(Irish Folklore) The Truth Behind The King With Horse’s Ears

Lough Ine

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.

[irishimbasbooks.com]

Irish Folklore: Let Sleeping Giants Lie

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One of the most interesting aspects of Irish folklore is how legendary Irish characters are often said to watch over the land from great heights – usually from dominant local topographical features.

This particular photo is taken at the hill called Seefin on the Sheep’s Head peninsula (Seefin being a particularly bad anglicization of Suí Finn or Suidhe Finn – Fionn’s Seat).  There are several Fenian placenames scattered around Ireland (one being another ‘Seefin’ – a summit in the Ballyhoura mountains in Limerick) but also through Scotland where the Fenian Cycle tales were also very widespread. Sometimes, in Scotland, the name Fingal is used instead of ‘Finn’ or ‘Fionn’, such as Suidh Fhinn (or Fingal’s Seat as it’s called in English) in the Isle of Skye, Fingal’s Pinnacles (also in Skye), Fingal’s Cauldron Seat on the Isle of Arran etc. etc.

The fact that these characters were situated up on such huge heights helped to support claims from some of the later mythological tales that Fionn and the Fianna were actually a bunch of giants. As a result, additional tales were often added on at these areas (or earlier creation tales were adapted to add the Fenian hero) to ‘explain’ how these ‘giants’ carried out some amazing feat to create a topographical feature nearby.

On the Sheep’s Head peninsula, the local legend is that Fionn fell asleep on the hill. He must have been having a particularly bad nightmare for, according to the story, his right foot slipped and dug out a piece of land to form the lake at the bottom of the hill. Gouging a portion out of the landscape clearly annoyed the ‘giant’ big time (apologies for the pun) for he then went on to lob the removed ‘sod’ offshore to Dunmanus Bay and created Carbery Island.

Hence, the expression ‘Let sleeping giants lie!’

 

Irish Folklore: The Truth of the Children of Lir

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The Children of Lir is one of the three great ‘tragedy’ narratives of ancient Ireland (the other two being The Fate of the Sons of Tuirenn and Deirdre of the Sorrows). It’s a tale that pretty much everyone in Ireland knows, primarily from school but also through a number of other routes (plays, television, books). Because of its popularity back in our ancestor’s time, it was relatively common for storytellers to link the tale to places near to where their audience were located. This not only helped to provide an explanation or rationale for key topographical features in the local environment but also made the story that much more relevant for people who were hearing it for the first time. This is why, we find the final resting place for the children of Lir in Beara.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, a local sign erected by Beara Tourism summarises the most commonly known version of the story as follows:

The story of the children of Lir is a well known legend in Ireland. Many areas in Ireland claim to be the landing spot of the swans after their 900 year journey on the seas and lakes of Ireland. The children were the sons and daughters of Lir, a member of the Tuatha de Danaan clan, who married Eve daughter of King Bov the Red, King of the Tuatha de Danaan. Eve and Lir were blissfully married and had a set of twins-Aed and Finola, and after a short period there followed another set of twins, 2 boys, Conn and Fiara.

Unfortunately Eve died soon after and Lir, not wanting his children growing up without the love of a mother, married Eva, King Bov’s second daughter. This was a happy marriage until Eva became jealous of Lir’s devotion of his children. Overcome with hatred she brought the children to Lough Darravagh near their home and transformed them into swans. Realising what she had done and overcome with remorse, she attempted to release the spell but could only ease their distress by enabling them to speak and sing and to remain as swans for 900 years until Christianity was introduced into Ireland.

The swans spent the first 300 years on Lough Darravagh close to their home. The next 300 years was spent on the Sea of Moyle, a cold and desolate area between Scotland and the north of Ireland. The last 300 years they endured on the Atlantic sea. When their time was over the swans attracted by the ringing of a bell rung by a monk living in Allihies village in the Beara Peninsula, came ashore and immediately were changed back into their human form. The children were by now old men and women (and) were baptised by the monk. A short time later they died and were buried under these large white boulders.

