Corrib Walking Trail
Embark on your own self-guided journey along the Corrib waterways with the help of this brand new version of our Corrib Walking Trail. You will learn about the myths, legends and folktales associated with the Corrib (lake and river) and with Galway Bay, into which it flows. This interactive map will bring you face to face with the real life site of each fantastical story outlined in the exhibition and illustrated so beautifully by artist, Sadie Cramer. The Corrib holds huge value, environmentally and historically but also as a fascinating source of folklore that has influenced Galway communities for generations. So take a step outside and let’s keep the lore alive!
Aerial photograph: Tom Coakley, Barrow Coakley Photography
Illustrations: Sadie Cramer
1. The Corrib: Myth, Legend & Folklore
Lough Corrib is the largest lake in the Republic of Ireland. It separates the fertile limestone plains of east Galway from the lake-strewn bogs and rugged mountains of Connemara in the west. The lake is connected to Galway Bay by a short, yet powerful, body of water today known as the River Corrib. The sound of the river as it rushes towards the sea is, and always has been, the soundtrack to life in Galway.
Since the first humans arrived on the island of Ireland, its seas, rivers and lakes provided a means of transport and an important source of food and water. The rich finds from the Corrib – from prehistoric log boats to Viking-style axes – confirm that from the Late Stone Age onward this river and lake were vital waterways for proto-Galwegians.
Waterways have also long been a source of mystery, devotion and inspiration for those drawn to water. Many wells, streams, rivers, lakes and seas have become associated with water deities, mythical creatures and supernatural occurrences.
This exhibition presents some of the myths, legends and folktales of the Corrib (lake and river) and Galway Bay, into which it drains.
2. The Red Fox & St MacDara
Ever at the mercy of the waves and the weather, fishermen of the west of Ireland were well known for their superstitious beliefs and rituals. They did not like to mention by name any four-legged animal while at sea for fear that it would affect their luck. To bypass this, fishermen would use alternative names. Instead of saying “pig” they might, for example, say “the fellow with the curly tail”, “the bacon” or, perhaps, “the grunter”.
Galway, Aran and Connemara fisherman had a particular aversion to the fox. The sight or mere mention of a fox was enough to prevent a fisherman from venturing out to sea. One story is told of a Galway butcher who brought a fox or fox-skin to the Claddagh on a Friday morning in order to prevent the fishermen setting sail. It meant that, in the absence of cheap fresh fish, he could sell more meat over the weekend!
The patron saint of Connacht fishermen is St MacDara. It is said that his name was actually Sionnach MacDara – sionnach means ‘fox’ in Irish – but that rather than referring to him as St Sionnach he was instead known as St MacDara.
In the sixth century, St MacDara founded a monastery on a small island off the coast of Connemara. Traditionally, boats that passed between the island and nearby Mace Head dipped their sails three times as a mark of respect to the saint. There are accounts of sudden storms and sea-surges disciplining those who did not heed the custom.
3. Claddagh Swans
The west bank of the Corrib, by the old Claddagh fishing village, is home to a colony of mute swans and upwards of 100 may be seen in summer.
In the 1930s, a Claddagh fisherman told Father Leo Ward of Notre Dame University that the swans were newcomers: "they came here only a few years ago, there was just a pair at first, and now they are very numerous" and that “they say it is not luck to kill wan of them.”
In Irish folk belief swans were thought to represent the souls of the dead so it was considered bad luck to harm or kill them. It was said that anyone who killed a swan would be dead within a year. In the 1940s, a local fisherman scolded a young boy who was throwing stones at the swans in the Claddagh Basin: “Do you know who those birds are? Well I’ll tell you. They are the souls of your ancestors. When the old fishermen died, their souls left their bodies, took the forms of swans and returned to the basin to watch over the boats”.
One widely-held belief was that the mute swan was a silent bird but that it sang sweetly just before it died, and so the word ‘swansong’ came to mean a final performance before retirement or death. In reality, mute swans are not silent – they grunt, whistle and hiss!
4. Mermaids & Human Seals
The fish-tailed mermaid, or water maiden, is a common character in world folklore, especially in Celtic regions – from the west coast of Ireland to Brittany on the French coast.
In Ireland, mermaid sightings were numerous. Often described as sitting on a rock, with a comb in one hand and a mirror in the other, they represented the Classical emblems of Venus and Aphrodite.
