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Cahersiveen's Fairy Fort

Updated on March 29, 2015
Pollyanna Jones profile image

Pollyanna writes about folklore, magic, history and legends, focussing on British, Irish, Germanic, and Celtic cultures.

Cahergall Stone Fort, Co. Kerry, Ireland
Cahergall Stone Fort, Co. Kerry, Ireland | Source

A Mysterious Past

"Nobody knows who built it, or how old it is. They say it's ancient, built by giants..."

These were words given in passing by a local man as I arrived at the site of the Cahersiveen Forts. There was awe and pride in his voice, and a little bit of reverence and fear for a fortification that survives from the time of legends.

Indeed, there is a degree of mystery as to who built the fort. Some say it was a structure built by the ancient Formorians, great stone builders and the fabled first inhabitants of Ireland. Others believe that it was built by the Tuatha Dé Danann, a magical race blessed with the blood of the gods.

Cahergall has been notoriously difficult to date, and at best guess, it is assumed that someone of importance lived here a thousand years ago, with historians and archaeologists placing it at around the 9th or 10th Century AD. Local lore describes how it is thousands of years old, and it may be that there has been a settlement here for a very long time.

The fort has been carefully restored in recent years to preserve it from the battering it takes from the Atlantic storms that come in from the bay. Made entirely from stone, the fort is constructed with a technique known as "dry stone walling". This means that there is no cement or other mix holding the rocks in place, only careful arrangement and the weight of the stones in the structure hold it together.

Like many places in Ireland, Cahergall's lore is woven into the tapestry of Celtic mythology. In this article, we look at a few of the tales.

Cahergall takes its name from "an Chathair Gheal", meaning The Bright Stone Fort
Cahergall takes its name from "an Chathair Gheal", meaning The Bright Stone Fort | Source

Cahersiveen and Aos Sí

On the south western tip of Ireland, Cahergall is found near the town of Cahersiveen, capital of the Ivereagh Peninsula of County Kerry. This peninsula is better known by visitors as being a part of the scenic Ring of Kerry which takes the traveller along winding roads through stunning scenery. It is the gateway to the Skellig Isles, and Valentia Island with its unique microclimate. Rugged mountains, remote lakes and waterfalls, isolated beaches, and historical sites are to be found wherever the road takes you, with the charm and beauty of brightly painted Irish houses and towns breaking up the trail to welcome the weary traveller.

Cahergall is not the only stone fort near Cahersiveen. With stone being in plentiful amount thanks to the mountainous terrain, this was the building material of choice. The fortified dwelling of Leacanabuaile Fort is within walking distance, and the town's name itself comes from Cathair Saidhbhín, meaning "Little Sadhbh's stone ringfort"

In Celtic Mythology, Sadhbh is the mother of Oisín, whose father was Fionn mac Cumhaill. Many fans of Irish Mythology will be familiar with the man who was carried away to the land of eternal youth, Tír na nÓg, by the beautiful Niamh Chinn Óir. Some sources describe how Sadbh is a daughter of King Síd of Munster, others that she is a daughter of Bodb Derg who is a son of the Dagda and a king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Bodb was elected king of this mythical race shortly after their defeat at the battle of Tailtiu [1]. This was around the same time that the Tuatha Dé Danann began to leave our world to go and dwell underground. It was part of their terms of defeat that they made with the Milesian invaders that they would travel to live under the mounds known as sídhe. Each tribe was granted its own sídhe, but some took to dwelling in ruined forts. Ever after, they would be known as the Aos Sí, and through the mists of time became known as the Fair Folk, faeries, Good People, elves, wights, or ancestral spirits.

Cahergall, a jewel on the Ring of Kerry
Cahergall, a jewel on the Ring of Kerry | Source

The Legend of Sadhbh

Sadhbh's story, according to Lady Gregory's Complete Irish Mythology [2] describes how she was cursed by a dark sorcerer of the Tuatha Dé Danann named Fer Doirich. If he couldn't have her, no-one would. Even better, she would be torn to pieces by hunting hounds. He transformed her into a deer where she lived in the wilds for three years, ever evading the hunters spear.

