as a memorial of some sort. Its naming, however, was a part of the topographic preoccupation, to use Kinsellas phrase, that was characteristic of early and medieval Irish writing.21 The Dindsenchas manuscripts of early Irish literature are the explanations of place names. In modern Irish, the word dinnseanchas means topography. In the fourth century CE, St. Helena traveled throughout the Holy Land designating particular locations to be forever identified with the stories of the Bible. Was there a similar process underway in Ireland during the early Medieval period, with the authors of the place-name stories traveling about the countryside seeking ancient stones and tombs that might provide a grounded verisimilitude for the appropriate legendary personage? The region of Rathiddy Townland where the Clochafarmore Stone sits was referred to in the Ulster Cycle as An Breisleach Mor, The Great Carnage. The gently rolling area of the pillar stone is still known locally as the Field of Slaughter. 22 So how has Cchulainn fared, using David Eaglemans allocation of three deaths for each person? Has he managed to stave off his ultimate demise, when his name is spoken for the last time? Judging by Ciaran Carsons new translation, the graphic novel, and the other diffusions of the Ulster hero into the realm of popular culture,23 the answer would seem to be in the affirmative. In many different ways, traditional and modern, the name of Cchulainn continues to be heard.

Those who listened to [the stories of Cchulainn] must have felt as if the living were like rabbits digging their burrows under walls that had been built by Gods and Giants, or like swallows building their nests in the stone mouths of immense images, carved by nobody knows whoThe fruit of all those storiesis the quick intelligence, the abundant imagination, the courtly manners of the Irish country people.
W.B. Yeats, 190324

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Clochafarmore Standing Stone, Co. Louth Nearest Town: Knockbridge Townland: Rathiddy Latitude: 53 58 28.25 N Longitude: 6 27 57.18 W

Eightercua Alignment
Waterville, Co. Kerry

Six women of their nobles were their losses on the sea and land from their setting out from Spain till then. These are their names; Buan wife of Bile; Dil wife of Donn; Scine, the woman-satirist, wife of Amergin White-Knee. She died with them on the sea while they were coming to Ireland; so that Amergin said, The harbor where we land, the name of Scine will be on it. That was true, for from her is named Inber Scine.

Leabhar Gabhla ireann (The Book of Invasions,) eleventh century1

Click on the image to explore the Eightercua Alignment in virtual reality.

The Eighercua Alignment, as you will see in the virtual-reality view (at the left), looks west to Ballinskelligs Bay and the open ocean. To the east is Lough Currane and then the mountains of the Ring of Kerry. The mound on which it sits was likely a ritual enclosure destroyed by road-builders more than a century ago, its meaning long forgotten. The tallest of the four stones is 2.7 m (9 ft) high. The alignment stretches east-west, pointing from lake to ocean for 7.6 m (25 ft). The monument is estimated to be from the Bronze Age, c. 1700 BCE.2 In Irish mythology the four stones mark the burial spot of Scine, the wife of the Milesian bard-magician Amergin. She died at sea just prior to the landing of the invasion force come to wrest Ireland away from the Tuatha D Danann. Amergin named the bay here Inber Scne in her honor.3

Click on the image above to see it in high resolution.

This tale is from theLebor Gabla renn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland) more commonly known as The Book of Invasions. Dating from the eleventh century CE this collection of poems and stories recounts an epic mythical history of the Irish people from the biblical creation up to the Middle Ages.4 Just down the road to the south of this monument is the Baslicon Dolmen, also connected in legend to this invasion story.

In local lore there are other stories told of the origin of the stone alignment. Schoolteacher Michael Dineen, in a 1979 audio interview (below left), said that the stones were a memorial to children lost in a fire a thousand years earlier. His neighbor Michael Moriarty claimed that from the position of the standing stones you can spot two other groups of stones across the lake. From the stories collected by schoolchildren interviewing their elders in a 1937-38 government project, one local man reported that the stones were supposed to have been built by a blind Firbolg and his wife in one night.5

Michael Dineen and Michael Moriarty discuss the local lore of the Eightercua Alignment.

