Legends under Bare Benbulben's Head
by Edward Durand
Benbulben is the striking western plateau in the Dartry mountain range of North County Sligo, Ireland. Its iconic shape is synonymous with mythical Sligo and the Yeats country. The lands around it are steeped in legend. Saints, heroes and gods once frequented this mysterious land of upside-down waterfalls, magic roads, giants and fairies.
The ancient name for north Sligo was Cairbre, a Kingdom in its own right, sometimes known as Cairbre Druim Cliabh, where the village of Drumcliffe got its name. There was more than one Cairbre in the legends, the name means ‘chariot driver’ or ‘strong man’. The original Cairbre was the son of Ogma, the god of the Tuatha De Danann (people of the goddess Danu) who invented writing with Ogham the ancient tree alphabet. Cairbre (or Cairpre) was the bard of the Tuatha De Danann. They were said to be shining ones who came to Ireland in flying ships and landed on the mountains of the West of Ireland such as Sliabh an Iarann in Sligo, abode of Goibniu the blacksmith of the Tuatha De Danann. Cairbre son of Ogma was the bard who created the first satirical poem when King Bres’s lack of hospitality insulted him. The satire was so powerful that it caused blotches to appear on the face of Bres which was seen as an imperfection. Kings had to be perfect, Bres had become king because the previous King Nuada had his arm chopped off. So the Tuatha De Danann called upon Bres to abdicate. Bres was obliged to give up the throne and so Nuada became King again with the silver arm Diancecht had made for him. Bres went back to the land of the Fomorians under the sea.
Another Cairbre was King Cairbre Cinnchait (also known as Cairbre MacNeil), an ancestor of the O’Neills and a son of Niall of the Nine Hostages. The descendants of Cairbre Cinchait were known as Cinel Cairbre, or race of Cairbre, who were Kings of Cairbre. There was also Cairbre Riada who founded the Irish Kingdom of Dalriada before it included Argyll in Scotland. The Kingdom of Cairbre in Sligo became the barony of Carbury but for a while was the Kingdom of the Conchobar branch of the O’Connor clan. The O’Connors and O’Neills are two of the royal clans associated with the fairies. Banshee families who hear a banshee wailing when a family member dies are said to be descended from the fairies. From Cairbre Drum Cliabh at the foot of Benbulben the Conchobhars (O’Conchobhars) ruled not just Sligo but at one point the province of Connaught and at one point the whole of Ireland. It was part of the Kingdom of Breifne at one time, ruled by the O’Rourkes. Cairbre was also ruled by the descendants of Cairbre Lifechair, an ancestor of the O’Neills and a son and successor of King Cormac mac Art. Cormac was raised by wolves in Kesh caves in Co. Sligo and became the greatest Irish King.
Cormac’s daughter Grainne is also associated with the Dartry mountains as there is a cave in Gleniff, beside Benbulben, which is known as Diarmuid and Grainne’s bed (or cave). Grainne was betrothed to the great hero Fionn (Finn) McCumhaill, but he was old. His nephew Diarmuid, however, had been blessed by a fairy to be irresistible to women. He had a beauty spot on his cheek that no woman could see without falling instantly in love with him, including Grainne. When she saw him at the banquet when her betrothed and his kin came to Tara, she fell instantly in love with him and wanted him. So she drugged or enchanted the wine to put them to sleep except for Diarmuid. She confessed her love for him, but he refused to betray Fionn. So she placed a geis (taboo) on him which meant he couldn’t refuse her. Later he told his comrades that a geis had been placed on him by a woman and they said he would have to obey it. So Diarmuid and Grainne fled across the country with Fionn and the Fianna in pursuit. Diarmuid had been fostered by Aengus Og, the god of love of the Tuatha De Danann, who gave him a cloak of invisibility to enable them to escape. They fled across the country, one of the places they hid was a cave in the Gleniff horseshoe valley beside Benbulben. Fionn caught up to them by a magical Rowan tree. The tree had been guarded by a giant because a fairy had dropped the berry it grew from and it was not for mortals to eat its berries which could free people from sickness. The tree was in the barony of Leyney in Co. Sligo. Diarmuid had to slay the giant because Grainne wanted the berries. Fionn said only Diarmuid could have slain the giant so they stayed until they found him. Fionn was convinced by his men to spare Diarmuid and they made a tentative peace. Fionn told Diarmuid to hunt the boar of Benbulben, knowing of the prophecy that he would be killed by a boar. Diarmuid slew the boar but it pierced his heel. Like Achilles, Diarmuid’s heel was his only vulnerable spot, and he received a mortal wound. In another version, the boar was his half-brother who had a geis to kill the son of Donn who had accidentally killed him before a Druid brought him back as a boar. When Diarmuid was dying he asked Fionn for a drink of water to heal him as Fionn’s magic thumb could give the water healing powers since he had touched the Salmon of Knowledge. Fionn got the water from the stream but let it run through his fingers when he remembered how Diarmuid had betrayed him and run off with his betrothed. Fionn went and got more water but it was too late. Benbulben is said to be the resting place of both Diarmuid and Grainne. There are spots on the mountain known as ‘Diarmuid’s bed’ and ‘Finn’s seat’. Years later, war broke out between Fionn’s grandson (Grainne’s nephew) Oscar and Cormac’s son Cairbre, they slew each other. Fionn McCumhaill also met his son Oisin on Belbulben in the form of a fawn, his mother had been turned into a deer by a Druid. Oisin became a great hero and was brought to Tir na n’Og (the land of eternal youth) by Niamh.
