You might not know what the ring is called—or if you do, you might not know how to pronounce correctly, and that’s okay, we’ll get to it—but I’m sure you’ve seen a claddagh ring somewhere. Though rings featuring clasped hands has been used as engagement and wedding rings since the Roman period and were called fede rings (from the Italian mani in fede, “hands in faith”,) this particular piece of Irish jewelry has a unique story behind it, as well as a unique set of rules for wearing.
The stories vary slightly, but the origin of the claddagh ring (pronounced clah-duh) is believed to be from the town of Claddagh, in County Galway, Ireland. The earliest known claddagh ring dates back to the 1600s and its invention is often attributed to a silversmith named Richard Joyce, whose initials are found on that particular ring. At the time, the seas were a hotbed of piracy, and it was not unknown for pirates to regularly capture people to be sold abroad as slaves.
As the tale goes, the Joyces made their living as fishermen then, and while they were out at sea (or traveling through the West Indies—everybody has their own variation on the tale,) they were overtaken by a ship full of Algerian pirates. They captured Richard and his family and brought them back to Algeria to become slaves. Richard was especially devastated; he was passionately in love with a wonderful, beautiful, caring girl from his hometown who loved him just as dearly. They had plans to marry and have a family of their own. Now that would never happen.
In Algeria, Richard was put on the block and was purchased by a wealthy Moorish goldsmith. The Moor set Richard to work, teaching him how to make jewelry. Though Richard spent his time making jewelry, he couldn’t stop thinking about his lost love, and he prayed every day that he would see her again. And every day he went into the shop, Richard stole a tiny piece of gold, eventually gathering enough that he made small ring showing two hands holding a crowned heart; this was the way he saw his love for his fiancee. He hoped he would be able to give it to his sweetheart.
In 1689, as the story goes, King William III of England sent an ambassador to Algeria to demand the release of all enslaved British subjects. By then fourteen years had passed, and Richard had become a master goldsmith, creating the most beautiful pieces of jewelry in all of North Africa.
Not wanting to lose his cash cow, the Moor offered to give Richard both his daughter to marry and half of his riches if he would stay and continue to create jewelry. Naturally, Richard refused and jumped on the first ship headed back to Galway.
The entire voyage home Richard thought of his love, and he worried what he would find when he returned to Galway; would she still be there? Was she alive? Had she married someone else? To Richard’s indescribable relief and amazement, not long after he stepped foot in Galway he was greeted by his overjoyed fiancée. She told him that she knew he would return, and had stayed loyal to him, refusing every suitor even when her family pressured her to marry. With the ring Richard had made for her, they soon wed.
Another, lesser-known story also begins in Galway with another Joyce. This time it is Margaret Joyce, an Irishwoman who married a wealthy Spanish merchant. After her husband died and she inherited his fortune, Margaret returned to Galway and used her money to build bridges in both Galway and nearby Sligo. According to this tale, in 1596, Margaret was sitting outside when an eagle flew overhead and dropped a claddagh ring in her lap as a reward for her generosity.
Now, back to the claddagh ring itself. The ring features two hands holding a crowned heart. The hands represent friendship, the crown loyalty, and the heart, of course, means love. Irish men and women would often give each other the rings as a love token, engagement or most frequently, as a wedding ring. The claddagh was often used like an early form of “going steady” ring, with one interesting twist: wherever the wearer—generally a woman—wore the ring on their hand symbolized where they were in a current relationship. Yes, there was a code system that went with the ring. No one is sure when or how the system developed, but once you understand it, it’s pretty convenient for the wearer to show the world what’s going on.
According to the typical code, wearing the ring goes as follows:
Wearing the ring on the right-hand ring finger with the heart pointing away from you: You’re not currently in a relationship but are interested in meeting someone.
Wearing the ring on the right-hand ring finger with the heart pointing towards you: You’re currently dating someone, but not committed to each other yet.
Wearing the ring on the left-hand ring finger with the heart pointing away from you: You’re engaged to be married or are otherwise in a very committed relationship.
Wearing the ring on the left-hand ring finger with the heart pointing towards you: You are married.
In addition, some traditions say that when you give someone a claddagh ring, you should say “With these hands, I give you my heart and crown it with my love.” If you like traditions, go for it—just be careful who you say it to.
As charming as the rules might be, they’re not set in stone, so you can wear yours however you like it, and other people may have a different interpretation altogether. Claddagh rings don’t even have to be given as love tokens or to signal to potential mates that you’re on or off the market; they can be given as gifts of friendship, or you can wear them because they’re just so cool. You don’t even need to be Irish to do it!
After the leprechaun, there is no mythological creature more closely associated with Ireland than the banshee. Lately more the stuff of plotlines for horror movies and shows such as Supernatural and Teen Wolf, the banshee is an ancient spirit, with versions of the creature dating back to well before the Roman invasion of the British Isles … with reports of her occurring even to this day.
The word “banshee” is the Anglicized spelling and pronunciation of the Irish Gaelic word bean sidhe, which generally translates as “woman of the fairy mound.” (A fairy mound is an old earthwork, typically a tomb or the remains of an old fort, said to be the dwelling place of the fairies.) In Irish mythology, the fairies, also called the Fair Folk, the Light Folk, the Bright Ones or Gentlefolk (the term “little people” is actually more of an American invention—the Irish would never dare call the fairies something so derogatory) are human-like entities that exist in a dimension parallel to our own. Typically fairies are invisible, but when they do choose to be seen or are accidentally noticed by people, they look like tall, slender, beautiful human beings. The nursery stories and movies would have you believe that fairies are whimsical wish-givers, but in truth, the fairies are capricious; they don’t care much for humans, finding them to be typically destructive and dishonorable. Most times, fairies would rather cruelly trick, kidnap and enslave or even outright kill humans than have anything to do with them.
