Cathach

Variations: Cáthach

Cathach

Ireland’s three dragon sisters Dabran, Farbagh, and Cathach were the offspring of the gatekeeper of Hell and the all-devouring sow; they were nursed by the red demon of West Ireland. Cathach, the youngest of the three, made her home on Inis Cathaig (now Scattery Island).

A horrible sight she was to see, a great dragon bigger a small isle, with a back like a round island covered with scales and shells. A rough bristly mane like a boar’s covered her foreparts. When she opened her cavernous mouth filled with a double row of sharp teeth, her entrails could be seen. A cruel eye gleamed in her head. Her body stood on two short, thick, hairy legs armed with iron nails that struck sparks on the rocks as she moved. Her belly was like a furnace. The tail of a whale she had, a tail with iron claws on it that ploughed furrows in the ground behind her. Cathach could move on land and swim with equal ease, and the sea boiled around her.

Dabran and Farbagh were both slain by Crohan, Sal, and Daltheen, the three sons of Toraliv M’Stairn. When Cathach sensed the loss of her siblings, she went on a rampage, laying waste to the lands around the Shannon Estuary from Limerick to the sea, sinking ships and paralyzing commerce for a year. When the three brothers returned and saw the destruction wreaked by Cathach, they were so distraught that they flung themselves into the sea to their deaths.

Cathach herself was defeated by a far more humble and unassuming hero. When Saint Senan made landfall on Inis Cathaig, Cathach prepared to devour him whole. But the holy man made the sign of the cross in front of her face, and she was quieted. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, leave this island, and hurt no one here or wherever you leave to”. And Cathach did as she was told. She disappeared into the estuary and went to Sliab Collain without harming anyone; and if she is still alive, she has remained obedient to Senan’s command.

The ruins of the church of Saint Senan can still be seen to this day on Scattery Island.

References

Hackett, W. (1852) Folk-lore – No. I. Porcine Legends. Transactions of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, 2(1), pp.

O’Donovan, J. (1864) The Martyrology of Donegal. Alexander Thom, Dublin.

Stokes, W. S. (1890) Lives of Saints from the Book of Lismore. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Stokes, W. (1905) The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee. Harrison and Sons, London.

Watts, A. A. (1828) The Literary Souvenir. Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, & Green, London.

Muirdris

Variations: Muirgris (erroneously); Sínach, Sinech; Píast Uiscide (“Water Beast”); Úath (“Horror”)

muirdris

Fergus mac Léti, the King of Ulster, was an inveterate swimmer. Captured while sleeping by water-spirits, the lúchorpáin or “small bodies” (actually the first appearance of leprechauns), he was awoken by the cold water they tried to carry him into. This allowed him to turn the tables on his would-be captors, and he seized three of the lúchorpáin. Fergus demanded that the sprites grant him three wishes: the ability to breathe underwater in seas, pools, and lakes.

The sprites granted him his wish, in the form of enchanted earplugs and a tunic to wear around his head. But like all wishes granted by the Fair Folk, it came with a caveat. Fergus was not to use his gifts at Loch Rudraige (Dundrum Bay) in his own land of Ulster.

Of course, Fergus arrogantly disregards the rule and swims underwater at Loch Rudraige anyway. There he encounters the Muirdris, the “Sea Bramble” or “Sea Briar”, a huge, mysterious, undefined horror that inflates and deflates, expands and contracts like a bellows. It has features of a thorn-bush, with branches and stings, and its appearance alone is deadly.

Fergus does not take well to his encounter with the muirdris, and he is horribly disfigured after seeing it, with his mouth moving to the back of his head. His courtiers are dismayed, as a man with a blemish cannot be king, but they somehow keep this defacement a secret from Fergus for seven years. They prevent him from accessing mirrors, and surround him only with people who will protect the king’s deformity. He finds out only after Dorn, a highborn slave, taunts him about it after he strikes her with a whip. She is bisected for her troubles, and Fergus goes to face his nemesis alone.

The battle between Fergus and the muirdris lasts a day and a night, during which the water of the loch bubbles like a giant cauldron. Finally Fergus slays the monster with his bare hands, and emerges from the loch holding its head in triumph – only to collapse and die from the ordeal.

A thirteenth-century retelling of Fergus’ tribulations renames the monster sínach or sinech. In this version, it is the king’s wife who reveals his secret after an argument.