There are hundreds of ancient sites in the area, mainly ringforts but also souterrains, wedge tombs, fulachta fiadhs, court tombs, cashels, middens, forts, barrows, cairns, mounds, ritual enclosures, sweat-houses, moated sites, a dolmen and an ogham stone. Three of the four circular stone cashels in the area, at Innismurray, Cashelbreen and Cashelbawn, are in line with each other. Lisnalurg, Rathcormac, Keelty, Gortnalack, Benbulben and Fairy Rock are all laid out in a straight line which would also imply a ley line, or energy line between the sites. If you follow the line down it goes through Carrowroe, ToberBride, Graniamore, Keash, Moygara Castle, Fairymount and down to the largest stone circle in Ireland at Lough Gur. Dun Balra in north Sligo is associated with Balor ‘of the evil eye’, the Fomorian champion who could destroy armies by looking at them and was finally defeated by his grandson Lugh. Across Glencar with its lake Crannogs and magic waterfalls lies Cope’s mountain with Lugnagall (the steep place of the strangers) and Castle Gall. At the other side of Cope’s mountain lies Keelogyboy (Caologa Bui), the ‘sleeping giant’. Several megalithic sites can be found at the foot of Cope’s mountain and several around Cashelgarron (including Gortnalack court tomb) at the foot of Benbulben.
Between Drumcliffe and Sligo is Lisnalurg, where there are at least four ancient sites. One is one of the largest in the country, known as Lisnalurg ceremonial enclosure, on the land of Bertie’s pitch and putt. Lios na Lurg means ‘fort of the hollow’. Another is known as Lisnalurg fairy fort but was also known as Shannon fort. Sianan (Sionainn) was a goddess of the Tuatha De Danann and granddaughter of Lir (the god of the sea), the longest river in Ireland is named after her. Lisnalurg fairy fort has an oval mound surrounded by a bank of trees. It also has a cursus which is a processional area between two ridges. A cursus is quite rare, there are only a few of them in Ireland but they have one at Newgrange and Tara, and Stonehenge in England, which are the most important sites. There are also two pillars here which are a mystery, the middle of a cursus is not where someone would put gateposts. Across the road there is another ancient fort with pillars. There is a legend of fairies being at Lisnalurg fairy fort. This is where the Williamites camped for a brief clash with the Jacobites but settled it without bloodshed.
Near Cliffony, north of the Dartry mountains, is Creevykeel, known as one of the finest examples of a court tomb. Its original name is Caiseal an Bhaoisgin, named after a nearby well, but also translated as ‘Castle of Enchantment’. It was also known as ‘The Giant’s Grave’. Lights have been seen inside which were assumed were ‘the little people’. The well, Tober Bhaoisgin, is at the north end of the car park. A white hare is said to have warned men at Creevykeel that horsemen were coming for them by leading them to where they could see the men approaching. From the coast beside nearby Cliffony and Grange can be seen the legendary island of Inishmurray (with its cursing/blessing stones) and occasionally the mythical islands of Banc Ghrainne and Hy-Breasil, said to be the home of enlightened beings.
Benbulben, the table-mountain itself in the diocese of Elphin, is also shrouded with mystery and legend. It is considered a ‘thin place’ where the veil between the worlds is thin. The view from the top is spectacular. With its neighbour Ben Wiskin, the mountains look like waves that are moving so slowly they seem to be standing still. Benbulben is said to be the only place where the fairies are visible and there have been many reported sightings over the centuries as Ben stands guard over Drumcliffe bay. Benbulben was the hunting ground of the Fianna, the elite warriors led by Fionn McCumhaill, who was said to have freed Benbulben from a monster. It was originally Ben Gulban (Binn Ghulbain), ‘Gulban’s peak’ or ‘hill of the hawk’. Though gulban also means jaw, it is said to be named after a chieftain. Conall Gulban was a son of Niall of the Nine Hostages and thus the brother of King Cairbre Cinnchait. On the eastern side of Benbulben’s north face is a hollow known as a fairy door, the poet W.B. Yeats mentioned fairies using it. Locals said that whenever the door opens the weather is bound to be good for a few days.
