Cathal Crovederg or “Charles of the Red Hand”

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The ruins of Ballintober Castle are amongst the most magnificent in Connaught, and are memorable as the last strong- hold of the O’Conors. The castle, which stands on an elevated ridge by the road-side, above the little village of Ballintober, four miles from the town of Castlebar, consists of a quadrangular inclosure, 270 feet in length, and 230 feet in breadth, with four flanking towers, and one upon each side of the great entrance, the whole surrounded by a deep fosse, portions of which still retain water. Mr. Weld has remarked upon the strong resemblance which the towers of this castle bear to some of those in Wales. “No one tower, it is true,” he says, “is comparable to the Eagle Tower at Caernarvon. Nevertheless, the south-west tower at Ballintober is a superb piece of architecture, and, for its general effect, amongst the most imposing remains of antiquity that I can call to recollection in Ireland.” There are two localities of this name in Connaught: Baile-an-tobhair-Phaidraig, the town of the Well of St. Patrick, in Mayo, and Baile-an-tobhair-Brighde, that of St. Bridget, now under consideration.

This place is, among other things, memorable as the birth-place of the celebrated Cathal Crovederg, or “Charles the Red-Handed,” the illegitimate son of Turlough-More O’Conor, the brother of Roderick, and last of the Irish monarchs. About this prince, who was born in the latter end of the twelfth century, – and who, says the Ulster Annals, was “the best Irishman, from the time of Brien Boroma, for gentility and honour; the upholder, mighty and puissant, of the country; keeper of peace; rich and excellent,” there are many romantic tales and superstitious legends, still lingering with the people in the vicinity, which, were they woven into a novel, would far surpass most modern works of fiction. When we have a novelist not only acquainted with Irish history and antiquities, but possessing the power of fusing the ancient legend with the drama of modern life and impulse; making the feelings that influence the lover or the hero subservient to the chronicle; picturing the part, through the knowledge of the human heart at the present-then, and then only will Irish history be known and appreciated.

Cathal of the Red Hand was the son of a beautiful girl of very small stature, named Gearrog Ny-Moran, of the Muhall territory. When the queen heard what had occurred, she, like Sarah of old, commenced a bitter persecution against the king’s mistress, and had, as was customary at the time, recourse to witchcraft and Sorcery to prolong the sufferings of the unhappy maiden. Like Juno, before the birth of Hercules, she, with the assistance of a noted witch, set a charm, consisting of a bundle of elder rods, tied with a magic string, knotted with nine knots. This she hung up in her chamber and watched with great care. Stratagem, however, achieved what humanity could not induce. The queen, while walking on the terrace, was accosted by a female (the midwife disguised), who entreated alms for a poor women who had just been confined in the neighbouring village. On hearing who it was, she was so enraged, that she instantly rushed to her apartment, and cut the charm into pieces. The spell was broken, and the bond-woman’s child was born.

For several years after, the people protected Gearrog and her son from the jealous fury of the queen; and both were long harboured in the monasteries of Connaught. As time wore on, however, the Church was insufficient against the wrath of the offended queen, and Cathal was obliged to fly to a distant province, where, in the garb of a peasant, he supported himself by manual labour. At length the King of Connaught died; and the people declared they would have no monarch but his son, Cathal Crovederg, if he could be found. Heralds were sent forth, and proclamations issued, according to the fashion of the times, yet still no tidings of the elected king. One day, as harvest was drawing to its close, a Bollscaire, or herald, from the Court of Ballintober, entered a field in Leinster, where some of the peasantry were at work reaping rye, and told the oft-repeated tale of the missing monarch of Connaught. Cathal, who was among the reapers, heard the story, and stood for some minutes lost in reverie. He then, removing the cover with which he always concealed the mark, held up the red hand, and throwing down the reaping-hook, exclaimed- “Slan leath a corrain anois do’n cloideam” -i.e., “Farewell, sickle; now for the sword!” The Bollscaire recognizing him, both he, and the men who were along with him in the field, prostrated themselves before him, and proclaimed him King of Connaught. He was afterwards crowned at Carnfree, near Tulsk, by the chieftains and the coorbs of Sil-Murray, and “Cathal’s Farewell to the Rye” is a proverb and an air still well known in Roscommon and Galway.

From Wilde’s Superstitions of Ireland.

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