Friday, March 25, 2011

Irish Caves. The Cave of The Seven Sisters.

Irish Caves.

The ‘Irish Cave Archaeology Project’ is prompted by finds already made, including human bones ranging from small body parts to full skeletons of men, women and children; jewellery made from shell, amber and bone; the remains of sacrificed newborn calves, lambs and piglets. Folklore traditions reveal that caves were seen as places of ghosts and ghouls, gateways to the Otherworld or a home for a supernatural woman that preyed on mortal men.

With uses varying from burial chambers to places to live, caves in Ireland have a diverse history and usage. ‘People have been using caves around Ireland for almost 10,000 years. In the 19th and 20th centuries, some were documented by antiquarians looking for bones of extinct animals such as woolly mammoth, bears and Arctic lemmings. They also turned up human bones and artifact’s many of archaeological significance. More recently, cavers have discovered and explored caves all over the country. These caves open up for us a cultural, religious and physical history dating back through prehistoric, medieval and modern times.’

Evidence indicates that for about 8,000 years, caves were used mostly for religious activities. These deep dark, often sacred, places were associated with death and the ‘Otherworld’. They were used for excarnation, where a corpse was left to fully decompose prior to the bones being removed for burial. Often small bones and beads were left behind, to be found thousands of years later. Caves were also used for burial, with extensive finds already documented in Co Waterford. During the Bronze Age, caves were used for burying high ranking individuals. In 1805, a skeleton covered in small sheets of gold was discovered in a cave in Co Cork. Burial traditions with offerings continued into the Iron Age. At caves in Co Sligo, human teeth were placed in the caves, possibly associated with the annual harvest festival of Lughnasa.

The coming of Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century AD saw major changes in how caves were used and perceived. For the first time, there was extensive occupation of caves, as they became home to individuals, possibly travelling laborers or craft workers. It is likely that the association between caves and death and the Otherworld was largely destroyed by the Church.

The Cave of the Seven Sisters:

The origin of the following tale is to be found in the small village of Ballybunion a few miles from Kerry Head. The cliffs rise up from the sea to heights well over a hundred feet and these are peppered with caves into which the sea rushes with a terrible fury in winter. This coast line is open to the full force of the Atlantic storms and it was usual to find the dead bodies of various unfortunate creatures washed up on the shore.

On the edge of one of these cliffs there stands the ruin of a castle. All that remains of it now is the basement standing against the force of the wind and waves like some lonely sentinel.

According to local legend, this castle was the home of a chieftain around about the time of the invasions by the Vikings. He was the father of seven beautiful daughters, a brave warrior with a great hatred of those who would invade his land. He seemed to always have his sword in his hand and night and day his ships patrolled the coast watching for any sign of the piratical Vikings who might threaten his people.

There came a day when a sail was spotted in the distance and as it came nearer the chieftain saw the vessel displayed the standard of a Viking marauder. Immediately it was surrounded by the Irish ships and despite putting up a fierce fight it was captured. As was the custom of the chieftain, he had the crew that had survived the initial attack killed and thrown overboard with the exception of the captain and his six brothers as he had a special more painful death planned for them.

They were brought to the castle and there they had their wounds dressed and as they had no way to escape they were allowed freedom within the castle walls. Of course the seven captured men soon spotted the seven beautiful Irish maidens and as they were starved of male affection they soon fell under the spell of the Vikings and agreed to aid their escape and run off to the Viking homeland.

All was set, a stormy night in winter was chosen, and there was not a star in the sky. A cold wind blew in from the sea bringing with it a torrential rain, the waves crashed against amidst the caves below. Using a rope ladder they escaped over the battlements and down to the ground but when they had all descended to their horror they were surrounded by armed men who had been hiding amongst the rocks.

No one said a word, they knew it was hopeless for it was obvious who these armed warriors were. Taken back into the castle they came face to face with the chieftain. With a look of anger and hatred he pointed to his seven daughters and gave a command to his captain of the guard. The man recoiled in disbelief his face had a look of horror, recovering, he whispered in the ear of his chieftain but the face of the chieftain told all there that his order would not be changed and with a look of hatred he repeated the order turned to the door and stormed out of the room without a backward glance.

Now we come to a fearful scene. The lovers were wrenched from each other’s arms and the daughters were dragged forward. The storm had grown more violent and the waves were crashing against the rocks. Sea spray was carried over the top of the castle walls; lightning flashed and by its light a scene of pure horror was illuminated. Dragging the women along the edge of the precipice the warriors came to a chasm which resembled the crater of a volcano as it was completely closed with the exception of the opening at the top and a hole below through which the sea rushed in with terrific force and violence. The roaring of the sea was fearful and the lightning flashed and it was now that the seven sisters realised their fate. There could be no escape, screaming and begging for mercy they were hurled into the boiling seas. Their father’s orders carried out.

What happened to the seven Vikings is not known, the legend is not for them. Eventually, over time the castle fell into ruin. As for the chieftain? well he sleeps in an unknown grave his name forgotten, but the legend of The Seven Sisters remains. The cave is now known locally as The Cave of The Seven Sisters.

On a stormy night you can still hear their screams and as you look out over the seas you may see the outline of a ghost ship as seven lovers search the waves.

Hope you enjoyed the tale.

I'm going away for the weekend so I hope the weather keeps fine for you all and I will return on Sunday with tales anew. Keep safe, Keep happy and Keep smiling.


  1. Hi Silent Owl, Only one way to describe this post - amazing. Have actually visited Ballybunion, but this legend is new to me. Thanks for a fantastically interesting post. Hope you have a great weekend away. Many thanks Silent Owl - hope you are well. Radders

  2. Hi Radders. Glad you liked it. We've just arrived back. Great ritual, batteries recharged and the Sun shone so we're feeling refreshed. We saw some lovely vernacular cottages on the way so I thought as we live in one, a little bit about them may prove interesting?

    Silent Owl.

  3. I'd definitely love to hear about the vernacular cottages. Here in Wales we have the traditional rural longhouses. I have to say, I have long admired Irish cottages and always dreamt of living in one somewhere fairly remote where I could devote my life to reading, study and writing books. This would be my dream, so yes, definitely look forward to hearing about them. Glad to hear that you had a great weekend, I think the Sun shining makes us all feel refreshed. Take care. Radders