However, exceptions have happened, and there are many stories of the Fair Folk being kind to and even falling in love with human beings. One example is the fairy Cliobhna, who fell in love with a man from Cork. After her lover drowned at sea, Cliobhna attached herself to their family. Other times a fairy seems to become attached to a family of great renown; the fairy queen Aoibheall of Craig Liath (Gray Rock) in County Muenster aligned herself with the famous hero Brien Boru (Brian the Blessed), the progenitor of the O’Brien clan.
Stories like this are frequently cited as reasons why certain Irish families (and certain Scotch-Irish families) have a banshee, while others suggest that the banshee was a virgin woman who died because having a family of her own, and has been allowed by some greater power to remain with her relatives in spirit. In County Antrim, the O’Neill family has a legend that Kathleen O’Neill was taken to the bottom of the lough (lake) as punishment for her father interfering with a fairy cow (yes, the fairies have cows, horses, pigs, dogs and cats) and was permitted to visit her family only when someone was about to die.
Generally, banshees attach themselves to prominent families, but there are also stories of banshees attaching themselves to the poor inhabitants of workhouses, a woman in County Dongeal becoming a banshee after going insane with grief when her husband drowned, and the banshee of Duckett’s Grove, created as a curse by a woman whose daughter died in an accident while out riding with her lover. Banshees are known to appear beside streams, along lonely roads, in abandoned locales, and have traveled all over the world along with their chosen family members … there are lots of stories of American banshees.
Because the banshee maintains such a close guard over her ancestors or chosen family, when a member dies or is about to die, she is overcome with intense grief. Sometimes she will physically manifest, sometimes she will remain invisible, but she is always heard, singing, crying, screaming in distress, or keening. “Keening” is an ancient funerary art practiced by the Celts and Gaels and performed by one or more women. The keening woman would lament loudly over the dead person, saying things such as listing their accomplishments in life, how much they would be missed and so on. Families would often hire professional keening women, called bean chaointe, and this likely had an influence on the banshee legend as well. (Or could it be the other way around?)
While it’s always agreed that a banshee would make herself heard, it’s not always agreed upon what she looked like when she did manifest. Different families and different regions of Ireland seem to have their own version of the banshee’s physical appearance, but it could be that of a beautiful young woman with white or red hair dressed in white or silver, a withered old hag with red eyes in a green cloak, or even a headless woman who was naked from the waist up—that one might cause anybody to drop dead of fright. Among the Scottish and several other northern European cultures, the banshee appears at a fjord or river, and is seen washing the often-bloody clothes belonging to the person who was about to die (this version is called the bean nighe.)
Sometimes the women are seen sobbing, tearing at their hair (though a few reports say that she’s actually combing her hair), or rush towards people with their mouth agape in a horrific shriek. There are some stories of the banshee standing beside the dying person, singing to them softly, as if to comfort them. They are seen in the bedrooms of the dying, pacing the hallways outside their rooms, walking the road towards the dying person’s home, or standing just outside the house. One contributor on a Reddit subboard told how their grandmother told them that their great uncle was walking home from the pub one night when he found a sobbing old woman outside his house. Feeling bad for the stranger, the man tried to invite her into the house, but when he turned back she had vanished. The commentator’s grandmother realized what had happened and hurried her brother to his bed. Three days later he passed away.
You’ve probably heard the story that if you hear a banshee then you were sure to die. This isn’t one hundred percent true, actually; nearly every version of the banshee legend says that almost anyone can hear a banshee, whether they’re the victim or not. The banshee is thought to cry out to let relatives of the dying person know that someone in their family was about to pass away. And as it turns out, the dying person didn’t have to be a family member—it could be a well-loved friend. A great example of this comes from the book Passing Strange by folklorist Joseph A. Citro. In the book, Citro documents the experiences of a wealthy Boston businessman (who asked to be kept anonymous) and a banshee who haunted him. The first time he heard the banshee in was early on a sunny morning when he was a boy, dozing in bed. A bizarre shriek startled him awake. He looked outside his window to see if an animal might have made the noise, but saw nothing. When he went downstairs to ask his parents, the boy was shocked to see his father in the kitchen, weeping. His mother took the boy aside and told him that his paternal grandfather had just died.
At that time, the boy knew nothing about banshees, and the whole event slipped from his mind until much later, when he heard the tale. He wondered about it, but put it out of his mind … until one morning in 1946. By now he was a young man in the Air Force, stationed somewhere in Asia when it happened. This time, he was dead asleep with the horrible howl jarred his awake, around six in the morning. Sitting up, he was suddenly overcome with grief and instinctively knew that his father had passed away, which was exactly the case.
The last time the man reported hearing the banshee’s cry was about seventeen years later, while on a business trip to Toronto. Again, the sound happened in the morning, but this time the man was wide awake and reading the paper when it happened. Recognizing the sound, the man was struck with fear and called home. He was assured that his wife, their son, and his brothers were all perfectly safe and healthy, but he still felt worried.
Later that day, he found out why; a good friend of his had been murdered. The date was November 22, 1963. His friend? It was John F. Kennedy.
Another story goes that the banshee only comes for men, or that only men are able to hear her. Again, this doesn’t seem to be the case, at least for some families; there are many stories of the banshee crying at the death of a female member of the family, and of women hearing her long before any of the men did. In the 1600s, English memoirist and cookbook author Lady Ann Fanshawne was staying with the O’Brien family when she claimed to have seen a banshee (this one said to be the soul of a drowned housemaid) floating outside her two-story bedroom window the night one of the O’Briens died. In her book Memoirs of Lady Fawshawne, she described the banshee as “a woman in white … with red hair and pale and ghastly complexion: … to me her body looked more like a thick cloud than substance, I was so much frightened, that my hair stood on end …” In the book True Irish Ghost Stories by John Seymour, the author collected a story from a woman whose family had several encounters with a banshee. When the woman’s mother was dying, the woman, her sister and their maid (and the next-door neighbors!) all heard the banshee, but her father, who was sitting in the room below, didn’t hear a thing.
