Last night I was reminded, via the Twitter Machine, of a great two-parter written by Christiaan Corlett – this time last year – entitled ‘Lughnasa at St Marcan’s Lough, Clew Bay, Co. Mayo’ (See Part 1 here and Part 2 here). St. Marcan’s Lough is the location of a medieval ecclesiastical site, now almost gone, on the shores of Clew Bay, Co. Mayo. Remains of possibly two churches and a leacht recorded in the 19th & 20th centuries, no longer survive. An altar and holy well (Tober Marcan) show some sign of partial preservation and a cairn/pilgrim station located on the loughs foreshore is still exposed at low tide. A Childrens Burial Ground is depicted in the vicinity along with a crannóg/platform within the Lough itself.
There is considerable Lughnasadh type folklore and traditions associated with the site, with a particular emphasis on cattle being driven in the waters of the lough, originally a freshwater lake (during the first week of August – as a curative or preventative protection/charm) in and around the cairn/monument and holy well. Corletts articles goes into great detail on this and he draws parallels with other similar traditions and accounts of horse/cattle rituals at other suspected Lughnasadh sites in the country.
St. Marcan, as he notes, is not attested in Irish historical sources and it seems to me that it is likely to be a corrupted personification of something else. In this case, as Corlett rightly points out, the underlying etymological attributes strongly suggest Old Irish marc (‘horse’,’mare’, steed’) or marcach/marcaid (‘rider’,’horseman’). Similar equine associated cognates are well-known in other medieval irish literary motifs which portray and fuse kingship with horse imagery.
St. Marcan’s Lough, with its traditions of swimming cattle, together with its Lughnasadh dates and later local folklore involving tales of St. Brigid, St. Marcan, cattle, milking and beast ‘cures’ all seem to point towards a partial survival or echoing of older traditions. Yet something about the whole set up gave me pause for thought. With such an equine etymology in the local placename, why the overwhelming cattle tradition, along with bovine/dairy offerings in the local folklore and practice? As I was reading it, I brought up a few online maps to have a look around the site. Almost immediately, an aspect of the toponymical landscape jumped out at me… and within a few minutes of checking around, I had copped a little something which, to the best of my knowledge, has not been noticed previously.
Above: Google Streetview of Lough Marcan, Rosclave. Holy Well at roadside in foreground. Croagh Patrick in background.
Weaving the evidence
Lough Marcan and its ecclesiastical monuments are located in the townland of Rosclave which is attested in anglicised form as far back as the 1580s. It is translated as Ros Cléibh (Ros: ‘a wooded height or a promontory on shore of a lake or river’ and Cléibh/Clíab:
generally used for ‘basket’, but also ‘skep, bee-hive, cradle, coracle, currach, rib-framework’). Leaving aside the coracle/currach angle (nice hint of water based activity) there is something interesting about the archaeology of the others – not the various meanings, but the physical morphology of the objects themselves.
Baskets, cradles, beehives and skeps were all woven objects in the early medieval period. Now compare it to another related Old Irish word Clíath: generally used in the context of ‘hurdle’, but also ‘wattle’, ‘woven fence, palisade or outwork’, ‘bridge’, ‘stretcher/litter’, or ‘framework’. Such meanings and associations could suggest that we are dealing with variations on a theme involving some kind of woven/hurdle feature in the vicinity; a type of loose structure (known elsewhere in the country) that was used at riverine crossing points.
Heads or Tails?
Now take a look at the neighbouring townland to its south, that of Rossanrubble, (incorrectly labeled Rossantubble on the map) which encompasses the adjacent land spit/promontory on the opposite side of Rosclave river channel. Rossanrubble is given an Irish rendering of Ros an Riobaill (Ros, no doubt as above) but Riobaill is not so clear. A quick look at the placenames database archive reveals that its earliest anglicised attestation suggests a corruption of Earbail, meaning ‘tail’; thereby giving us Ros an Earbaill ‘The Promontory of the (cow?) Tail’. And it is when you look at the older attestations of Earbail, such as erball and iorbol that it starts to get really interesting.
The term is attested in various early Irish sources, including the ninth century Sanas Cormaic/Cormacs Glossary, early Irish Laws (Senchus Mór and Athgabhail) and the Táin Bó Cúalnge. Various uses include ‘a tail’, ‘tail and fell and udder (of a cow)’, ‘from ear to tail (of a bull)’, ‘the rump’ as well as Irish versions of biblical passages Rev 9:10 (‘tails’) and Exod 29:22 (‘fat tails’). Now, it could be a literal nod to the overall shape of the promontory, which (sort of) looks like a cow’s tail; but you have to ask the question, how many medieval people would/could have actually seen it from above (unless they were looking at it from atop Croagh Patrick and they had really really good oblique eyesight!).
Holy Cow Batman
It seems to me that, if one was swimming cattle from one side of the holy river/lough to another along some sort of underwater hurdle/trackway, past a monument and well in order to ritually protect/bless them; you would perhaps want to submerge them up to their udders/tails. Both practically and for ritual purification purposes (‘Get a nice good lick of the holy water under ye there now, Betsy’). Depending on which direction this was done, it may just have given rise to the placenames on either side of the lough/river. Are we perhaps then, looking at a residual echo of something akin to the Lughnasadh/cattle traditions previously mentioned? Something that has been forgotten despite being originally enshrined in local Dindsenchas (placename lore)?
Pull the Udder One
There’s something very suggestive about the later accounts of ritual offerings/depositions of butter and spancels within the lough. Butter, from milk, from a cow’s udder – the most important economic produce of a living cow; and the spancel ties from their legs – used during milking. Milk, fertility, future health, good yields, cures, blessings etc. Submerging cattle up to their udders/tails. It doesn’t get more early medieval/Lughnasadh than that, really.
As far the Marcan/Horse element goes, I’m still at a loss. Judging by other early medieval kingship tropes/metaphors, though, we could very well be looking at an even older echo; perhaps even something hinting at the local kingship that inspired the location of the ecclesiastical site in the first place. At this remove, so much is lost to us. What is fascinating to me though (and something I will never tire of) is the way that local traditions, names and landscapes can sometimes preserve hints of fossilised folklore. Elements that may at times become lost to local cognition and awareness, but nevertheless hanging around, waiting patiently to give up a clue every now and then.
For more: Read the original articles!
+ + +
Corlett, C. (2012) Lughnasa at St Marcan’s Lough, Clew Bay, Co. Mayo – Part 1
Corlett, C. (2012) Lughnasa at St Marcan’s Lough, Clew Bay, Co. Mayo – Part 2