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.