Lí Ban or Liban THE MERROW
Its little surprise that people are bewildered by the documented discrepancies of otherwise entirely credible historical accounts. The story of Lí Ban is inextricably interwoven with the formation of Lough Neagh. Substantiating the legends of Lí Ban also reveals the truth of Lough Neagh. For the story of one is also the story of the other. The majority of the western-world population has great difficulty in accepting the possibility of mortal humans' with Daoine Sidhe ancestry and inherent abilities; when they primarily find it hard to accept the real existence of the fairy race. An equally difficult inter-race possibility to accept is that of the human-sea fairy unity - the Mermaid; although they have often been sanctified and frequently occur on church carvings amid angels. One such person was Lí Ban the sanctified Mermaid. She was baptized by the name of Murgen, or "sea-born" by the Bishop St Comgall, and accounted as one of the Holy Virgins. The church of Teo-da-Beoc in Ireland is accredited as her final resting place.
The Murdhuacha, or the Merrows, as they are called in Ireland are of the Good People race. Their general characteristics are clear and well defined, they date from the times of great antiquity and mythology and their physical appearances have been retained unaltered to the present day. The Mermaids are like beautiful maidens from the waist upwards, but they have the tail of a fish. They have been reported on rocks beside the sea and singing with irresistible sweetness; in this way they are said to lure men to their death, and their appearance is ominous of storms and disasters. According to this set of beliefs, Mermaids are not only ominous of misfortunes but actually provoke them, and are avid for human lives, either by drowning men or devouring them. Some early Celtic descriptions have them of monstrous size, like that recorded with some detail in "The Annals of the Four Masters": - "She was 160 feet (48.77 metres) in length, her hair 18 feet (5.49 metres), her fingers were 7 feet (2.1 metres) in length, and so was her nose. These exact measurements were possible because she was cast up by the sea." This was said to have happened in about A.D.887.
The Merrows are said to be gentler than most Mermaids, and often fall in love with mortal fishermen; although, they are dreaded because they often appear just before storms. The offspring of these marriages are sometimes said to be covered with scales, and like their mother, have little webs between their fingers. At times they are said to come ashore in the form of little hornless cattle, but in their proper shape they wear red feather caps, by means of which they propel themselves through the water. If these are stolen or lost they cannot ever return to the sea again. The female Merrows are a lovely sight, with their flowing hair and their white, gleaming arms and their dark eyes. While the female Merrows are beautiful, the males are very ugly indeed, with green faces and bodies, green hair and teeth; a red, sharp nose and little pig's eyes, and short arms more like flippers than any human arm. They do seem to be generally amiable and jovial characters and have very little interest in mankind.
The story of
Lí Ban is very intriguing, the story of a mortal woman turned into a
Mermaid. She is briefly mentioned in "The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, by the Four
Masters". A history compiled in the seventeenth century and
covering the time from the creation of the world down to the year 1616.
The year 558 is given as the one in which Lí Ban was caught in a net on the
strand of Ollarbha - but so is the year 390, in other texts.
It is a dismaying fact of Irish history records, that dates and events have been altered to suit whichever version was being documented. Her personal history goes back some three-hundred years earlier, as the daughter of Eochaid and Etain. Eochaid the Firbolg King and Etain the captured bride of Midhir of the Tuatha de Danann, whose involvement sparked the dreadful war of the two races. Should this be true, then it would clearly show that Lí Ban was not a mortal human.
Lough Neagh is the largest and most beautiful body of water on the island of Ireland. The waters of the lough are transparently blue, and even small pebbles on the bottom can be seen at a considerable depth. Near the southern end, a survey of the bottom revealed stones laid in a regular man-made like order. Careful observations have traced regular walls of structures of considerable dimensions. Traditions say it was a castle, surrounded by the usual village. In ancient times the castle stood by the bank of the lough, on an elevated promontory. Down deep, under the water of the lough, can still be seen the columns and walls of the beautiful palace once inhabited by the Daoine Sidhe race when they were the Gods of the earth. Giraldus Cambrensis states in his accredited manuscript, that in his time, the tops of towers - "built after the fashion of the country, are distinctly visible in calm, clear weather, under the surface of the lough; and still the Sidhe haunt the ruins of their former splendour, and hold festivals beneath the waters when the full moon is shining; for the boatmen coming home late at night have often heard sweet music rising up from beneath the waves and the sound of laughter, and seen glimmering lights far down under the water, where the ancient Sidhe palaces are supposed to be."