According to local folklore, one such mermaid regularly came ashore during low tide at Nimmo’s Pier, at the mouth of the River Corrib, to sit on the rocks and comb her hair. It was said that when some boys followed her she disappeared and was never again seen. Interestingly, there are several stone carvings of mermaids on the medieval Collegiate Church of St Nicholas of Myra, the patron saint of mariners.
A well-known Irish folktale tells of a union between a human man and a mermaid or a seal-woman in human form. Certain families are said to have their origins in such a union, the best-known example being the Conneelys of Connemara. In the 1840s, one Galway historian wrote that those who believed in the story “would no more kill a seal, or eat of a slaughtered one, than they would of a human Coneely”. Sometimes the Conneelys were known in Irish as Na Róinte – the Seals – because of their unnatural swimming ability. At high tides, it is not unusual to seals come upstream as far as O’Brien’s Bridge in the heart of Galway City.
5. Mythical Islands & Ghostly Vessels
Medieval European mapmakers depicted both real and mythical islands in the Atlantic. One of the most famous of the phantom islands was Hy-Brasil, which featured on sea charts from 1325 until 1865. A sort of Gaelic Elysium, the misty island was said to be a magical land of peace and plenty that appeared off the west coast of Ireland once every seven years. Some sources explain it as a simple optical illusion, other sources cite ancient beliefs about a land where the sun goes down.
In Galway folklore, Hy-Brasil could sometimes be seen from the Aran Islands and was known as Árainn Bheag or ‘Little Aran’. A Connemara man named Morogh O’Lee claimed to have spent two days on the island in April 1668. While there, he says he was bestowed with the gift of healing and an elaborate medical manuscript (Book of the O’Lee’s or Book of Hy-Brasil), which still exists.
The Irish antiquarian T. J. Westropp claimed that he, along with several family members and friends, saw the island appear and then vanish in the summer of 1872. If the seven year rule is applied, it is next due to reveal itself in 2026!
In 1947, a Galway skipper named Marcheen MacDonagh told a journalist that “Galway Bay is full of ghosts. Lost ships come back just like lost souls”. He referred specifically to three ghost ships that formerly belonged to Galway’s seafaring merchants: The Bonita, lost off the coast of Cuba in May 1864, the Celt, last seen leaving Birkenhead in December 1869, and the Nima which disappeared in April 1874. Stories of smaller phantom or fairy boats forewarning fishermen of storms or drownings are also common along the shores of Galway Bay.
6. The Black Dog & the Devil’s Steps
According to local folklore, a large black dog, with “fiery eyes” and “snow white sharp teeth”, would rise up out of the Corrib and follow anyone who dared to cross the Claddagh Bridge (now called Wolfe Tone Bridge) after midnight. It was said that in the absence of a crucifix or holy water, which provided protection from the beast, anyone who was followed would have to outrun the dog as far as the crossroads at Lynch’s Castle – the dog could not pass the cross! Strangely, the beast is referred to as the gliomach, the Irish for ‘lobster’, but perhaps it originally derived from the Irish word gliomach meaning ‘hairy’ or ‘shaggy’.
This, it would seem, is a Galway version of a story commonly found throughout Ireland and Britain – the Black Shuck of East Anglia, the Gwyllgi of Wales, the Moddey Dhoo of the Isle of Man, and the Cù-Sìth of the Scottish Highlands.
In folklore, black dogs are commonly encountered late at night at intermediary places, such as bridges or crossroads. Their function, it seems, is to warn people against late-night rambling, drinking and card-playing.
Downriver of the bridge, by the Spanish Arch, are the so-called Devil’s Steps. It was said that anyone who approached the steps after midnight would be pulled or lured into the river by the devil himself. Is it a coincidence that the steps are located at one of the most dangerous stretches of the Corrib, where the river current collides with the incoming tide?
The River Corrib takes its present name from the lake, but its Irish language name – Abhainn na Gaillimhe – recalls its ancient and still-legal name, the River of Galway. The Book of Lecan, written in Irish between 1397 and 1418, tells that the river was named after Gaillimh, the daughter of Breasal, who drowned in its cold waters. It has been suggested that this Breasal was a king of the Fir Bolg, a mythical race of Greek origin that ruled over Ireland for 37 years.
The earliest recorded names for the Gaelic-Irish and Anglo-Norman fortified settlements on the riverbank, where the city of Galway today stands, included elements of her name – Dún Bhun na Gaillimhe and Bungalvy Castle. In time, the town and, later, the county and bay would be called Galway. And so Gaillimh, long before Steve Earle or Ed Sheeran sang of their muses, was the very first Galway Girl!