While there is only faint evidence to be seen now, at the end of the nineteenth century there were sufficient stones remaining for an antiquarian to fully describe the ritual enclosure with the Eightercua Alignment at its apex. (see diagram at right). In fact, the investigators considered the enclosure to be the principal unifying monument of the site, which also included the ruins of a small church, called Templenakilla, and other building foundations beneath the hill of the stone alignment. 6 The partial excavation of the enclosure described in 1902 by P. J. Lynch revealed evidence of a roughly circular wall structure, with a diameter of approximately 15.2 m (50 ft), with what may have been a ceremonial entrance. He also determined that a stone standing on its edge was the support for an altar-table. It was clear to the investigator that stones had been removed and the rampart leveled. One of the standing stones showed evidence of an attempt to quarry it for another use.7

The Eightercua Alignment as part of a ritual enclosure. P. J. Lynch, 1902.

The stone to the right appears cut through horizontally near the base for nearly one half of the breadth. I am informed that the contractor who was building the bridge over the Currane river, close by, some years ago, took a fancy to these fine stones, and had gone so far in securing a portion of this one, when fortunately he was stopped. This must have been the vandal who removed the wall of the enclosure, and possibly the altar-slab as well.8
In The Book of Invasions the widowed Amergin used his powers to compose a magical incantation to the spirit of Ireland. His words enabled his fleet to make landfall here on the shore of Ballinskelligs Bay, at the bit of land he named after his beloved. His invocation came to be known as The Song of Amergin. It begins.

I am a wind on the sea, I am a wave of the ocean, I am the roar of the sea9
In 1999, Irish poet Paddy Bushe imagined how the spirit of the deceased wife might have responded to Amergins lyrical phrases. The poem is entitled Scines Reply to Aimherigin.

If you are the wind on the sea I am the water tingling under the breeze. If you are a wave in a flood I am an empty shell dreaming of your coming. If you are the roar of a storm I am the tide lapping in the noon heat10
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Eightercua Alignment, Co. Kerry Nearest Town: Waterville Townland: Eightercua Latitude: 51 48 53.69 N Longitude: 10 9 29.07 W

Aghade Holed Stone (Cloghaphoill)


Tullow, Co. Carlow

Click on the image to see in high resolution.

Then Niall went to Leinster on a raid, and he said that he would not go from them so long as he was alive, or until Eochaid were given him as a pledge and hostage. And this had to be done. So Eochaid was taken to th Fadat in Gothart Fea on the bank of the Slaney, and was left there before Niall, with a chain around his neck, and the end of the chain through the hole of a stone pillar. {The] champions advanced towards him to slay him. Woe said Eochaid, this is bad indeed! With that he gave himself a twist, so that the chain broke in two. He seized the iron bolt that was through the chain, and advanced to meet them. He plied the bolt on them so that [they] fell. The other men turned before him down the hill. Those of Leinster pursued them and slaughtered them, so that they fell.
The Escape of Eochaid, from The Death of Niall of the Nine Hostages, Book of Ballymote (fourteenth century)1 The high-resolution photograph (left) was made with a large-format view camera in 1979. Click the photo, and then click the button at the right of the Zoomify toolbar to see it full-screen. (See example.) The smoothly bored aperture in the broad Cloghaphoill (holed stone) was not able, in the legendary tale quoted above, to long hold Eochaid, Nialls prisoner.

The unfortunate prince [Eochaid] was compelled to maintain one position, with his back to the stone, and subject to the galling weight of the iron chain2

"The Death of Niall of the Nine Hostages" in The Book of Ballymote.(RIA. MS 23 P 12, f. 7 v)

Eochaid used the hole in the stone to help him break the chains with which he was bound. Some writers reported noting, in the modern era, the marks left on the stone by the friction of the iron chain. In 1839, the Ordnance Surveys Eugene OCurry visited here and reported finding a field with small graves formed of flagstones, which he considered a confirmation of the traditional story.3 Into the eighteenth century it was reported that ill-thriven infants afflicted with rickets were passed through the hole, 29 cm (11.5 in) in diameter, in an attempt to obtain a cure. In 1833 an antiquarian wrote:

