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O'Keeffe Clan

Gathering and Rally

9, 10 and 11 Sept 2016

guided tours, lectures

historical and genealogical exhibitions

cultural and musical events,

buffet banquet Saturday evening
Cliodhna and Aobhill

Cliodhna Queen of the Faries of South Munster and her sister Aobhill

[Cork Weekly Examiner, 10.8.1929. Maurice R. Cusssen]
Book: A North Cork Anthology: Lane, Jack. Clifford, Brendan. Aubane Historical Society.

Cliodhna, Queen of the Fairies of South Munster, and her sister Aobhill have become famous in Irish literature and are referred to by Eoghan Ruadh O’Sullivan and other Munster poets. Andrew McCurtain, another Munster poet and scholar of the 18th century, addresses Donn, the eldest son of Milesius, as a divinity of the West of Munster, and as cousin of Cliodhna, the Fairy Queen.

Cliodhna and Aobhill were daughters of the Red Druid, generally regarded as the last of the Druids, who lived in the eighth century and had been granted territory and made Prince of Fermoy by the reigning King of Munster, whose life he had saved in battle when he was contending against the monarch of Ireland. On that occasion the red druid raised a great storm by his magical powers and forced the enemy to retire from the engagement, and abandon the lands and hostages they had seized.

From her childhood days Cliodhna was apparently gifted with strange powers, for she had the reputation of being able to reduce people to any shape or form she wished them to assume.

It happened that a young chieftain named O’Keeffe (O’Caoim) the gentle, was the lord of territory adjoining that of the Red Druid, and he was wont to visit the palace of the latter for the purpose of participating in the sports and pastimes, which used often be held there by the Druid. In all the athletic competitions, O’Keeffe had few equals and his feats attracted the attention and admiration of the two fair sisters, who were usually spectators on such occasions. Ultimately Cliodhna fell in love with the young chief, and the possibility of her alliance with him was looked on with favour by the Druid.

Unhappily, however, the youngest sister, Aobhill, also became enamoured of O’Keeffe and availed of every opportunity to acquaint him of the depth of her affection for him, which he was not slow to reciprocate, so that it eventually came to the ears of Cliodhna, who, now that all arrangements for her marriage with the Prince were virtually completed, was deeply angry and jealous of Aobhill and resolved to be revenged on her. For this purpose, in conjunction with an old nurse, she prepared a strange mixture in a secret room in the palace. This consisted of herbs and other plants, over which words of enchantment were pronounced, after which the mixture was sealed in a vessel and hidden away, to be used on Aobhill at the first opportunity.
Already, however, Cliodhna had begun to practise her magic arts on her sister, and as Aobhill was already enduring mental pain on account of her love for the chief, she soon bore many traces of sorrow. Her beautiful face became lined and her eyes dull, like as it was said, to the summer flowers withered by the northern blast, so that all wondered and were grieved at the sad change which was visible in the form of the hitherto fair girl.

It was then that Cliodhna came forward with the preparation she had prepared, as a remedy for her sister’s decay; but since it was in reality a powerful juice, capable of causing a sleep of enchantment, Aobhill fell into a death- like slumber when it was administered to her, so that they surmised she was dead, and, accordingly, wrapped her in a white veil, and placed her in a rich oak casket on a costly bier, decorated with rare flowers. Thus she lay in state before the whole court, while her parents were prostate with grief at the sudden demise of their fair daughter, whom the whole principality mourned. Afterwards, the body of Aobhill was interred in a vault under the palace, to which place Cliodhna and the old nurse proceeded on the night of the funeral day, and entered the vault by a secret opening

They removed the inanimate form of the princess, who was really only in a state of lethargy, to the cave of Castlecor, where Aobhill recovered, and sitting up, looked about her in amazement, asking where she was. Cliodhna assured her that she was no longer in her father’s home, but in a place from whence there was no escape, and that there she should remain, until she had forgotten and renounced her affection for the prince to whom Cliodhna was betrothed.

Aobhill only answered with a great sigh, and then gave an expression of renewed affection for O’Keeffe and a demand that he be brought to her forthwith, after which she broke into loud sobs and lamentations, so that Cliodhna, seeing that it was useless trying to console her, or reason with her, and fearful lest she should escape from the cave, struck her with a magic wand which she carried, and changed her into a beautiful white cat.

O’Keeffe, in his residence at Cuillinn, was not apprised of Aobhill’s strange demise, until after her interment, and on hearing the sad news he was inconsolable. But to the Red Druid and his wife, the occurrence proved a death shock, for they both passed away, shortly after the seemingly fatal event. The great druid was buried on the summit of a hill about three miles north of Rathcormac, ever since called “Carn Thierna”, while his wife was laid to rest in another spot in the vicinity still called “Leabba Caillighe”, or the old women’s bed.

Both places are noticed by William Borlase M.A., in his fine work, “The Dolmens of Ireland”, and he declares the latter to be most noted dolmen of extended form in the country, having an external as well as an internal range of stones.
In 1837 two antique urns, containing ashes, were found in “Carn Thierna”. When the time of mourning for the sad events had elapsed, Cliodhna and the chieftain O’Keeffe were married with stately ceremonies in the presence of the princes and chieftains of Munster, and to commemorate the happy event a tournament and sports were held, at which valuable prizes were awarded to the successful competitors.

