Seefin and Its Environs, Historical and Picturesque

[From Duffy's Hibernian Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 5, November 1860]

(By the Editor)

In the latter part of the second century, or in the beginning of the third, as other calculations make it, when Art, son of Conn of the Hundred Battles, was chief king of Ireland, Munster was ruled by a powerful and enterprising prince named Oilioll Olum, who figures as one of the most famous personages of Irish history at that epoch, and was the common ancestor of several of the leading families of north and south Munster. Certain tribes not descended from the sons of Milesius had at that time acquired considerable territory in the southern province, and their struggles against the race of Heber and Herimon involved the country in perpetual war. Some of these tribes were Firbolgs, but the most remarkable of them seem to have been the Ernai, a people about whom our antiquaries have been not a little puzzled, and who are variously stated to have been the posterity of Ith, the uncle of Milesius, and of Ir, whom some call his brother, and others enumerate among his sons. At all events the quarrel between these independent tribes and the race of Heber and Herimon was brought to an issue at the battle of Ceannfabhrat, or Ceann-avrat, at which the leaders on one side were Oilioll Olum and his sons, and the three Cairbres, sons of Conaire II., Art's predecessor in the sovereignty of Ireland; while on the other side were Neimhidh (Nevy) son of Sroiveinn, King of the Ernai of Munster, Dadera the Druid of the Dairinni, and Lui Maccon, the head of the race of Ith. The last-mentioned chief was wounded, and the other two leaders on his side slain, and their forces utterly routed; but a few years later Lui Maccon, who had fled into Britain, returned with an army of British auxiliaries, and in a battle fought near the head of Galway bay, fully retrieved his fortunes, slaying King Art, and making himself monarch of Ireland. The battle of Ceannfeabhrat, however, though its results were thus set aside for a time, was considered to be a decisive victory, and has always been regarded as an epoch in Irish history. The place where it was fought was also connected with many other remarkable events in the progress of ages; it seemed to be a favorite locality with the bards and seannachies, who loved to mention it among historic sites and important land-marks; yet strange to say, the spot with which so many traditions were associated ceased to be recognized, its ancient name became obsolete, and, as far as we know, there has, until very recently, been no one for some hundreds of years past who could point with any degree of certainty to the precise mountain on the map of Ireland once called Ceannfeabhrat. Guided by indications found in very old MSS, rather than by any actual examination of the locality, Dr. O'Donovan, our greatest investigator of ancient Irish topography, identified the place, and as we shall presently see, did so correctly; but it remained to compare the natural features of the country with the descriptions left to us by our ancient writers, and to enquire what light might be thrown on the subject by local traditions; and the details briefly given in the present sketch are the result of an excursion made by the writer for that purpose, chiefly at Dr. O'Donovan's suggestion.

In a very ancient historic tale preserved in the Book of Leinster, the hero Cuchullin is introduced as standing on the top of Knockany, near Bruff, in the county of Limerick, and pointing out to his tutor, Laigh, the principal objects in the surrounding landscape. "Tell me, my tutor, Laigh," he said, "dost thou know what territory we are in?" "I know not indeed," replied the tutor. "I know then," said Cuchullin; "That mountain to the south is Ceann-Avrat-Slieve-Caoin; the mountains of Evlinni (now Slieve Phelim) are those on the north; the river of Luimneach," he continued, pointing out the majestic Shannon, "is that bright river which thou seest; Druim-coll-choilli is this hill on which we are, which is called Aini-Cliach, in the territory of Deis Beg; and to the south of us is the army in Cliu-mail-mhic-Ugaine, in the land of Curoi, son of Dari." If this passage had been always known, there could have been no difficulty about the identification of Ceann-Avrat; the old Irish writers were always exceedingly accurate in their topographical descriptions; and from the data thus afforded by the Book of Leinster, Dr. O'Donovan rightly concluded, in his annotations to the Four Masters, that the Ceann-Avrat of the ancients was no other than the group of mountains of which the most remarkable summit is Seefin, near the boundary of the counties of Limerick and Cork; and in fact, that the name of Ballyhoura, or, as pronounced in Irish, Ballagh-avra (the v being scarcely heard), now applied to these mountains on the Cork side of the range, is merely a corruption of the ancient name.