Mysterious influences still haunt the locality all around Lough Neagh; boatmen know that the Good People are out for a pleasure trip when soft music is heard as they pass by at night from island to shore. Many a time it has been reported of seeing tiny men all dressed in green and the ladies in silver gossamer in or about the lough. There have been those who are so taken by these little folk, that they leave a little poteen for them in a bottle when they are on the islands in the lough. In return, these boatmen always had good luck in fishing, and in all else. Never a poacher or thief came near their place while protected by the Good People. In fact many a would-be thief became hopelessly lost in the bogs, and suffered other discomforts. Thus, the lough and the islands developed many legends of haunting and sinister occurrences to those who strayed there with questionable intent.
Formation of Lough Neagh
Wonderful tales are related about the formation of Lough Neagh. One of the more romantic affirms that the great Fionn Mac Cumhal of the Fianna, being in a rage one day, took up a handful of earth and flung it into the sea. The handful was of such a size that where it fell it formed the Isle of Man, and the hollow caused by its removal became the basin of the present day Lough Neagh. Another legend is that a holy well once existed in the locality, sanctified and charged with miraculous powers of healing; provided that every patient on leaving after cure carefully closed the wicket-gate that shut in the well; and displayed due courtesy and respect to the gods who created the well. But once however, a woman forgot this information, and left the gate open. Instantly the indignant waters sprang from their bed and pursued the offender, who fled in terror of the advancing waves. The waters closed over her and she was seen no more. Along the track of her flight the waters remained, and formed a great lough that now exists, which is exactly the length the woman traversed in her flight from the angry spirit of the well. It was the year A.D.90 that the sacred well overflowed. The woman responsible for the catastrophe was Aynia, the wife of the noble Lord Cian son of Labraid. All the people of the village were overwhelmed and drowned, except for Etain's two sons and daughter who miraculously survived to tell of the event - Conang and Curman, and the daughter
Lí Ban's story begins in the year 90. No one ever went to the sacred well unless the three cup-bearers of Cianwent with them, for it was believed that no one came back from the well without a blemish unless so accompanied. But Aynia went down out of pride and overbearing, vowing that nothing could spoil her shape or put a blemish on her. She walked anti-clockwise three times around the well to mock its powers, drank heartedly, and ignored the open wicket-gate. Enormous waves broke from the well, bruising her severely and damaging her right eye. In fright she ran to escape, wherever she ran the water followed after her until it finally engulfed her completely. Conang and Curman successfully fled to higher ground and safety, to tell of the annihilation of the village of Segain. Lí Ban was indeed swept away by the waters, but she and her pet dog were supernaturally preserved and carried into a subaqueous cave secreted below the sea, where she spent a year in her bower with no company except her little dog.
She grew weary of her isolation and constantly prayed to the Goddess Dana - who the ancients say was the Mother of all Gods, embodying both the male and female principle - that she might be turned into a salmon, and swim around with the shoals of fish that passed her enclosure. Dana granted the prayer and gave her the tail of a salmon, but from the waist upwards she retained her beautiful mortal human shape. Her dog was turned into an otter, and the two swam together for three-hundred years. In this time Ireland had become Christian and St Comgall had become Bishop of Bangor. One day Comgall dispatched one of his clergy, Beoc, to sail to Rome to consult Pope Gregory about some matters of order and rule. As they sailed they were accompanied by an extremely sweet voice singing from under the water. It was so sweet that Beoc concluded that it must be an angel’s voice. At that Lí Ban spoke from beneath the waves and said "It is I who am singing. I am no angel, but Lí Ban, and for three-hundred years I have been swimming the seas, and I implore you to meet me, with the holy men of Bangor, at Inver Ollarba. I pray you tell St Comgall what I have said, and let them come all with nets and boats and draw me from out of the sea before the last day of this year."
Beoc promised to do as she asked, and pressed on his errand. Before the year 390 was over he had returned from Rome, in time to tell St Comgall of Lí Ban's request. On the appointed day a fleet of boats was there at Inver Ollarba, and Liban was drawn out of the water by Beoan, son of Inli. They half filled the boat in which she was caught with water, and crowds of people came to see her swimming around. A dispute arose as to who had the right to her. St Comgall thought she was his as she was caught in his diocese. Beoc claimed her because she had made her appeal to him in the first instance. Even the man Beoan who had drawn her out of the sea staked his claim. To avoid dissention all the saints of Bangor embarked on a night of fasting and prayer. In the morning they said that an angel spoke to them and said that on that morning a yoke of two oxen would come to them. They were to put Lí Ban into a chariot and harness the oxen to it; wherever they stopped, that was the territory for Lí Ban. This was a method employed in many saints' legends to settle the place where a church should be erected. The expedient did not fail this time. The oxen drew the chariot undoubtedly to Beoc's church, the Teo-da-Beoc. There, by the authority of the heads of the churches, she was given a choice whether to die immediately and ascend at once to heaven; or stay on Earth, as long as she lived in the sea, and ascend to heaven after three-hundred more years.
