Gobnait’s Day

We stood still and listened: the air was filled with humming – Bees swarming in February? But no… it was the murmuring of the pilgrims saying the decades of the Rosary by the grave of St Gobnait…*

Making the Rounds at Saint Gobnait's Shrine on the Feast Day
Making the Rounds at Saint Gobnait’s Shrine on the Feast Day

We travelled up into the Muskerry Gaeltacht on Wednesday – 11 February: the Feast Day of Saint Gobnait. It’s a fair journey, and we felt that we had really gone into another world: we crossed over the Mountain of the Fairy – that’s my interpretation of the Shehy Mountains (Shee is Fairy) – others say the Irish Cnoic na Síofra means ‘hills of the animal hides’. For the first time in my life somebody – a passer by – addressed me in Irish… “An bhfuil hata agat le spáráil?” they said – “Have you got a hat to spare?” (I think it was a wry comment about the headgear I was wearing on the day).

Wrapping the ribbons

Our goal was Saint Gobnait’s Church in Ballyvourney, where the Mass was to be heard celebrated in Irish. Also, we wanted to see the 13th century wooden statue which is brought in to the church on this day. When we arrived there was already a queue to buy ribbons and ‘measure’ them against the statue. In fact, it was quite an intricate ritual: first you wrapped your ribbons around the neck of the statue, then around the feet. Some did the same around the stomach – others passed the ribbons under the body of the statue and rubbed them along the surface. Many people kissed the statue and some picked it up and made the sign of the cross with it. We joined in and came away with a clutch of ribbons, now blessed by Saint Gobnait and imbued with health-giving and good-fortune-bringing properties.

Making the 'Measures'
Making the ‘Measures’

The church was completely full for the Mass (it was also broadcast outside), which was celebrated by two Priests and a very robust men’s choir – beautiful singing in Irish. It was an uplifting experience, even though I hardly understood a word. A friendly atmosphere imbued all who were there, and excitement was in the air. Afterwards, we visited the statue again and then headed for Saint Gobnait’s Holy Well, her grave and the ruins of her ancient church, where the ‘Rounds’ were being performed all day. That’s when we heard the humming – it should have been Bees: this Saint has always been associated with them, and her statue which overlooks the pilgrimage site (and which was carved by Seamus Murphy in 1950) is decorated with Bees and with a Deer. This is also part of her story: when she was travelling through Ireland looking for a site to establish her community she was told she must continue on her way until she met with nine white Deer. She found them in Ballyvourney and that’s why in our time the little settlement flourishes on this February day.

We heard that there is another Holy Well, hidden in the woods just outside the town and seldom visited. This is known as Tobar Abán – Saint Abban’s Well. That saint seems to be closely associated with Saint Gobnait although not much is known about the lives of either of them – they lived back in the sixth century.

In the local shop
In the local shop

A visit to the Post Office provided us with the information we needed to get to this intriguing sacred site: walk over the bridge, go into the fields and look for a lone oak tree on the distant boundary – this marks the point where a trackway leads up through the woods. We made our way across a muddy pasture; the oak tree was prominent enough, and the track – but once inside the wood everything was quite densely overgrown. We would never have found it without the instructions, but we also had the help of red and white ribbons tied to trees and posts in strategic places – they had been there for some time: we wondered who set them up?

Tobar Abán is a wonderful site – a lonely outpost of religious sanctity but, for me, probably the most beautiful of all the holy places I have visited in Ireland so far. It’s an unexpected find: set away from everything, deep in an ancient oak wood, silent, still – one could imagine that it has always been like this, passing through generations of turbulent history and yet untroubled by it. Archaeologically it appears to be a cist with a cairn of stones built around it: this would imply pre-Christian origins. The lid of the cist (a burial chamber or repository for bones) is not visible – possibly it is under the large ballaun stone which rests on top. Above this is a small, relatively modern concrete cross embellished with offerings, beads and ribbons: other icons and objects are scattered around the site. The whole mound has a boundary defined by three standing stones, one of which is inscribed with ogham. Everything is covered in a layer of moss which seemed to exude a luminescence in the moist shade of the wood.

crucifix

Saint Abban (or Abbán moccu Corbmaic) seems to have been active in many parts of Ireland, and tradition has it that he lived for three hundred years. The stories that are important here are the ones that link him with Saint Gobnait. It has been said that he founded a monastery in Ballyvourney before she arrived, and that he was her mentor and gave the foundation to her. Some say that Abban and Gobnait were brother and sister. Most important, perhaps, is the tradition that Abban had a cell or church just outside Ballyvourney and that he was buried in that cell when he died in 520. Could it be his grave that we found?