To be sure, the legend of the banshee is creepy as all get-out, but it should be understood that the banshee does not cause death; she only sadly predicts it. Movies and urban legends like to spread the idea that the banshee is actively looking for people to kill, but in fact the banshee is a psychopomp figure—in other words, a protective entity that safely ushers the departed souls to the afterlife (much like Hermes, the Grim Reaper, etc.), but with the added benefit of giving the family a heads-up. And while no one who has a banshee in their family wants to ever hear it, there are a good deal of Irish people who are quite proud of the fact that they have one.
The only time a banshee seems to act out violently is when someone steals her comb; on occasion a banshee might accidentally drop her comb, and if a human walks away with it, she’ll chase them down and haunt them until they give it back. The offender will have to offer the comb back at the end of a pair of iron tongs, because the banshee will be so angry she might grab the thief’s hand and break it in retaliation. That’s why if you’re ever in Ireland exploring ruins where a banshee is said to reside, the locals will tell you not to pick up any lost combs!
As with a great many other once-obscure legends, the banshee is growing rapidly in popularity. She or versions of the banshee have appeared in shows like The Chilling Tales of Sabrina, Supernatural,Teen Wolf and Charmed, a slew of movies, and have popped up in comic books and video games too. In the paranormal investigative world, research has been conducted by Josh Gates in his former show, Destination Truth, by Ghost Hunters International, by our favorite dude-bros on Ghost Adventures (they visited the Hellfire Caves AND Leap Castle, which is stupid on oh so many supernatural levels), and by Amy Allan on Dead Files, though interestingly she found that one in a restaurant in New York State. With the renewed interest, we’re also seeing more and more reports of banshees and banshee-like spirits interacting with human today.
Oh, uh, and if your last name happens to be O’Brien, O’Neill, O’Grady, Kavanaugh, or O’Connor, you might want to pay attention to any weird screeching sounds you might hear. Just so you know.
Myth Monday: How the Giants’ Causeway Was Created (Irish Legend)
By Kara Newcastle
Kara’s Note: Just in case there’s any confusion, the Fionn mac Cumhaill (pronounced ‘Finn Mac Cool’, if you’re wondering) isn’t exactly the hero from the Irish Red Branch sagas, but a different version of him. Still it’s a great story.
Fionn mac Cumhaill was a giant of a man. No, he really was. He was BIG. Big in size, big in fame, big in attitude and, well, sometimes big in mouth. Once in a while that big mouth of his got him into trouble.
Fionn was Ireland’s greatest hero since the days of Cu Culhainn, and because of that Fionn took the job very seriously. When he wasn’t out riding with his band of warriors, the Fianna, Fionn liked to strike out on his own for a bit, checking in on things here and there, making sure everything was in order. It was one of these little jaunts that found Fionn along the coast, looking out over the Irish Sea. There, far out was the land of Scotland. And looking back at him was another giant.
Squinting through the sunlight reflecting off the waves, Fionn raised his hand in greeting. “’Morning, friend!”
The Scottish giant seemed to squint back. “Ye talkin’ to me?” he shouted.
“That I am. I’m Fionn mac Cumhaill.”
The Scottish giant jerked back, then laughed. “Ye can’t be Fionn mac Cumhaill. Ye’re jest a wee thing! Fionn mac Cumhaill is a giant!”
Shocked, Fionn spluttered for a moment—he had never been called “small” before! “Ye must be blind lad—I am Fionn mac Cumhaill, and I’m a sight bigger than ye!”
“Ye’re talkin’ mince. No way are ye bigger than me. I’m Benandonner, the biggest giant in Scotland!”
Fionn snorted. “Ye ain’t much to look at.”
Benandonner sneered and held up one hand. “I got more power in me finger than ye’ve got in yer whole scrawny body.”
“Aye? Well, I got a finger for ye.”
“Away and boil yer head!”
“Bite the back of me bollix!”
Outraged, Benandonner jabbed one of those magic fingers at Fionn. “Shut yer puss or I’ll shut it for ye!”
“I’d like to see ye try!”
Apparently, Benandonner was more than happy to take Fionn up on that, and he promptly reached down, scooped up and armload of rocks and earth, and heaved it out into the sea. Picking up another armload, Benandonner flung that out into the water, creating a path.
Realizing that the Scottish giant was building a bridge and itching for a fight, Fionn began to gather up all the rocks he could find, tossing them out into the water. Both giants worked furiously, constructing a causeway between their two lands with the aim of meeting in the middle and caving each other’s skulls in.
However, as Benandonner drew closer, Fionn was able to get a better look at him. At first, he was just a little speck out on the horizon, but as he grew closer and closer, Fionn noticed a few things …
… The first one being that Benandonner was actually a hell of a lot bigger than Fionn!
Realizing that he was badly outsized, Fionn panicked, dropped his rocks and ran for it, running so fast that one of his boots flew off and remains on the beach to this day. He pelted all the way home at the top of his speed, thanking the gods with every pounding footstep that he didn’t live far. He threw himself through the door, slamming it shut and scaring the life out of his wife Oona as she sat by the fire, baking griddle cakes, his favorite food.
Nearly leaping out of her skin, Oona spun around to face him. “Fionn, what the—?!”
“I picked a fight with a Scottish giant and he’s bigger than me and now I’m gonna diiiiie!” Fionn screamed.
Oona flinched back at Fionn’s panic; she had never seen her heroic husband act this way. “Fionn, slow down and tell me what happened?”
Gulping for breath, Fionn scrambled for the crossbeam for the door. “I saw a Scottish giant,” he wheezed as he slammed the bar down. “All I said was ‘hello,’ and next thing ye know, he’s building a bridge across the sea to fight me!”
