Landscape of ancient intrigue

Townland tales

Remnants of the Fliodhais’ fort at Rathmorgan. Pic: John O’Callaghan

Rathmorgan lies at the heart of the Táin Bó Mhaigh Eo tale

John O'Callaghan

The road between Bangor Erris and Belmullet passes through many townlands, some with a staggering amount of ancient history. One in particular caught my attention recently, for no particular reason other than the name: Rathmorgan.
In Irish, Rathmorgan is Ráth Muireagáin. A ‘ráth’ is a common root word in Irish placenames, meaning an earthen rampart or circular fortification, but who was the ‘Morgan’ I wondered? All the scholars can tell us is that it is a male name, mentioned in some of the ancient texts.
On digging deeper, I discovered that the name is used interchangeably with Dún Fliodhaise, from a noblewoman, Fliodhais Fholtchain, the wife of Oilill Fionn. In the early 16th century, the rath/dún was the ‘epicentre’ of the Táin Bó Fliodhaise, also known as ‘The Cattle Raid of Mayo’, a prequel to the Táin Bó Cuailnge.
There are almost as many characters associated with this ancient saga, believed to date even further back to the 1st century, as there are placenames. The wonder this holds for me is that these names are still extant today, 2,000 years later. About 60 of them are located in North Mayo, along the ‘turas’ or trail of Táin Bó Mhaigh Eo.
The first time Irish antiquarians became aware of the existence of an ancient written account – as opposed to ‘béaloideas’ or oral versions of the story – was when a Scottish scholar, Professor Donald MacKinnon (1839-1914), published a translation of the Glenmasan manuscript in 1904/8, in a journal called The Celtic Review. This was then ‘picked up’ by various Irish and European Celtic Studies researchers over the years, including Margaret E Dobbs (1871-1962); Thomas Johnson Westropp (1860-1922) and more recently, by Major Robert Beauclerk Aldridge (1900-1976), late of Mount Falcon, Ballina, as well as the late Dr Fiachra MacGabhann (1971-2018) and Stephen Dunford (RIP), late of Killala and Castlebar, who died in 2021.
The story of the Táin Bó Fliodhaise centres around a beautiful lady, Fliodhais Fholtchain, of the ancient tribal people known as the Gamhanraidh, who resided at their stronghold, Ráth Muireagáin, near Glencastle (Gleann a’ Chaisil). Her prized and bountiful cow, the Maol Fliodhais (a hummel or hornless cow, encountered previously in Derrynameel), was said to supply enough milk daily for 300 men, their wives and children. Queen Medhbh’s attempts to steal this cow, as well as Fliodhais’s lust for Fergus, were the main drivers of the raid into Erris and the central themes of the saga.
I visited Rathmorgan recently and found the ‘fort’ largely unchanged in 100 years when first described by Westropp as ‘a low earthen fort, yellow with moss, standing out against the green fields’.
A rough track ran away to the east, under Knocknascollop, Cnoc na Scolb, ‘Hill of the Scollop’, from a looped stick used in thatching or scallop-shell. The series of low hills running SE-NW along the northwestern shoreline of Carrowmore Lake, probably gave rise to the placename, as their combined undulations are reminiscent of a scallop-shell. On older maps the whole ridge is marked Knock-na-Skalib, whereas today there are three hills, Carrowmore, Derreens (Na Doiríní, ‘the thickets’) and Knocknascollop.
For an alternative perspective, I drove around to Gortmore, on the western shore of Carrowmore Lake. After parking near the slipway, I was in Rathmorgan again. Making a beeline for the 239-metre hilltop, I noted a profusion of heather and silver lichen. The lichen was everywhere. Content with reaching one top before the weather turned, I took plenty of photographs and then descended on more-or-less the same track I had come up on.
Carrowmore Lake was not always known by that name but took its original Irish name from the three hills just mentioned above. The Irish word for ‘hillside’ is leitir and the plural is leitreacha. (There’s a Ben Lettery in the Twelve Bens in Connemara.) In the Táin Bó Fliodhaise legend, the lake is called Loch Letrech, and the hillside Maol Sliabh or Cnoc Maol.
There are so many logainmneacha mentioned in the Turas that last year, in 2021, the Táin Bó Fliodhaise Steering Committee, under the auspices of Comhar Dún Chaocháin Teo, published a 240-page guide to the whole route from Ráth Chruacháin in Roscommon to Ráth Muireagáin (Rathmorgan) in Erris, not Ceathrú Thaidgh per se.
Due to a delay in erecting signage in east Mayo, the guidebook is not yet widely available. However, with 80 percent of the signage already in place in Erris and Tirawley, sections of the trail are well worth following and make for a fascinating day out.

Guidebooks and further information are available from the office of Comhar Dún Chaocháín Teo in Ceathrú Thaidgh, which can be reached on 097 88082 or 087 1251642 or by emailing dunchaochain1@gmail.com.

Dr John O’Callaghan is a mountain walk leader who has organised and led expeditions both at home and abroad. He has served on the board of Mountaineering Ireland and is currently on the Irish Uplands Forum board. In 2012, he wrote the winning article that secured Westport’s accolade as the Irish Times’ ‘Best Place to Live in Ireland’.