Saint Abban's Shrine - cell - or grave?
Saint Abban’s Shrine – cell – or grave?

Saint Abban’s Well is a little distance from the cist, and is quite unassuming, especially compared to the elaborate wells around Saint Gobnait’s old church. It is merely an opening in a rock set in the ground: an old tray covers it and keeps the leaves out, and a wooden box beside it contains some cups and plastic bottles for collecting the water.

Tobar Aban - Saint Abban's Well
Tobar Abán – Saint Abban’s Well

As we were making our way back across the fields we were surprised to see a lady in a red coat walking with a stick towards us. “Did you find it?” she asked. We assured her we had found the well and the shrine. “And did you see his bones?” she continued, “Last time I was there I lifted up the lid and saw the Saint’s bones inside…” We watched her go off towards the woods; when I looked back again she had disappeared.

Cist, Bullaun and standing stones
Cist, Bullaun and standing stones

There’s so much about the day: the journey across the Mountain of the Fairy; the Irish Mass and the ritual of the ribbons involving a 13th century wooden figure; the Rounds and the humming of the Saint’s Bees; the magical shrine in the woods – and I really do wonder about that lady in the red coat…

Offering at the Shrine of Saint Abban
Offering at the Shrine of Saint Abban

* Originally titled A Murmuration, this post has been re-edited. Although published under Finola’s name this time around, the post and the re-editing are by Robert..

West Cork Rocks

It certainly does! But this post is – literally – about rock: the hard, knobbly kind that is underneath us, surrounds us, and which has historically built our environment. In the picture above, taken on a clear February day during the most severe Covid lockdown, Finola is walking through beautiful West Cork. Beyond her is the great, gaunt outcrop of Mount Gabriel. Beside her is a traditional stone wall: its design unchanged over centuries. In the landscape all around her are rocks – large and small – scattered in the rough pasture.

In the distance, of course, is the coast: there are very few places in West Cork where you cannot, at least, catch a glimpse of the sea – and so many where you can immerse yourself in it, or stand on its shore and admire the infinite textures which those same rocks display. It’s mostly Old Red Sandstone: that’s the correct geological term. It was laid down in the Devonian period – a while ago now: between 400 and 300 million years, in fact. This followed an era during which our mountains were built, known as the Silurian times. Continents were shifting and separating, and what was to become Ireland was a great arid desert – deserted: there was no-one around to see it!

Old Red Sandstone: in fact it varies in colour depending on its local history. Broadly, some of the mountain rocks are purple-grey, while those closer to the sea could be greeny-red, but that is probably far too wide a generalisation. The sheer beauty is in the infinite shapes and colours. What artist needs any finer palette?

In those deserted times, an ‘Old Red Sandstone Continent’ extended over what is now northwest Europe, but it is worth noting that in ‘our’ part of it – the Munster Basin, covering today’s Kerry and Cork – we have one of the densest masses of this rock in the world: at least 6 kilometres thick. And we have to appreciate what it has given to us – high mountain spines sweeping steeply down to an indented shoreline of coves, creeks and inlets, with the myriad mottled islands that we oversee. An unparalleled, unfolded world.

