Cethlenn’s Island and other Local Lake Legends

Enniskillen is a town which lies just an hour’s drive from where I live, over the border in Co Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. In Irish, its name is Inis Cethlin, meaning ‘Cethlenn’s Island’. On this particular day, I was so struck by the darkness and brooding, sombre atmosphere of the view as I drove over the bridge, that I had to find a place to park and go back to take some pictures. You wouldn’t think it was taken at mid-day, would you?

Located on the Lough Erne Lower, Enniskillen was named after Cethlenn of the Crooked Teeth, who was the wife of Balor of the Fomori. Cethlenn is the Irish version of the girl’s name Kathleen, popularised by the anglicised Caitlin.

The story goes that Cethlenn was out raiding with her husband when they were attacked by an enemy. Balor was killed, but Cethlenn managed to escape, although she sustained grievous injuries.  She plunged into the river, hoping to swim to safety, but made it onto a small island, where she died. Thus the island was named after her, and in time, the city grew upon the very site of her death.

Balor was said to have been killed in the Second Battle of Moytura by the leader of the Tuatha de Danann warriors, Lugh Lamfadha. Lugh was also his grandson. Thus I suspect the skirmish the local legend has her involved in and which leads to her death was most probably the great battle.

According to legend, Cethlenn was a Seer who foretold her husband’s death and defeat at the hands of the Danann, but he refused to accept her warning. She was obviously a female warrior, too, for in the battle, she succeeded in wounding the mighty Dagda.

Although he survived, and went on to become High King, the wound never properly healed, and forty years later he was to succumb and die as a result of this injury. It is told that, being a sorceress, she may have known how to use poisons, and could have treated her weapons with such a substance.

This little island has a derelict house on it. Whether this is the actual location of Cethlenn’s Island, or it is buried beneath the bricks and concrete of the town nearby, I don’t know. It is a beautiful and atmospheric spot, though, an oasis of calm in a busy bustling city, and represents the story perfectly.

Lough Ramor (Ramhar in Irish) is only five minutes down the road in Co Cavan, and boasts several islands and crannogs.  Its ancient name is Muinreamhair, which means literally, ‘fat neck’. According to legend, it was named after a chieftain who ruled the area around the lake, and referred to his great strength.

Ancient texts claim that Lough Ramor first ‘burst forth’ nine years after Nemed came to Ireland, a few hundred years after ‘the Great Flood’. There are said to be 32 islands on the lake, the two largest of them are known as the Great Island, and Woodward’s Island, although an earlier name for the latter is said by locals to be  Tighe’s Island, and could possibly be a crannog.

During the C3rd, the territory was given to a fierce warrior tribe called the Luigni of Sliabh Guire, in return for defending the frontiers of the Kingdom of Tara. This they did, but seems in later years, they took their role to the extreme, and began to plunder churches.

During the C5th, an early Christian church was founded on Tighe’s Island, possibly by the saints Brandubh and Coluin, whose festival day on the 6th Feb was celebrated in the area. Being surrounded by water, it was isolated and defensible.

In 845, the Luigni attacked Tighe’s island and established a stronghold there. At this point, the High King, Maelseachlainn mac Maelruanaidh had had enough of their savage ways, and led an army against them,  demolishing the island in the process.

The unassuming little village of Lavey (from the Irish laimhaígh or leamhán, meaning ‘elm’ tree) lies along the N3 on the way to Cavan. It seems to have been the site of a vibrant community in ancient times, and its small lake boasts a perfect example of a crannog. You can clearly see the line of rushes leading to the shore delineating the route of a submerged path, although whether it was submerged intentionally as a means of protection at the time of construction, or simply subject to fluctuating water levels, is debatable.

Lavey is associated with the tragic story of St Dymphna, who was the daughter of a pagan chieftain and devout Christian mother. You may notice a bit of pagan-bashing going on in this story!

Dymphna was reared by her mother in the ways of the catholic church. Sadly, her mother died when Dymphna was only fourteen. Her grief-stricken father became quite mentally unstable in his grief. When persuaded by his advisers to remarry, he insisted on marrying the woman who looked most like his departed wife. This happened to by Dymphna.

She fled to safety, accompanied by her priest, Gerebernus, and a couple of servants. She sought refuge in Lavey for a while, before continuing on her journey across the sea and into Belgium. Meanwhile, her enraged father gave chase and caught up with her in the Belgian town of Gheel. Gerebernus was killed as he tried to protect Dymphna, and when she resisted him, her father raised his sword in fury and struck off her head. She was only fifteen.

The local townspeople buried her remains in a cave, and later moved them to a church for safekeeping, where, it was said, many miraculous healings of the mentally ill occurred at her graveside.