Another curious and very ancient reference to the same locality is to be found in the tripartite life of St. Patrick, where we are told, that while the apostle was erecting a church, which we know to have been that of Ardpatrick, 41/2 miles nearly south from Kilmallock, the pagan chieftain of the place interfered to prevent him, and said that if the saint removed the mountain of Ceannfavrat, so that a view might be obtained of Lough Longa, which lay in the territory of Fera-Muighe-Feine (the barony of Fermoy in the county of Cork) at the other side, then he (the chief) would believe in Christ, but not otherwise. The legend adds that St. Patrick thereupon prayed, and the mountain began to sink, but that the obdurate pagan, seeing the condition which he had deemed impossible about to be fulfilled, withdrew his promise, and that portion of the mountain continued thus partially depressed from that time forward. The name of Lough Longa has become obsolete, but it is possible that the lake referred to may be that near Kilcoleman Castle. Moreover, we are told that while St. Patrick was in the same neighbourhood, Lonan, the chief of Hy-Figeinte, prepared a feast for him in his fortress on the summit of the mountain Kea, "near the mountain of Carn Feradhaigh, towards the south." This Carn Feradhaigh (pronounced Carn-Farry) is frequently mentioned in connexion with Ceann Avrat, and was evidently a part of the same mountain range, but the name has been apparently lost; and the name of Lough Bo, another feature grouped by very old writers with these places, and the identification of which has defied the ingenuity of our antiquaries, has been also burial in oblivion.

Not to weary the reader with any thing like an antiquarian disquisition on the subject, we shall merely say that the route which the preceding data seemed to point out for the solution of the difficulty, conducted us, in the first instance, through Kilmallock to the hill of Ardpatrick, already referred to. Our way lay through the richest and most picturesque portion of the famous "Golden Vein." The vegetation which covered every foot of that delicious plain was most luxuriant, and the outline of the mountains, into the midst of which the road led, was grand and beautiful, presenting at every step some new combination of figure or of light and shade. As we approached Ardpatrick, groups of people descending from the sacred ruins and the old grave-yard on the top of that hill, plainly shewed that a funeral had just taken place. Some people there were assembled in front of the Widow Murphy's inn, at the foot of the hill, while a few others were inside, taking a drink to the memory of the deceased, who, we were told, was a young man who had gone to seek his fortune in America, lost his health there, and returned to his own green island to die. Rarely have we seen such beautiful specimens of the rural population of our country as were met together on the occasion. Such large and brilliant eyes and such regular features among both men and women, are not of ordinary occurrence. It was six o'clock in the evening, and at the tolling of a bell in the church, which was close at hand, all were in a moment silent and on their knees. Seldom did the devotion of the "Angelus" seem, to us, invested with more beauty than in that calm evening at the foot of St. Patrick's hill, while its association with the sad rite which had just been performed in the venerable graveyard above, lent to it a more touching expression. The church in which the Angelus bell was tolled is a new Gothic edifice, but its peculiar outline, its low unfinished belfry, and the hue of the red sandstone of which it is constructed, give it almost a Byzantine character; and seen under the solemn shadows of the mountains, it was in perfect keeping with the scenery. It is a chapel of ease to the parish church of Kilfinane, of which the Rev. Dr. O'Brien, late of All Hallows College, is the zealous, pious, and eloquent pastor.

A description of the interesting ruins of Ardpatrick would lead us far beyond the limits and immediate object of this article. There can be no doubt that the summit of the hill was occupied by a church, ever since the days when St. Patrick offered up the Holy Sacrifice there, and preached to the pagans of Cliu-Mail-mhic-Ugaine. Some portions of the present walls are unquestionably older than the eleventh or twelfth century, although the pointed arches roust have been the work of that or a subsequent period. The church was comparatively spacious; some of the monastic buildings which adjoined it on the south side may still be traced; and the dilapidated base of a round tower, which stood, on the brow of the eminence, a few paces from the north-west angle of the church, presents a nearer approximation to Roman masonry than we generally find in those early Irish structures; the large squared blocks of stone which compose it, being laid in perfectly regular courses. The round tower was reduced to its present ruinous state within the memory of the last generation.

