Fíor Uisce: The Legend of the Lough

DSCF64334.jpgWander a short walk from the heart of Cork City and you might just happen across this fantastic gem and its wonderful avian denizens (I’m sure anyone who follows my photography page is driven demented by the sheer amount of photos of geese, swans and ducks as I have charted the growth of all this year’s hatchlings on the lough). The well-loved lough is a favourite spot for walkers and joggers, but I doubt many are aware of the fascinating legend that lies behind this natural spring fed pond. The earliest mention I could track down of this tale was circa 1825 when Thomas Crofton Croker was travelling around collecting tales and folklore. Chances are this legend might stretch back a little further, providing of course he didn’t make it up entirely after being inspired by seeing the lough. The story presents a number of motifs that are found in Irish literature dating back to the middle ages. I will briefly mention those at the end. First I will give a run down of the folktale.

Fadó, fadó (long ago) there was a great king called Corc whose fort was in the center of a valley where the lough now lies. Within the courtyard of this fort was a spring with the finest pure water to be found anywhere. People flocked from near and far to draw water from the well. This brought great concern to the king, as he feared his precious water would be all used up so he had a great wall constructed around it with a solid door, to which only he had a key. If he required water for himself, he would send his daughter to retrieve it for him.

One night, the king decided to have a great feast. Kings, princes and nobles from all the neighboring tuatha (petty kingdoms) were all in attendance and Corc personally selected the greatest filidh (poets) from near and far to regale his guests with praise poetry and to play their cruith (harp). Huge celebratory fires were lit, the tables were laden with the finest foods and everybody danced and drank. As the feast drew on, one of the lords in attendance rose to toast the king. “Sláinte (good health) to our great (king). We do not want for the finest food or drink, but the one thing absent is some water”. You see, Corc had purposefully held this back in the hope someone would ask and he would be able to wow them with the well-renowned water that now lay hidden. “Water you shall have, and I challenge anyone present to find a finer source of water than this anywhere in the whole of Éireann (Ireland). “Daughter, fetch us some water le do thoil (please)”. The daughter, named Fíor Uisce (pure water, spring water) balked at being asked to do such a menial task in the presence of such illustrious company, so the king suggested that the fine prince that she had been dancing with all night go with her. Fíor Uisce and the prince delighted in this, so off they went. She retrieved the key and the prince carried the fine, heavy golden jug that Corc had specially made for this occasion and they made their way to the courtyard.

Upon opening the well-house door, Fíor Uisce leaned over the well to retrieve the water, but owing to the weight of the jug, she lost her balance and fell into the well. The prince tried his best to save her but the water burst forth from the well head with such force that he was forced to flee. The courtyard filled with such speed that by the time he made the relatively short journey back to the fort and spoke a single word to the king, he was up to his neck in water. The water continued to rise until the valley was full and it engulfed the fort, the outbuildings and the fine gardens  and hence, the present day lough was formed.

But that was not the end of it. For the king was not drowned, nor were any of the guests. Fíor Uisce, the fair daughter of the king was also alive and every night following this, up to present day, the celebrations still continue beneath the surface of the lough, and it is said that it will continue until someone happens across the fine golden chalice that lies hidden beneath the surface. It is believed that this happened as judgement for shutting off the pure water from the poor people who relied on it. It is also said that on days where the waters are clear, that you can still see the buildings clearly beneath the water. So next time you are there keep an eye out for the buildings beneath the surface and the tell-tale glint of the gold vessel!

Sin é mo scéal-sa, má tá bréag ann bíodh! Ní mise a chum ná a cheap é ! (“that is my story, and if there is a lie, so be it! For it wasn’t me who composed it!)

So, with the tale out of the way, I will now touch upon some of the motifs present and any connection to history that I could find. A lot of the elements of this folktale can be found elsewhere in Irish literature. When looking for a real king, there was none by the name that I could link to a kingdom in Cork city, but there was a Corc (or Conall) mac Luigthigwho reigned in the 4th Century and is traditionally believed to have been the founder of the kingship of Cashel and the progenitor of many of the clans and septs of Munster. He was however said to have a son,  Ciar from whom the Ui Mhic Ceir, an unimportant sept on the south side of Cork City, arose (and the lough is situated on the south side).

The “flooded kingdom” type motif occurs in a number of places. The dindsheanchas (Lore of places) tales of the goddesses Sínann and Boand  (of which the Shannon and Boyne rivers are named respectively) tell of when they attempt to access otherworldly knowledge through a well, which subsequently gushes forth killing the goddesses. It is not unknown to find tales where buildings and communities still survive beneath the surface. There is even a very Christian version of this underwater world with otherworldly monasteries that are covered in far better detail in Professor John Carey’s article “Aerial Ships and Underwater Monasteries: The Evolution of a Monastic Marvel.

The golden chalice for collecting water brings to mind the tales that mention treasures hidden within otherworldly wells not to mention the archaeological record that shows votive deposits in bodies of water, and even at least one instance where ecclesiastical treasure was hidden within a holy well.

I hope you have enjoyed my recounting of this tale of one my favourite places. Should you want to read other versions of this tale, you can find the original version in Crofton Crokers “Irish Fairy Legends” or another version in Kate Corkery’s “Folk Tales of Cork”.