A servant of Fer Doirich took pity on Sadhbh, and told her how to break the spell. If she were to set foot in one of the forts of the Fianna, then Fer Doirich's magic would no longer hold power over her. Immediately she fled, bounding through glens and forests to make her way to the home of Fionn mac Cumhaill. She took a great risk, finding him with his hunting party. It was only thanks to Fionn's magical hounds, Bran and Sceolan, that she was spared. These hounds had also been transformed from their original human shape, and knew that she was not what she appeared to be. Fionn and his party led Sadhbh back to his home, Almhui, and as soon as her cloven hooves touched the ground within the fort, Sadhbh shed her deer's hide and revealed herself as a beautiful woman.

Fionn mac Cumhaill was smitten. He renounced hunting and swore to love her with all his heart. The Fianna hardly saw their leader, so enchanted was he by his new beloved. It is no surprise that Sadhbh soon became pregnant.

The happiness was not to last. With the Vikings invading Kerry, Fionn and his Fianna went forth to defend their lands from these northmen. He promised to return victorious and set out, leaving Sadhbh, heavy with child, safe in the fort of Almhui.

A few days later, whilst looking out for her husband, Sadhbh saw Fionn and his hounds Bran and Sceolan approaching. Her heart fluttered with joy and she ran out to greet them. The trap was set. It was not her beloved that approached, but the wicked Fer Doirich, angered that she had undone his black sorcery. He revealed himself from his glamoury, and waving his hazel wand, turned Sadhbh back into a deer. Terrified, she found that returning to Fionn's fort would not undo the spell this time, and under the sound of Fer Diorich's cruel laughter, she fled into the forests.

Fionn mac Cumhaill returned from defending the shores from the Vikings to find that his wife was missing. Like a spear through his heart, the pain was terrible. The brave warrior spent seven long years tirelessly searching for her, never giving up. Each search proved fruitless, and each day without Sadhbh added to the grief that he felt.

One day, the Fianna were hunting in the mountains and came across a wild boy. They captured him and took him back to their leader, Fionn, who recognised in his face some of Sadhbh's features. He realised he was looking at their son. He named the child, Oisín, meaning "young deer". Legend does not record what became of his poor mother, but Fionn's love was never forgotten.

Internal view of Cahergall Stone Ringfort
Internal view of Cahergall Stone Ringfort | Source

The Fairy Footballers of Cahergall

We have looked at how the Tuatha Dé Danann came to dwell beneath the mounds. Superstitions through the years caused local folk to avoid these places, and other ruins of antiquity, for fear of becoming enchanted or taken by the Aos Sí. These were haunts of the Old Ones, and full of mischief and devilment. Cahergall fort became known as a place where the Aos Sí dwell.

One tale from Cahersiveen, recorded by Sigerson Clifford gives a warning to those that involve themselves in the affairs of the Fair Folk [3].

In this tale, a lad by the name of Coneen Dannihy was returning home from fishing late one night. The moon was full, and it was well known that the Good People would be out playing football on the strand near Cahergill fort on nights such as this. This is not the football of the English, nor the American sort, but good old-fashioned Gaelic rules football, as savage as the hunt and twice as fierce. On a moonlit night, the strand was to be avoided at all costs, but silly Coneen had forgotten this.

Hearing a hullabaloo from the bay, the lad wandered across to see where all the noise was coming from. He could hardly believe what he could see. The Fairies of Cahergall and the Little People from Staigue Fort at Caherdonal (the south side of the Iveragh peninsula) were having a match. Cahergall were two goals behind, with only five minutes to go. The lad got himself carried away and started cheering for the local team, which naturally attracted their attention. As Cahergall's full-forward became knocked unconscious, the Fair Folk called Coneen to join them.