Oona narrowed her eyes. “Sounds like there’s a piece of the story missing.”
“Doesn’t matter, he’s after me.” Frantic, Fionn spun around, looking for a place to hide. “It’s Benandonner that’s after me—”
“Benandonner? The Red Man? The Thunder of the Mountain? Ye picked a fight with him?!”
Looking at his wife in disbelief, Fionn waved his arms at the door. “Aye, and he’s on his way!”
“Leave it to ye to pick a fight with the most barbaric giant in Scotland.” Shaking her head, Oona turned, scanning their room. Her eyes fell upon the baby’s cradle. She had given birth to their son just a scant few months before, and it was obvious he had inherited his father’s legendary height …
Oona pointed at the cradle. “Get in the cradle.”
Not sure he heard correctly, Fionn stopped short. He looked at her, dumbfounded. “Whu …?”
“Get in the bloody cradle, ye daft edjit ye! Ye’ll just fit. We can make this work.”
Astonished, Fionn looked between Oona and the baby’s cradle. Just as he opened his mouth to protest, a voice from miles away roared, “I’m here, mac Cumhaill! Where’d ye run off to?”
“Bollix!” Fionn squeaked. Without a second thought, the giant Fionn mac Cumhaill leaped into his baby son’s cradle, wedging his head in and tucking his tree-like legs up against his chest. Moving swiftly, Oona tucked the blankets and linens in tightly around Fionn, wrapping his head and beard in a baby’s bonnet. She had just enough time to take one step to the side when a massive fist battered their door, shaking the entire house as though it were in an earthquake.
“Open up!” Benandonner roared.
“Just a wee moment,” Oona replied, her voice mild and pleasant though her eyes shot daggers at her cowering husband. Darting over to the fireplace, Oona grabbed one of her iron skillets and dunked it in the griddle cake batter, coating it thoroughly. Tossing the skillet onto the ashes, Oona swiftly moved to their larder, finding the toughest piece of fat they had. Pulling a stout piece of redwood from the stack of kindling beside the hearth, Oona managed to grab up her hammer and tacks from the mantel as Benandonner resumed beating on the door.
“I said—” he snarled.
“And I said it’d be a wee moment!” Oona shouted back as she quickly nailed the piece of fat onto the redwood, shooting a worried look back at Fionn, whose huge, terrified eyes peeked out over his son’s blanket. “I’m putting my son into his bed!”
Flinging the hammer aside, Oona sprinted over to the door as Benandonner slammed his huge fist into it so hard the wood planks began to warp and bend over the crossbeam. Heaving the crossbeam out of its track, Oona drew in a steadying breath, waited, then whipped the door open, springing aside as Benandonner, already midway through his next punch, overshot his mark and pitched headlong into the mac Cumhaill house.
Gasping, Benandonner staggered, spinning his arms around for balance as he righted himself up. Recovering, the Scottish giant growled and whipped his head back and forth, searching for his rival. “Where’s that bastard mac Cumhaill?”
“Ye mean my husband, Fionn? Oh, he went to the north to hunt deer.” Steadying herself, Oona glided past the glowering giant. “He said something about coming back later to bust in the head of some clod from Scotland. Would that be ye?”
Insulted, Benandonner drew himself up to his full height. “Yer old man’s a bleeding idiot, missus. He looks as though he’d only come up to me gut.”
“Oh, I don’t think so.” Smiling, Oona pointed to an array of spears, swords, and shields Fionn had mounted on one of their walls. “That there is my husband’s weapon collection. Surely no small man could lift anything so big, aye?”
Studying the weapons on display, Benandonner narrowed his eyes. “Hrmph … I reckon not, no …”
“Fionn is no small man, I assure ye.”
Wrinkling his nose, Benandonner sneered down at Oona. “That remains to be seen, but he’s in no way stronger than me.”
Oona arched an eyebrow. “How d’ye reckon?”
“Oh, I’ll show ye.” Opening the door, Benandonner reached out and plucked a large rock out of the ground beside the path. The rock was easily the size of a yearling calf, and as Oona watched, Benandonner easily wrapped his pinky finger around it and squeezed.
With a head splitting “CRACK!”, the rock shattered, pouring down in a cascade of gravel from Benandonner’s hand.
Oona heard Fionn gulp in the cradle behind her.
Oona fought back a gasp, quickly redirecting her gaze down to the pile of dust and pebbles on the floor between her and the Scottish giant so he wouldn’t see the flash of fear crossing her face. She drew in a shaking breath, forcing herself to calm. “That is impressive.”
Benandonner smirked. “Thank ye.”
“But Fionn has broken so many boulders with his just his little toe that he grew bored with it.”
Benandonner stopped short. “Little … toe?”
Oona nodded. “Aye. He was looking for a challenge, but it was far too easy for him.”
“Bah.” Snorting, Benandonner waved her boast away. “We’ll see about that. Even without my magic finger, I would make short work of that runt.”
“Ah. In that case, why don’t ye wait here a while until Fionn comes home? I’m presently in the middle of making dinner.” Seeing the uncertainty growing in Benandonner’s expression, Oona bit back a pleased grin and gestured to the cradle where Fionn hid trembling under the blanket. “This is here is our son. He was born not quite three months ago.”
Hearing that, Benandonner stopped abruptly, his spine going visibly rigid as his eyes nearly sprang out of their sockets. Shaking his head, Benandonner looked at the quaking lump of blanket and bonnet. “Wait … that’s yer son?”
The color draining from his face, Benandonner shuffled half a step back. “B-but … if that’s yer son … how big is his father?!”
“Enormous, actually. But worry about that later. Come, have dinner with us.” It was all Oona could do to keep from laughing out loud; Benandonner’s reaction was priceless. Smothering her giggles, Oona picked up her fork and began removing the griddle cakes and the batter-covered skillet from the fireplace, watching out of the corner of her eye as Benandonner, clearly second guessing the size of his foe based on the size of his “offspring,” sat down several feet away from the cradle. Picking up the batter-covered skillet, Oona held it out to Benandonner. “As our guest, ye are welcomed to the first serving.”