In fact, the story that we all know today, is believed to originally have come from a tale told in the Netherlands around the 12th century. In Ireland, this was the period when Norman knights had established a firm foothold in Ireland and it seems likely that they brought the tale over with them. Subsequently, a local author incorporated it into local legend.

Sometimes, though, the story is actually more important or more valuable than the reality. In the past, in Beara, people use to do the rounds at this stone, firmly believing in the story. I’ve often walked past this particular spot myself and gazed down at that coin-coated rock and wondered what lay beneath. I’m sure, like me, countless others have been tempted to try digging under the stone just out of sheer curiosity. Possibly, someone has.  I suspect, however, that most of them have simply walked on, sufficiently satisfied with the richness of the story itself.

 

Folklore: Mis-steps of an Irish Cultural Icon

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Whenever people talk of ‘must sees’ in Ireland, the Giants Causeway in country Antrim tends to be at the top of everybody’s list. As a natural topographical feature alone, the place is certainly unique but combined with the beauty of the rugged Antrim coastline and (the more recent) local filming of the Game of Thrones, it’s become something of a ‘tourist destination par excellence’ over the last decade’. I’ve walked over those strange rock formations on several occasions and must admit that, on each occasion, I’m freshly struck by just how impressive they are.

In Irish, the Giants Causeway is generally known as Clochán an Aifir (in Rathlin Island Gaelic) or Clochán na bhFomhórach  (the Stepping Stones of the Fomorians).  It was also known as Tóchar na dTréanfhear (Causeway of the Strongmen). Because of the shape of the overall rock formation, the Giants Causeway has consistently been associated with the concept of a stepping stone or causeway of the Gods (or other mythological creatures/heroes) and most of the folklore tales tend to be linked in some way with this striking physical characteristic.

The most well-known tale associated with the site is also the most comical – Legendary Irish warrior Fionn mac Cumhal (in this version described as a giant) is challenged to a fight by a Scottish giant. After accepting the challenge, Fionn builds the causeway across the North Channel to Scotland. When the Scottish giant arrives, however,  Fionn realises how enormous his opponent actually is and, terrified, he runs back to his wife to hide. Fionn’s wife disguises him by making him put on some baby clothing and tucks him into a cradle. When the Scottish Giant arrives, he plays with the ‘baby’ while waiting for his father to return and pokes it with his thumb. Out of fright or bravado, Fionn clamps his teeth on the other giant’s thumb and bites it off. The startled giant, terrified at the thought of how brutal the “baby’s” full-grown father must be, flees Northern Ireland and rips the causeway up behind him so that he cannot be followed.

This particular tale is noteworthy in that it’s the first recorded comic or derogatory depiction of the famed Irish mythological hero, Fionn mac Cumhal. It’s fascinating, but it appears that Fionn was held in such reverence by the native Irish population, that no other comic depiction of him existed prior to the printing of this version of the tale in the mid eighteen-hundreds. It probably comes as no surprise to find that this legend was actually reworked by an Anglo-Irish writer called William Carelton (whose patron, Caesar Otway, seemed overly keen on travestying traditional narratives).

These days, the National Trust (the British One) control both the Causeway and all of the surrounding land and in July 2012 opened a new visitor centre there. Unfortunately, the new visitor centre resembles a shopping mall and a cafeteria more than an interpretation centre or museum and seems predominantly focussed on selling cartoon figurines of Fionn mac Cumhal and other plastic doo-dahs. The National Trust is widely disliked by many local people because it has essentially restricted access to the national site by depriving visitors of anywhere to park. The only parking site available (controlled by the Trust) requires you to also pay a substantial entry fee for the ‘MacDonalds of local culture’.

It’s hard to see where things are going to go with this particular cultural site. Certainly, the Giants Causeway is worth a visit but the price, both on your pocket and your sense of fair play, might be too high.  There’s also a definite sense that the National Trust and their commercial partners lack any true respect for the original cultural heritage of this area and are more interested in skin-deep history and its use as a touristic cash cow.

