Aoibheall, pronounced [ee-vul], is not to be considered as a goddess, but as a fairy lady belonging to the sphere of oral lore. She presides over the sídh of Craig Liath, a rock near Killaloe, in Co. Clare, where the tribe of the Dál gCais (later called O’Briens) had their stronghold from the 6th c. AD.1431 Her cult must have originally extended to the east of Co. Clare and the north-west of Co. Tipperary. Her name connotes heat and light and can be translated as ‘radiant’, ‘bright’ or ‘sparkling’.1432 The concept of brightness is found in other names of fairy ladies, such as Áine ‘brightness’, ‘glow’, ‘lustre’, who is the protectress of the Eóghanacht sept* and is associated with Cnoc Áine, the Hill of Knockainey in Co. Limerick.1433 It is clear that Aoibheall and Áine are folk survivals of the ancient territorial goddess, presiding over the land and protecting its people.
Aoibheall appears in Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh [‘The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill’], detailing the invasions of Ireland by the Danes and other Norsemen. This late 11th-century text describes the historical Battle of Cluain Tairbh (Clontarf, Co. Dublin) which occurred in 1014 and opposed the Norse invaders to the Dál gCais sept* led by Brian Bóramha (AD 926-1014), who became King of all Ireland in 1002.1434 The Battle of Clontarf marked a turning point in the history of Ireland, for the Irish victory put an end to the growing Viking power in Ireland. The historical tale recounts that on the night before the battle, Aoibheall, the patroness of the Dál gCais sept*, came to Brian Bóramha and foretold that he would die in battle the following day, which actually happened. She also predicted that his eldest son would be King afterwards:‘Táinig Aibhell Craige Léithe chugam araeir”, ar sé, “ocus ro innis damh go muirfidhe mé aniú, ocus adubhairt riom an chéd mhac dom chloinn do chífinn aniú gomadh é do ghebhadh righe tar m’éis, ocus bidh é Donnchadh eisein […]
In this passage, Aoibheall plainly fulfills the role of the Banshee. She is indeed the tribal spirit of the O’Briens who announces the imminent death of the King, as the Banshee is the guardian of some Irish families and comes to foretell the death of a family member. In her role as a foreteller of death, Aoibheall also appears to the two sons of Brian Bóramha: Donnchadh and his brother Murchadh.1436 In a poem written around the year 1370 by the celebrated poet Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh, who was a professional composer to several leading Munster families of the time such as the O'Briens, McCarthys, and Fitzgeralds,Aoibheall is also called banfháidh Ó mBriain, that is ‘the prophetess of the O’Briens’, which is redolent of her ‘bean sí nature’.1437 Hull, in her article entitled ‘Fate’ in the Encyclopaedia of Ethics and Religion, states that Aoibheall’s tradition as a banshee was still vivid in the 19th c. in the oral lore of Co. Clare: “The same goddess [Aoibheall] has been seen in recent times surrounded by twenty-five other banshees of Clare before an impending disaster.”1438
Interestingly, the fairy lady Áine has also survived as a bean sí in the folklore of the Moneymore-Cookstown area of Counties Tyrone and Derry, in the north of Ireland, where another hill called Cnoc Áine and a well named Tobar Áine are recorded in the parish Lios Áine (Lissan) which is named after her.1439 John O’Donovan, who went to the district in 1834 to collect folk accounts, indeed reports in Ordnance Suvey Letters Co. Londonderry (1834) that:‘ Áinehad been taken away at night by the wee folk from her husband’s side, and never returned. She is still living, and [is] particularly attached to the family of O’Corra, who are believed to be her descendants, because whenever one of them is about to die she is heard wailing in the most plaintive and heart-touching manner in the wild glen of Alt na Síon and adjacent to the fort of Lios Áine”.1440 ’
The fact that she was related to a particular Irish family (O’Corra) and came to them to usher the death of a member of theirs by whining clearly indicates that Áine’s character had evolved into a Banshee at the beginning of the 19th c.
O’Rahilly, 1946a, p. 3 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 20 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 5.
O’Rahilly, 1946a, p. 4 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 20.
Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 7 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 10.
Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 45-48, 365-366.
Todd, 1867, pp. 200-201. The same account is recounted in Hennessy, 1871, vol. 1, pp. 8-9. The banshee is called Oebhinn, daughter of Donn-Oilen.
Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 20 ; 365-366.
Mac Cionnaith, 1938, p. 323.
Hull, in ERE, vol. 5, 1955, p. 783.
O’Rahilly, 1946, p. 518.
O’Donovan, in OSL, Co. Londonderry, Gaelic Manuscript Collection, Royal Irish Academy (MS. R.I.A.), Dublin, 1834, pp. 228 ff.