According to legend St Patrick banished snakes from Ireland and while there were no snakes for him to banish, the tale lives on in our vivid storytelling culture. Irish mythology takes us to an imagined world and an underworld of fairies, banshees, shape-shifters, kelpies and mermaids. They are stories of love and loss, of death and redemption as told here in a few of the legends that swirl around five of Northern Ireland’s most famous loughs. They remind us how much we are part of and not separate from the land we live in.
Lough Neagh is a place of mystery and legend created by the giant Finn McCool according to the many stories around its origins. Fresh from causing havoc up at the Giant’s Causeway, the big man scooped out a mighty fistful of earth to hurl at a retreating Scottish giant. This was likely the one and the same involved in the Causeway drama. Miscalculating, an enormous sod flew past him and landed in the sea forming Lough Neagh and the Isle of Man.
Or, there’s Li Ban, Ireland’s mermaid saint. The beautiful daughter of Eochaidh, the high king of Ireland, she and her dog were the only souls left alive when her father’s palace and lands were flooded from the waters of a magic well. She prayed to the river goddess Danu that she might be delivered from her watery solitude beneath the lough. Danu obliged, turning Li Ban into a mermaid and her dog into an otter. Together they swam out of the lough and into the open seas, fulfilling the ancient prophecy that for 300 years Li ban will swim eastwards, westwards, hither, thither over each sea.
When a banshee’s mournful high wailing was heard, your time had come. And it did at the now ruined Slane’s Castle on the lough, home to the ancestral O’Neill dynasty. A banshee was heard at the death of every family member but after a fire in 1816 which burnt the castle down her piteous cries were never heard again.
Fermanagh’s dramatic lakeland landscapes at Lough Erne have plenty of folklore about the lough’s origins. In Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, first published in 1888 and edited by W B Yeats, who drew so magically upon Irish folklore for his own poetry and plays, he tells a long and entwined tale with Lough Erne as the setting.
It involves our hero, Conn-eda, the son of “a great king of the west,” his black steed and a supernatural hound. They are sent on a mission to find three golden apples with magical properties that grow on a crystal tree in an underwater kingdom at Lough Erne. Failure would involve the removal of Conn-eda’s head. Mission successfully accomplished he returned to his kingdom on his “foaming black steed and leading a strange animal on a silver chain,” planted the apples and as king enjoyed a long and prosperous reign.
Two warring giants faced off in Fermanagh across Lough Eyes near Lisbellaw. One was old and fearing that his young wife would be taken off by the younger titan, gathered a heap of stones to do battle. Young giant did the same. To avoid this badness, the wise wife persuaded the big men to seek advice from a wise man handily living nearby. The old giant saw his own shadow and wise man told him to catch it. “I cannot as there is no substance,” he replied. “Neither have your suspicions of your wife any substance,’’ said the wise man. The wise woman wins the day in this tale.
One of the curiosities on Devenish Island in Lower Lough Erne is the stone coffin beside the ruin of the 6th century St Molaisse church. The man-shaped coffin is said to possess curative powers and that anyone who lies in it and turns over three times, especially on St Molaisse’s feast day in September will be cured of any ailment that is troubling them. It may of course add to those already existing.
Boa Island is believed to be named after Badbh, the Celtic goddess of war. In legend she often took the form of a crow and at other times appeared as a wolf. Legendary in the sight of it, the once-seen, never-forgotten two-faced Janus-like stone figure on Boa Island in Lower Lough Erne is thought to represent a Celtic deity – a god, a goddess or both. Seamus Heaney poem’s January God – “I faltered near his power” – is a powerful evocation of the Boa Island carving.
Some serious cattle rustling in the Cooley Mountains above Carlingford Lough came with the famous and symbolic legend, The Cattle Raid of Cooley. The all-powerful Queen Maeve of Connaught, jealous that her husband Aillil owned a fine white-horned bull sent word across Ireland that she wanted a bull as splendid as her husband’s. This magnificent creature was eventually found: the Brown Bull of Cooley. Maeve offered gold, land and herself to the bull’s owner but he refused and in a serious fit of pique, Maeve assembled a mighty army to invade Ulster and steal the bull. Many battles later, the bull was caught and smuggled back to Connaught where, tragically, Aillil’s white-horned bull attacked it with both animals fighting to their deaths.
An old folk tale about Lough Foyle which claims that its name means “the borrowed Lough” concerns a slippery local witch who asked her sister in Connaught if she might have the loan of her silver lake which she would return the following Monday. The obliging sister rolled up the lake and dispatched it only for the duplicitous sister to refuse to return it, saying what she really meant was the Day of Judgment for the lake’s return. Witchery indeed.
The haunting ruins of the fifth century Nendrum monastery on Mahee Island in Strangford Lough might evoke the sounds of monks at their devotions. But legend has it that a temptress of the deep beguiled one of the monks with her plaintive mermaid song only to hear the matins bell recalling him to more spiritual matters as well as the wrath of the abbot. The seamaid there would ofttimes haunt/At evening’s silent close/With tuneful harp and songs so sweet/When from the waves she rose/Her golden locks/With eyes so blue/Deride the coming storm… from a poem by artist John Vinycomb (1833-1928).
On a hill outside Greyabbey there is an old windmill stump and the tale goes that this is the mill where the lifeless body of the pirate chief, Commodore Bob, was dumped after being hanged by a lynch mob. The mob had hoped rats would dispose of the body but they instead chewed through the ropes leaving the not-quite dead pirate to escape.
They called themselves called The Merry Hearts of Down which has a certain gentility around it instead of a ruthless band of 18th century smuggler pirates who operated around Kircubbin on Strangford Lough.
For more information, see discoverloughneagh.com; fermanaghlakelands.com; visitcarlingford.com; visitcausewaycoastandglens.com; strangfordlough.org