In Lavey, a chapel was built in her honour over a burial mound said to represent her grave in Gheel. Nothing of it remains now, but a new church was built and named in her honour. Nearby, there is a holy well dedicated to saint Dymphna, which is said to bring healing to those suffering from mental illness.

 

57 Comments on “Cethlenn’s Island and other Local Lake Legends

  1. As they say in the county, in Summer the lakes are in Fermanagh, and in Winter Fermanagh is in the lakes. The whole county another atmospheric place, full of ruined castles, manors, churches, chapels etc. Yet to meet any of the wandering spirits there, but up the road in neighbouring Tyrone, bumped into a few. These were always border countries between ancient Irish tribes, and numerous outlander invaders, long before the present kerfuffles. Hope the stories and legends continue to live on and what limited archaeology done in area confirms, they are more than just stories, myths, and legends, but slightly changed oral testimonies of the hard past lives of our mutual ancestors.

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    • So do I! You sound like you have a story or two to tell! I am so close to the border, yetvmy explorations have not really taken me in that direction yet. I havent even been to Emain Macha (Navan Fort), and thats not so far away. I must put that right next year. Archaeology shows that man spread into Ireland via the north, so I’m sure it must have a wealth of ancient stories and legends waiting to be brought to light. I LOVE your comment about the lakes being in Fermanagh in the summer, but Fermanagh is in the lakes in Winter… wonderful! Thanks for the chat!

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      • Learnt the phrase from a small circulation book about Fermanagh in WWII. Yes Emain Macha an atmospheric place. Visited it and the visitors’ centre several times. The path that takes you from centre/car park through narrow banks and lines of trees, and then opens out on the vista of the mound. Can still feel a little of it’s electricity, like many of the old stone circles.

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  2. Pingback: Ali Isaac, Guardian of Irish Mythology: Cethlenn’s Island and other Local Lake Legends | The Linden Chronicles: The Wolf's Moon/The River

  3. Loved the stories. Don’t you think that stories liked to a place make a lot of sense most of the time? They seem to bind earth and people. It’s a nice thing, I think.

    And I love those photos 🙂

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    • Thank you Sarah. I certainly do agree with you there. I love that these stories have survived the ages, and somehow the places themselves seem more grounded with the names and stories attatched to them. Its a shame that so much has been lost though.

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  4. Fabulous photos and a lovely post, Ali. We’re hoping to move up to your part of the world next year. The lakes and forests are so beautiful and there are that many, it would take a lifetime to explore them all.

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  5. Your gorgeous photos are so atmospheric Ali, they illustrate your telling of this fascinating legend perfectly. And you’re right, you would never think it was mid-day!

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  6. I always enjoy your legend re-tellings, Ali! The top image is amazing – so dark and brooding, you can almost feel the atmosphere. And I love hearing about female warriors as well, I love that they’ve identified many Viking burials to be female, rather than male. I think this concept of women as the ‘weaker sex’ is quite a modern conspiracy!

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  7. Wow, Ali. There’s a light in the darkness of this great watery place in Northern Island. Do you know what I mean? Thanks for sharing, my friend.

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  8. “Cethlenn was out raiding with her husband” – as one does, presumably?

    – Hey neighbors, what’s up?
    – Just off for a spot of raiding. Care to join us?
    – Nah, I’m out golfing all day today. Will there be pillaging and murder?
    – *laughs* What kind of raiding would it be otherwise?
    – *laughs back* Fair enough. Wanna come around in the evening? We can throw a boar in the barbie and you can tell us all about it.
    – It’s a deal. Catch you later!
    – Happy raiding!

    Life in ancient Ireland must have been a blast!

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    • She didnt stand a chance,,did she? I dont understand though, how being murdered by her own father makes her a martyr, and a saint. Unless like Patrick, she’s one of those many Irish saints who arent really a saint… although she wasnt really a holy person at all, just a Christian. But in some stories she managed to set up a hospital in Gheel for the mentally ill before her father caught up with her. Clearly she was quite mature for her age lol!

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      • I was at a convent school where the years were divided into houses. They scrapped the idea altogether in my first year, by which time the houses were just colours (I was in Red House—how original can you get?). Before that though the houses were given the names of ‘inspirational’ young women. Red House used to be called after some poor Italian kid who was butchered by her rapist who took things further than he originally intended because she put up no resistance, not wanting to get him into trouble. The mutterings of ‘WTF!’ etc etc made the nuns rethink their value system. Poor Maria Thingy became just the stupid little cow who should have given him a kick in the goolies and then denounced him to the police. As it was the little saint died of her wounds and her aggressor was executed for murder. Smart move kid.

