The Battle of the Books
St Columbkille, while on a visit to St Finian, made a copy of a Psalter from one of Finian’s manuscripts. Finian demanded its return and, when Columbkille refused, he appealed to the High King, Dermod, for a ruling. Dermod ordered its return with the words “to every cow its calf.” Columbkille again refused to comply, and persuaded his relatives in Ulster to defend his rights. An army was gathered in Ulster and crossed into Sligo, where they were joined by Mael Cothaid, King of Connacht, who wanted to avenge the death of his son, Curnin, who had been killed on the orders of the High King. The Royal army faced the joint Ulster and Connacht forces at Cooladrum in 561, and Finian and Columbkille prayed for the success of their forces. The Northern army completely routed the Royal forces: “Columbkille’s prayers were the more powerful, so that the Northern army … gained a great victory.” (Annals of the Four Masters) Over 3,000 men were killed and although the Psalter remained in the hands of the O’Donnells (it was donated to the Royal Irish Academy by The O’Donnell in the early 1900s), Columbkille was forced to leave Ireland as penance for the battle and he founded the monastery at Iona and played a major part in the conversion to Christianity of Scotland, where he was known as St Columba..
(Source: T Kilgannon, Sligo and its Surroundings)
Legend of the Mermaid Rocks
At Scurmore, Co. Sligo, there is a group of rocks beside the coast road from Enniscrone to Ballina, that are known as the “Mermaid Rocks.” Local legend tells the story of how these stones got their name and their association with the O’Dubhda Clan.
Tady Rua O’Dubhda had recently been elected Chieftain, but no heir had been appointed and there was concern for his future. He was young and impetuous and it was vital that he should settle down and marry, but had not found a girl to his liking. One day, while walking alone, apart from his 2 bodyguards, on the shore at Scurmore, he heard a girl’s voice singing and went to investigate. His bodyguards followed and found him holding a shimmering cloak, and a beautiful mermaid sitting on a rock. The mermaid asked for the return of her cloak so that she could return to the sea, but Tady refused and asked her to marry him. The mermaid, whose name was Aoife, agreed and, having sworn his bodyguards to secrecy, the couple were married. Over the years, they had seven children, but Aoife always longed to see her cloak again. One day, when Tady was preparing to set out on a long journey, he moved the cloak to a safer hiding place. His youngest child saw the cloak and told his mother where it was. Curious, Aoife found the cloak and was immediately overwhelmed with the urge to return to her own people. Taking her seven children, she returned to Scurmore and put on the cloak, becoming a mermaid one more. She took the youngest child into the sea with her, and turned the others to stone.
Five rocks sit in a semi-circle towards the top of the hill at Scurmore and a sixth is further down towards the shore. These, it is said, are the children of Tady O’Dubhda and Aoife the Mermaid, and when an O’Dubhda dies the rocks weep, and the tears can be seen even on the warmest of days.
(G O’Reilly, Stories from O’Dowda’s Country: J Greer, The Windings of the Moy)
The following poem by Davnet Heery is yet another example of the association of the O’Dowd clan with the sea, and is based upon the above story of the Mermaid Rocks.
I was sung the clan’s song
One moonfilled night,
When the sheidhe were in the mountain.
Maebh’s gravid presence rammed the sky,
Her bulk aglow on the frosty air,
Her warrior ghosts round campfires by the bay.
The November tides had turned the dunes
And flung the rocks about,
When a primordial self stole from the sea.
It held me in a look I knew,
hen the barking seal brought home the story.
Seals were my kin before Daithi was king,
My clansman married a sealchie.
Our friends were fish, the sea our realm
And time is of no consequence –
For since that first foot stepped ashore
To make the earth its element,
Mine has ever been of the sea,
And I embrace that sealchie line.
Author’s note: An Australian aboriginal is “sung” when he/she is initiated, ie. given his or her story. It might be a dance or a painting, and it is in turn passed on. When I returned to Ireland from Australia, I found myself living at Cor na Ron (the seal’s promontory) in Connemara. I had known the legend associatd with the O’Dowd clan since childhood. It seemed I’d ben drawn to this spot by my totem, the seal. Davnet Heery, Co. Clare.
Legend of St Gerald’s Curse
Although Caoimhin was the older brother of Dubhda, sons of Comnach, King of Connacht, it was the latter that took over the Kingship. Under the Brehon system, the oldest son did not always succeed the father, but a legend grew up round the failure of Caoimhin’s descendants to become Kings of Connacht. It is said that Caoimhin and his men were absent from their fort at Cahair Mhor, when a large number of people approached as night fell. Caoimhin’s daughter-in-law had the gate barred, and even when told that it was the Saxon saint of Mayo,Gerald, and his companions, she refused to allow them entry. This was a serious breach of the ancient law of hospitality, made even worse as it meant that the monks had to spend the night in the open, and provoked St Gerald into cursing the lady and saying that there should never be a king of the race of Caoimhin.