A famous mid-seventeenth cetury pictorial map of Galway shows a large rock near the western bank of the river with a note, in Latin, that translates as ‘the rock, where the woman Galva is said to have been drowned, from which the city of Galway was named’. It seems that the rock survived into the 1840s, when some of the townspeople proposed erecting a stone pillar with a bilingual inscription on the rock as a monument to the drowned girl. It never materialised and, it seems, the rock was blasted in the 1850s to make a foundation for the present-day Weir House, or Galway County Club.
8. The Ghost of Maolra Seoighe
On 17 August 1882, five members of the Joyce family were killed on the border of counties Galway and Mayo. Maolra, a tenant farmer and father of five children, was one of ten local men arrested for the murders. A native Irish speaker with no English, Maolra was found guilty on perjured evidence in an English-speaking court. He protested his innocence throughout and was heard to say, in Irish, on his way to the scaffold: “I had no hand, act or part in it … I am as innocent as a child in the cradle”.
On 15 December 1882, Maolra Seoighe (anglicised to Myles Joyce) was hanged along with two others at Galway Gaol, where Galway Cathedral now stands, for the infamous Maamtrasna murders. Weeks later, the Freeman’s Journal reported that two soldiers claimed to have seen his ghost in the gaol and that the matron and warders had applied for transfers. The sighting was perhaps fuelled by a sense of guilt about the hanging of an innocent man.
According to local tradition, his wife gave birth to a baby girl on the day of the execution. Shortly afterwards, she travelled to Galway and spent nine days keening her husband’s death on Salmon Weir Bridge, outside the entrance to the gaol. She is thought to have been the inspiration for Lady Gregory’s play, The Gaol Gate and Patrick Pearse's short story, An Bhean Chaointe (‘The Keening Woman’).
Maolra Seoighe was given a presidential pardon by President Michael D. Higgins in 2018.
9. Water Horse & River Serpent
Irish folklore abounds with tales of supernatural creatures that inhabit the rivers and lakes, including the untameable water-horse, or aughisky (from the Irish each uisce), and the deadly water-serpent.
Water-horses were said to inhabit most lakes in Connacht. They fed on cattle and were mostly sighted in the month of November. Occasionally they were captured but could not be permanently tamed. Stories tell that once the captured water-horse caught sight of its lake it would gallop back to its watery home taking the rider with him. One such ill-fated horseman, George Barry, was killed by a water-horse returning to Lough Afoor, near Annaghdown. His place of death is still known as Loughgeorge, from the Irish Leacht Seoirse meaning ‘George’s grave’.
Every Irish person knows that St Patrick rid the island of snakes more than 1500 years ago, yet the péist (meaning ‘worm’ but also a ‘serpent’, ‘beast’ or ‘monster’) features commonly in Irish stories and placenames, including Poll na Péist on the Aran Islands. It was said that one graveyard near Oughterard attracted a body snatcher in the form of a river serpent that came out of Lough Corrib. In some versions of the tale it is described as half horse and half snake. Eventually, it was killed by a local man who stood guard over his mother’s grave. It was said that until the early 1930s the serpent’s blood was still visible on one of the windows of St Cummin’s Church, Oughterard.
In Co. Galway it was said that after the snake tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden it hid under a nettle and that is how the plant got its sting.
10. Manannán mac Lir & the Banshee
Mannanán mac Lir – ‘son of the sea’ – was the Celtic Neptune or Poseidon. He had a magic cloak and invincible sword and rode the waves in a boat that did not need oars or sails. Instead, it was propelled by white-crested waves, known as the Horses of Manannán.
Mannanán was the half-brother of the tragic Children of Lir, who were turned into swans by their jealous stepmother and spent 900 years in exile. He was also said to be the ancestor of Conmaicne Mara (‘Conmaicne of the sea’), the people for whom Connemara is named. Mannin Bay in Connemara is named after him, as is the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea.
Also known by the name Orbsen, he is said to have been killed in battle at Moycullen, near Galway, and buried standing upright. A great lake sprung from his grave that in time became known as Lough Corrib – a corruption of Loch Orbsen.
Like many pagan deities, Mannanán was eventually downgraded from sea-god to magical mariner by monastic scribes.
A localised folktale from the south-west shores of Lough Corrib tells of a man on his way to a wake who meets the banshee (bean sí, meaning ‘fairy woman’) – the dreaded Irish death-messenger – washing clothes and, impudently, asks her to wash his shirt. The banshee does as he asks but later, when he sits down near the door in the wake-house she arrives and tears the shirt off his body.
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