“Oh. Thank ye.” Still keeping a concerned eye on the “baby,” Benandonner absently accepted the disguised skillet and lifted it up to his mouth. Without looking, he bit into the iron pan, and instantly his front two teeth shattered.
“AAAARRRGHHH!!!” His massive hands flying to his mouth, Benandonner shot to his feet. Howling, he danced around in a crazed circle, bashing into walls and furniture. “My teeth! I broke my teeth!”
Oona snorted. “On a griddlecake? Dear me, yer teeth must be remarkably weak to break on something so soft.”
“Soft?! It felt like there was an iron bar in it!”
“Well, aye, I do make the cakes with iron,” Oona agreed, doing her desperate best not to burst out laughing at Benandonner’s aghast look. “That’s how my family likes them. But I do feel badly that ye hurt yer teeth. Let me find ye something else to eat.”
The Scottish giant rubbed gingerly at his mouth. “I’m not sure I want to try anything else.”
“Oh, come now. Some bacon will put ye right.” Hefting up the fat nailed to the redwood log, Oona passed it into Benandonner’s huge hand.
Benandonner’s hairy eyebrows went up. “Bacon, eh?” he said approvingly.
Without a second thought, the giant popped the fat wrapped board into his mouth and bit down.
“WHAT THE BLOODY—?!?!” Spitting the wood out, Benandonner threw himself backwards, both of his hands again clapping down on his mouth. “I just broke my back teeth!”
Triumphant, Oona shot a glance to Fionn as he peeked out of the cradle. They grinned briefly at each other before Fionn ducked back under the blanket; this was sure to make Benandonner leave now.
Clucking her tongue, Oona crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head. “Oh please. My husband Fionn eats a hundred of these a day without carrying on like yer doing now. Even our son can eat a cake, and he has no teeth at all.”
Furious, Benandonner glared at Oona through watery eyes. “Prove it then!”
“Aye, I will.” Plucking an unaltered cake from the hearth, Oona walked over to the baby’s cradle. “Here, sweetheart, have a bite.”
Inching the blanket away from his face, Fionn grinned at Oona and opened his mouth—then choked back a gag as his wife crammed the griddlecake into it. Fionn gulped it down quickly.
“Mmm! Yummy, Mama!” he squealed, then yipped as Oona, her smiling face unwavering, gave the cradle a swift, jolting kick to shut him up.
Benandonner stared. “I don’t believe it.”
Oona’s smile faltered just barely at the edges; she had hoped this would be enough to scare the giant off, but, shaken as he was, Benandonner didn’t seem ready to leave yet. Recovering herself, Oona shrugged and gestured to the false baby. “Check his mouth and see for yerself then.”
Fionn’s eyes bugged out. “What are ye doing?!” he mouthed frantically.
Setting his jaw—then wincing at the soreness where his two front teeth used to be—Benandonner stomped forward. “All right, I will,” he snarled, and thrust his hand under the blanket.
Seeing the enormous fingers sliding towards him, Fionn cowered back as far as he could in the cradle. Finding no escape, no hiding place there, he did the only thing he could, the thing Oona had prayed he would do.
Fionn opened his mouth wide and bit down on Benandonner’s fingers. Hard.
“GYYYAAAGGGGH!!!” His scream rattling the entire mac Cumhaill household, Benandonner wrenched his hand away, throwing a stream of bright red blood through the air as he flung himself back as far as he could. “Damn it! Damn it—yer brat just bit my magic finger off!”
Baring her teeth, Oona laid a protective hand over the swaddled Fionn. “Don’t ye be talking about my baby that way!”
“No … no, oh no …” Clutching his bloody, mangled hand, Benandonner stared down at the ragged stump in horror. “That’s where I kept all my strength. Without my magic finger, I’m as weak as a lamb!”
“Is that so?” Smirking, Oona nodded her head towards the door. “The ye best be off—Fionn will be home at any moment. He would have made short work of ye anyways, but if ye’re as weak as ye say …”
“I’m going!” Scrambling to his feet, Benandonner bolted for the door, throwing it open so hard and fast he nearly wrenched it off the hinges. Not daring a backwards glance, Benandonner ran down to the beach and over the land bridge he and Fionn had made earlier that day. Benandonner ran so fast that his thundering footsteps caused the bridge to crack apart and sink in the middle, leaving the piece in Ireland intact—as Fionn was a much better builder than any barbaric Scottish giant could ever be.
Seeing Benandonner flee renewed the courage in Fionn mac Cumhaill and he sprang out of the cradle, tossing aside the bonnet and blanket as he charged after the Scottish giant. Upon seeing the land bridge crumble beneath Benandonner’s heels, Fionn realized he couldn’t follow the cur—not that he really wanted to—but he couldn’t just let Benandonner leave without showing off a bit. Hunching down, Fionn scooped up a massive chunk of earth and flung it at Benandonner’s retreating back. Fionn’s shot went wide, missing the giant and landing instead in the Irish Sea, where the larger chunk became the Isle of Man and the small pebble that broke off turned into the uninhabitable islet Rockall. Even though Fionn missed by an enormous amount, the huge earthen projectile was enough to scare Benandonner deep into Fingel’s Cave on the coast of Scotland.
Pleased with his victory, Fionn mac Cumhaill dusted his hands off and turned to head home—stopping short and cowering under the withering gaze of his clever wife Oona.
And that’s how the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland was created.