Great numbers formerly indulged in this superstitious folly, but for the past twenty years the practice has been discontinued. My informant on this occasion was a woman who had herself passed one of her infants through the aperture of this singular stone. She informed me, that some of the country people talked of having it cut up for gate posts, but a superstitious feeling prevented them.4
According to archaeologists the Cloghaphoill may have once stood upright, serving as a porthole stone that closed the burial chamber of a megalithic tomb from the Neolithic. The large hole then may have served as a way for the descendants of the deceased to offer food or other tributes into the afterlife.5 The stone stands 2.3 m (7.5 ft) above the ground, and is 1.7 m (5 ft 8 in) wide, and up to 46 cm (18 in) thick. Niall of the Nine Hostages may be the first of the Irish mythological heroes to have been an actual historical character, belonging to the fourth or fifth century CE.6 He is known as the legendary ancestor of the U Nill tribe, which would prosper to become the feudal rulers of all Donegal and who dominated Ireland from the sixth to the tenth century. The traditional coronation site of the ODonnell branch of this family is visited in our entry on the Rock of Doon. In one legend, Niall of the Nine Hostages agrees to lie with a hideous crone in order to obtain water from her. She then magically becomes a young girl, representing the sovereignty of Ireland, more radiantly beautiful than the sun and promises the warrior that he and his descendants would become the rulers of the land. 7 There is little that can be noted with certainty about the historical Niall, as all the written information comes from genealogies (now thought to be dubious) of Irish kings and other medieval texts that date from long after the purported reign of this late Iron Age pre-Christian king, known as the 126th High King of Ireland. 8Writing in the seventeenth century, Geoffrey Keating claimed

that it was one of Nialls raiding parties in England that kidnapped the young St. Patrick in 405 CE; the result was that Patricks initial experience in Ireland was as a slave.9 Niall gained his traditional sobriquet, Nogallach (of the Nine Hostages), from the story that relates how each of the five provinces of Ireland, in order to demonstrate their fealty, sent Niall a hostage. He also received additional hostages from Scotland, the Saxons, the Britons, and the Franks, totaling nine.

Niall of the Nine Hostages was the greatest king that Ireland ever knew. His reign was epochal, and was the Irish equivalent of Alexander the Great in Macedonia. He not only ruled Ireland greatly and strongly, but also carried the name and the fame, and the power and the fear, of Ireland into all neighbouring nations. He was, moreover, founder of the longest, most important, and most powerful Irish royal dynasty. Almost without interruption his descendants were the High Kings of Ireland for 600 years. Under him the spirit of pagan Ireland leaped up in its last great flame of military glory.10

The Death of Niall of the Nine Hostages.

Whatever the place in history of Niall of the Nine Hostages, some have called him the Irish Genghis Khan due to the number of his descendants. Geneticists have determined that more than three million men around the world are likely to be descended from this prolific medieval Irish king. Scientists suspect that Niall, or someone very much like him, may be the ancestor of one out of every twelve Irishmen, and as many as 22% of the men up in the northwest of the country, where Niall established his kingdom. The study of the Y-chromosomes appears to trace back to one particular person. One of the researchers, Brian McEyon, at Trinity College, Dublin reported that, there are certain surnames that seem to have come from Ui Neill. We studied if there was any association between those surnames and the genetic profile. It is his (Nialls) family. 11 It is unclear at what point in the history of the Cloghaphoill it began to be used as an agent of folk medicine. An author in 1937 pointed out the tantalizing coincidence that its traditional use as a way to affect a cure for rickets, involved a disease that was a scourge of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages.12 While the practice of passing infants through the hole in the Cloghaphoill faded away more than two centuries ago, the Tobernaveen Holed Stone in Co. Sligo has apparently been utilized in a curative ritual in very recent times. Other standing stones with apertures have acquired different traditions in folk practices around the country. An early-Christian pillar stone that serves as one of the stations of the Turas (procession) in Glencolumbcille, Co. Donegal, has a small hole once used by engaged couples that would touch their fingers from the opposite sides of the stone. In Co. Antrim, the Doagh Holestone is used still today for a similar betrothal ceremony. Guidebook author Anthony Weir has considered the possibility that the hole was once used in a more primal fertility ceremony.13 If the Cloghaphoill eventually developed the ability to affect cures, it did not have such a salutary effect for Niall of the Nine Hostages. The stone proved unable to hold his enemy Eochaid, who later caused the death of Niall, piercing him with an arrow

shot from across a valley in Scotland. His men carried his body home, fighting bloody battles on the way, and buried him at a place now known as Faughan Hill in Co. Meath (see illustration, above left). 14

Like the foxglove, like a calfs blooda feast without a flaw! Like the top-branches of a forest in May. Like the moon, like the sun, like a firebrand was the splendor of Niall, Like a dragon-ship from the wave without a fault was Niall the son of Eochaid Mugmedon.15
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Aghade Holed Stone, Co. Carlow Nearest Town: Tullow Townland: Ardristan Latitude: 52 46 9.41 N Longitude: 6 44 45.73 W