lakedwellers3

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 meaningworm/ 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 C17th.

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.

54 thoughts on “The Lake Dwellers of Ancient Ireland

    1. Thank you so much! We see crannogs on almost every lake around here. Most people arent aware of what they are, they just look like heavily overgrown small islands. I’d love to live on one… but only if I could have all my modern conveniences too! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  1. That was an exciting journey reading your post, history, Myth and archaeology all entwined, you bring the magic of Ireland to life, look forward to reading more of your enticing posts.

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  2. The folklore tied to Ireland is so intriguing. I have always wanted to visit your country and explore old sites. Some of the creatures you mentioned above I’d hadn’t heard of before and the history behind the crannogs is interesting. What a rich and fascinating heritage Ireland has!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. My goodness the “Water Horse” of all the creatures you mentioned in your post was the most frightening to me. What a terrifying creature and what a way it takes you to your death with you not being able to dismount.

    Such wonderful information and so much mystery in your post, Ali.

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    1. I know… I hope this was just the imagination of our ancestors and not some real weird now extinct animal! I heard that they used these kinds of stories to frighten children away from deep water and strangers.

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  4. What an incredible post, Ali! I re-read it! I’m learning so much about Irish mythology from you – and it’s great since it is now part of my heritage, too. My husband and I are long overdue for a visit there. One question: I assume the main industry of people living on the crannogs was fishing…or not? Despite the monsters supposedly living in the water, these people didn’t seem to have much fear of them!

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    1. Thanks Noelle! Yes, fishing was an easy source of food for them. But there is also evidence of crop farming on the lake shores, and animal farming too. With regard to the monsters, I suspect that these stories may actually originate much later, possibly in medieval times, but that is just my guess.

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  5. Love Ali. Even Sacha’s comments make sense! After my few days in Edinburgh the family are decamping to an island off the Scottish coast we visit annually which has a crannog in the channel between it and the mainland. It’s but a little lump of shingle but I’ll try and catch a piccie for you and post it.

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  6. Interesting that the Tuatha de Danann came from the land of the Lake Dwellers
    Lake Dwellers are found in quite a few places in Europe and worldwide.
    The Capital City of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlán, was on a Lake surrounded by artificial islands where they grew their crops.
    But in Europe, Finland is often referred to as ‘The Land of a Thousand Lakes’…

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  7. Another lovely post, Ali! And the crannogs are gorgeous, I love the idea of living on my own little island in the middle of a lake. As for St Patrick driving the serpents from Ireland, I heard somewhere that serpents was a euphemism for Druids, and it described him converting the country to Christianity and casting out all the pagans. However, I could be barking up completely the wrong tree – you would know better than me, for sure! 🙂

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    1. Thats right… you may have read it on my post The Serpent in Irish Mythology lol! There was a wave of serpent banishing across Europe by the early Christian saints, so perhaps thats indeed what was happening, and St Pat jumped on the bandwagon!

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    1. No, they were in use on Scotland? England and Wales, but not to the same extent as Ireland. Maybe they liked being near the land of the Sidhe, and didnt become aftaid of them till medieval times. Thanks Nick, glad you liked it, and that it brought back memories for you. 😊

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          1. You need to have the photo online first. As long as it’s available through the web, you can simply copy the address into the comment, and presto – the photo appears inline.

            The easiest way is to upload the photo into your blog media library. Even if you don’t actually post it within a post, it will still have its own address – you can see that under URL. This is what you need to copy in order to share it.

            Drop me an email if you need any help doing it, and I’ll send you some screenshots 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  8. This was a FANTASTIC post, start to finish. I adore the photo. I want it printed on a postcard, or poster, I want it on my wall. I love the colour mix, and the mermaid.

    I love that you put photos in too. I am such a visual person and I was wanting to see the crannogs, so that was fab – solidified what I thought – and actually I wasnt too far wrong.

    Here’s another thought – gold. Is Ireland or was Ireland gold rich? IF they were this may have contributed to another factor for living on the lakes. There’s a type of gold – monoatomic which has healing properties. It was why the gods came to Earth in the first place, and is often found in water. I was just thinking about the connection to your dueanan (never know how to spell those words) and their links to the gods – may fit… duno. Worth some thought – I have a gold post lined up!

    Interested to find out more about the merrows – I have what I thought were mermaids in my novel. BUT they are a hybrid between mermaid and siren… for a specific reason, so maybe they are merrows… will have to do some googling to see the difference between the three.

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    1. Thanks Sacha! Yes they did have gold in Ireland, omg Sacha you should see the collection of ancient gold in the National Museum of Archaeology, theres loads of it and its stunning! And Im sure its only a tiny portion of whats been found. So thats very interesting, it could be another reason why gold was so highly prized… I’m excited by that thought! Never heard of it before, but a brilliant possibility!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Hey Sacha, we sure where gold rich, and still are. There is an estimated six tonnes of Irish owned gold in a London Vault. You mentioned healing properties?

      Am I right in asssuming that you are talking about Colloidal Gold and/or Silver? I have heard it has certain health properties when taken, look forward to reading it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am indeed. My dad is one of the biggest sellers of it in Europe and fast becoming the world. I take all the noble minerals in colloid form, it’s changed my life. And I was extraordinarily skeptical! But post to follow. I hear you are writing your first novel… How’s it going? 🙂

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        1. Thats deadly, I took it some years ago, but not long enough to take effect. I always thought their must be something too it, when you look at the werewolf lore, Silver was the best way to kill the Wolf/Disease. Cant wait to read it. 🙂

          The Novel? is more of a long term side project, its just an idea im working on, who knows were it will go. Ali was kind enough to have a quick look at it. I still need to learn more about writting though. If I do get something published Im hoping it will be Diary of a Ruinhunter. In my early teens I was heavily inspired by Simon Marsden’s Ghosthunter Book. So it will be a tribute to him 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Ah yes, the old silver detox… I just finished one! was a bit rough in the middle, but feel so much better for it!

            Absolutely agree, and the wolf comparison is such a good point.

            Sounds like a well worthy project, nothing like writing a story that’s close to your heart – its always so much better that way 😀 I shall look out for progress updates 😀

            Liked by 2 people

            1. Cheers Sacha, Im gonna try syndicating my ruinhunter stuff with some local or national newspapers, to get a feel for how it would be recieved. You’ll never guess who put that idea in my head 🙂
              Hopefully next year I can start compiling a working draft and maybe do a few re-shoots?

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