lake dwellers of ancient ireland
Updated: May 20, 2020
Ireland has its fair share of water lore and mythological aquatic creatures. As a small island surrounded by the sea and liberally sprinkled with very many lakes, it’s hardly surprising. Our ancient ancestors believed that the way to the Otherworld, also known as Tir na Nog, or Manannán’s land, lay west across the sea beyond the ninth wave, or through the crystal waters of lakes, rivers and wells.
These entrances to the Sidhe world were guarded, accessible only to the bravest, or some might say, the most foolhardy. The monsters which lived in these lakes were known as péista, and they were said to be as big as mountains and very fierce. Fionn mac Cumhaill is said to have fought and killed a veritable horde of the beasts in various lake locations around Ireland.
One such creature, named Oillipéist (oll meaning ‘great’, péist meaning ‘worm/ reptile/ beast’) is credited with having carved out the route of the River Shannon. Apparently, he swallowed a drunken piper by the name of Ó Ruirc, who, much to his chagrin, continued playing, unaware of his fate. Infuriated by the din, Oillipéist consequently coughed him up and spat him out in disgust. St Patrick famously banished all serpents from Ireland, thank goodness! Unfortunately, a she-dragon named Caoránach managed to escape… there’s always one, isn’t there? St Pat chased her all the way to Lough Derg where she was slain by Fionn mac Cumhaill. This was a truly amazing feat, when you consider that Fionn and Pat lived about a couple of hundred years apart.
New to me is the Dobhar Cu, or ‘water-hound of the deep’. This huge, hound-like creature was aggressive, fast, with a penchant for feasting on human flesh. It had a high-pitched whistle-like cry, which it used to signify to its mate when hunting. It was known as the King of the Lakes and Father of all Otters. There have been many sightings of this elusive beast over the years, mostly at Sraheen’s Lough in Co Mayo, but it was also spotted in 2000 in a lake on Omey Island in Connemara. Allegedly. Nessie, eat your heart out!
The Each-Uisce, or ‘water horse’, can be found in fresh water loughs or the sea, and is often confused with the kelpie, which inhabits rivers and streams. It appears as a very beautiful horse, entices humans onto its back, at which point its skin becomes adhesive, and the rider cannot dismount. The creature returns to its lough, where it drowns its victim before feasting.
These creatures are all quite terrifying, so it is a wonder that our ancient ancestors ever went anywhere near water at all. But they did. Not all lake dwellers were of mythical origin. Many of them were human.
No one knows for sure exactly when or why our ancient ancestors began building their crannogs out on the lakes of Ireland, but archaeology shows that they were in use from the middle Bronze Age into the seventeenth century.
A crannog is an artificial island constructed from brush, timber, clay, peat and stone, often supported by timber piles. Large stones were added to their edges, probably to protect them from the force of the water. The surface would have been topped with a fine layer of earth and sand.
The old Irish word is crannóc, from crann, meaning ‘tree’ and óg, meaning ‘young’. It is not known if this term refers to the island itself, or the structures built upon it.
There are about 1200 known crannogs in Ireland, but it is estimated that there are probably many, many more yet to be discovered. The majority are concentrated in the drumlins area of the midlands (where I live), the north and north-west of Ireland.
Today, they look like nothing more than little rounded islands, low in the water, and densely covered in trees and vegetation. Co Cavan, where I live, is said to have a lake for every day of the year, and from my own observation, almost every one seems to have at least one small island in it.
I had always assumed that these were holy places, being built over water, surrounded by the vast expanse of open sky and the quiet and solitude to be found in such locations. We know that votive offerings were placed in water, perhaps gifts to the gods, or the Sidhe, perhaps even as bribes to the vicious water creatures which may or may not have inhabited these watery domains.
But archaeology has discovered every day items such as cooking pots and vessels, combs, sewing needles, and various other accoutrements necessary to normal domestic life. Clearly then, crannogs were lived in; they were homes.
Also, they were not necessarily alone. There are thought to be up to 300 on Lough Gara. Lough Allen also has numerous crannogs with a submerged stone pathway leading to them. The Black Islands of Lough Ree numbered 52. They were often built in small clusters overlooking a larger one further out in deeper water… the home of the chieftain, perhaps.
There were many things the crannog builder had to consider, in addition to the supply of building materials; the structure had to be in deep enough water that an enemy could not wade out to it, but not so deep that it was too difficult to build. It also had to be close enough to shore to be convenient to the occupier, yet far enough to be out of bow or spear shot. As such, they could be found in water as deep as 6m, and as far as 60-100m from shore.
It seems from this that defence was a huge factor in choosing to live on a crannog. The owner would travel to and from home in either a logboat, or a coracle. But some sites had timber or stone causeways which were submerged. Whether they were under water at the time they were in use is not known for sure, but in terms of defence, it would certainly have hindered the enemy if they could not see the route of the path.
In later years, crannogs continued to be used for other purposes, sometimes as military strongholds in times of war, or as feasting halls for kings and chieftains in more peaceful years. Interestingly, they have also been found to be associated with the processing of iron ore and blacksmithing.
This seems hardly practical, or even logical, but in ancient times, the mastery of fire and forge was seen as magic and sacred knowledge. Perhaps working alone out on a crannog, a smith was better able to keep his knowledge and power secret.
It’s quite interesting to me that the Tuatha de Danann were thought to have come to Ireland from Lochlanns, as in the Irish language, this means ‘lake dwellers’. Some versions of the story claim that they first settled at the beautiful and scenic Lough Derraveragh.
There are several crannogs located on the Kiltoom side of the lake, and in the hills nearby, there are many ring forts. In the 1970s, a dugout logboat was recovered from the water. But Lough Derraveragh is most famous for the legend of the Children of Lir, who were forced by their jealous step-mother to live for 900 years in the form of swans.
By now, you will most likely be wondering about the mermaid featured in the image at the top of this post. Well, yes, Ireland does have its own mer-people, they are called merrows, from the old Irish murúch, or murdúchann, and were described in the Lebor Gebála Érenn as siren-like. So far as I know, they were sea creatures, and not lake-dwellers. I just liked the picture.
Having said that, I do know of one lake-dwelling mermaid. Lí Ban was a woman of the Sidhe. One day, a stream burst out of the ground beneath her house, forming the mighty Lough Neagh. She was immediately turned into a mermaid, and forced to live in the lough for three hundred years, with her pet dog, which had been turned into an otter.
Eventually, she was captured and rescued by monks, whereupon she was so grateful that she agreed to be baptised as Muirgen (‘born of the sea’) into the Christian faith. Thus she lost her pagan longevity, but her soul was saved.
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