Saints also lived in the area. It’s said that when warriors of the Fianna came back from Tir na n’Og, where they spent two hundred years, St. Patrick converted them and escorted them around scenes of their former glory including Cill Muadhnat which means the church of Muadhnat, it was east of Drumcliffe. Saint Muadhnat was one of three saintly sisters, her sister Tallula was the Abbess successor of St. Brighid in Kildare, her other sister Saint Osnat had a church in Glencar. It was said Muadhnat lived at Caille in Carbery of Druim-Cliabh. She set up a nunnery at Keelty below Benbulben. Brighid’s well near Cliffony was where St. Brighid was said to have gone to pray and weep all night immersed in the water. The next nights she returned to repeat the experience but each time the water vanished until morning. There were also St. Dallan, St. Loman of Lough Gill, St. Farran, St. Mothorian, St. Torannan and St. Molaise of Devenish living here.
Another saint closely associated with the area was Saint Colmcille / Columba, a prince of the O’Neills and a descendant of Conal Gulban (McNeil). Colm is considered the third patron saint of Ireland after Patrick and Brighid. He was one of the ‘twelve apostles of Ireland’ and he himself had twelve saint disciples who were also referred to as apostles. Colm was a poet who founded several monasteries including at Drumcliffe in around 575AD on land given by his cousin Aedh (who became the O’Conel / O’Neill King) for bringing his daughter back to life with his prayers when she drowned in the Drumcliffe river. Here Colm climbed the mountain to get nearer heaven with his prayers, he said the top of Benbulben is the closest place to Heaven. The natural world was part of Colm’s spirituality, he said Jesus is his Druid. Colm got in trouble for copying a book of Psalms belonging to Abbot Finian of Moville without permission. Finian wanted the copy but the psalms were Colm’s daily bread and he didn’t want to give it to Finian so it went to court. This was the first copyright case, the High King’s ruling was ‘to every cow her calf, to every book its copy’. Colm didn’t like that, so it came down to the ‘Battle of the Books’ which took place near Drumcliffe at Culdreimhne. Drumcliffe was Colm’s base at this time. If he wanted to keep the book he had to fight the King’s army, but it wasn’t just about the book. The High King Dairmit had killed without trial two Connaught princes who had gone to Colm and Abbot Ruadhan for sanctuary, which the King broke. Colm had his kin Clan Conel, descendants of Conall Gulban (who Benbulben is named after, a son of King Niall), and warriors from the King of Connaught to help him and they won. Colm told his men not to cross the Drumcliffe river as there was a ‘Druid fence’ forcefield there. The armies lined up either side of the river. Angels were said to have helped him win the battle. Colm only had one casualty on his side, the chieftain who didn’t heed his advice about the Druid forcefield. However, on the other side there were 3,000 dead, for which Colm was full of remorse and he vowed to save at least that many souls. This was the second time that he could have become High King of Ireland, but again chose God. Colm went into exile on Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland, vowing to never again set foot on Irish soil or look upon her. However, the King got fed up with the bards and wanted to expel the Order of the Fili (seer poets). Colm came out of exile to speak on their behalf and save them, he was a member of the Fili. In order to not break his vow to never again step on Irish soil, he put Scottish turf in his sandals. In order to not break his vow to never again see Ireland, he blindfolded himself. He went like this and spoke for the bards and saved them from being banned. The Drumcliffe monastery never became Catholic in the thousand years of its existence. The Columban monasteries had close relations with the Ceili De (Culdees), early Celtic Christian mystics, and Drumcliffe may have had a community of these.
At Drumcliffe (or Drumcliff) where the monastery was, is also a round tower. The Irish round towers were filled inside with earth to a different level than the ground outside to tune them like a musical instrument. Drumcliffe’s round tower was struck by lightning and lost its top half, the stone was reused for building the bridge. There’s a legend that the tower will fall down when the wisest man in the world passes under it. Drumcliffe also has a very old high cross which is also missing its top half. It and other old high Celtic crosses are in the grounds of St. Columba’s Church of Ireland church in Drumcliffe, across the road from the round tower, on the site of the monastery, and the location of the grave of the poet W.B. Yeats. The name Drumcliffe is from the Irish Druim Cliabh, which means ‘ridge of the baskets’ or ‘ridge of wickerwork’ and there was an abundance of hazel and willow which were woven into boats, baskets and other things there. Fairies have been seen dancing in Drumcliffe churchyard.
