Many, many years long past, the Tuatha Dé Danannan, the divinities of the ancients, ruled over Ireland.
Now some of them were merciful; others were wrathful, and still others, like the Banshees [Old Irish, Ban Side, “women of the mound”] were harbingers of death.
The Banshees were neither cruel nor unkind; they merely foretold the immanent death of a family member, typically through wailing, shrieking or keening, which is a traditional lament for the dead.
So what did a Banshee look like?
Well, their appearance varied by account and region. They have been described as having long streaming hair, wearing a grey cloak (over a green dress), and glaring out through red, bloodshot eyes (from their crying). Likewise, they were sometimes dressed in white, with shocking red hair and a dead, ghoulish pallor.
Occasionally, they looked like a young girl, typically a family member who died in youth.
Sometimes they were exceptionally tall, but more often than not, they were diminutive in stature.
However the ‘typical’ Banshee appeared, one thing is certain; their queen Clíodhna was gorgeous – perhaps the most beautiful female being in the world.
Clíodhna was, not surprisingly, also a Goddess of Love and Beauty. To add to her splendor, she was associated with three birds, whose songs would lull any mortal to sleep, a slumber that would cure them of whatever ailments they may have had.
This, then, is her story, and her subsequent involvement with something as Irish as St. Patrick’s Day – the Blarney Stone.
Before we proceed with that story, it’s worth pointing out that Clíodhna had a darker, more malevolent side to her.
For one thing, as the Sirens are commonly conceived (or misconceived, as we’ve argued elsewhere), she was known to lure young sailors to their deaths.
In fact, in the harbor of Glandore, in County Cork, the waves, when crashing, are called ‘Tonn Chlíodhna’, which translates to ‘Clíodhna’s Wave(s)’; when there are a succession of waves, the ninth is believed to be the strongest; it too receives the title of ‘Clíodhna’s Wave’.
But then again, maybe her rage is understandable.
Because this is where Clíodhna drowned.
[Note: cf Nyai Roro Kidul, the Angry Queen of the Southern Sea]
Immortals and mortals in love rarely have happy endings.
In this case, Clíodhna was smitten with a young man named Ciabhán.
It might have been his hair – his name translates to Keevan of the curling locks.
In fact, she was so taken by the mortal youth that she left the Otherworld, Tir Tairngire, just to be with him.
Apparently, at least some of the Tuatha Dé Danannan took exception to this – why, we can’t be certain. But regardless of the rationale, while Ciabhán was out hunting, and Clíodhna waited for his return on the shore, the Ocean God, Manannán MacLir, sent in a wave that swept her out to sea.
But that, of course, is not the last that we’ll hear from Clíodhna…
As the story goes, Cormac Laird MacCarthy, 7th Lord Muskerry (1411 – 1494) was rebuilding a castle in County Cork when he got into some legal issues.
Now, as we’ve already seen, Clíodhna is associated with that region.
And so, Cormac appealed to the Queen of the Banshees.
And she responded, in a dream.
She told him to kiss the first stone he came across, and all of his problems would be resolved.
Now, we can’t be certain how good his speaking or legal skills were before he followed her advice, but afterwards, he had the gift of oration.
He won his case, built his castle, and installed the stone that gave him priceless speech.
And that is the origin of the Blarney Stone.
Cormac would even use his skills to thwart Queen Elizabeth I, who wanted his castle. She eventually walked away frustrated, saying that his talk was ‘Blarney, as what he says he does not mean’.
To this day, that’s the idea of kissing the Blarney Stone – it confers eloquent speech.
“the gift of the Gab”, so to speak.
Ironic, given the number of pubs named after it.
And as for Clíodhna herself?
I imagine she’s still there in County Cork…
Watching over her Blarney Stone…