After the ‘desert’ period, but much later – only about a million and a half years ago – came the Pleistocene Epoch. the word is from the Greek polys and cene – meaning ‘most recent’ – and that brings us almost up to date. That was a time of great climate events: deserts were inundated and then covered in ice sheets 3 kilometres thick, while moving glaciers tore up the rock surfaces, advancing and retreating several times. Eventually, what had been desert became arctic tundra. It is supposed that the ancestors of our present day life forms happened along during this epoch, and managed to survive. But we don’t find any traces of them until after the last ice sheet retreated in our part of the world – only about 12,000 years ago. The landscape that was left behind was inundated by rising sea levels, and the very last land bridge (between Cornwall and the eastern tip of Wexford) was washed away after that, but not before the Giant Elk and its mammal relations had got a foothold on the western side. The snakes, however, didn’t make it. And what of the humans?

Well, the humans embraced the rocky landscape. They made their marks on the outcrops; then they moved the rocks about, and made architecture from them. We can still see their efforts, some 5,000 years later.

These Neolithic carved motifs could be the earliest human interventions on the natural Irish landscape: they might date from 3,000 BC. These examples are from West Cork, and were only discovered a few years ago. Finola wrote the definitive thesis on Rock Art when she studied at UCC in the 1970s, and we have staged exhibitions and given talks on the topic.

A couple of thousand years later, Irish people started to build things with the stones they found around them. This wedge tomb under the backdrop textures of Mount Gabriel at Ratooragh has rested here since the Bronze Age. Finola’s post today uncovers the fascinating folklore stories that generations have told about such artefacts. But restlessly working the fabric of the landscape – Old Red Sandstone – into walls, shelters, tower houses, temples and towns has never ceased.

Legends of Mount Gabriel: Wrought by Giants

While references to Fionn MacCumhaill (or Finn McCool) occur in many of the old legends about Mount Gabriel, more often a generic ‘giant’ is identified as having lived on or near Mount Gabriel. Giants were, apparently, given to fighting each other and to hurling rocks through the air. Here’s a good example from Jeremiah Mahony of Crookhaven:

Giants are a familiar motif of folklore – just across the sea many of the same stories are told about the effects the Giant, Bolster, had on the landscape of Cornwall.

The rock that was seized and thrown didn’t always become the Fastnet; prominent rocks on the landscape were also identified, including what we know now as Boulder Burials (for more on this class of archaeological monument see my post Boulder Burials – A Misnamed Monument?). Here is Cornelius Moynihan from Derreenlomane School (long since closed), telling a tale he got from his grandfather of the same name, then aged 75.

In my grandfather’s land in Rathravane there is a stone called “The Giant’s Stone”. A legend says that it was thrown from Mount Gabriel by a giant long ago. Those who believe this point out the print of a knee and prints of three fingers. It looks as if one end was lifted by human agency as it is supported at that end by three stones arranged regularly.

In an unusual piece of cross referencing, Tessie Coughlan from Dunbeacon School, on the other side of Mount Gabriel, tells of the same rock landing in Moynihan’s field (above, and below with Mount Corrin in the background).

The old people of this locality say that two giants once lived at the top of Mount Gabriel near the place where the lake now lies. One of them was much taller than the other but the smaller had two heads and was cleverer and stronger than the other. It is said that they killed any person who cut a tree on the mountain side and then they cast their bodies into the lake.

One day a dispute arose between the two as to which was the stronger and it was agreed upon that they should both lift a stone and throw it as far as they could. The two giants lifted stones of equal weight and threw them over the land together. The small giant threw his stone much farther than the other did and it fell in Rathravane in a field owned by Mr C Moynihan. The other stone fell in Dreenlomane and it is still to be seen.

The stone in Rathravane is oval shaped and it bears the five prints of the giant’s fingers. It rests on a height. The stone in Dreelomane is not shaped like the one in Rathravane but it is the shape of a coffin and bears the print of one of the giant’s fingers. The old people say that it is a real coffin and that a landlord is buried in it or under it. Several people have gone to break the stone, but owing to tradition they never struck it.

Perhaps this (above) is the other rock – it’s not in Derreenlomane but not far, on the slopes of Mount Corrin. Another student from Derreenlomane school, Rita Helen, tells a similar story in her piece titled Local Monuments, and goes on to describe several others.