It is said that Caoimhin and his men were absent from their fort at Cahair Mhor, when a large number of people approached as night fell. Caoimhin’s daughter-in-law had the gate barred, and even when told that it was the Saxon saint of Mayo,Gerald, and his companions, she refused to allow them entry. This was a serious breach of the ancient law of hospitality, made even worse as it meant that the monks had to spend the night in the open, and provoked St Gerald into cursing the lady and saying that there should never be a king of the race of Caoimhin. Aodh, grandson of Caoimhin, returned next morning and was told what had happened, and set out to the camp that the monks had made nearby to apologise to the saint. He begged St Gerald to lift the curse and not punish all of his race. The saint, who had probably cooled down by then, listened with sympathy, but explained that he could not change the course of events that he had foreseen. He did, however, say that the chieftainship should transfer to Diarmud, the son of Caoimhin by another woman, and that the O’Dubhda Chietain should always stand in the presence of The O’Caoimhin and that the latter should be given the weapons and battle-dress of the new Chieftain and be the first to proclaim him. (Sources: C MacHale, O’Dubhda Family History: G O’Reilly, Stories from O’Dowda’s Country)
The Ambitious Queen Mother
Mongfinn, the daughter of Fidagh, King of Munster, was married to Echu Mugmeddon, King of Connacht who became High King of Ireland in 358 AD. She bore him several sons, but Brian was her favourite, and she hoped that he would become High King some day. When Echu died in 366,he was succeeded by Mongfinn’s brother, Crimthann Mor Mac Fidagh. The longer Crimthann’s reign lasted, the more impatient Mongfinn became, until, at last she decided to get rid of her brother so that Brian could become King of Tara.
Since the death of her husband, Mongfinn had spent most of her time at her summer retreat, Innis Dornglas, a small island in the river Moy (now no longer visible due to the river having been dredged in the 1890s). She invited her brother to visit her there and laid in a feast in his honour, but she planned to poison him. As the king was about to leave, she offered him the traditional parting cup, and to put his mind at rest, she drank from it first and he then finished the dram. Shortly after he left, Mongfinn fell ill and died. Crimthann reached Clare where he too died, at a place later called Sliabh Oighidh an Ri, the hill of the death of the king.
But Mongfinn’s sacrifice was in vain. Brian’s half-brother, Niall, commander of the army of King Crimthann, became High King. Niall of the Nine Hostages was the son of Echu Mugmeddon, by another wife, Carinna, and therefore eligible by blood to take the throne. Brian became King of Connacht and was killed in battle. His brother, Fiachra, became King of Connacht and was the father of Daithi, who later became High King at Tara on the death of Niall of the Nine Hostages in 402.
(Source: G O’Reilly, Stories from O’Dowda’s Country )
Legend of the High Kingship
There are many legends which purport to explain historical events, usually to justify the seizure of power by one powerful family or clan. This is particularly true with regard to the throne of Tara, and there are a number of stories designed to show that it was the destiny of the Ui Neill to be the dominant family in the land. That which follows is only one such tale.
One day the five sons of High King Echu Mugmeddon, Brian, Ailill, Fiachra, Fergus and Niall had been out hunting, and by evening were extremely thirsty. Searching for water, they found a well situated in a wood and approached to quench their thirst. To their dismay, they were confronted by the guardian of the well, a withered, extremely ugly, old hag, who demanded that she should be kissed as the price of drinking.
Brian, Ailill and Fergus were horrified and found the thought of kissing her repulsive and so held back. Fiachra summond up the courage to approach and give her a peck on the cheek, for which he was rewarded with a cup of water, insufficient for himself and his brothers. Niall, however, strode forward threw his arms round the hag and planted a kiss on her lips. Immediately, the rags fell away and the hag was transformd into a beautiful young girl: Erin the goddess of Ireland. She obliged Niall’s brothers to kneel and swear loyalty to him and acknowledge his right to the sovereignty of Ireland, before allowing them to drink.
Thus, the High Kingship of Tara was conferred upon Niall and his posterity, the Ui Neill, although Fiachra was told that, as he had given a small peck to Erin, his descendants would similarly have a brief period as High Kings. This legend is an attempt to explain and justify the almost uninterrupted possession of the throne of Tara by the Ui Neill, with Daithi and Ailill Molt being the only High Kings to come from the UI Fiachrach (descendants of Fiachra). Interestingly, the last High King was Rory O’Connor (1198) who was descended from Brian, son of Echu Mugmeddon.
(Sources: S MacManus, Story of the Irish Race : E A D’Alton, History of Ireland )