The muirdris is a monster, but is it rooted in fact? Surely the expansion and contraction, the comparison to a thornbush, and the disfiguring stings strongly suggest a large jellyfish, perhaps the lion’s mane jellyfish.

References

Borsje, J. (1996) From Chaos to Enemy: Encounters with Monsters in Early Irish Texts. Brepols Publishers, Turnhout.

MacKillop, J. (2005) Myths and Legends of the Celts. Penguin Books, London.

Bruch

Variations: Bruchus, Brucha (pl.)

bruch

If the Hortus Sanitatis is to be believed, a young locust is far more dangerous than its adult counterparts. Referred to as a bruchus, it is an immature stage lasting until the animal can fly, and is distinguished by absent or undeveloped wings and a yellow color. As bruchi cannot fly, they remain in one place and gnaw fruiting plants down to the roots.

The Epistil Ísu, the Irish version of the pseudo-epigraphic Sunday Letter, describes the Bruch (pluralized as Brucha) differently. Here as before, the bruch is separated from its adult, and both are used to punish people who disrespect Sundays. A bruch has iron bristles and fiery eyes. Swarms of brucha go into the vineyards of sinners and cut the branches, roll about in the fallen grapes to impale them on their spikes, and carry the fruit off into their lairs – much like Pliny’s hedgehogs, which doubtlessly inspired this account.

Brucha apparently mature into locusts, which have iron wings that scythe wheat and make the ears fall. They too are avengers of Sunday.

References

Borsje, J. (1994) The Bruch in the Irish Version of the Sunday Letter. Ériu, v. XLV, pp. 83-98.

Borsje, J. (1996) From Chaos to Enemy: Encounters with Monsters in Early Irish Texts. Brepols Publishers, Turnhout.

Cuba, J. (1539) Le iardin de santé. Philippe le Noir, Paris.

Alp-luachra

Variations: Art-luachra, Arc-luachra, Airc-luachra, Dochi-luachair, Just-halver, Joint-eater, Mankeeper, Darklooker, Art-pluachra (mispronunciation)

Alp-luachra

Fairies are far removed from the sanitized Victorian ideal we are accustomed to. There are beautiful fairies; there are also ugly fairies, cruel fairies, and vile, parasitic fairies. The alp-luachra belongs to the last group.

Native to Ireland, where it can be found across the island, the alp-luachra is a small, newt-like creature not unlike Ireland’s native smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris). It was born of ignorance and fear of the unknown – in this case, the habits of the newt. Any similarities end there, however. The smooth newt is a harmless denizen of ponds, while the alp-luachra lives off “the Pith or Quintessence of what the Man eats”, as Robert Kirk put it.

Infestation is simple enough. Anyone asleep outdoors is at risk. Alp-luachras slip into the open mouths of sleepers, and from there work their way into the stomach. The entire process is painless, and hosts are never aware of their slimy new occupants. That is, until the symptoms manifest themselves: pain in their sides as the alp-luachras make themselves comfortable, and increasing, insatiable hunger. The alp-luachras eat the food ingested by their hosts, growing larger, reproducing inside them until their wriggling becomes unbearable; meanwhile, their hosts waste away, becoming gaunt and emaciated. In the span of a few years, the unfortunate victim eventually dies of starvation, and the alp-luachras move out to find new victims.

As the alp-luachra’s glamour prevents it from being seen by physicians, it must be tricked into leaving the body by other means. Inhaling the strong fragrance of savory food can coax them to come out, as can eating very salty food. Once outside the body, the alp-luachra can be licked to cure burns.

Douglas Hyde recounts the story of one farmer from Connacht who suffered from alp-luachra infestation for half a year, until an itinerant beggar and the Prince of Coolavin told him how to get rid of them. He started by eating a large quantity of salted beef. While this made him thirsty (and no less hungry), it made the alp-luachras thirstier. He then lay down with his mouth open above a stream; the alp-luachras, sensing water, crawled out of his mouth and into the stream, one by one. All in all, he had been host to a dozen alp-luachras and their mother, seven times their size.

He never slept on the grass again.

References

Dubois, P.; Sabatier, C.; and Sabatier, R. (2005) The Complete Encyclopedia of Elves, Goblins, and Other Little Creatures. Abbeville Press.

Hyde, D. (1890) Beside the Fire. David Nutt, London.

Kirk, R. (1893) The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, & Fairies. David Nutt, London.