There is a glacial stone in Mr. Young’s field and another in Mr. Moynihans field. The one in Mr. Moynihan’s field seems to have been lifted up at one end by some persons, as three stones have been placed under this end. People say there is a print of five fingers on the one in Mr. Moynihan’s field and that a giant threw the stone from the top of Mount Gabriel over into the field. 

In this photograph of the Rathruane boulder burial, perhaps you can see the knee imprint and one of the finger holes. That’s Mount Gabriel in the background.

There is a cairn on top of Mount Corrin (Cnoc an Chairn).

There are two pillar stones in the townland called the Gallauns, parish of Schull, W.D.W. Carbery, Co Cork.

In another part of the townland there are six pillar stones forming part of a circle.

The only stone circle in the vicinity is in Dunbeacon, on the slopes of Mount Corrin, but Mount Gabriel is visible from it, as you can see in the photo above. Rita was from Rathruane, although she spells it as it is pronounced locally, Rathravane. It’s interesting that she also says There are no stones in the district with peculiar markings or strokes on them, since there is indeed rock art in Rathruane, quite close to the boulder burial. It’s an excellent example of prehistoric Rock Art, AKA cup-and-ring art.

Hannah Hayes, also from Derreenlomane has her own version of Local Monuments:

There are two large stones in Rathravane :- one in Mr. Young’s field and one in Mr. Moynihan’s field. It is said a giant threw the stone from Mount Gabriel to Mr. Moynihan’s field, and those who believe this say there is the print of five fingers in it. There are pillar stones called Galláin standing in the ground in the townland of Coolcoulachta. There are no ornamented stones in the locality.

Here are the Coolcoulaghta galláns or pillar stones – they constitute a type of monument known as a standing stone pair.

Here’s a piece from an unnamed student at Gloun School. It refers to “a kind of grave” and we wonder if this is the beautiful little wedge tomb in Ratooragh

In the western side of the Glaun hill up east of Timothy Driscoll’s there is a kind of grave. Long ago there was a chieftain living here and people say he was buried there and some treasure buried with him. On top of the clay there is a heap of stones and there is a fairly large stone standing in the centre and there is some writing carved on it.

This writing is nearly blotted out now. It was read by many people in olden times. No one ever tried to find the treasure.

No sign now of any clay or writing but the National Monuments record does reference traces of a mound which may have covered the wedge tomb originally but is impossible to make out now. There are panoramic views from this wedge tomb, not only to Mount Gabriel and Mount Corrin (above), but west to the sea as well (below).

We know you’ll want to be out and about as soon as we all can, doing your own exploring. As an enticement, here’s a story about buried treasure, courtesy of Caitlín Ní Árnéidig of the Convent of Mercy in Skibbereen.

Under a huge stone on the slope of a hill in my father’s farm, there is said to be hidden treasure.

It is said that one day “Athach Mór”, a great giant, was challenged to throw this huge stone (at least one ton and a half weight) from Mount Gabriel to that spot on the hill. First the giant seemed unwilling to try this feat but when he began to lift the stone it seemed of no weight, and he suceeded in landing it exactly on the spot.

Under it there is said to be an unusual thing (a nest containing seven golden eggs each seven inches in diameter and filled with sovereigns).

About four perches due west of this stone is another stone, under which a similar treasure is hidden.

An old man of the vicinity recently revealed that in order to find the treasure one must draw a straight line from one stone to another, then standing near the middle of the line hold a cord in the hand and lift it an eastward direction, so that it will [words missing] the stone and a light will be seen over the spot where the treasure is.

My uncle, having heard the story, decided to prove this, so he set to work at the mysterious stone. Having drawn the line he stood near the centre and cast the string eastward. Then to his astonishment he noticed a ray of light over a small portion of the stone.

He tried to split the stone but failed though still engaged at the work he finds it impossible to do.

All you have to do is figure out the location and , crucially, what the student meant to say where the words are missing. Good luck!

World Wetlands Day: A West Cork Bog Soak

In honour of World Wetlands Day, which we celebrate on Feb 2 every year, here is a selection of beautiful, weird and wonderful native plants from one small bog soak in West Cork.

