Emptying the sea with a bottomless bucket is probably one of the more unusual punishments ever handed out but this particularly penalty was one supposedly assigned to a woman known as ‘Kitty Ath na hEorna’ or ‘Cailín Ath na hEorna’.
The story of Kitty is associated with a section of the Martin River located at Ath na hEorna just off the Waterloo to Grenagh Road. Accessible now via the motorway lay-by, back in the day the ford would have been one of the main routes for people wishing to cross the river. Indeed, its name – Ath na hEorna (Ford of the Barley) – suggests that it was a route commonly used by people to carry harvested barley across the river in relative safety. The river Martin is fed near its source by streams from Knockantota and Lyradane (the word Lyradane is actually derived from an Anglicization of the word ‘laghar’ which means a fork in the river) and in the past, after the rains, it would have swollen much more dramatically than it does nowadays.
I first heard this story as a kid, half-asleep in the back or the car on a visit home from visiting relatives in Grenagh. Even at the time it fascinated me. According to local legend, Kitty was supposed to have murdered her unbaptised baby in the river sometime in the early to mid- 1800s. An alternative version of the legend suggests that Kitty was actually a ghost and haunted that particular site looking for her dead baby out of remorse. In fact, both of these are probably wrong.
Like so many of our local legends, there’s always a deeper story beneath the more commonly known legends. Given the patterns here, it’s more than likely that ‘Kitty’ was some variation of one of the pre-Christian land goddesses or river-goddesses (figures such as Sionann, Bóinne etc.). Keen to demonstrate their superiority over the early pagan beliefs, a substantial number of stories were introduced by Christians from the medieval period onwards, all of which relegated the female ‘goddesses’ to the status of fallen women (i.e. unmarried, child-murderer etc.), witches etc. Naturally, the ‘evil’ associated with these women is overcome only through the power of Christianity. In the case of Kitty, this was actually carried out by a local priest who exorcised the area and banished her to empty the Red Sea with a bottomless saucepan.
A tad ironic then that the promoters of this particular tale saw nothing “unchristian” with such a cruel and extreme penalty.