By Willie Warren
DISTRICT DIRECTOR: EDSO CROWLEY / EDITOR: WILLIE WARREN
He was standing at the low wall, looking out over the eisc when I came around the gable end
of the house and into the yard. It was a strategic view that covered the upper part of the glen,
and he would have seen and heard the motorcycle long before I reached the winding path up
to the house.
He was the senior of three generations of Johns belonging to that household. Not a big man
physically, he looked strong and taut and, despite his eighty years, was the lightest man on
his feet at the Sunday night set dancing in Doyle’s pub, An Crúiscín Lán, in Killorglin. He was
of the generation, born towards the end of the nineteenth century, that was levered out of its
native language, despite having parents whose first language it was. He had a very good
understanding of Irish, but rarely spoke it except in quotation.
I was a young lad then, about a year into my research of the glacial history of the Reeks and
was staying there with the Doona family of Coornameana, up above Glancuttaun.
“Were you on the mountain?” he asked eagerly.
“I’d say there must be a story behind that.”, said I.
“I spent the day up around Com Caillí”, I answered, hitching my rucksack further in on my right shoulder.
The sparkle seemed to come from somewhere behind his eye, and he smiled as he said, almost chanted, “Léim na Caillí ’chuir droichead na Geadaí farradh síos I lár an tsaoil.”
“Come in. Come in and sit down,” he said and led me in to sit with him at the kitchen fire. He
took his time, filling, packing and lighting his pipe, looking into the fire as if seeking there the
old images he now wanted to hone and pass on.
I haven’t got the skill to bring you where he brought me, high into the air to meet the Cailleach, the Hag, in pursuit of some class of a fairy man who had made her pregnant. Their chase had started somewhere in Tipperary, perhaps at Bearnán Éile, latterly known as The Devil’s Bit, but they landed on Binn Chaorach, the second highest peak in Ireland, just to the north of Corrán Tuathail (Carrantuohill) and separated from that summit by a narrow ridge or arête called The Bones. He took a great leap across Com Caillí and landed on the other side, somewhere above Coimín na Péiste. She followed, but being so heavy with child, fell into the lake below, creating a huge flood that burst out of the lake, washing out Droiched na Geadaí, the Gaddagh Bridge, as it swept down the Gaddagh River to the Laune.
His narrative took some time. At its close, he paused to suck in his upper lip, as if to savour some flavour that had accumulated while he the child sitting on the warm flags close to the fire passed the story to the reflective old man in the súgán and he it to me. Then, as if awakening from a dream he turned his head to say, a little wistfully, “Sure ’tis only an old fable, I suppose.”
“No. No.” I said. “It’s amazing, but in a way it’s a true story.”
He raised his eyebrows and looked me straight in the eye. “You tell me!” he said, “You tell me!”
“Yes.” I said, “it’s true” I explained that the first thing I had noticed about Loch Gabhrach was that there was a raised shoreline running right around the lake, indicating that it had previously been about three metres deeper and more extensive. A dramatic pyramid of rock that seemed to teeter high above the lake, an arête, known as Stuimpín an Daimh or Stumpeenadaff (part of the northern slope of Binn Chaorach, separating the corries of Fionnchom and Coimín Íochtarach, the lower part of the combined cirque of Coimín Uachtarach, Coimín Lár and Coimín Íochtarach) was marked by an old slump scar. I had concluded that part of this arête had come away, keeled over and splashed into the lake creating a powerful, giant wave that washed out part of the moraine at the mouth of the lake and lowered the outlet. The enormous flood going down the Gaddagh River could then have washed out any bridge crossing it.
Old John was pleased that the story had some verity, but I’m not sure that he didn’t prefer the story of the Hag. And that is surely why the story was made in the first place.
There are two lakes in Com Caillí, Loch Caillí and Loch Gabhrach. I was interested, and perhaps puzzled that the lake into which the Cailleach had fallen was called Loch Gabhrach.
Breandán Ó Cíobháin’s wonderful first volume of Toponomia Hiberniae was published about six years later, and there I discovered John Sullivan of Cúil Rua quoted, saying “Guara was supposed to be the old hag. He’s supposed to be inside in the lake behind and the old hag is over.” If Gabhra was indeed a hag, it must have been she who fell into the lake. There remains however the question of gender. But that is for another day.
Did this indicate that the lakes were already named when the rock slide occurred? There are techniques that might be used to gain some sort of date for the event. If the lakes were named following it, what was the signification of the name Gabhrach? Goat-like or abounding in goats?
This story could be a very old one indeed.
Interestingly, in 2006, part of Gaddagh Bridge was again washed out in a flood and had to be completely rebuilt in 2008.
About the author
Liam Ó Bharáin spent almost 40 years working with the Geological Survey of Ireland on all aspects of Quaternary geology. He also has strong interests in Irish History and Archaeology, Irish Folklore, Irish Placenames, Gaelic and English Literature, Irish Traditional Music, Gardening and DIY. He has published many books and scientific papers; and also short stories and poems mainly in Irish. Among other community activities, he spent many years as Cathaoirleach of Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne.
The Hag’s Leap story is superb and is enormously enhanced by the excellent visuals
An old legend told by a man of the valleys interpreted by a sympathetic geologist with the eye, knowledge and wisdom to make the connection.
This is Kerry story at its best.