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        • Executed for her murder, but not the rape? Perhaps if she hadnt died, he would never have been punished at all. Remember all the poor women made pregnant by their rapists who were sent to the Magdalene laundries and their babies torn from them and allowed to die or given as slaves for a donation… ahem,I mean ‘adopted’, while the man who raped her got off scot-free. I cant believe they thought that poor Italian girl was inspirational. What could possibly be seen as inspirational about being raped and murdered? Unbelievable!

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          • I don’t suppose they were very enlightened in C19th Italy, and rapists probably never got their just deserts unless the girl’s family took the law into their own hands. Our attitude was that a) she should never have given in without a fight b) it wasn’t up to her to ‘forgive’ and keep schtum so he could go and do it again to some other kid c) if she was really going to be saintly and ‘forgive’ she wouldn’t have blabbed his name before she kicked it. The nuns got it wrong all down the line. Thank goodness they’re not making many of them any more, most women expect rather more out of life!

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            • Wouldnt you be just devastated if your child came to you and said, “I’m going to be a nun.” After you picked yourself up off the floor laughing and realised she was serious, that is!

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            • I’d lock her up until she came to her senses. Actually, the scenario is so difficult to imagine—even for me! They’re more likely to say they’re converting to Islam. I’d leave home if that happened.

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            • Any girl who lets her boyfriend insist she converts, covers herself from head to toe in a brown blanket and stays at home to bring up his babies is probably going to be quite phlegmatic about the Magdalene laundries—just different forms of misogynistic servitude and abuse. But yes, those nuns were the devil incarnate. Just goes to show what emotional frustration and misery can do to a person 🙂

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            • Not wanting intervene ladies but a true story for you; my brother in law married against his parents’ wishes a girl brought up in a tribal village in West Africa (that in itself is a novel). It was a strict Muslim community. Somehow she managed to reach Paris with an ‘uncle’ and ended up in Brixton in a health food shop where Pete met her. She hated how she had been treated by the tribe, and saw nothing in Islam for her. So, obviously she became a card carrying Catholic. As you do. My niece, their one child, is an utter love but I was terrified (as was her dad) when my sister in law announced she wanted her to be a nun (she’d have been about 14 at the time). Happily she now works for the Foreign Office, shares a flat with a couple of girlfriends and is as well adjusted as any 22 year old today. We (Binny and me) have some full and frank discussion around the merits or otherwise of organised religion but she cannot see any parallels between the two codes. It’s a funny old world.

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            • Well theres nowt so queer as folk! As they say where I come from. And truth is stranger than fiction, as you have just proved. You cant beat a good cliché…

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            • All religions are scary. Best to have nothing to do with any of them and just be a person, a thoughtful, humane, compassionate human being. Why do people insist on putting bells on everything?

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  9. Wonderful post, Ali! I didn’t know any of this history, really exciting to learn. 🙂 Thanks for putting these kinds of posts together. I’m particularly appreciative because I’m so interested but don’t have the time to do all the research you do.

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    • Thanks Niamh! I am just curious about a place, if it touches me in some way. I have been to Enniskillen many times, and although I always thought it picturesque, never really thought about it too much. That day, it was so dark and brooding, but in a beautiful way, I just had to stop and explore, and then when I got home, I wanted to know more. What saddens me is that in my own local area, our pre-Christian stories seem to have been lost, and its practically impossible to dig anything up.Mind you, when you do find something, its pretty spectacular, like the pagan cult of Brigid surviving into the early C19th… who would have thought that in this conservative, traditional Catholic area?

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  10. Really enjoy reading about all the people and place names, Tara comes up in books as does Inis, that’s I read. Tara Road sprang to mind by Maeve Binchy and Adrienne Vaughan made up an island beginning with the word Inis in her Heartfelt series. Great post.

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    • Thanks, Rosie! 😊 You are very well read. Inis actually does mean island, and in fact one of Ireland’s ancient names is Inis Fail, after the coronation stone, the Lia Fail. In the era when crannogs were used, there seems to have been no distinction between natural and manmade, they were all referred to as Inis.

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  11. Great stories, great camera work Ali. The combination is compelling. Ireland sure has a lot of lakes, not to speak of bogs and temporary flooding in the low-lying parts in winter. No wonder there abound legends and myths around them. In Jersey natural lakes are rare – I think St Ouen’s Pond is our only one.

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    • Well I’m sure it has its fair share of legends, Roy, particularly since it is the only one on the island… it must have been regarded with extreme awe and respect, or suspicion, depending on the mindset at the time. I’ve lived most of my life around lakes, having moved from the edge of England’s lake district to the middle of Ireland’s lake district. The pictures I took on my mobile phone… I dont have a real camera sadly, but they turned out pretty well. It all depends on the light; in low light this camera seems to take great pictures. On beautiful sunny days when I am desperate to capture the joy of what I can see, the pictures turn out crap! 😏

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