Áine and the Fitzgerald family

31 Jan

Áine is a goddess closely associated with Knockainey (Cnoc Áine) and the nearby Lough Gur, as well the Fitzgerald family – an Anglo-Norman family who appear to have adopted Áine as a legendary ancestor in order to legitimate their claim over the land that was taken from the Irish and given to them.

The following tales give a few examples of how closely related she came to be with the Fitzgerald family, and given the name of the author of the article these are taken from, it’s probably no surprise that he goes into such detail: 

Some couple of Irish miles from Loch Guirr, at the foot of the ancient hill of Cnoc-Áine, and close by the brink of the little river Camóg, stands the square tower of an old castle; and at no great distance off is another spot, also by the bank of the river, called by the country people the Bonn, or foundation, which is the site of another castle. In these two castles, according to the tradition of the place, lived long ago a famous Earl of Desmond, and his more famous enchanted son, Geróid Íarla, Earl Gerald. They say that the Earl of Desmond led very much the life of a libertine, and that walking one morning along the river’s edge he saw a beautiful woman seated by the water, combing out her long hair after bathing. Her cloak was laid behind her on the grass, and knowing that if he had but possession of this he would have her in his power, the Earl advanced noiselessly from behind, and seized it before its owner was aware of his approach.

The beautiful woman was Áine-n’-Chlíar herself; and she told the Earl that he never could have had his will with her had he not seized her cloak. She told him further that she would bear him a son, whom he was to bring up with ail possible care, like any other gentleman, sparing no cost on his education. One caution however she gave her lover: he was not to show surprise at anything, how strange soever, his son should do. When the usual time of nature was accomplished Áine brought one day to the Earl his infant son; and the father’s pride was great in him, then and after, as he grew up from year to year to manhood. Of these years nothing specially strange is handed down. The young earl led just such a life as any other young lord of his day; and he excelled in the accomplishments of his age and rank. But one memorable evening it happened that there was a gathering of great ladies and gentlemen at the castle of the Earl of Desmond. There was dancing, and of all the ladies none could vie with a certain one among the guests. The grace and the endurance of this young woman were however beaten, every one said, by those of the young Earl Gerald himself. When the dance was ended, this lady engaged him in another contest, for while all were seated at the supper-table she suddenly arose, and at one leap cleared guests, table, dishes and all, and then leaped back again. The old Earl of Desmond turned to his son and said, “Can you do anything like that?” “No,” said Geróid. “Well, stand up and try. Don’t let yourself be beaten by a woman.” Thus commanded, Geróid Íarla rose to his feet, and making a spring from where he stood, leaped right into a bottle, and then leaped out again. There was great admiration at this feat; and with the rest the Earl of Desmond looked in the greatest astonishment at his son, saying he never thought he had such power. “Were you not warned,” said the young Earl, “never to show wonder at anything I might do? Now you have forced me to leave you.” He turned about at the words, and walked from the hall, his father and others following him. He walked out on the brink of the Camóg, which almost washes the base of the castle, and they saw him step from the bank on the water. Up to that instant he had the shape of an ordinary man, but when he touched the water he was transformed into a goose, and in that form away he swam before their eyes. Where he went to was an island in Loch Guirr, and from this he has his name of Gé-an-Oileáin, the Goose of the Island. From this too cornes the imprecation which many yet use in that cursing county, but few understand, “Im-theacht-Gédh-an Oileáin ort!” “That you may go like the Goose of the Island.”

Though he no longer dwelt in the castle at Knockainy after this, it is said that Geróid used to sometimes visit his father; that when the old lord was drawing near his end he made his will in favour of Áine and his strange child; and that both mother and son came to the castle the night before his death.

After the death of the Earl o’ Desmond, Áine long continued to dwell on Cnoc-Áine — as indeed she dwells in it yet. But in those days it was not such a rich and fertile piece of land as much of its surface, where clear of rock, is now. Geróid came one day to visit his mother, and looking round on the bare soil he said, “Is fad’ ó cathadh eórna inso, a h’ Aine” (It is long since barley was winnowed here, Áine). Next morning when he looked at the hill it was all planted with pease, set by his mother during the night.

