The Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh (“Triumphs of Torlough “) was written probably about A.D. 1350 by Sean mac Craith, the hereditary historian. It contains accounts of three spirit women,-one, the “Sovereignty of Erin,” being of surpassing loveliness, and the two others, (if not the same,-“Dismal” and “Water Dismal”) of loathsome hideousness. The hags, however, probably survive while the “Sovereignty” has perished. Bronach (“the sorrowful or dismal one “) of Ceann Boirne was known as the “Hag of Black Head” from the modern name of the older Ceann (or Rinn) of Burren. She was in full repute in 1839, and I have heard of her vaguely about 1885 or 1887. In August, 1317, she was able to appear in “the dark before sunrise” and foretell destruction by words and hideous action. The supporters of Prince Murchad O’Brien, (then absent in Dublin), under his brother Dermot invaded the territory of his rival Prince Donchad O’Brien. The latter got together an army, “even the man in a souterrain (uamh) of a fort” being summoned, and marched round the site of the modern village of Ballyvaughan, his foe having sheltered in Corcomroe Abbey, in a nook of the bare hills some miles to the north-west. Approaching Lough Rasga, (still known as Rask), “they looked on the shining mere, and there they saw
the monstrous and distorted form of a lone, ancient hag, that stooped over the bright Lough shore. She was thatched with elf locks, foxy grey and rough like heather, matted and like long sea-wrack, a bossy, wrinkled, ulcerated brow, the hairs of her eye-brows like fish hooks; bleared, watery eyes peered with malignant fire between red inflamed lids; she had a great blue nose, flattened and wide, livid lips, and a stubbly beard.” The writer adds detail on detail (some 90 in all), many too disgusting to copy. The hag was washing human limbs and heads with gory weapons and clothes, till all the lake was defiled with blood, brains, and floating hair. Donchad at last spoke. “What is your name and race, and whose kin are those maltreated dead?” She replied,-“I am Bronach of Burren, of the Tuatha De Danann. This slaughter heap is of your army’s heads; your own is in the middle.” The angry men raised their javelins, but she rose on the wind, yelling more and more words of woe till she vanished. “Heed her not,” said Donchad, “she is a friendly Bodbh of Clan Torloug ” (his opponents). The army hurried on to the ridge of the Abbey, where Donchad and all his kindred, save one brother, were slain before evening.
Not to the Irish alone did the banshee foretell ruin. In May, 1318, Richard de Clare, leader of the Normans, was marching to what he supposed would be an easy victory over the O’Deas of Dysert. The English came to the “glittering, running water of fish-containing Fergus,” when they saw a horrible beldam washing armour and rich robes till the red gore churned and splashed through her hands. Calling an Irish ally to question her, De Clare heard that “the armour and clothes were of the English, and few would escape immolation.” “I am the Water Doleful One. I lodge in the green fairy mounds (sidh) of the land, but I am of the Tribes of Hell. Thither I invite you. Soon we shall be dwellers in one country.” Next day De Clare, his son, and nearly all his English troops lay dead upon the fields near the ford of Dysert for miles over the country in their flight.
The belief of the early eleventh and fourteenth centuries is still extant, for local legend near Dysert tells how Aibhill and twenty-five banshees washed blood-stained clothes in Rath Lake before “Claraghmore” (De Clare) fell, and that they still do so when mischief is afoot.
Thomas J. Westropp, ‘A Folklore Survey of Clare,’ in Folklore Vol XXI, 1910, pp187-189.