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Tales of unrequited love, deeds of derring do, desperate demons and the wrath of the elements all feature in the myths and legends of Mayo. Fireside stories have existed since time began and many have become part of the very fabric and identity of places.
Some capture the imagination more than others and add flavour and colour, transforming a flight of steps down to a dark cave into a place of magical transformations.
Such a tale is associated with Cong, in south Mayo, where the ‘White Trout of Cong’, a ‘fairy trout’, is said to swim in the lake. Long ago, a young woman was set to marry the son of a king, lost him tragically on the eve of their wedding when he was murdered and his body thrown into Lough Mask. His grief-stricken bride disappeared and soon after, an all-white “fairy trout” began to be seen in a cave called Pigeon Hole, (Poll na gColum) where an underground river connects Lough Mask with Lough Corrib. Locals understood this fish to be supernatural and left it alone. One day, a sceptical soldier caught the ‘fairy trout’ and tried to fry it up for dinner. But the fish’s flesh would not cook on the fire and when he poked it with his knife, the trout disappeared and in its place a lovely young woman appeared. Taking pity on her plight he returned her to her watery home, where she remains to this day, waiting to rejoin her lover.
The Pigeon Hole cave, just outside Cong, is a large chasm at the foot of a steep flight of limestone steps is popular with walkers
Dún Briste (‘Broken Fort’)
Wherever St. Patrick went in Mayo supernatural events were close behind. Dún Briste is a sea-stack located just off of Downpatrick Head in North Mayo. Long ago, the stack was connected to the mainland, and a cruel chieftain named Crom Dubh had his fort on it. St Patrick went to him, to see if the chieftain might convert to Christianity and change his evil ways. But Crom Dubh refused. So Patrick struck the ground with his crozier, and forever separated the fort from the mainland, stranding the pagan chieftain on the sea stack where he perished. A ‘Pattern Day’, in honour and celebration of the patron saint is held there annually on the last Sunday of July and is called Domhnach Chruim Duibh, or ‘Crom Dubh’s Sunday’)
St Patrick’s Bell
Legend tells that in 441 AD, St Patrick spent Lent fasting on Croagh Patrick. Throughout the 40 days and nights he used his silver bell to fend off demons that came in the form of crows. His fight with the demonic creatures turned his bell black. On the last day on the mountain, Patrick threw the bell at Corra, the head demon, knocking her out of the sky. Where she landed a lake formed called Lough na Corra. Even today pilgrims on the Reek report hearing the sound of a bell ringing at times, which encourages them in their climb to the top. It is also from this peak that St. Patrick banished all snakes from Ireland as he threw them into the bay.
The Children of Lir
The three sons and one daughter of Lir were turned into swans by their evil stepmother, who was the sister of their dead mother. jealous that the children were coming between her and their father Lir, she tricked the children into swimming in a lake. Donning a magic cloak she cast a spell on the children, tranforming them into swans, a fate they had to endure for 900 years—300 on the lake near their father’s castle; 300 in the Sea of Moyle; and the last 300 in Sruwaddacon Bay in Erris. The island of Inishglora, where they briefly regained human form before they died of old age, is also off the coast of Erris.
The Godstone of Inishkea
The Inishkea islands (North and South) off the Mayo coast were once home to a mysterious stone artefact known as the ‘Godstone’ or ‘Naomhóg’ meaning “little saint”. Islanders believed that the stone could be used to control the weather. It could settle the sea for the islanders own fishing boats or raise a storm to wreck passing ships. It could also increase the potato yield and prevent fires. In the late nineteenth century a priest, who did not approve of this belief, threw the Godstone into the sea. He died a short time later and the islanders were convinced that he brought his death upon himself.
St Brendan’s Well
On the shore beside the ancient cemetery at Roskeen is St Brendan’s Well. According to legend, this holy well was once in the cemetery. One night, the devil came and tried to steal the well. But as he ran away with it, he tripped up and dropped the well. Where he fell there are two deep depressions which are said to be prints made by the devil’s knees.
An Cathach (‘The Battler’)
The oldest surviving manuscript in Ireland is An Cathach, a book of biblical psalms dating from the late 6th century. St. Columcille made a copy of the book and was subsequently exiled to Iona by the High King of Ireland who ordered the book’s return. The name “the Battler” came from its association with the O’Donnell clan from Donegal, who carried the book into battle in the belief that its presence guaranteed victory. When the O’Donnells moved to Mayo they brought the Cathach with them and it remained in their home at Newport House until 1813, when the family gave it to the National Museum of Ireland.
‘The Mayo Táin’ (‘Táin Bó Flidhais’)
The Mayo Táin is part of The Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, which describes the deeds of heroic figures such as Cuchalain and Queen Maebh. This story takes place around Erris, in County Mayo. Flidais, a sort of goddess of the wild, was a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the mythical (and somewhat magical) race that inhabited ancient Ireland. It was said that she could milk female deer as if they were cows. She also had a special white cow, called the Maol, which could produce enough milk for 300 men at each milking.