Legend of Ard-Na-Ree


The story began in A. D.  405, six centuries before the famous Brian Boru won the Irish crown as Ardrigh na Erenn or Chief King of Ireland, when Dathi, King of Connacht, made himself the first High King of all Ireland.

About 40 years later, Dathi was killed by lightning while leading an Irish brigade over the Alps to sack Rome. He had consolidated his position by making his sons minor kings of strategic Irish territory.

Dathi's fourth son, O Dubda (or O'Dowda) became king of Ui Fiarchrach, which was possibly in Galway, but probably in Sligo. If it was there, one of his main fortresses, the Castle of Ard-na-Ree, overlooked the Atlantic Ocean, although the present chief of Ui Fiarchrach, John O'Dowd, who has located the ruins of several O'Dowda castles on the Sligo shore, can find no trace of Ard-na-Ree along the coastal fringe.

The fall of the Roman Empire presaged the clouds of the Dark Ages dimming history until it was overshadowed by less authentic, if more colourful, legend and mythology. During the Era of Darkness, O Dubda appears to have been interpreted as O'Dowda, later modernised to Dowd, but more commonly O'Dowd.

Strangely, no written version of the legend appeared until about 1900, as far as can be determined, when the composer, L. A. G.  Strong, composed an operetta around the story of the "Mermaid" of the O Dubda. Based on this, the Irishman, William Butler Yeats, wrote a more detailed, prose account.

John O'Dowd criticizes Yeats as allowing literary license too free a rein. He submits the clan version: "Seeing a woman sitting on a rock in the sea off Ui Fiarchrach. The O'Dowd (presumably the king) was so impressed by her beauty that he determined to capture her. He did so by seizing a cap which she wore, known as a cockileen. The loss made her forget all about her home beneath the waves. She came willingly to Ard-na-Ree, where she lived with O'Dowd and bore several children. "

"One day, wandering through the castle, she accidentally discovered the cockileen, and the memory of her former life returned to her so vividly that it became a compulsion to return to the sea. Pleading with her, the O'Dowd followed her to the shore, where she stopped to bid him farewell, telling him that she had to go back. "

She told him that the O'Dowds would lose, and then regain, the Castle of Ard-na-Ree, but would retain it only for a short time. Their desire for the castle, though overwhelming, could never be fulfilled. It would pass into a proverb: 'Suil le Ui Dubda le Ard-na-Righ,' meaning the desire of the O'Dowds for Ard-na-Ree' and becoming symbolical for a vain hope.

She also told him that no O'Dowd would ever be drowned, though, in some versions, she added : "If they remained inside a certain rock outside Ui Fiachrach."

Also, it became common in that old territory for people to say when they saw the razor-fish plentiful on the seashore or being sold in the markets: "The O'Dowds are dying" or, "an O'Dowd is dying".

Although, so far, the razor-fish have no apparent relevance to the aspects of the Ard-na-Ree story, no O'Dowd even remotely connected with it has been drowned.

All versions have a marked resemblance to the story of Oisin, son of King Finn of the Fianna, but in reverse. According to Lady Gregory's account in "Gods and Fighting Men," Naimh of the Golden Head, daughter of the King of the Country of the Young, lured Oisin to a blissful, timeless existence in a palace in the Land of the Under-Wave.

After being there for an apparently short time, Oisin felt the call of the Fianna. He returned to Ireland to find that Finn (and himself) were mere legendary memories, for he had been absent for hundreds, even thousands of years. St.  Patrick was then in Ireland, the apostle of Christianity, his mission having begun about A. D. 432. He died about A. D.  463, his mission complete.

While the "official" version refers to the girl forgetting about her home beneath the waves, and later to her desire to return to the sea, the operetta was written around a mermaid. The mermaid not only persists in most local versions, but some refer specifically to a red-haired, green-eyed mermaid under oath to Neptune to return to the ocean if she ever again donned the green mantle of the sea, the cockileen.