Bogs are unique environments, highly acidic and with low nutrients. Nevertheless, some plants have adapted to thrive in them. It’s important we safeguard these diminishing natural habitats.

Dean Swift and I

Robert writes:

Our weather has turned grey and damp. Our 5k Covid limited walks to seek inspiration for the posts we write for you every week are less than comfortable, and our photography is suffering. But we are undaunted! Spring is just around the corner (it starts tomorrow, on the first of February – Imbolc – here in Ireland) and we will soon see the emerging wildflowers in our verges. We will notice the days getting longer. Meanwhile, let’s enjoy the stormy prospect from our eyrie:

Roaringwater Bay, January 30 2021. Between the islands the water is always calm but you can see the force of an Atlantic storm stirring things up beyond them

For my post today I’m diving into our archives, but also travelling back in time – in my own life. The topic is an Irish one – and has West Cork connections (you’ll see) – but writer and satirist Jonathan Swift appeared in my view early on, and through a somewhat odd series of events which touch on many things – historical characters, folktales, archaeology, and hauntings. Here is how I came into the company of Dean Swift before I was ten years old!

Jonathan Swift, born in Dublin in 1667: left – in 1682 (when he was fifteen years old) painted by Thomas Pooley; centre – in 1710 (aged 43) by Charles Jervas and right – in 1745 (the year of his death, aged 78) by Rupert Barber (National Portrait Gallery, London)

I was born and brought up in a small country town in southern England – Farnham. A big influence on my young life was my grandmother, Annie – we always called her Granma. But she wasn’t a relation at all: my mother had been orphaned (by the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’) at the age of four, and lived in a children’s home until the age of 16, after which she was fostered by my Granma. In my younger years my mother worked as a shorthand typist. I had no idea, then, what a ‘short hand typist’ was, but I must have formed an image of sorts in my mind. Be that as it may, the consequence was that I spent time with my Granma during my mother’s working hours in school holidays – and, quite often, at weekends.

My Granma – the one picture I have of her, above – was only ever the kindest of ladies. She helped me to learn to read well from the age of four, and embedded in me a huge love of books – and stories. Widowed, she lived alone in 2 Darvill’s Lane, Farnham. And that’s where I have the happiest of my childhood memories. Why? Because it was such a different house from my parents’. It had no electricity, a big black coal range and an outside lavatory – all thoroughly fascinating. The gaslights hissed and spluttered in a friendly way on winter evenings; there were always interesting things sizzling on the range – and blancmange for pudding, and fruit cakes for tea! And, although there wasn’t electricity, there was a large wireless set with a bakelite shell, shiny knobs and a glowing celluloid dial splendidly esconced on its very own table in a corner of the small sitting room. I can still see it in my mind’s eye, although I have no memory of what I might have heard from its gold-meshed speaker as everything seemed obscured and overlayed by intense crackling. A cable descended from the set to a large glass accumulator sitting on the floor beneath. This was similar in size and weight to a car battery today. One of my frequent duties when staying with Granma for an afternoon in the holidays was to help dismantle this accumulator, place it into a wheeled shopping basket and trundle it up into the town where it was exchanged for a freshly charged apparatus of the same design, a task which had to be done weekly (and cost how much? Sixpence…). But, I digress . . . Let’s move on to the subject of this post – Dean Swift: what is his connection with my Granma?

A particularly fine edition of Gulliver’s Travels in two volumes, dating from 1930. A similar one in good condition fetched £6,900 at auction last year. The first edition – also in two volumes – was issued on 28 October 1726, priced at 8 shilings and 6 pence

Gulliver’s Travels was one of the many books I read at my Granma’s house, probably when I was four or five. My version was nothing like the handsome one above: it was the Ladybird Books edition: I wish I still had it. Of course, I now know that practically everything of value historically had been expurgated from this and all other children’s renderings of the book (and plays, films etc) including all the (then) politically outrageous bits and the vividly scatalogical episodes. (If you don’t know these, one of the mildest is Gulliver’s success in putting out a house fire in Lilliput by publicly urinating on it, something for which he was convicted of treason and then sentenced to be blinded!). Nevertheless, at such an innocent age, who would not have been impressed simply by the illustration of a ‘giant’ man tied down to the ground with twine and surrounded by a horde of miniature people?