The beautiful glen between Benbulben and Cope’s mountain is known as Glencar. The Irish is Glen an Chairthe meaning ‘glen of the pillar stone’. It contains a beautiful lake with a crannog either side, and a couple of waterfalls, one either side of the boundary between Co. Sligo and Co. Leitrim. Glencar was once known as ‘Protestant’s Leap’. It got that name from when the invading English troops were riding back to Manorhamilton after raiding Sligo town during the rebellion of 1641. There was a thick fog, so they asked a local boy the way. He led them up Cope’s mountain and to the cliffs of Glencar where they plunged to their deaths in the fog. In one version they thought in their arrogance that they could jump their horses all the way over to Benbulben. Beyond Glencar is Glenade which is said to be the last place in Ireland to submit to English rule.
Sligo is called ‘Yeats country’ because there are many places around Sligo that inspired the poetry of William Butler Yeats and are mentioned in his poems, including Benbulben, Drumcliffe and Glencar. Yeats said in The Celtic Twilight “Drumcliffe and Rosses were, are, and ever shall be, please Heaven! places of unearthly resort. I have lived near by them and in them, time after time, and have gathered thus many a crumb of faery lore. Drumcliffe is a wide green valley, lying at the foot of Ben Bulben, the mountain in whose side the square white door swings open at nightfall to loose the faery riders on the world”.
Yeats grew up coming to north Sligo to stay with his cousins during which time he heard many a fairy tale around the local hearths. He returned as an adult with a thirst for more fairy lore. In his own words from Under Benbulben “Under bare Ben Bulben's head, in Drumcliffe churchyard Yeats is laid, an ancestor was rector there“. In Yeats’ classic fairy poem The Stolen Child, he mentions ‘the hills above Glencar’ (which are Benbulben, King’s Mountain and Truskmore). This mystical Celtic spirit in his writing was the driving force behind the Irish Celtic revival. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
Beside Drumcliffe is the village of Rathcormac (Cormac’s ringfort), which contains a statue of Countess Markeivicz. She was originally Constance Gore-Booth, one of two sisters dedicated to social reform who Yeats knew and wrote a poem about. The girls were from nearby Lissadell House, Eva being an excellent mystic poet like Yeats and Constance being the first female member of British Parliament (for Sinn Fein), then after co-leading a battalion in the 1916 rising she became the first female government minister, in the Irish Free State.
Classiebawn Castle on the Mullaghmore peninsula near Cliffony overlooks Benbulben. The pair of standing stones erected on the grounds below the castle seem to support the reputed esoteric interests of the castle’s owners, Lords Palmerston, Temple, Ashley and Mountbatten. The castle was built by Viscount Palmerston, the British Prime Minster. It was later owned by Louis Mountbatten, a member of the British royal family who was assassinated in 1979. Near the castle is Dostann na Breena, known as the Fairy Rock, where music and voices were mysteriously heard and there were reports of people seeing fairies.
There were many other reported sightings of fairies and otherworldly creatures under Benbulben’s gaze. At Moneygold near Grange, on the land of a landlord called Soden, used to be seen the apparition of a dog who breathes fire. The local curate exorcised this spirit and banished it to Bomore island. Also in Moneygold a house was beseeched by mysterious noises of arguing every night when they took stones from a fairy fort, until they were returned. A waterhorse or waterhound from Glenade lake was said to have chased and killed a woman who was doing her washing, her husband killed the creature and it’s said to be buried at Cashelgarron. A mermaid was spotted in Mullaghmore harbour on a Mayday morning, giving rise to the name ‘Mermaid’s Cove’ being given to the eastern side of Bunduff beach. It is known as ‘the Mullaghmore mermaid’.
Around Benbulben are two magic roads and a magic waterfall. When a car is parked at what seems to be the bottom of the hill and the handbrake is off, the car seems to roll up the hill. Whether it is an optical illusion, or some sort of electro-magnetic gravitational phenomenon is unclear (they say it’s the fairies, but it’s known as ‘the magnetic road’ as well as ‘the magic road’). There are two sites beside Benbulben where this occurs, one in the Gleniff horseshoe valley. There is also a waterfall that flows upwards when the wind blows a certain direction, Sruth-in-Aghaidh-an-aird – ‘the stream against the height’, in Glencar. It is known as ‘the Devil’s chimney’ due to the rectangular shape of the cliff and the smoke-like appearance of the spray blowing up from the mountain, it only exists after rain like the other glencar waterfalls except for Glencar waterfall itself. In Glencar can be seen a triskele or triquetra of deciduous trees within a wood of conifers in the autumn when the leaves brown. It’s known as McCabe’s knot.