 

 

Folklore: A Great Leap of Faith

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Down on the Beara peninsula in West Cork, if you look hard you’ll find this beautiful spot called ‘The Priest’s Leap’ (although you’ll have to try hard as it’s poorly signposted). According to local tradition, a priest on horseback was being chased across these mountain by English soldiers and, from this particular rock, his horse made a gigantic leap that carried him all the way to another rock outside the town of Bantry. Given that this second rock isn’t visible in the photo, you’ll have worked out this is quite a long way.

Some locals claim that the priest involved in this incident was a Fr Dominick Collins who was later killed by the English forces during a siege at the (relatively) local Castle Dún Baoi, stronghold of the O’Sullivan-Beara clan. Others claim it was a different priest called Fr James Archer who also has associations with Dún Baoi. The truth, in fact, is that the tale (or rather its associated tradition) predates both of these religious men and, indeed, the entire Christian religion.

Down in the Beara peninsula with its impressive mountains, valleys and formidable topographical features, it was not unusual for our early ancestors to tell stories about the landmarks that they saw every morning on rising and before they went to bed at night. This region – and, indeed, many other parts of Ireland – abounds with tales of individuals or creatures that carried out gigantic leaps across vast precipices, valleys and wide bays.

Linking such heroic-scale acts of endeavours to the land that surrounded them was a means for our ancestors to explain – but also to come to terms with – the great natural forces that surrounded them. These stories were a means of ‘taming’ the land, making it more familiar and comfortable to interact with. Back in the day, a person’s survival depended on his/her ability to interact with the natural world. Closeted as we are today with such a significantly larger human population, technology and increased knowledge, it is difficult for us to comprehend that relationship.

Initially, therefore, our ancestors’ stories concerned mythological creatures and heroes (such as the Hag of Beara and Fionn mac Cumhal). Later, as the land became more settle and ‘civilised’, those great feats were assigned to more local, more human figures (such as the two priests in the story above).

Today, however, we no longer need such close interaction with our local topography. Many of us now live in artificially constructed environment or change the area or country that we live in at least once in our lives, further diluting that connection. Despite this, the stories that go with the land still exist in our social and cultural subconscious which is why, in later years, those of us who’ve left home (and our own descendants) find ourselves longing for something we don’t quite understand. Fortunately, although we all know you can’t return to your past or reclaim your childhood, you can go back and access the stories that filled it.

And sometimes, that is enough.

 

 

Folklore: Stone Confessions

Actually, I have a bit of a confession to make.

I am not proud …

But the truth is …

I am a closet stone freak, a Dolmen nerd.

Oh, yes! Stone circles, standing stones, cairns, barrows, hillforts. If I had my way, I’d be out there clambering all over them every weekend, grabbing photos, jotting down stories, associated mythologies and folklore. The truth is, though, that in many Irish rural areas these ancient monuments form a key part of the landscape. They’re familiar features that we’ve grown up with, played by, and in some cases identify with and the stories associated with them are passed down from generation to generation in local families.

Take this boulder for example, located in Kileenduff, over a mile west of Easky (County Sligo).

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This monument is known as ‘split rock’ ( the English name suggesting this was only applied after the late 1800s) and it’s set not too far inland from the coast. According to a Sligo County Council Geological Site report, the boulder was taken from the nearby Ox mountains and deposited in its present location by large sheets of ice during the last glaciation (about 30,000 – 10,000 years ago). As part of this process, the crack or ‘natural fracture’ occurred. Local legend, however, has a different interpretation of events that has been passed down from generation to generation. According to this, the boulder was cast down by Fionn mac Cumhal as part of a boulder-casting competition with a friend called Cicsatóin (literally: Kick in the Ass). Fionn’s attempt at throwing the boulder was a very poor miscast and he was so enraged he actually ran down the mountain and slashed it in two with his sword.

These days many people stop and pass through he crack but the legend also says that if you pass through it three times (circling the rock on your right), the two internal faces will close in and crush you on the final pass. Everyone scoffs at the legend but you’d be surprised how many people actually give up on the final pass and in any case it’s a great story to tell to your kids.

Which, from an Irish perspective, is often more important than the actual facts!