Another time, coming from Loch Guirr on a like visit, it would seem that, though he was of the water himself, he was yet in danger of his life at the ford of Cnoc-Áine. “Is beag nár bádhag mé san áth-san thair,” he said, “I was all but drowned in yon ford to the east.” The day following, when he returned to the ford, behold, Áine had laid down the casán, the set of massive stepping-stones by the aid of which people now cross the swollen water in safety. But some old people say that it was not Áine, but another enchanted woman, the Cailleach Bhiarach1, that laid these stones.

Áine is sometimes to be seen, half her body above the waters, on the bosom of Loch Guirr, combing her hair, as the Earl of Desmond beheld her by the bank of the Camóg. The commoner account is that she dwells within the hill which bears her name, and on which she has often been seen. Every Saint John’s Night the men used to gather on the hill from ail quarters. They where formed in ranks by an old man called Quinlan, whose family yet (1876) live on the hill; and cliars, bunches, that is, of straw and hay tied upon poles, and lit, were carried in procession round the hill and the little moat on the summit, Mullach-Crocáin-Iámh-lé-leab’-an-Triúir (the hillock-top near the grave of the three). Afterwards people ran through the cultivated fields, and among the cattle, waving these cliars, which brought luck to crops and beasts for the following year. There was this about the night of the cliars, that if you came, say, from some neighbouring village to join in the sport it was necessary that on getting on the hill you should look at the moon, and mark what her position was in regard to the place to which you had to return: otherwise you would lose your way when the cliars were out, and you had to get back home in the darkness. One Saint John’s Night it happened that one of the neighbours lay dead, and on this account the usual cliars were not lit. Not lit, I should say, by the hands of living men; for that night such a procession of cliars marched round Cnoc-Áine as never was seen before, and Áine herself was seen in the front, directing and ordering every thing. On another Saint John’s Night a number of girls had staid late on the hill, watching the cliars and joining in the games. Suddenly Áine appeared among them, “thanked them for the honour they had done her,” but said that now she wished them to go home, as They wanted the hill to themselves. She let them understand whom she meant by  “they”, for calling some of the girls she made them look through a ring, when behold, the hill appeared crowded with people before invisible. Another time she came one night into the house of some people whose friends are yet living at one end of the hill, and brought them a sheep. So long as the family kept this animal, luck remained with them, and when they parted with it, luck
abandoned them.

Áine is spoken of as “the best-hearted woman that ever lived”; and the oldest families about Knockainy are proud to claim descent from her. These Sliocht-Áine (descendants of Áine) include the OBriens, Dillanes, Creeds, Laffins, Deas. We must add Fitzgeralds, what few remain thereabouts.

The meadow-sweet, or queen-of-the-meadow, is thought to be Áine’s plant, and to owe to her its fragrant odour.

David Fitzgerald, ‘Popular Tales of Ireland,‘ in Revue Celtique Volume IV, 1880, p186-190.


1 The note that Fitzgerald gives here comments that the Cailleach’s name means ‘a hooded woman’; indeed it does, but the meaning suggested for her second name, ‘horned’ is less likely; as Grant notes, it most likely relates to ‘peak, point, pinnacle’ – as in the mountain tops with which the Cailleach is so frequently associated. Fitzgerald himself mentions this in his note, and gives some interesting lore as well: “she has given her name to mountains; and the fine well at Oranmore, which runs wine every seventh year, is called from her, Tobar-na-Cailllghe Béaraighe…She appears in Cantire tradition, wherein she repairs every seventh year to a certain medicinal well to renew her youth (The White Wife etc., by Cuthbert Bede. London, 1865. P. 124)…She places stepping-stones etc. in the waters; and the floods, it is said, can never rise above them…”

In Ireland, the Cailleach is most commonly known as Cailleach Bhéarra.


Posted by on January 31, 2012 in Uncategorized


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2 responses to “Áine and the Fitzgerald family

  1. greycatsidhe

    January 31, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    I really love your blog! Though this is kind of meme-ish, I did “give” this award to you. No pressure to do it here: just know I love what you’re doing!

  2. Seren

    February 1, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    Thank you! I am honoured indeed, I’ve never won an award before. I’m particularly honoured by the auspicious timing 🙂


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