Cliodhna first resided at her father’s palace at Glanworth on a spot by the Funcheon, where a castle was afterwards erected by the Roches, the ruins of which may still be seen near the village. She had another residence at Castletown Roche, but afterwards removed to her husband’s castle at Cuilinn, near Milstreet, where after a period of twelve months she gave birth to her son. Some time before the happy event, however, Cliodhna had the ill-luck to lose the magic wand with which she had transformed her sister Aobhill. Its disappearance was mysterious, and was attributed to the fairy King, Oberon, who was jealous of Cliodhna’s power.
Within another two years, Cliodhna became the mother of twin girls. About his time the Danes were making headway in their raids over Ireland. O’Keeffe, though a powerful chief, was, it seems, left unmolested by the Northmen, but he was at length brought into action against them under circumstances peculiar to the age. It happened in the following way.

Sitric, son of the King of Norway, who was one of the three Danish leaders who arrived in Ireland, had a beautiful sister, for whom Ceallachan, King of Munster, had a great admiration. Ceallachan was the hero of many thrilling exploits against the Danes.
Sitric, having heard of the Munster hero’s love for his sister, invited him to espouse her, and Ceallachan consented, and set out with a small but noble retinue to claim the Danish princess as his bride. No sooner, however, had he reached the confines of the city than he became aware of intended treachery, but before a retreat could be effected the Munster prince was surrounded and apprehended, and all his retainers slain with the exception of one man, who managed to escape back to Munster with the disastrous news.

The people were indignant and immediately resolved to strike a blow for the release of their champion. For this purpose an army was assembled which O’Keeffe was chosen to command. A fleet was also marshalled.

O’Keeffe led his army to Dublin, only to discover that Sitric was in Dundalk with a fleet ready to transport Ceallachan to Norway.
The ships of the Irish had, however, arrived just in time and commenced an engagement. Ultimately, with the assistance of O’ Keeffe and the army who had come to the scene, the enemy were defeated and Ceallachan was released and brought back in triumph to Munster.

O’Keeffe was greeted with joy on his return by his consort Cliodhna and his court. A dark cloud, however, was gathering over the hitherto bright fortunes of the chieftain and his house. The old nurse who had been associated with Cliodhna in her enchantment of Aobhill, fell fatally ill, and before her death, out of remorse, sent for the chief and confided to him the whole story of Aobhill’s fate.

On hearing the strange tale O’Keeffe implored of his consort to free her sister from the fatal spell, but Cliodhna informed him that since Aobhill still regarded him with love. She had gone to her during his absence at Dundalk, and told her that he had fallen in battle. “Even though I should now wish to restore her to you”, Cliodhna added, “I cannot do so on account of the loss of my precious wand”.

The prince, although convinced that Cliodhna was powerless to carry out his wishes, was yet highly displeased with her jealousy, and they at once became estranged, so that Cliodhna, as a consequence, retired to her palace under the “grey rock”, taking with her, her twin daughters.

The “grey rock” of Cliodhna may still be seen in the parish of Kilshannig, about three miles from Mallow, and she believed to have haunted the place until 1816. She became the ancestral banshee of the Kings of Desmond, and of the O’ Keeffes, as well as Queen of the Fairies of South Munster. In the midst of a wild stretch of country her traditional dwelling place is now marked by a veritable rampart of rocks, with a conspicuous one in the centre. There is a wide opening among the fragments, which is supposed to be the entrance to Cliodhna’s palace within the hill. “Even under the midday sun”, says a writer, “one would feel very solitary and uneasy while there alone, as if the enchantress had infused her mystical and dark art into every part of it.”

The underground palace of Cliodhna was long believed by the peasantry to be the scene of the general assembly of the fairies of Ireland.

Stories were told that here was seen more than once Cliodhna, in mystic apparel, leading the May Eve dance of her followers, in the light of the moon.

To this place, it is said, often came the chieftain O’Keeffe to ask forgiveness of his mysterious consort, but though she was powerless to restore her sister, and refused to re-join him, she gave him back the fair two daughters when they had grown up and were educated.

His eldest son inherited his chieftainship and property of Fermoy, and his descendants continued to hold it for the next 500 years. They were finally disposed by Cromwell, and the only remaining portion of their inheritance, called Pobul Ua Caomh, was given by King William III to one of his mercenaries, and anglicised Williamstown, which name is now applied to a village in the district in North Cork.

On the high road between Ross and Clonakilty is another relic of Cliodhna in the form of a dolmen called “Callaheen Claddig”, the little hag of the seashore, noticed also by Borlase in his “Dolmens of Ireland”. In the same neighbourhood is still another “Carrigclena”, in the form of piles of rock, with an opening leading to a cave. One resident told of having seen the whole place illuminated by night, with a fairy lady standing at the entrance to the cave. Another story says that at one time a farmer was preparing to plant potatoes in an adjoining field when Cliodhna was heard wailing piteously at the desecration of the precincts of her dwelling, and no further attempt was made to till the field. The fairy queen was also said to visit the fairs of Rosscarbery and Clonakilty for the purpose of carrying off any good-looking youth she pleased. The wave of Cliodhna in Glandore Harbour, where the water rushing into the caverns of the cliff make a melancholy moan, is often alluded to in old Irish tales.

Since Cliodhna was unable to recall the spell laid by her on her sister, the gentle Aobhill was forced to live at Castlecor in the form to which she had been reduced. Inside the cave, she lives all alone in a graceful palace in the midst of a stretching wood, where fairy birds chant the sweetest melody, and crystal streams flow in all directions. One magnificent room contains the throne of the unhappy princess. There may be seen seated the enchanted Aobhill, who resumes her natural form annually for a week at midsummer, and appears as a beautiful maiden of twenty.

Aobhill never left her underground palace except as the ancestral banshee and guardian spirit of the Dalcassian tribe, when she always assumes her natural form. She also became Queen of the Fairies of North Munster. Brian Boru, the hero of Clontarf, told his attendant on the evening of the battle that he would not survive the engagement, since Aobhill came to him the previous night and told him he should fall that day.