The Ben Bulbin country in County Sligo is one of those rare places in Ireland where fairies are thought to be visible, and our first witness from there claims to be able to see the fairies or 'gentry' and to talk with them. This mortal so favoured lives in the same townland where his fathers have lived during four hundred years, directly beneath the shadows of Ben Bulbin, on whose sides Dermot is said to have been killed while hunting the wild-boar. And this famous old mountain, honeycombed with curious grottoes ages ago when the sea beat against its perpendicular flanks, is the very place where the 'gentry' have their chief abode.
Even on its broad level summit, for it is a high square table-land like a mighty cube of rock set down upon the earth by some antediluvian god, there are treacherous holes, wherein more than one hunter may have been lost for ever, penetrating to unknown depths; and by listening one can bear the tides from the ocean three or four miles away surging in and out through ancient subterranean channels, connected with these holes. In the neighbouring mountains there are long caverns which no man has dared to penetrate to the end, and even dogs, it is said, have been put in them never to emerge, or else to come out miles away.
Evans-Wentz, Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911
is Knocknarea's only rival for
the most dramatic mountain in County Sligo. It's steep buttressed western
extreme and flat top looms over the road from Sligo to Donegal like a
huge barrier or mythological beast. The hulking outline of Benbulben is
visible from all around Sligo and it dominates the landscape to the north
of the county.
Benbulben is part of the range called the Dartry Mountains, named after
an iron age tribe who inhabited the area. The other heads and peaks of
Dartry are Kings Mountain, with it's fantastic Pinnacle Gully, Truskmore,
which is the highest part of the range, now crowned by a series of tele-communications
masts, Benwisken, a beautiful ridge shaped like a frozen wave. The highest
cave in Ireland, Diarmuid and Grainne's cave is located at the top of
the cliffs at the rear of the beautiful Horseshoe valley behind Benwisken.
Tievebawn has another cave, a pothole called Cormac Reagh's Hole, high up on it's slopes.
Benbulben is named after a Gaelic chieftain and means Gulban's Head. It is the western
point of the Dartry Mountains, a large and bulky collection of heads and
valleys and forms the main physical barrier between Donegal and Sligo.
The mountain is formed from Dartry limestone, a hard limestone filled
with the fossels of sea creatures which lived some 300 million years ago.
The dramatic and unusual shapes of Benbulben, Benwisken and Eagle's Rock were sculpted by glaciers during the last ice age.
Fairy Folklore and Mythology
The Benbulben area had long been regarded as a haunt of the Gentry or Good People as the people of the Otherworld were known in north Sligo. W. B. Yeats and A. E. brought the American anthropologist W. Y. Evans-Wentz to the Grange and Ballintrillick area to conduct research for his study, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, published in 1911. Yeats had been collecting folklore in the area since about 1890, was very struck by the Otherworldly mountain of Benbulben.
Sligo is, indeed, a great place for fairy pillaging of this kind. In the side of Ben Bulben is a white square in the limestone. It is said to be the door of fairyland. There is no more inaccessible place in existence than this white square door; no human foot has ever gone near it, not even the mountain goats can browse the saxifrage beside its mysterious whiteness.
Tradition says that it swings open at nightfall and lets pour through an unearthly troop of hurrying spirits. To those gifted to hear their voices the air will be full at such a moment with a sound like whistling. Many have been carried away out of the neighbouring villages by this troop of riders.
I have quite a number of records beside me, picked up at odd times from the faithful memories of old peasants. Brides and new-born children are especially in danger. Peasant mothers, too, are sometimes carried off to nurse the children of the fairies. At the end of seven years they have a chance of returning, and if they do not escape then are always prisoners.
are many megalithic monuments scattered around the skirts of Dartry mountain,
and a few more on it's peat-covered top. They are mostly court and wedge
monuments, built by Ireland's first farmers. Many are in pretty ruinous
condition, condition, having been used as quarrys for building-stones
The village of Ballintrillick is named after a collapsed dolmen near the National school, called the Trillick; another dolmen, since destroyed, was removed from the mouth of the Horseshoe
valley in 1950 during quarrying operations. The monument below, a dual
court cairn, is south west of Ballintrillick village and is located right
under the magnificent backdrop of Benwisken's dramatic frozen wave.
As well as being an impressive physical reminder of Sligo's ancient past,
blocking the way to the north, Benbulben is a dominant mythical landmark; the mountain is well known
in Sligo's folklore tradition. There is a patch on the east side of the
north face known to the people of the area as the Fairy Door. This is
a black patch on a bare hollow on the side of the monntain. When the door
opens the weather is bound to be good for the next few days.
The Fairy Door
There is a similar door on the south-side of the mountain, which seems to be the Fairy Door Yeats is referring to. The south door is a patch of white rock high up in the cliffs of Kingsmountain.
Click below to hear John Carty and Brian Rooney play Ed Reavy's tune, the Highest Hill in Sligo.
The Highest Hill in Sligo.
many local traditions about the mountain which regarded it as a major
Sidhe of the Túatha dé Danann, and the young Evans-Wentz
collected stories around the mountain in 1911, accompanied by Yeats and
AE. Fionn MacCumhail and the Fianna loved to hunt in Sligo, and Kesh Corran and Benbulben were two of their favourite hunting grounds.
There is a tale where Fionn falls in love with a bewitched woman, Siadbh, who
had been changed into a deer by a powerful and malevolent druid. Fionn
rescues her and they live together for seven years before she is recaptured
by the enchanter. Fionn searched for Siadbh for many years, but to no
avail. While hunting on the top of Benbulben on day several years later
Fionn discovered a young boy who turned out to be his son Oisin, who became
one of the most famous members of the Fianna.
Benbulben is also the setting for the final tragic scene in the saga of Diarmuid
and Grainne. Fionn had spent sixteen years hunting the lovers -
Grainne had run away with Diarmuid instead of marrying Fionn. Eventually,
having supposedly gotten over it, Fionn allowed them to live in peace
and they dwelt at Grainnemor near Kesh Corran.
However, Fionn grew jealous
again and set Diarmuid up by enticing him to a hunt on Benbulben, knowing
well that it was likely to be the death of Diarmuid. There was a geas
or spell on Diarmuid that he could not hunt boar, and he was fatally gored
by the green-eared boar of Benbulben, who tossed him up on it's back and
galloped up to the river Drowse and back. Diarmuid lay dying and Fionn
could have saved him by giving him a drink of water from his hands, but
his heart couldn't forgive and he let him die. Grainne died by her own
hand soon after.
The tale of Diarmuid and Grainne has given rise to many monuments being named
Labbys or Leaba Diarmuid agus Grainne, after the fleeing couple, with a good example, the Labby Rock at Moytura in South Sligo. They had to sleep in a different
place each night for fear of the wrath of Fionn MacCumhal, who chased them for sixteen years. Labbys were often places where unfertile couples would go and attempt to conceive children.
William Butler Yeats
Today, Benbulben, like most other things in Sligo, is closely associated with the poet W. B. Yeats who chose to be buried under Bare Benbulben's Head. Yeats died in France in 1939, but a decade passed before his remains were collected and returned to Ireland for reburial in Drumcliffe churchyard in 1948. The poet's grandfather had been rector here at this modern Church of Ireland structure built on the site of an earlier monastic site.
Under bare Ben Bulben's head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid,
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago; a church stands near,
By the road an ancient Cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase,
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!