The Legend of Ross Castle
My father was not known for his kindliness; the Black Baron, they called him, and with good reason. He couldn’t abide lawlessness, demanded obedience, and ruled with an iron hand.
That grim, grey castle was not the place for a young girl to grow up in. For the most part, I was left alone, save for my poor governess. I was always tricking her with false errands, that I might escape her sharp eyes and those unforgiving walls.
Wandering the shores of my beloved Lough Sheelin, its crystal water bestowing kind kisses upon my toes, the land folding its soft green hills around me like a cloak, the trees bending in obeisance beneath that vast blue arch of sky, whispering their fluttering prayers as I passed by, it was impossible to see the danger.
I was a prize to his enemies, the wily O’Reillys, so he liked to say. I looked into his cold eyes, and believed that kidnap could only result in death… most likely mine. He told me in no uncertain terms what they would do to me first. I protested that no human being could display such brutality towards another. He just laughed, but there was no mirth in it. I was left in no doubt my father would not be moved to bargain for my release, nor waste time and effort in a rescue.
Even so, I risked my life as often as possible for those precious moments of freedom. I grew daring. I wandered further. Recklessly, I visited the village of Ross, drawn by an ever growing need for companionship, social interaction, and what the Irish fondly called ‘craic’.
Contrary to my father’s assertions, the village folk were kind, caring. They welcomed me into their homes and their lives. And that was where I discovered the true measure of the kind of man my father was.
I asked them about the cross under the tree. At first, they did not want to tell me, but I made them do it, and after, I wished I had not.
One day, it happened that a loaf of bread was stolen from a woman in the village. My father, who was hunting with his men nearby, heard the commotion, and went to investigate. On the way, he found a beggar asleep under a tree, and accused him of the crime.
The poor man wept, protested his innocence, pleaded for mercy, but my father’s face was hard as a hammer, and the place where his heart should have been was empty. He ordered the vagrant to be hung to death from the branches of the very tree under which he had just sheltered, and thus my fathers justice was done.
Too late, the thief was discovered to have been a stray hound. The people of the village were sorrowful, and regretted such a cruel and needless death. They carved a stone cross and set it over the man’s grave in the shadow of the tree.
I left that sad place, and went walking with my thoughts beside the River Inny, and there on the bridge which crosses that shining band of water, I met Orwin. My fate was sealed the moment I looked into his eyes.
Green as the river water, they were, and deep as the bed of Lough Sheelin. This I know, for I fell into them just as I fell into his arms, and believe me when I say that his embrace was deepest of all.
He had that skin only the Irish have, pale and even as milk, and when he laughed, the whole world lit up, and he shook his red-gold hair into a fiery cloud which rivalled even the glow of the sun.
We chatted on the bridge until dusk, then he walked me back along the river, but not all the way home. As the son of an O’Reilly chieftain, he was exactly the villain my father expected to kidnap me. Orwin and his clan were the savage native Irish my father had built his castle in defence against.
We were young, and in love. That made us foolish. As time passed, spring exploded into summer, then faded into autumn. Winter flexed its grip over the land, cruel and violent like my father. As storm after storm cracked the sky and rocked the earth, our desire grew, and our secret became harder to bear.
There seemed only one solution. One night, we stole a boat and made our escape out across the lough. On the far shores, we intended to seek a new life together as man and wife.
We cared not how the tempest stirred the lake into a wild beast. We would have risked any danger. The waters rose and fell, bucked and swelled, while our little curragh gallantly attempted to ride the peaks and troughs. But the rain came down hard and soon filled the frail little craft. Orwin battled bravely with the oar while she floundered out of control, but the current snatched it from his grasp. We were helplessly adrift, far from shore, with no choice but to accept our fate.
In the dark and the wind and the wet, we could do nothing but cling each to the other as the bones of the boat were sucked into the depths beneath us. It wasn’t long however, before the cold ate into our feeble flesh, rendering us weak as new babes, and tore us easily apart. The waves bore us rapidly away to opposite corners of the lake, so it seemed.
I tried hard to stay alive. I called Orwin’s name, but the water was in my mouth, my ears, my eyes, and the roar of the storm and rush of the water was all I heard and felt and saw. I reached out with desperate hands, searching for the touch of my beloved, but he was gone and all I found was empty water.
I didn’t remember being dragged from Lough Sheelin’s vicious clutches. I awoke three days later in my bedchamber, and my first words were of Orwin. They told me the storm had released his body, allowed it to wash limp and pale upon the shore, that his family had carried it away.
I looked out the window, and I no longer loved the lake. The grim, grey castle was my prison, and I determined it would be my tomb. I locked myself in my chamber, allowing no one access. Neither food nor wine passed my lips. I drifted into sleep, and in my dreams, I danced in Orwin’s arms.
They say my father regretted my death, but I neither know nor care if it is true. They also say I walk the shore and haunt the castle, looking always for my lost love. There’s only one way you’ll find out if that is true…
Last Saturday night, I went to a dinner party at Ross Castle in Co Westmeath (not to be confused with Ross Castle of Kilarney, which I will tell you about another time). This castle has quite a history, not to mention ghosts and legends galore!
Inside, it is full of antique furniture, and the stone walls are adorned with numerous antlers and stuffed animals. It has four guest bedrooms, and a lounge and dining hall complete with roaring fire.
The building of the castle was begun in 1553 by Richard Nugent, 12th Baron of Delvin, aka the Black Baron, as a defence against the native Irish of Cavan.
The Nugent family were descendants of Gilbert de Nogent, who left France to join William the Conqueror in his famous 1066 invasion of England. Gilbert was later awarded titles and lands, including the barony of Delvin, as thanks for his role in the conquest.
However, Ross Castle is most famous for its association with Myles ‘the Slasher’ O’Reilly.
The O’Reilly’s (in Irish Ó Raghaillagh, from raigh meaning ‘arm’ and aillagh meaning ‘strong/ powerful’) were descended from Conchobhar, King of Connacht. They ruled the ancient kingdom of Breifne (east), whilst their arch enemies the O’Rourkes were the ruling family of Breifne (west).
In 1584, Breifne O’Reilly became County Cavan, named after its primary town. Breifne in Irish means ‘hilly country’. The seat of the O’Reilly family was located on Tullymongan Hill, just outside of Cavan town.
The Slasher was the son of Brian O’Reilly and Mary Plunkett. He is famous for defending the Bridge of Finnea, which is near Ross Castle, from enemy British forces. The story goes that with just one hundred men, he held off a Cromwellian force of over a thousand soldiers.
It is said that the night before the battle, he and his men spent the night at Ross Castle.
There is quite a little twist to the Slasher’s story. Some say he was killed in that battle. However, it is also said that after the battle, he married Catherine O’Reilly, and went on to have three sons and two daughters. Yet another story claims that he escaped the battle altogether, and went to France, where he died some years later.
According to rumour, Myles was buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s Abbey in Cavan, which now lies in ruins. Interestingly, his oldest son, Colonel John O’Reilly, who fought in the Battle of the Boyne in 1691, was buried in 1717 in the graveyard of the now very ruinous Kill church.
It is known that John was seventy years of age when he died, putting the year of his birth as 1647, three years after the Battle of the Bridge of Finnea, thus proving that Myles must have lived beyond it.
But the most intriguing thing about John O’Reilly’s burial is that there are two tombstones with his name carved on them… which begs the questions, which one is he under, and who is lying under the other one?