She chose immediate death. St Comgall baptized her by the name of Murgen, or sea-born, and it is said that she made her entry into heaven. She was accounted one of the Holy Virgins, and signs and wonders were done through her means in the Teo-da-Beoc. Carvings and paintings of her exist in the church to this day. Anyone who wishes to study this long and complicated subject of Mermaids and Mermen, might well start by reading "Sea Enchantress" by Benwell and Waugh, which, starting with fish-tailed gods and working through classical myths and early zoology, comes down to the most recent beliefs in Mermaids and other water creatures and embraces the beliefs of almost all nations.
The Banshee is always seen in the form of a female human. Sometimes assuming the form of some sweet singing virgin who died young, and is believed to have been given the mission by the invisible powers to become the harbinger of coming doom to her mortal family. She may be seen at night as a shrouded woman, crouched beneath the trees, lamenting and wailing with veiled face, or flying past in the moonlight, crying bitterly, a dark shadowy figure. The cry of the Banshee is mournful beyond all other sounds on earth, and foretells of certain death to some member of the family whenever it is heard. At times she is seen clothed in red, a red shawl over her head shrouding her face; bending over a stream washing a cloth, stained blood red, wailing bitterly as she scrubs. Only certain families of historic lineage, or persons gifted with music and song, are said to be attended by this spirit - for music and poetry are fairy gifts, and the possessors of them show a kinship to the spirit race, therefore, they are watched over by the Spirit of Life - the Leanan-Sidhe - which is prophecy and inspiration; and by the Spirit of Death - the Bean Sidhe - which is the revealer of the secrets of death.
A well documented account of a Banshee's appearance is that of the incident which occurred to the noble Sir Richard and Lady Farnsworth of England whilst on holiday in Ireland. They have freely related their experience to the gentry and journalist alike. The 16th century castle of that great Irish warrior Shane O'Neill lies on the banks of Lough Neagh. It is something of a ruin today, but at the beginning of this century it still showed a light at night and was the comfortable home of the great man's descendants, Cormac and Cait 'O’Neill. A strange occurrence happened there when Sir Richard and Lady Farnsworth visited the castle to spend a day or two with their old friends. The Farnsworth’s arrived at the castle on dusk, and were somewhat saddened to see that a fire had destroyed a large part of the castle and their hosts, were confined to living in one wing. The remainder of the fine residence was usurped by weed and vermin. The old moat which surrounded the castle was partly filled in and had grown into a pitiful marsh, while a few thin sheep cropped on a once-cobbled-courtyard. Despite the dismal exterior, the remaining wing was comfortably and tastefully furnished. The welcome from their hosts was very warm and welcoming. The Farnsworth’s became relaxed, and it was pleasurable to sit over a fine meal of salmon and quail, enhanced by a fine Claret, which their gracious hosts had saved for such an occasion. The table conversation was jovial and genuine, for Cormac and Cait were the best hosts: until Lady Farnsworth asked. "And how is Maeve?" Referring to the young daughter of the house. "Why, she must be twenty by now!" "And a beautiful young lady, I'll be bound," added Sir Richard. "I remember her as a very pretty child."
The talk came to a sudden standstill and there was a long nervous lull in the conversation, while Cormac looked at his wife, and Cait herself stared silently at the table cloth. Anxious to spare his hosts any embarrassment, Sir Richard turned the conversation to easier matters, and the party atmosphere was soon restored. With great humour and light hearted spirits, Sir Richard and Lady Farnsworth retired for the night to the guest room overlooking the moat. Because of the travelling and the heavy meal, both were soon sleeping peacefully. But Lady Farnsworth awoke with a start in the small hours. As she lay there in the dark, she became aware of a bright, white light outside, and the sound of singing from a beautiful voice carried to her through the still night. Quietly, so as not to wake her husband, she crept to the window and peered out. There below, at the edge of the moat, knelt a woman clearly visible in the glowing brightness. She was old, but her voice had the tone of a girl. Her song was the saddest Lady Farnsworth had ever heard. As she sang, she washed a red petticoat in the moat's muddied water. It could be clearly seen that it was red because the area around the woman was strangely bright. Lady Farnsworth thought she met the woman's gaze for a few seconds, but no recognition was registered. The singing and washing continued for a full two minutes or more. Suddenly, all was silent again. The form vanished and with it, the light. Lady Farnsworth returned to her bed, somewhat shaken; but she did not close her eyes until dawn streaked the sky. In the morning, while dressing, she related the night's events to her husband, and, rather than keeping it to himself, he raised the matter with much humour over breakfast with his hosts.
wife," he began, "tasted a little too much Claret last night, I
fear. During the night she swears she
saw O’Neill’s Banshee washing clothes in your moat." He laughed heartily, but neither Cormac nor
Cait smiled, and a long silence followed.
the Claret, Sir Richard." said Cait quietly.
cleared his throat and said, “Our daughter, Maeve, died a week ago in a hunting
accident, and each night since, the Banshee sings at the moat."