It was late at night, but Fidelma MacDonagh wasn’t ready for bed. Not just yet; she had put her little ones down some time ago, and her weary husband had turned in shortly after that. The maids had decided to go to sleep a little while before, but Fidelma wasn’t ready. She was always something of a night owl, and she valued this time after her family and servants had gone to bed. It was quiet, there were no distractions, and Fidelma could relax. Sometimes she would read by the fire, other times, like tonight, she would sit and work on her embroidery. She liked this time.
Fidelma paused in her stitching to examine her progress. She was adding a border to a dress she had made for her baby girl, Bluisne, all of three years old. Fidelma had wanted to treat her little girl to a new dress—nothing too fancy, as Fidelma was sure the baby would dirty it soon enough—but she wasn’t about to give a plain frock to her baby. No, Bluisne deserved the very best.
It was then Fidelma realized how dark the room had gotten—she had been working for so long that the fire had died down and her candles had melted to almost nubs. Shrugging to herself, Fidelma finished off the stitch and cut the thread, carefully returning her sewing to the basket at her feet. Fidelma stretched, then heaved herself out of her favorite chair. Time to go to bed—
A sound thundered at the front door and Fidelma jolted, a gasp hitching in her throat and her hands flying to her chest and her hammering heart beneath. Stunned, she stared at the door, jumping again when a second round of knocking pounded at the wood. Her eyes widened. Who could it be at this hour? It wasn’t unknown for neighbors to be up and about in the dead of night, but they typically didn’t visit her because they knew her children would be fast asleep. They wouldn’t want to disturb them.
Fidelma’s closest neighbors were the kindly Fitzpatricks from the road, a loving couple well advanced in their age. Maybe it was one of them. Maybe something had happened, and their stableboy had rushed down for help.
Alarm fast dissolving into worry, Fidelma rushed for the door, sliding back the bolt and cracking it open. “Aye, who is it? Is everything well?”
Something shoved hard against the door and Fidelma gasped, stumbling back with the impact. Instinct told her to throw her weight against the door, but it pushed open hard, sweeping her back as though she had been no heavier than one of Bluisne’s rag dolls. Staggering back, Fidelma looked up at the dark figure in her doorway, cursing herself for not bringing a candle with her, for not calling her husband first, for answering the door in the first place. She opened her mouth to demand the stranger’s name, but as they stepped into the light cast by the fire, all Fidelma’s protests died in her mouth.
Standing before her was a tall woman, a woman Fidelma didn’t recognize. She was dressed in a strange gown that hung straight down from her shoulders, and an odd robe swept in behind her as she strode into the house. Her face was pale and sharp, her eyes cold and hard like flint. She carried a satchel in one hand, a hand tipped in long, pointed nails that reminded Fidelma of icicles.
But the one thing that Fidelma could not stop staring at was what was in the middle of the woman’s forehead. From the center of her brow sprouted a single, long, straight horn.
Arching a thin eyebrow at Fidelma’s gape, the strange woman pushed past her, striding straight up to the fireplace. With her free hand, she pointed a finger at the hearth, and the fire roared to life. The woman then turned and pointed at Fidelma’s rocking chair. It slid across the floor towards her, pushed by invisible hands. Huffing, the horned woman gathered her robes around her and sat down, placing her satchel at her feet. Opening the bag, the woman withdrew a pair of carders and a large lump of wool. Placing the wool between the teeth of the carders, the horned woman began to comb out the fibers.
The woman went to work, silently moving the paddles through the knotted wool. Fidelma stared at her, unable to summon the will to move or speak, hardly able to even breathe.
After an endless moment, the horned woman glanced at her. The look was brief, but cold.
“Close the door,” she said.
Fidelma started. “Wh—?”
Huffing through her narrow nose, the woman looked past Fidelma and waved a carder at the door. Fidelma felt an ice-cold wind rush past her, and she jumped with a scream as the door behind her slammed thunderously shut.
Frowning, the horned woman turned back to her wool, combing out the knots and burrs. She continued this way in silence, pausing once to pass the cleaned wool onto the floor.
Her brow furrowing around her horn, the woman looked up at Fidelma. “Where is the witch of the two horns? She takes too long to arrive.”
Fidelma felt her heart drop. “Arrive … where?”
No sooner did the words pass her lips than another series of thunderous knocks rattled the front door. Fidelma screamed and spun around, backing away from the door as rapidly as she could.
The horned woman scowled. “What’s wrong with you? Open the door for your guest!”
Shocked anger shot through Fidelma and, forgetting whom she was speaking to, she rounded on the one-horned woman, her teeth bared. “’Tis no guest of mine!”
A bizarre light danced in the horned woman’s eyes, like a flicker of candle flame passing behind two dark windows. “Open the door.”
A shriek ripped from Fidelma’s throat as something hard and frigid and huge slammed into her, lifting her off her feet. She felt the toes of her shoes dragging across the floor as the invisible creature carried her swiftly over to the door, flinging her viciously against the wood.
The horned witch returned her gaze to her carding. “Open the door.”
Wheezing in shock, Fidelma shook her head, then choked on a cry as the cold thing grabbed her hand, lifted it up and slapped it down on the bolt. It folded her fingers around it as she struggled, holding her hand fast and forcing her to slide the bolt back again.
The second the bolt moved back, the door shot open again, slamming into Fidelma and knocking her back hard against the wall. Her head spinning, Fidelma staggered, barely able to register the form that glided into her house.
It was another tall woman, clothed in the same strange robes. She had two horns sprouting from her head.
The two-horned woman smiled and greeted the first, then beckoned for a chair to slide over to her. She sat down beside the single-horned woman, placed a satchel down by her feet, and from it removed a distaff and more wool.
The pair passed the wool between them, carding and winding, whispering back and forth in volumes that Fidelma could not hear. As she huddled there against the wall where she had been thrown, the door thudded shut of its own accord.
No sooner did the door close than the two-horned woman glanced up at Fidelma. “Where is the witch of three horns?” she asked. “She takes too long to arrive.”