The hill of Ardpatrick is a spur of the lofty mountain mass which rises immediately to the south, and a rugged road, of about a mile and a half, brings us from these holy ruins to the Black Rock, the nearest summit of the mountain. The geological formation of the range consists chiefly of old red sandstone, transition schist, and conglomerate, the last being to a great extent composed of rounded fragments of quartz. One of the most singular features that strike the eye among these mountains is the frequent occurrence of vast masses of conglomerate rock, piled up sometimes in the shape of castles, and presenting a thousand fantastic figures. The upper part of Black Rock mountain is composed of these masses, regularly squared by nature, and raised perpendicularly one above the another, like courses of masonry, until the gigantic edifice forms a terrific precipice, overgown with rich moist vegetation, where some adventurous climbers have been let down ere now, with ropes about thern, from the dizzy height, to plunder eagles' nests. Another remarkable pile of these rocks at a little distance in the bog, has been called Castle Philip, and long afforded shelter to an outlaw from whom it derives its name.

From the Black Rock we reach the top of Seefin, (Suidhe-Finn, i.e., Finn MacCuail's Seat), the most prominent point in the group, after wading for more than half a mile through a dreary bog. And here it must be observed that our exploration would have been a very profitless affair had we not the advantage of being accompanied by Mr. Robert Dwyer Joyce, of Glenisheen, whose home was at the foot of the mountain, whose memory was stored with every existing tradition about that and all the surrounding localities, and whose pen will, we trust, long continue to celebrate, as it has done, the scenery and history of his native country, in verse and prose. But circumstances, which did not depend on our own wishes, were also wanting to make our labour available. At our first ascent the elements were against us; a wet south-easterly gale set in, the scene was enveloped in one drizzly cloud, and after some hours of climbing and bog-trotting, it was poor comfort to be told that we stood within the carn on the top of Seefin, when the eye could not possibly penetrate into the driving shower for more than twenty yards around. And be it remarked, en passant, that the said carn, like many another similar vestige of antiquity throughout the country, has been almost wholly obliterated by the ordnance surveyors, who employed the stones to construct their own trigonometrical landmarks, and who, in this instance, have not indicated on their maps that an ancient carn did stand there, although it may have been the famous Carn-Faradhaigh itself.

Impelled with merciless fury by the storm, which now raged on the top of the mountain, the rain made itself felt as if it penetrated the very skin. A little more and it would have been nearly as bad as a shower of flint-headed arrows, from those legions of Oilioll Olum, the scene of whose victory we were endeavouring in a most miserable plight to explore. But the next day we were more fortunate, and, no thanks to the manes of the Fenian heroes, we traversed the same ground—or rather the same bogs and rocks—cheered by a bright sun and a refreshing breeze.

How different was the scene from that of the preceding day! A prospect perfectly enchanting, both to the lover of nature and to the antiquary, now developed itself from the summits of Black Rock and Seefin. Looking towards the north, the whole county of Limerick was spread out as in a vast map, from the rugged barrier of the ancient Ara Cliagh, in Tipperary, and the bulky protuberance of Keeper Hill, along the high ridges of Clare, beneath which the lordly Shannon glittered in the sunshine, to the high land of Kerry Luachra, on the extreme left. Much nearer than that distant outline, although sometimes almost confounded with it. were the isolated hills of Knockgreany, Knockany, Tory hill, and Knockfeerin, all rich in legendary and historic lore. The group of sunny hills which shelter the lovely Lough Gur in their bosom were in the centre; and from this long range of eminences, the plain of the Golden Vein, uninterrupted by a single hillock, extended to the base of the mountain on which we stood. Innumerable divisions diversified its surface with rich meadows, and pastures, and yellow corn fields, and wooded demesnes. The towns of Kilmallock and Charleville were visible below, and the positions of many place of lesser note could be distinguished in the distance. To the east, the land swelled into the huge dark mass, sometimes set down in our maps as the Flat Mountain, and sometimes as Slieve Riagh, or the Brown Mountain, but locally known as Ballinvreena. It would indeed require the labour of a skilful topographer to remove the confusion which prevails about the names of mountains in this district, a care which was unfortunately neglected when this part of the country was visited by the ordnance surveyors.

