The River Feale – Tales of Love and Legend.

By Tom Dillon

ASSISTANT DISTRICT DIRECTOR: joe murphy / EDITOR: RORY D’ARCY

Feale River, Listowel, Ireland

The scenic beauty of the River Feale as it flows through North Kerry has inspired generations of literary figures. Its graceful waters flow with legends of love and the history of princesses, earls, poets, playwrights and knights. 

Known as Ireland’s literary capital, Listowel’s most famous stalwarts of the pen found source in the river which flowed by their home town. 

Bryan McMahon wrote the song ‘My Silver River Feale’ while John B. Keane loved to spend time along its banks where he composed the following lines: 

All over Feale river the shadows are falling. 
And deep in Shanowen, the vixen is calling.
The sweet night is young, love; the night is forever.
And shadows are falling all over Feale river.

A Legend of Love and Loss.

The River Feale is named after a mythical princess named Fial – she belonged to a noble race of people known as the Milesians who, according to legend ,landed in Ireland over 3,500 years ago. When Fial was bathing in the river one day, she noticed she was being watched from the riverbank. So, out of concern for her modesty, she ventured further out into its waters but moved beyond her depth and was drowned. Tragically, the spectator was no stranger but her husband and true love, Lughaidh. In his grief, he brought her lifeless body to the shore and composed a keen (lament) in her memory. The story is preserved in its original Irish in the ‘Leabhar Gabhala’, or ‘Book of Invasions’, the earliest version of which dates back to the 11th century. 

The Fitzmaurices of Duagh.

Some accounts hold that the place where Fial  drowned was in the river near Duagh, known in former times as Duagh-na-fely, which translates from the Irish as ‘the black ford of the Feale’. Situated roughly halfway between Listowel and Abbeyfeale, the village of Duagh and the surrounding area was once the property of the Fitzmaurices, a branch of the Fitzmaurices, Earls of Kerry. Residing at Duagh House, now demolished, one of the most well-known members of the family, Major General John Fitzmaurice, served under the Duke of Wellington during the Napoleonic Wars and reputedly fired the first shot by the British Army during the Waterloo campaign in 1815. 

Another celebrated member of the Duagh line was the playwright George Fitzmaurice (1877 – 1963) who lived at Kilcara House, just outside the village. His father, also George, was a Church of Ireland rector while his mother was Roman Catholic and according to the custom of the day, George and his brothers were brought up in the Church of Ireland and his sisters as Roman Catholics. The family lived in Kilcara up to his father’s death in 1891. 

‘Master George’ as he was known was remembered in local stories composing his plays in the woods and in the fields of the family farm which bounded the Feale. Notably shy and introverted, the people he met during his childhood in the area, and in later life when on numerous occasions he returned to stay with family, inspired many of the characters which populated his short stories and plays. 

Having moved to Dublin in 1901, Fitzmaurice secured a job with the Civil Service and later fought in the First World War. A popular dramatist with the Abbey Theatre, his most well-known works included ‘The Country Dressmaker’ (based on a dressmaker from Duagh), ‘Twixt the Giltenans and the Carmodys’ and ‘The Moonlighter’. The last of the Fitzmaurices of Duagh, he was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin following his death in 1963.

Of Earls and Knights.

The banks of the River Feale were the setting for another romantic , yet tragic love story associated with the Earls of Desmond. In the early years of the 15th century Thomas Fitzgerald, 6th Earl of Desmond, was riding on a hunt through a stretch of countryside on the banks of the Feale between Duagh and Abbeyfeale .Having lost his way, he was obliged to call at the house of one of his tenants named McCormack. The river weaved its magic and the Earl was met at the door by the tenant’s beautiful daughter, Catherine – it was love at first sight and she became his wife soon after. 

However, under his family’s code of inheritance, Thomas was deemed to have married beneath his social rank and was consequently dispossessed of his lands and titles. In 1411, the couple left their native land and set sail for France. This tale of true love inspired Ireland’s national poet Thomas Moore, whose paternal ancestors hailed from North Kerry, to compose the following song in the first quarter of the 19th century: 

By the Feale's wave beknighted
No star in the skies
To thy door my love lighted,
I first saw those eyes,
Some voice whispered o'er me,
As the threshold I cross'd,
There was ruin before me;
If I loved I was lost

Tradition holds that the words of this celebrated song were written by Moore when he was a guest of the Knight of Kerry at his mansion at Ballinruddery, near Listowel, which overlooked the Feale. The then Knight, Maurice Fitzgerald, whose ancestors were kinsmen of the Earls of Desmond, was unfortunately away when the poet stayed overnight in 1823 ,however he recorded the beauty of the Knight’s estate and remarked on the ‘excellent salmon’ he enjoyed at dinner during his visit.  

From Ireland’s national poet to the literary sons and daughters of Ireland’s literary capital, the tales of love and legend associated with the Feale have inspired a river of words which spans the centuries.

2 comments

  1. The Valley of Knockanure is a tragic ballad commemorating an atrocity during the War of Independence at Gortaglanna near Knockanure, County Kerry, Ireland.

  2. The River Feale – Tales of Love & Legend. Tom Dillon meanders like his beloved River Feale. The celebration by the poets. The sad story of the mythical princess after whom the river is named. The hugely contrasting Major General John Fitzmaurice and the self-effacing playwright of a very different Ireland George Fitzmaurice. The Earl of Desmond whose love of a commoner lost him title but was immortalised by the national poet Thomas Moore. Love, legend and history interwoven in the literary magic of north Kerrry. It would take a library to unravel it all.

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