All of the blood in Fidelma’s body turned to ice in her veins. She stared at the horned women, barely able to breathe. “Three horns?” she rasped.
Instantly, knocking hammered at the door behind her. The horned women raised their eyebrows expectantly at Fidelma.
Every inch of her body quaking, Fidelma shook her head hard. “I will not!”
The single horned woman curled back her thin lips. “If you wish to preserve the safety of your family, you will let your guest in.”
There was no mistaking the cold threat in the horned woman’s voice and, tears streaming down her cheeks, Isabel stiffly turned to open the door, admitting in a witch with three horns. For the next hour that was all Fidelma did: she opened the door and admitted another witch in, each with one more horn than the last. Each one entered, greeted her sisters, then sat down with wool and carders, distaffs or spinning wheels that they had conjured out of their bags, laughing and making merry as though they were ordinary women. When the final witch appeared, the tallest one in grand skirts, her head adorned with twelve arching horns, a great cheer went up amongst the witches. “Our queen is here!” they cried, prompting a devilish smile to spring to the face of the twelve-horned witch.
The queen strode into the room, unfurling one long finger and crooking it, as if beckoning for something to follow. Fidelma’s knees nearly buckled from terror as she watched a large loom glide silently through the door, following the twelve-horned witch.
The twelve-horned witch pointed that long finger to the center of the room, and her infernal loom floated forward, coming to a gentle stop before the blazing fireplace. Turning about to take in the progress that her coven had done, the queen nodded approvingly. “Very good, my dears. Let us continue our work.”
Trembling, Fidelma slowly closed the heavy oak door, sagging against it. She waited by the door, expecting yet another knock, and was only slightly comforted when none came. The entire coven must have been there in her home now.
The witches returned to their work and their queen took her place at the loom. They began to sing, a melody of words Fidelma couldn’t recognize, but the tone was vile and shook Fidelma’s very soul. The sound of their voices filled the house as they prepped the wool, passing the yarn to their queen, who began to work the loom with inhuman speed.
So engrossed in their work, not one of the witches spared so much of an eyeblink in Fidelma’s direction. Fidelma swallowed hard, then carefully slid along the wall, edging around the coven until she reached the hallway. Certain that she had not been seen, Fidelma bolted into the dark hall, charged up the stairway and raced first to her bedroom, where her husband slept. Fidelma grabbed him by both shoulders and shook him, doing her damnedest not to scream for him to wake up, lest she alert the witches. To her terror, her husband did not stir, even when she soundly slapped him across the face. He would not wake up.
Her stomach in knots, Fidelma abandoned her husband and ran to each of her children’s beds, shaking them and hissing their names, finding them just as still and silent as their father. As Fidelma tried to rouse the maids awake, she heard a dark voice call up from the floor below, “And where is the lady of the house?”
Her heart seizing, Fidelma shrank down beside the maids’ beds. She dug her fingernails into the bedpost, fighting to slow her breathing. Her mind raced; everyone in the house must have been under some sort of spell. She couldn’t wake them—she would have to leave them behind and run to the Fitzpatricks’ house, send the stableboy there to get help. The thought of leaving her children and husband behind made her want to die, but—
“It would please us greatly if ye would join us, Lady MacDonagh.”
It was the voice of the twelve-horned witch. Fidelma bit her lip hard; she did not want to go back down there …
Pain riddled through her body and Fidelma choked, her eyes blasting open as she felt her legs beginning to straighten, her fingers scraping as they pulled away from the bedpost. She struggled, feeling that ice-cold presence forcing her to stand, pivoting her around to face the doorway of the maids’ room.
“Come down, or we will make ye come down.”
Tears springing to her eyes again, Fidelma bit out, “All right! All right, I am coming down.”
A chorus of cruel sniggering answered her, but the presence instantly released its hold on her body, causing Fidelma to stagger forward. Quickly raking the backs of her hands over her eyes, Fidelma took a trembling step, moving back into the hallway, down the stairs, returning to the main room, though every fiber of her being screamed for her not to.
The witches were still gathered there, but they had paused in their work, each of their heads turned expectantly towards Fidelma as she hesitantly entered. The twelve-horned queen leaned against her loom, smiling frigidly. On the loom, Fidelma could see a blanket or banner of some sort, ornate with dark colors. Fidelma could clearly see that the yarn the witches had spun had not been dyed, and that they had already assembled several feet of cloth in a matter of moments, whereas it would have taken ordinary women several days to accomplish so much. It renewed the terror within her.
“Lady MacDonagh,” the twelve-horned witch said. “I would be most appreciative if ye would be kind enough to serve refreshments to me and my coven.”
Fidelma knotted her fingers in her skirts, hoping that would stop her hands from shaking. “Ye … ye are welcomed to any wine I have.”
The witch queen’s smile widened. “Nay. We would like water.”
The request stopped Fidelma short. For a moment, all of her fear evaporated, and she stared at the queen in confused disbelief. “Water?”
“Aye.” Lifting her clawed finger, the twelve-horned witch pointed first in the direction of Fidelma’s kitchen, then snapped it back to Fidelma. Fidelma jerked back in fright as something crashed loudly in the dark confines of her kitchen, then screamed in terror as a small object came hurtling out, flying across the room and smashing into her chest. It pressed hard against her, driving her back up against the wall until her hands flew up and grabbed it, tearing it away from her body.
Stunned, Fidelma stared down at the object in her hands.
It was her metal sieve.
“Collect well water in that and bring it to us,” the twelve-horned witch said.
Fear flaring into anger, Fidelma snapped her head up. “I can’t possibly collect water in a sieve!”
“Do yer best.” Grinning, the twelve-horned witch gestured to the front door, and it roared open on its own. Again, that cold presence slammed into Fidelma, barreling her forward across the room and out the door. All around her, the horned witches cackled in delight.