My world met that of Swift (I never knew him as ‘Dean Swift’ until I came to Ireland) when my Granma and I would walk together out into the countryside. We only ever walked because, in the 1950s, very few people had cars and I had not yet graduated to a bicycle: walking is still, after all, the best way to travel without missing all the details. From Darvill’s Lane we followed a path away from the town which almost immediately became deeply rural. We headed for Moor Park. I was delighted, recently, to find this old postcard of Moor Park Lane which could date from those same days:

With the benefit of Google Maps I have been able to calculate that our walks were around two miles if we only went as far as Moor Park House, but it was much more interesting to go beyond, so sometimes we would have done a round trip of seven or eight miles. ‘Beyond’ there were caves, and a holy well, and the ruins of an old abbey – all of which Granma could tell me stories about. I’m so grateful to my Granma as, today, I can’t resist searching out the likes of caves, holy wells and archaeology, wherever I travel.

An extract from a late 19th century Ordnance Survey map of the country we walked through outside Farnham town, with just a few of the places which I learned ‘stories’ about during my escapades with my Granma!

Moor Park House was always our first port of call. I now know that an early dwelling on this site – known as Compton Hall – dates from 1307, and that this was modified and added to over the generations, most notably by Sir William Temple in the late 17th century. Temple (1628 – 1699) bought the property in the 1680s and renamed it after his own family home in Hertfordshire. He had a career as a noted diplomat under Charles II including, in 1677, helping to arrange the marriage between the King’s niece, Princess Mary and William of Orange: I don’t need to go into their story now. William Temple retired to Farnham and constructed a large formal garden at Moor Park, covering five acres. From 1688 until his death he employed Jonathan Swift as his secretary. My Grandma ensured that I knew about the link between Moor Park and Gulliver’s Travels, and I was impressed! She also told me that the path along which we walked, passing through the gates of Moor Park Lodge, had once been the scene of a great battle when an owner of Moor Park (long after Temple) closed off the right-of-way along that path, or attempted to: I have since learned that it happened in 1897, and a crowd of over a hundred local people armed themselves with cudgels and crowbars and forced the locked gates open. They have been open ever since.

Upper – Moor Park House today and, lower – the gatehouse which was the scene of a battle over rights-of-way in 1897

For over a decade Moor Park house figured large in the life of Jonathan Swift. When first there he became the tutor and mentor to a local girl who lived nearby, and whose mother acted as a companion to Temple’s sister. The local girl was Esther Johnson (1681 – 1728). She was nicknamed ‘Stella’ by Swift. My Granma told me that Stella was a close friend of Jonathan Swift, and that he would visit her by following the path we always took through the estate, ending at ‘Stella’s Cottage’ at the far end. My young brain took all this information in, and I carried with me through the years a picture in my mind of Stella’s Cottage at the end of our path. A postcard I came across recently confirms that picture exactly! Stella remained ‘close’ to Swift for the rest of his life. On his death Temple left her some property in Ireland and she moved there in 1702. There were rumours – never confirmed or denied – that she and Swift had married secretly. She died in 1728, and was buried in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. Swift was inconsolable at Stella’s death; when he died he was buried beside her at his own request:

Childhood associations: centre – Sir William Temple on the left (painted by John Closterman – courtesy of Beecroft Art Gallery) and Esther Johnson on the right (artist unknown – Crawford Gallery): she was Jonathan Swift’s ‘close friend’. Lower picture – an old postcard showing ‘Stella Cottage’