High towering above the last-mentioned mountain, appeared the blue peaks of the Galtees, the Crotta Cliach of the ancients; and in the intermediate space, between the aforesaid Ballinvreena and the foot of Seefin, rise several small hills. Some of these are cone-shaped; on the side of one, nearly four miles distant, appears the important village of Kilfinane; another is crowned by an ancient mote of large dimensions, Cahir-Mortel; and on the top of a third are some artificial ruins, called Oliver's Folly, having been constructed for picturesque effect among the scenery of Castle Oliver demesne. Close under the steep eastern declivity of Seefin, runs the deep vale of Glenisheen, whether so called from the bard and hero, Ossian, as popularly believed, or from osin, a fawn, as others will have it, we shall not pretend to determine. The vale is skirted by the woods of Castle Oliver, so called from a Cromweliian family, the head of which contrived to obtain a vast district in this neighbourhood in times of confiscation. A few generations since, the family name was changed to Gasgoyne, and by the marriage of Miss Gasgoyne to Lord Ashtown, the principal part of the estate has come into the possession of that nobleman. The old mansion of Castle Oliver was suffered to fall into decay, but a fine edifice has been erected near it, at Cloghanathboy or Cloghnofty, by the present noble proprietor, and few sites in Ireland can vie with it in beauty and magnificence. In 1740, Mr. Silver Oliver transplanted to this neighbourhood several families of Palatines, from Lord Southwell's colony of Courtmatress near Rathkeale; but the branch was not so successful as the parent colony, and only a few of the Palatines now remain in the immediate vicinity of the demesne, and in the hamlet of Ballyorgan, south-east of it.

Glenisheen valley opens at the southern extremity into a plain, (in the parish of Kilflynn), which is bounded towards the south by a range of hills running nearly east and west, and which are not less remarkable as noble features in the scenery, than for the historic names and associations of some of them. The prolongation of Seefin to the south is called Slieve Fada, or Long Mountain, and is separated from the nearest of the hills just mentioned, by a pass called Poul-an-flekeen, which, leading into the wild barren tract of Glenanair, or the Valley of Slaughter, at the other side, is no great thorougfare. Not so, however, the next pass intersecting the range of hills just alluded to, namely, that of Barna Dearg, or the Red Gap, one of the most celebrated, in story, of all the passes leading into South Munster. From a small hamlet, about half a mile on the north, or Limerick side of the gap, it is frequently called the pass of Red Chard, or corruptly Red Chair. The hill to the west of it is Knockea, and that to the east Slieve Caoin; although from the names of the townlands along their base, the former is known by the peasantry, on the Limerick side, as Coolfree, and the latter as Kilcruig and Corrig-na-Brontha. Here then we have the Slieve Caoin of the bards and seannachies, and the Mons Kea of the tripartite life of St. Patrick, according to Colgan; and between them Barna Dearg, so often the scene of a bloody contest, and so often traversed by hostile bands, penetrating to the fertile banks of the Funcheon and the Blackwater on the one side, or advancing towards the rich plains of Cashel, or Hy Figeinte on the other. It was to this gap, or some place near it, as well as the data enable us to judge, that Mahon, the elder brother of Brian Boru, was taken to be murdered, when he fell a victim to the conspiracy of Molloy, king of Desmond, Donovan, king of Hy Figeinte, and Ivar, king of the Danes of Limerick.