As she reached the threshold, the presence gave Fidelma one hard shove and she flew forward, crying out as she fell heavily onto the flagstone pathway, the sieve sent spinning out of her hands. The witches’ laughter grew louder and more horrible as Fidelma scrambled to her feet, snatching the sieve off the ground. Beside herself with fear, the poor woman stumbled towards the well in her front yard, not knowing what else to do.
Senselessly, Fidelma picked up the wooden bucket and heaved it over the tall lip of the well, feeling the rope burning through her palms as it passed. As soon as she heard the bucket plunge into the water, Fidelma wrenched it back up, tipping it over into the sieve. The cold water sluiced through the holes of the sieve, pouring back into the well and saturating her dress. Panicked, Fidelma threw the bucket back into the water, filled it, pulled it up, and dumped the water back into the sieve.
As the water streamed back out, Fidelma heard the queen of the witches shouting from her home, “Don’t tarry long, Lady MacDonagh—we need drink to go with our cake!”
Alarmed, Fidelma spun around, seeing the witch and each of her twelve horns illuminated in her doorway by the snarling fireplace behind her, making her look as though she stepped straight out of hell. The sight made Fidelma recoil. “C-cake? I have no cake in my house.”
The queen grinned wickedly. “No, my dear Lady MacDonagh, but my sisters and I are making our own … sweetened with the blood of yer family.”
Fidelma’s heart stopped dead in her chest. “No!”
“Oh, ‘tis just a wee bit. They’re all sound asleep and did not feel a thing.” The queen nodded her ugly horned head towards the well. “We are waiting for our drink.”
“I can’t fill a sieve with water!”
Unperturbed, the queen witch shrugged. “Then perhaps we should sate ourselves with the rest of your family’s blood,” she said mildly.
Without another word, the twelve-horned witch turned and walked back into house.
All of the strength seeped out of Fidelma and she dropped like a stone beside the well, burying her face into her hands and sobbed, screaming in despair. How did this happen? What could she do? Her family was going to die!
The voice was soft at first, so soft that Fidelma couldn’t hear it over the sound of her own weeping. It spoke again, louder, insistent, and yet gentle. The soothing sound, so alien after all that had happened that night, jarred Fidelma out of her tears and she froze.
“Fidelma … listen to me …”
Horrified, Fidelma wrenched away from the well. God Above … the voice was coming from the well!
“Don’t be afraid,” the voice said, echoing softly up out of the confines of the well. “I am the spirit of the well. You have heard of beings like myself.”
Sure that she had lost her mind at this point, Fidelma stared at the well, blinking stupidly. “I … a-aye. Since I was a child.”
“Then you know that we seek to help good people such as yourself. I can help you save your family and drive the horned witches from your home forever.”
Shocked, Fidelma sprang to her feet. “Ye can? Oh, please, spirit! Help me save my children and husband!”
“I will. Listen to me closely, Fidelma. The first thing you must do is line the sieve with clay and moss, and then draw my water and fill it.”
Fidelma didn’t stop to question, but immediately set to work. She scraped up clay from her yard and peeled moss off the stones of the well, packing them into the holes of the sieve and then filling it with water. “Aye? What now?”
“Take the water and approach your home from the north. Go inside and say, ‘the mountain of the Fenian women and the sky over it is all on fire!’ This will drive the witches out of the house. You must then go to your children, and wash their feet in the water. Pour the water over the threshold of the house, then seal the door with a crossbeam. Feed your children and husband pieces of the blood cake, then take the banner the witches were weaving, and place it half in and half out of a locked chest. This will undo all their evil. Can you do this, Fidelma?”
Her hands tightening on the handles of the sieve, Fidelma nodded. “Anything for my family.”
Taking a deep breath, Fidelma approached the house from the north. Reaching the open door, she braced herself, then shouted inside, “The mountain of the Fenian women and the sky above it is on fire!”
The queen witch’s voice shrieked, “Whaaaaaat?!”, and instantly all of the coven began to scream in horror. They all swarmed out of Fidelma’s house, crying out in horror, leaping into the air and swooping away like birds in flight, soaring towards their mountain home. Wasting no time, Fidelma raced inside and ran to her children’s rooms with the well water. She bathed each of their feet, then took the water and poured it over the threshold, as the spirit of the well instructed. Slamming the heavy door shut, Fidelma dropped the massive crossbeam over it, then turned and ran to the witches’ loom. There she found their wicked banner, pulled it free of the loom and rushed to one of her chests in the far corner. She stuffed half of the banner into the chest, leaving the other half hanging out. Closing the lid, Fidelma then fastened a weighty lock on it.
Hurrying to the fireplace, Fidelma recoiled at the sight of one of her cake pans set on the coals, filled with a dark red cake. Carefully pulling it free, Fidelma carried the cake to her husband and children, breaking off pieces of the cake and sliding them into their mouths. Instantly, the spell was broken, and everyone who had been under the sleeping spell roused themselves awake.
Before Fidelma could take a moment to rejoice and tell them what had happened, an eerie shrieked rattled every inch of the house. From outside, Fidelma and her family heard the twelve witches shouting, “She tricked us! She broke our spell and locked us out!”
What sounded like twenty-four fists all began pounding on the barred front door. “Blast you!” the queen of the witches shrieked. “Let us in!”
Herding her bewildered husband and children behind her, Fidelma faced the door and shouted, “Never! I broke yer curse. Ye can never enter here again!”
“How did ye know? Who told ye what to do? Wait … The well has a guardian spirit doesn’t it?! She told ye what to do! Curse ye both! Blast ye both to hell!”
Outraged by their defeat, the witches took to the air again, screaming obscenities at the Spirit of the Well as they departed. The twelve horned witches never returned to Fidelma’s home, but the following morning, Fidelma discovered that one of the women had dropped their cloak as they fled from the home. Fidelma hung it as a trophy, and it remained within her family for five hundred years.