THE TRUTH BEHIND THE KING WITH HORSES EARS
Loch Íne (or Lough Hyne for the Gaelically impaired) is a popular spot a few miles outside Skibbereen that’s very pleasant for swimming, walking and picnics. Despite its popularity, most people who visit this tranquil area are completely unfamiliar with its connection to one of Ireland’s most famous legends – the King with the Horse’s Ears.
Out in the centre of the lake is an island called Castle Island with the ruins of the O’Driscoll stronghold (Cloghan Castle now completely overgrown – see red circle), from which the island derives its English name. According to local folklore, this is the area where the events of the ‘King with Horse’s Ears’ take place.
In the local version of the story, an O’Driscoll king was said to have had donkey’s ears. Because a blemish such as this would traditionally have meant the king was unfit to rule, he kept this secret by growing his hair long and having it cut once a year and then putting the barber to death. At the Loch Íne site, the barber was supposedly drowned and a bed of reeds was later seen to spring up out of the water at that spot. Some time later, the king’s piper, seeing the reeds used them to make a new pipe and at a feast thrown in the hall by the O’Driscoll King, the pipes took on a life of their own and started calling:
“The King has Horses Ears!”
This version of the story seems to be a mish-mash of the more famous tenth century version of the story associated with the great king Labhraidh Loingseach, (king and mythological ancestor of the Leinster people – the Laighin) and the story associated with Welsh King March ap Meirchion. Both of these are quite similar in that they deal with a physical blemish and the ramifications of holding a terrible secret, a situation known in Ireland as a galar rúnach (a malady of secrets).
The Labhraidh Loingseach version goes as follows:
Labhraidh Loingseach was said to have had horse’s ears. He kept this secret by growing his hair long and having it cut once a year and then putting the barber to death.
One day when a widow’s only son was chosen for the unpopular job of cutting the king’s hair, the widow begged the king not to kill him. Moved, Labhraidh Loingseach agreed on the condition that the barber never tell a living person of his secret.
The burden of the secret weighed so heavily on the widow’s son that after a time he took ill. On the advice of a druid, he released himself of the secret by passing it onto to the first tree (a willow) he came to. Divested of the burden, he soon became well again.
Sometime later, Labhraidh Loingseach’s harpist broke his instrument and made a new harp out of the very willow the widow’s son had passed the secret to. One night, during a great feast at Labhraidh Loingseach’s hall, he started to play and suddenly the harp sang
Dá chluais chapaill ar Labhraidh Loingseach
Two horse’s ears on Labhraidh Loingseach!
In the Welsh version of the story, the Welsh King March ap Meirchion also has a barber who divests himself of the terrible secret by telling it to a hole in the ground and subsequently covering it up. On that piece of ground, a crop of reeds appear and one of March ap Meirchion pipers, seeing the reeds used them to make a new pipe leading to similar consequences.
Both of these version are variations of another even older story based on the legendary Greek King Midas whose ears were transformed to those of a donkey by the God Apollo. Like Labhraidh Loingseach and March ap Meirchion, Midas hid his deformity but his secret was also revealed by his barber who dug a hole in the meadow and whispered the story into it to get rid of the secret and then covered the hole up again. A bed of reeds was later seen to spring up out of the meadow and when the wind blew them they were heard to whisper ‘King Midas has an ass’ ears’.
Although the galar rúnach concept was a much later development, it was one that very much appealed to me which is why it became an essential part of my book Beara Dark Legends. It does not, however, have any real connection to the earliest development of the story.
Current thinking is that the original reference to the King with Donkey’s Ears (subsequently amended to “horse’s ears”) goes all the way back to King Tarkasnawa, a king of the Hittite vassal state Mira in the west of present-day Turkey (the Hittites were an Anatolian people who established an empire at Hattusa in north-central Anatolia around 1600 BC.). If that’s true, then variations of this story have possibly been doing the rounds for thousands of years.