Turning away from scenes so full of attraction, and directing our steps towards the south-west, from the summit of Seefin, we arrive, after traversing a wild and utterly desolate bog, for about two miles, at the top of the hill of Carn Mor. All that district teems with Ossianic traditions. Every where among the wild glens and dreary mountain bogs, we are reminded by the names of places, or by pre-historic monuments, of the Fianna Eirionn. Thus, a little to the right, in crossing a deep uninhabited glen, on our way to Carn Mor, we come upon a remarkable cromlech called Labba-Iscar— the bed or grave of Oscar; but we know that it was far from this spot that Oscar the son of Ossian fell. From the position of some stones about this cromlech, it would appear that there were originally two sepulchral chambers side by side, and one of them, which is nearly perfect, was intended apparently for a body of gigantic length. The Cashel or stone fort on the southern extremity of Carn Mor was large, and must have been of considerable importance, but it is in so dilapidated a condition, that it would be impossible to give either its exact measurement, or to determine how far it may have resembled the Firbolgic forts which are comparatively so well preserved in the islands of Aran. Was this Carn Mor the famous Carn Fearadhaigh (Farry) of antiquity? or is that distinction to be claimed for the carn which crowned the much loftier eminence of Seefin? Or, with much more probability, are we not to look for it in the parish of Pharahy, on the Cork side of Barna Dearg? It is only the conjecture of the antiquary which can probably answer these questions.

Looking to the south from Carn Mor, the eye wanders over a prospect vast and exceedingly interesting, but very different in character from that which we enjoyed on. the north side of these mountains. A range of high moory hills bounds the horizon, with a few openings into the country of the Abhain Mor or Blackwater. The positions of Buttevant, Donerail, and Klldorery, may be exactly pointed out; but a spot which is more likely to interest the traveller than any of these is distinctly visible. Near a shining lake, not more than four or five miles distant in the south, are seen the groves of Kilcoleman demesne, and among them are the ruins of Edmund Spenser's castle ! Here was written the Faery Queen; here Spenser received the visits of Sir Walter Raleigh, and here the poet spent his happiest years, though his exit from the castle was one of the saddest events of his life, for one of his children is said to have perished in the flames kindled by a party of the northern Irish, who had invaded Munster previous to the battle of Kinsale. The surrounding country was at that time chiefly under wood. Kilcoleman was near the skirts of the great forest of Kylemore, so famous in the Desmond wars of Elizabeth; and in the confiscation of the Earl of Desmond's vast territory, Spenser obtained more than 3000 acres. The range of mountains which we have been traversing, and which, strictly speaking, form the Ballyboura group, was called Mole by Spenser.

"Mole hight that mountain gray,
That walls the north side of Armulla dale;"

Armulla being the poet's version of the name of the barony of Fermoy or Armoy. Then, according to his legend, "Old father Mole" had two favorite children, the rivers Mulla and Bregog, of whose loves he sings so sweetly in "Colin Clout's come home again." The Bregog rises in the deep valley of Glenbregoge, under the steep southern declivity of Carn Mor; and the principal source of the Mulla—the poetic name of the Awbeg—is at the north side of the same hill, and not far from the cromlech of Labba Iscar. Spenser, describing its origin and course, thus sings:

"Mulla, the daughter of old Mole, so hight
The nymph, which of that water-course has charge,
That springing out of Mole, doth run downright
To Buttevant, where spreading forth at large,
It giveth name unto that ancient city,
Which Kllnemullah cleaped is of old;
Whose cragged ruins breed great ruth and pity
To travellers which it from far behold."

Kilcoleman is now the property of Mr. Harold Barry, who has taken precautions to preserve from further decay the last remnant of Spenser's castle.

About two miles east of Kilcoleman, across the Bregoge, are the ruins of another castle of some note,—Castle Pook,—and close to it a very small lake. We mention it for the purpose of stating that, according to an old tradition, "a subterranean passage runs from Castle Pook to Lough Bo." Can this then be the Lough Bo which has so long perplexed our antiquaries, which is mentioned in the book of Lismore, and other ancient manuscripts, and which has been supposed to have disappeared from the face of the land? If it be, it is something to have revived the name; but whether we have found Lough Bo or not, we shall not regret our visit to Seefin and its environs.