The mermaid's compulsion to return to her home under the sea (the Land of the Under Wave) suggests strongly that the Irish legend originated before St. Patrick's Christian influence had reached Sligo. It could therefore date from the first O Dubda, or an heir reigning about A. D.  450.

A more mundane alternative suggested that the mermaid was a Norse girl of the ninth to eleventh century, possibly the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Her return to the sea was explained by homesickness when she saw a Viking ship lurking in cover along the coast. She swam out to it to rejoin her kinsmen, the promised immunity from drowning to landward only of a certain rock, being a deterrent to pursuit by O'Dowda. An O'Dowda commanded a sea-patrol to intercept Norse raiders about that time.

The legend, with a host of epic tales of O'Dowd heroism throughout the ages, formed a major part of the inheritance of Ulster-born Bernard O'Dowd. He was a member of a rather well-to-do farming family ruined by the potato famine of 1848, and was steeped in O'Dowda history from the time of Dathi.

After the crash, this O'Dowd enlisted in the Irish Revenue Police, while a number of sisters emigrated to America. For eight years, he served along the wild north coast of Ulster, making raids from his Creeslough headquarters on potheen stills in the cliff caves of Donegal, around Bloody Foreland, and sea swoops on the notorious smugglers' nests on Tory Island.

Retiring with the rank of sergeant, O'Dowd joined the Royal Irish Constabulary. He resigned in 1858 to visit his sisters in America, and after returning to Ireland decided to try his luck in Australia.

He was inordinately proud of his claimed descent from Dathi.   He would tell any who would listen of the derring-do of that great king, or, blithely leaping six centuries, of Casamach O'Dowda who commanded the Irish fleet which finally broke the Norse sea power in a great battle off the south-west corner of Ireland, and at Clontarf, in 1014. This freed all Ireland from the 200-year Norse yoke, but cost Brian Boru, his son, his grandson, and the O'Dowds, their lives.

Bernard O'Dowd landed in Melbourne, Australia early in 1859 with eyes aglint for the "gold in the streets". "Discovering that he was too late to restore the family fortunes on the goldfields, he and a mate joined the Victorian Police Force. As Trooper Dowd, he was posted for gold-escort duty between Pleasant Creek (now Stawell) and Ballarat.

There are two explanations of the dropping of the O'. One was that O'Dowd, having celebrated a little unwisely, left his mate to supply personal particulars and the mate called him Dowd. The other was that the O' was dropped because of strong, official prejudice against more Irishmen in the Police Force and the Public Service.

Whatever the reason, Trooper Dowd he remained officially. He married as Dowd, registered his children as Dowd, and was buried as Dowd. But always, he and every member of his family pride fully called themselves O'Dowd.

AUSTRALIAN TIES - At Ararat, O'Dowd, married an Irish migrant of pure Celtic family from Antrim. The couple moved to Fiery Creek diggings, later Beaufort, 100-odd miles from Melbourne, between Ballarat and Ararat. There he built a small cottage at Camp Hill, close the gold-escort transit-camp.  The couple's first child, a girl, died within a few days of birth, Bernard Patrick, the first of two sons, was born at Camp Hill in April, 1866. Three more daughters completed the family before O'Dowd, having been kicked by a horse while on duty, retired on a small pension on June 17, 1883.

He died shortly afterward, leaving Bernard Patrick, aged 17, the responsibility of helping his mother with the younger children. Despite his youth, the lad had such a high reputation for scholarship that he was appointed headmaster of St. Alibis' Roman Catholic school for boys in Ballarat East.

Bernard Patrick, henceforward referred to as O'Dowd, was already groping toward rationalism and radicalism. His position in a church school was untenable. He made no protest when superseded, but sought other employment in which he could continue his studies.

He studied to such purpose that eventually he held the degrees of B. A.  and LL. B., was admitted to the Bar, and held high Public Service appointments, the last of them Chief Parliamentary Draftsman. As well, he applied his vast store of knowledge in the writing of verse, crammed with classical, mythological and mystical allusions.

