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!

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!

Ireland’s Finest Prospect – The Story of Ballyfin Demesne, Part 1

There are two reasons why Ballyfin, in County Laois, was high on our list of Important Places To See In Ireland. One was the story that the name – An Baile Fionn in Irish – could mean ‘The Place of Fionn’ – and there is a legend that the great warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill was raised here, in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. Fionn has left behind him so many traces all over Ireland that the place where he was – perhaps – born and grew up deserves pilgrimage status.

A place fit for a legendary Irish hero? Ballyfinn has associations with Fionn Mac Cumhaill. The lake which is central to the prospect from Ballyfin today was constructed by William Pole in the second half of the eighteenth century

An alternative translation of An Baile Fionn is ‘The White Town’, and the location has long had a reputation as a place of great beauty. Emily Fitzgerald, the Countess of Kildare – a remarkable lady who was illegitimately descended from King Charles II and who bore twenty-two children – wrote in 1759: 

. . . Yesterday, I saw a most delightful place indeed, much beyond any place I have seen in Ireland – Ballyfin . . .

The beauty of the Irish Midlands in the eighteenth century: Ballyfinn House can be seen in the centre distance of this pastoral view from 1784: beyond are the Slieve Bloom Mountains (painting by William Ashford)

In medieval times Ballyfin belonged to the O ‘Mordha clan but was lost during the Tudor conquest of Ireland. The process of Plantation (in which areas of the country were to be settled with people from England, who would bring in English language and culture while remaining loyal to the crown) was first implemented in Laois – then known as ‘Queen’s County’ after Queen Mary I – in the mid sixteenth century. It was a complicated and unstable period in British and Irish history, and Ballyfin saw many possessors ascend and fall until in May 1666 the estate of approximately 3,500 acres was conferred on Periam Pole, a recent arrival from Exeter in Devon. Pole and his son William expanded the estate, built a ‘modern’ house and reshaped the entire gardens and demesne. William planted woodlands and constructed the 30 acre artificial lake which is there to this day. The improvements were ‘grand and expensive and their designs were elegant’.

A view of Ballyfin engraved by William Beauford and published in 1794 shows the woodland, landscaped grounds and lake. The house  – which the Poles extended and improved – was described as ‘a rambling Georgian house’ although with no particular architectural merit

In the time of the Poles, Ballyfin began to build its reputation as one of Ireland’s grandest estates. However, it was not until the Poles were succeeded by the Cootes, in 1813, that the significant architectural statement that is Ballyfin today came into being.

Progenitors of Ballyfin: left – William Pole who died in 1781 (artist unknown) and right – Sir Charles Henry Coote who died in 1864 (artist John Hoppner). The legacy of these two families is a house and demense which are acknowledged as outstanding examples of their period – probably the finest in Ireland

Sir Charles Henry Coote already owned substantial estates close to Ballyfin, and it was timely and appropriate that he was able to purchase the demesne. He employed the father and son team of Richard Morrison and William Vitruvius Morrison as architects to rebuild the house, which is widely acknowledged as one of the most important examples of nineteenth-century neo-classical architecture in Ireland and is famed for its elaborate interior design.

A print showing the ‘new’ house designed by the Morrisons in the neo-classical style (1828 British Library). below – views of the house today

The picture above shows the west elevation of the house with the finely-wrought conservatory that was added in around 1855, designed and constructed by ironfounder Richard Turner, who was also responsible for the great Palm Houses at Kew and Belfast Botanic Gardens and the range of glasshouses at the Irish National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin. It’s my favourite part of the architecture – lightweight and elegant: seemingly timeless – it could be a contemporary structure.

Fine though the house is, it would fail without its context. The demesne is so important as a setting for the rather uncompromising architecture of the elevations. Finola has looked at the grounds and the surroundings. But it’s also the interior that sets Ballyfin apart as an icon of its time.

The Library at Ballyfin: upper – in Victorian days (Coote Archive); lower – splendidly restored, today

The Saloon: upper – a sketch from c 1855 by the Marquis de Massigny de la Pierre (Coote Archive); lower (and header picture) – the restored Saloon forms the centrepiece of the house today. Note the magnificent parquet floor

The Entrance Hall incorporates a Roman mosaic pavement: one of the art treasures brought over by Sir Charles Coote from his Grand Tour of 1822. The hall also displays a far more ancient antiquity: the antlers of Megaloceros Giganteus – the Irish Elk, recovered from an Irish bog and some 10,000 years old!

Details from the superbly restored marquetry flooring in the saloon – the most exotic examples to be found anywhere in Ireland

The first part of our story ends with the Cootes: the family owned Ballyfin until the 1920s. But there’s much more to tell about its succeeding time as a school – periods of neglect and decline – and, most remarkably,  its revival and return to distinction through one of the most complete and elaborate architectural restoration projects undertaken in Ireland in the 21st century. Ballyfin is now a first-class 5 star hotel where attention to detail in the service it offers is absolute: it has justifiably won many accolades and awards.

Afternoon tea on the Dining Room terrace at Ballyfin, c 1903 (Magan Collection)

The story of Ballyfin has been expertly and completely documented by Kevin V Mulligan in the volume Ballyfin – The Restoration of an Irish House & Demesne, Churchill House Press 2018. We are indebted to this author and his work. The architectural restoration and the incarnation of the house today is described in Part 2 of this post: Decline and Revival.