"Give me a gansey, and I'll learn the Staigue Forters a lesson they won't read in their primers!" He shouted. So taking the gansey, a type of jersey, he slipped it on. True to his word, the lad scored two goals before the end of the match, securing a victory for the Good People of Cahergall.

Now this pleased them very much, and Coneen was allowed to keep the gansey as long as he wore it to the next match which he would be playing in. This was to take place the following Wednesday night at Staigue Fort. The Fairy captain instructed the lad to meet them all outside Cahergall fort by eleven o'clock and they would be flown across for their next match. "Don't let us down, or you'll regret it." he warned.

Naturally, Coneen was very excited by the whole business. And being young and being daft, he had not the wits to keep it from his mother. Mothers have a way of knowing when their children are up to something, and soon she found out what her boy had planned. He was her only son and she knew that the Fair Folk would not likely let him leave once he became a full-fledged member of their team.

So when Coneen went out fishing the next Wednesday, his mother had arranged with the skipper that he would not return the lad to shore before midnight. Coneen was told that they would be ashore for ten thirty, and was none the wiser when he set foot on the strand later that night. But where was the football team? He looked up and down, calling for the Captain. He raced up to the fort, but soon realised that the Good People had gone without him.

Poor Coneen took to his bed upon returning home, and there he stayed for nine months. No doctor or priest could heal him, and eventually he left home all together and took to wandering in Gleann na nGealt. When he was finally found, he was put away in an asylum and it is said that the poor boy was dead within a month.

His mother kept hold of the fairy gansey until an English traveller bought it off her. The story goes that it was presented to Queen Victoria who kept it safe among her most treasured items. As for the fairy footballers? Why not go see for yourself when next the moon is full.

The Walls of Cahergall
The Walls of Cahergall | Source

Cahergall can be found near Ballycarbery Castle

A markerCastlequin, Co. Kerry, Ireland -
Castlequin, Co. Kerry, Ireland
get directions

Sources

[1] The Book of Invasions http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/leborgabala.html

[2] Lady Gregory's Complete Irish Mythology, ISBN 978-0753709450

[3] Legends of Kerry, T Crofton Croker & Sigerson Clifford, ISBN 978-0900068164

© 2014 Pollyanna Jones

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    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 3 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Great news! I needed some great news this morning.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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      Pollyanna Jones 3 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thanks again! I had better get writing more then. :-)

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 3 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Dear Pollyanna,

      My pleasure. And it was the truth. Always will be the truth when I comment on your hubs.

      You are very appreciated and talented.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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      Pollyanna Jones 3 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hi Kenneth, I got it thank you :-) I'm afraid back then though, I was still trying to figure out how all of this works, and had not found that I could post comments! Your lovely feedback is greatly appreciated, thank you. It is always a bit nerve wracking starting up on a well established community such as this, and it is comments like yours that help motivate to write more. Thank you for voting up and sharing.

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 3 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hi, Pollyanna,

      Great writing here. Did you read my comment above? Or was there something wrong with it? I hope not. I loved the way you presented your topic.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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      Pollyanna Jones 3 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thanks Ed!

    • ahorseback profile image

      ahorseback 3 years ago

      One day if only in leaving this earth my soul will visit one more time , Ireland ! My mothers family history came from there , so much beauty and a simple beauty too ! My soul misses that . Thank you my new friend...........Ed

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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      Pollyanna Jones 3 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thank you for your kind comments! It really is an incredible place, if you do ever get the chance, it is well worth a visit.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Very interesting, and what a lovely place. I so do want to go to Ireland someday.

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Fascinating hub and beautiful photos. I love old legends and ancient buildings with a mystery attached and would love to visit.

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 3 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Pollyanna,

      Superb read. Hubs like this always capture my attention.

      This is an excellent piece of writing. Amazing, to be perfectly-honest.

      I loved every word--and the lay-out was superb. Interesting, in-depth,

      helpful, and very informative. Great job.

      Voted up and all the choices because you deserve it. And sharing also.

      You have such a gift for writing.

      Sincerely,

      Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      Upvoted and shared!