On the best days our walks continued beyond the Moor Park estate, and included a visit to two caves – ‘Old Mother Ludlam’s cave’ and ‘Father Foote’s’. These provided great stories, and my Granma’s recounting of those stories has been confirmed through my present day researches, although I prefer them the way she told them, rather than the precise history. Mother Ludlam was a witch, but a good one. She had a cauldron which she would lend to anyone, presumably so they could make their own magic potions. The cauldron can still be seen today, in a nearby church. She lived in her cave, which had (and still has) a stream running through it. Every time we looked into the mouth of the cave – through a locked iron gate – my Granma repeated the same story (which I have never seen written down): when she was a young girl it was decided to find out where the stream that ran out of the cave originated, so a raft of ducks (that’s the correct word for a whole lot of ducks) was taken into the cave and shooed away into the darkness up the stream. Then, presumably, the assembled crowd waited to see if and where they might emerge. They didn’t. Except that – according to my Granma – some considerable time later (days or weeks) one lone duck was found coming out of a small culvert on the River Wey in Guildford ten miles away – minus all its feathers! I could never forget such a rare story.

Here (above) is one of my prized possessions: a 1785 print of Mother Ludlam’s Hole, Surry: I found it in a second-hand bookshop in Farnham very many years ago – I think I paid a shilling for it – and I have kept it ever since, if only to remember my Granma and the stories she told. I later came across this fine print in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It shows that Mother Ludlam had some notoriety:

But you very seldom hear about ‘Father Foote’. In fact, I wondered in later life whether he was a personage which my Granma had thought up to explain a second, smaller cave nearby. But no – because if you look at this 1895 map of the area you will see that ‘Foote’s Cave’ is clearly marked (along with St Mary’s Well), but Mother Ludlam’s isn’t.

So – Granma’s tale: Mother Ludlam and Father Foote lived at the same time close to each other. The second cave is quite high up in the rock face, and rather small. They had a baby, which they kept in the smaller cave, One day the baby rolled out of the cave, down the steep hill and into the river below. That’s the story – I’ll leave you to ponder on it.

Generally, the last port of call on our walks was Waverley Abbey – the very first monastery founded in Britain by the Cistercians, constructed in a meadow beside the River Wey in 1128. That’s what remains of the refectory above (photo courtesy of English Heritage). I don’t remember my Granma telling me any ghost stories – she didn’t go in for those; yet she did always say to me I had to look out for the ‘white monks’ when we went past the old abbey ruins. I was interested to see that Waverley Abbey was used as a film set in 2014 for a Disney film about the story of Rapunzel. Here’s a still from that film:

I did promise you a ‘West Cork connection’ to the subject of this post. Well, Dean Swift visited the south west of Ireland in 1723 and stayed in Castletownshend. Finola, in her post on Belvederes in 2016, tells that he used a tower behind the castle there as his refuge, and in it he wrote a long poem in Latin – Carberiae Rupes – which translates as ‘The Crags of Carbery’. Here’s the tower beside Castletownshend Castle, and a short translated extract from the poem. At the end there’s Finola’s photo of me visiting ‘Swift’s Tower’, and closing the loop that began for me more than seventy years ago.

31st January 2021

Legends of Mount Gabriel: Fionn, Furrows and Fastnet

The second set of stories about Mount Gabriel (the first set was Legends of Mount Gabriel: The Bottomless Lake) also relate to physical features on the landscape and how they came to be there. Most involve the prowess and deeds of giants, including Fionn MacCumhaill/Finn McCool. Fionn MacCumhaill was the mythical hero/warrior of the Fenian Cycle, a set of stories dating back to the seventh century and added to during the whole of the Early and Later Medieval periods. The stories tell of his boyhood, how he acquired the gift of knowledge, his pursuit of the beautiful Gráinne and her lover Diarmuid, his son Oscar and Oscar’s son, Oisin. Fionn, you must know, is not dead – he merely sleeps and will awake again when somebody sounds his hunting horn, to defend Ireland during her hour of greatest need. 

This image depicts a man stumbling upon the sleeping Fianna in a Donegal cave. It is by Beatrice Elvery and is one of her illustrations for Heroes of the Dawn by Violet Russell, 1914, available at archive.org

But somehow, in popular folklore Fionn, the mighty hero of the ancient sagas, transformed into the giant, Finn McCool, a genial leviathan capable of feats of prodigious strength. All over Ireland places are named for this enormous figure (e.g. Seefin – Finn’s Seat, is the name of several mountains) and tales are handed down about his effect on the landscape. Perhaps the most well-know story is about the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim, but there is hardly a spot in Ireland that doesn’t have similar stories. Mount Gabriel is no exception.