Sir Richard and
Lady Farnsworth left for home that very day before lunch. They never did return, and they retold their
story at dinner parties and gatherings for the gentry, for many a year.
The castle has lain deserted for many years. It is commonly believed to be haunted, and very few people venture within the perimeter. This is evidence of people fearing that which they do not understand. What is not known is feared. What people are actually afraid of is not clear; not even to themselves.
The Banshee spelled Bean-Sidhe in Gaelic - means "Woman of the Sidhe", "Woman of the Good People". Her heritage stems from the ancient times when Tuatha de Danann and mortal-humans' freely inter-married. She is not a ghost. She is not a spirit of the dead. She is a woman of the Good People, who, in ancient times, married a mortal man. She loves the human race so much, that she feels an over-whelming sadness for the great mourning and sorrow that loved ones feel during their loss of someone they hold dear, and so she wails and laments; as much for those experiencing the loss, as for the one who has lost their life, as she did when her mortal husband eventually died. Her sympathies and sentiments are directed at those displaying a kinship to the ancient race, and the now-lost coexistence. Her sadness is increased with each loss of a human that may display the slightest spark of re-kindling some sign of the coexistence. This loss is also her loss and a loss to the Good People race; and so she wails and laments also at this loss.
There is still great mystery and legends surrounding the many ruins and relics of prehistoric Ireland. None are more remarkable than the round towers found in almost every locality of note, either for its history or antiquity. Many towers are within the ruins of castles or citadels, some in isolated locations. The numbers of these towers was formerly very great, but from the ravages of time, the convenience of the structures as quarries for ready hewn stone, and intentional destruction by intolerant or thoughtless persons; they have gradually disappeared until, only eighty-three remain. Of these, seventeen are nearly perfect, the remainder being in a more or less advanced stage of dilapidation. The round towers vary in height; those remaining in a nearly perfect condition are from 70 to 200 feet in height, and from 80 to 30 feet in diameter at the base. The entrance is 12 to 18 feet from the ground and invariably facing east. The towers are divided into stories about 10 feet high, each story lighted by a single window also facing east, the highest compartment having four lancet windows opening to the cardinal points of the compass. The roof is conical, made of overlapping stone slabs, a circle of carved heads and zigzag ornamentation is found beneath the projecting cornice. The masonry is of hewn stone, there is no regularity in size or shape of the blocks, some being very large, others small; every geometric figure known can be found in the stones of a single tower.
Tulloherin, for instance, is said to be built in one night by a 'monk' who came
to the neighbourhood as a missionary. Finding the people inhospitable and
unable to obtain lodgings for the night, he was determined to remain, believing
there could be not be found in Ireland
a locality more in need of missionary work.
So, the evening of his arrival he began to build, and by morning the tower
was finished, and he took up his abode in it, preaching from its entrance to
the crowds attracted by the fame of the miracle. The story of the Tower of Aghagower is similar, except in one particular. The saint in this case being aided by
angels. Kilmackduagh was built in one
night by angels without human assistance, the work being done at the
solicitation of a saint who watched and prayed as the angels toiled.
Most of the
legends of Ireland's
round towers are extremely colourful, and the tales are readily repeated to
this day. The tower of Ballygaddy has a
history somewhat less miraculous, the local historians attributing its origin
to a "giant" of the neighbourhood. Having received a belligerent
message from another "giant", he took his stand upon Ballygaddy hill
to watch for the coming antagonist, proposing to, “bite the head off the
bragging vagabond if he said as much as boo." For seven days and seven nights he stood
upon the hill, and at the end of that time, as may be readily believed, “his legs
were that tired he thought they would drop off him." To relieve his valuable legs he put up the
tower as a support to lean on. The
bellicose gigantic party who proposed the encounter finally came; and lovers of
antiquity will be glad to learn that the tower-building giant, “didn't leave a
bone in the blagards ugly carcass."
After the battle, the victor “started to kick the tower down,” but with
a second thought, concluded to put a roof on it and “leave it for a wonder to
all them little mortals that come after him." All honour to his memory for this
Today there are three round towers in the vicinity of Lough Neagh,
one at Antrim and two on Islands in the Lough, Coney Island and Ram’s Island.
As usual all were built in one night.