Below is my own copy of Crofton Croker from 1834 that I acquired recently

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The Ship Sinking Witch Of Youghal

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The 16th and 17th centuries saw many women put to death across Europe and beyond for witchcraft and for the use of diabolic powers imparted on them by demons. Surprisingly Ireland, apart from a few high profile cases largely escaped the phenomenon of witch accusations and mass murder of women with Islandmagee, Kilkenny and Youghal being some of the few cases of witch trials in Ireland. The idea of the satanist witch consorting with demons was an English introduction and it is no surprise that the locations where the trials did occur were areas of vast English influence (Youghal for example being an important garrison town). Even though witches did not figure too much in the Irish tradition,  they did eventually make their way prominently into the oral tradition, although they are more likely to be shape-shifting into hares and trying to steal your milk or butter .

Many are aware of the famous witch trial that rocked Youghal in the 17th century when a poor old woman, Florence Newton, was accused and charged with witchcraft. What I doubt many people are aware of is that in the National Folklore Schools collection (collected in the school year 1937/38) there is an entry by John Quirke of Windmill Hill (the original transcript can be viewed here) that describes a tale of a witch who lived in a cottage by Moll Goggin’s corner. The witch one day puts three eggs in a pan. As she is cooking them, one pops out to which she remarks “one man gone”, when another egg hopped out she said “two men gone” and when the third egg hopped out she said “three men gone”. The tale mentions how three men drowned in the bay that day. The witch had used a common form of sympathetic magic, whereby the eggs represented fishermen and as they fall out of the pan, presumably the fishermen fell out of the boat and drowned. The story has a confusing element of which I am unaware of any comparanda elsewhere, such as the fact she was eventually banished in a ball of cotton wool, but the tale-type of the ship sinking witch is a maritime migratory legend found in coastal communities throughout northwestern Europe. In Ireland it is much more common on the west coast, so it is highly unusual and certainly special that it is found in Youghal. That being said, with Youghal’s very rich maritime heritage as well as a very high profile witch trial, it is not very surprising. Below I will delve deeper into the fascinating migratory legend.

The salient details of the legend change depending on where it is found. In Ireland the most common form of the tales follows the formula of “woman skilled in the black arts is refused alms or food or denied a favour” (extremely similar to the story of Florence Newton minus the maritime element). A number of different redactions are found, some including using eggs in water, which you will recognise from the tale above. Irish and Scottish sources focus on malicious female witches where as, for example, Scandinavian sources focus instead on benign male magicians attacking pirates and protecting the community. The polarising viewpoints illustrate well the ambivalent nature of magic use. Some of the Irish versions got invariably tied up with real tragedies such as a mass drowning in 1813 in Donegal. The motif of the refusal of alms was added on as the cause of the incident. Another violent storm in 1825 was incorporated into a tale where a woman refuted to be a witch had approached a few fishermen demanding fish. When they refused she swore revenge. She was reputedly seen at her cottage with a bowl of water and some feathers. She stirred the water and a storm arose. When the feathers sank, so did the boats and the bodies of the fishermen were found along the coast the next day and there was no trace of the witch to be found.

The method employed in the tale above to agitate the water and cause a storm is a common one as is blowing on the water to raise a wind. To bring in a Youghal connection here, in my interviews with Youghal fishermen, it was revealed to me by Séan Murphy and Bobby Thorpey that whistling was banned aboard the fishing boats, for fear of raising a wind. Other methods found in folk tales include the manipulation of thread, undoing knots in rope (also used by fishermen as a way of raising winds) and the construction of stone cairns on land as a sinking method. In some of these cases an incantation is uttered in conjunction with the methods listed above. More often than not these charms are not explained due to their esoteric nature and usually remain known only to the user of the “dark arts” in question. There are however a few cases where at least an element of the charm is included such as  the declaration of “Tá na gnóthaí déanta (The deeds are done) or “Tá an bá déanta anois” (The drowning is completed). The “witches” carrying out these acts are often referred to as Bean Ultach  (Ulster Women/women from the North) due to the belief that magic originated in the North. Interestingly a Cork variant of the tale connects the Freemasons to ship sinking as they were said to posses the ability to raise storms.

In terms of the materials used to represent boats in these magical rites, wooden bowls are more common in Scottish and Irish versions whereas in Scandinavia and areas of Norse influence (such as the Scottish Isles) seashells are often used. Some folk tales involve more fanciful or elaborate materials such as wax moulded into ships is believed  to be “a literary sophistication of a folk motif”. The more common use of household objects shows how innocuous everyday items could be used to devastating effect and could easily be employed nefariously in rites of sympathetic magic. While on the subject of wax models, there is a more ancient counterpart that dates to at least 338 AD in the pseudo-historical biography of Alexander. In this, the Pharaoh Nectanebus, Alexander’s father uses a spell to sink incoming ships. He prays to “the god of spells” after filling a bowl of water and moulding both ships and men  from wax. As he performed the rite and as the wax figures sank, so did the real ships in the bay. Any fans of Shakespeare will also recognise the motif from his Tempest where Prospero uses the same magic. To finish,  I will leave you with the oldest recorded European version of the tale from Norfolk, dating to 1598:

“ [A ships crew] mislead oppo’ (upon) ye weste coast coming from spain, whose deaths were brought to pass by the excrable witch of kings lynn, whose name was Mother Gably, by boyling , or labouring of certaine eggs in a payle full of colde water”

 

Originally presented as a lecture for the Youghaloween Spooktacular festival on Oct 26th 2019

 

Sources:

The National Folklore Schools Collection, Vol.0397:124, Collector: John Quirke, Youghal, Co.Cork.

Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh (1992) The Ship Sinking Witch: A Maritime Folk Legend from North Western Europe, Béaloideas, Iml.60/61, Cumann Béaloideas na hÉireann

Hutton.R (2017), The Witch, Yale University Press.

 

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