A distant view of the Fastnet Rock and Lighthouse

We’ve already seen one of those stories in The Bottomless Lake in which Fionn took a handful of rock and threw it out into the Atlantic Ocean where it is now as the Fastnet Rock or Carraig Aonair – leaving the hole of Poll an Oighin. That story was from the pen of an unidentified student in the long-abandoned school of Gloun. The student spells it Glaun, it’s identified as Gleann in the School’s Collection and as Glan on OS maps and it’s usually given locally as Gloun. The school is pictured below as it looks now.

The student had more stories about Fionn, arising from the geological formation of Mount Gabriel.

The name of the townland in which I live, and in the which this school is situated, is Glaun. It is in the parish of Schull about three miles from the village in the county of Cork, in the Barony of West Carbery. It is bounded on the north by the Glaun river, on the east by Mount Gabriel, on the south by “Fionn’s Ridge” and on the west by the Lios a Catha river. . .

Fionn’s Ridge separates Glaun from Gubbeen. It is a ridge of rock with seams resembling the furrows made by a plough and it is said that Fionn Mac Cumhail ploughed it with two rams and a wooden plough. Of course it is only a story as the surface was torn off by masses of ice moving south to the hollow below leaving the rock bare like a ridge.

A variation on this story is given by another student, also unnamed, in Schull.

Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s Ridge

There is a curious formation of rock at the western side of Mount Gabriel. It resembles a furrow ploughed into the rock. It is called Fionn’s Ridge. The people of the locality say that it was Fionn Mac Cumhaill ploughed this furrow with two goats.

When we moved here first we met local electrician and theatre scholar, Ger Minihane. At the time we were trying to track down a cup-marked stone in the townland of Derreennatra and having no luck. But Ger told us where to find it – in his own garden! And he told us the legend of how it got there, thrown from the top of Mount Gabriel by Fionn MacCumhaill, a story passed down through the generations in his family.

Was this the coat hook of the anonymous student at Gloun School?

While many of the stories of rocks hurled from Mount Gabriel (more on those another time) refer generically to the actions of ‘giants’, local people understand that it was Fionn MacCumhaill himself that was doing the hurling and his name has become strongly associated with the mountain. During the Millennium celebrations a group in Schull took on the task of creating colourful street theatre to honour those legends and we are fortunate that a record remains of what must have been the most fun, engaging and dramatic events ever to happen in Schull – including the image used as my lead photograph of Fionn striding through Schull*. This movie documents the planning and effort that went into The Battle of Murrahin, which pitted the O’Mahony clan against their ancient rivals, the O’Driscolls. Towards the end of the video we meet up with Fionn.

The story that is told in this re-enactment is the local one that the Fastnet rock originated when Fionn threw a rock from Mount Gabriel into the sea, where it settled and became An Carraig Aonair, The Lone Rock. However, the group’s research also showed up an old Irish name for it which translates as ‘The Swan of the Jet-black cairn bereft of light in the dark’ and this explains the appearance of the black swan.

Related to the idea of the Fastnet as a swan is this local legend from a Schull student.

There is an old story told among the people about it. It is said that when St Patrick was banishing Paganism out of Ireland the devil was in such a rage that he pulled a piece of rock out of Mount Gabriel and flung it into the Atlantic ocean some miles west of Cape Clear. This lone rock had been many years there and several ships were wrecked on it until close on one hundred years ago a big lighthouse was built on it. This rock was called the Fastnet rock and the lighthouse got the same name. In Irish it is called Carraig Aonair. This lighthouse is situated on one of the greatest trade routes in the world..

It is said that on every May morning the Fastnet Rock leaves its place and sails around Cape Clear and northwards to three rocks called the Bull, Cow and Calf, and returns to the place again before sun-rise.

*Thanks so much to Karen Minihan for providing images and links from SULT Schull, the Millennium projects. Wish I’d been there!