O'Dowd's earlier work was essentially that of the poet of revolt, but his second book was more spiritual and symbolical. This was "The Silent Land." published in 1906. It revealed his knowledge of the Ard-na-Ree legend, it only as detailed to him by his father.

This Australian version, as it might be called, specified a red-haired, green-eyed mermaid. On her return to the sea, she told the O'Dowd that no O'Dowd would ever regain Ard-na-Ree, until a maiden with sea-green eyes and hair the colour of fresh kelp came out of the sea to be his bride.

The poetical O'Dowd is reputed to have modified the curse and its meaning to a quest for Ard-na-Ree, symbolical of fulfillment of expression and ideal.  He was said by some authorities to have regarded the sea maiden as the Sybil of Silence in "The Silent Land."

It is obvious that O'Dowd knew the legend in its Irish form, but preferred to interpret it in the light of his own vast knowledge of history, mythology, and political and moral philosophy. Further, he was known to confront all gods of all creeds, ancient or modern, with the challenging question mark of the agnostic.

Meanwhile, O'Dowd had married and had a growing family. As his financial position improved, he and his wife bought about six acres of rough, steep hillside on the western slope of Mt. Dandenong, about four miles from Croydon and 20 from Melbourne.

About 1912, a weekend house was erected on the block. Perched precariously on a gradient of about one in two, it looked like a narrow, three storeyed Swiss chalet, from the bush road about 200 ft. below. It had a lumber basement under a veranda, two adjoining main rooms behind the veranda, and an attic. Behind these, the hill was excavated for the living room chimney, and for a kitchen and sunroom.

Mrs. O'Dowd became so fond of the weekender, with its magnificent panoramic view of Melbourne and environs, that she gradually made it her permanent home. By 1935, she had transformed it into a show place, with hundreds of roses, bulbs, fruit trees, vines and shrubs in more than two acres of terraced gardens around the house. She had added a buggy shed and stable to the out-buildings.

On April 30, 1935, Mrs. O'Dowd who was alone, woke, as usual, at dawn. It was raining heavily - it had been raining unceasingly for the past six days and nights - and she was vaguely apprehensive.

Having kindled the fire, she glanced uneasily at her wrecked fernery. Only a month before, a fall of earth had demolished the structure.

Although not nervous by nature, she decided to go to Melbourne until the weather improved. When the milk-boy brought her milk, she asked him to get a neighbour to take charge of her horse, then began breakfast, meaning to catch the midday bus. Before she had finished, the neighbour arrived. He was insistent that she come to his house at once to await the bus to Croydon, and she agreed reluctantly.

She had scarcely reached the house, about 500 yards distant, when there was an earth tremor, followed by a weird, grinding rattle like that of a giant stone-crusher... Then the hillside around the O'Dowd house heaved.

This phenomenon lasted only a few seconds before the surface erupted, tossing huge boulders into the air like ping-pong balls. As they fell, they were caught in the powerful spray of a vast geyser vomiting slush and mud that swept down the hillside in an overwhelming tidal-wave.

The sunroom and the stout, slab-walled kitchen crumpled like matchwood under the assault of the freak avalanche. Continuing its headlong rush, it battered the rear walls of the main building with rocks and logs, crashing through to sweep the whole ground floor, except the chimney, into the maelstrom. Deprived of support, the attic was caught by the upsurge and raced downhill, on the crest of the wave until it was stranded on a bit tree stump.

When the thunder of destruction had subsided, all that was left of the house was the battered attic and the chimney. These were the stark memorials to O'Dowd's folly.

His folly? Or, was it his arrogance? O'Dowd, with full knowledge of the portent of the legend, had cast his gauntlet at the gods. He had named the house Ard-na-Ree. And the gods had answered.  Long ago they had decreed that the O'Dowd's desire for Ard-na-Ree could never be fulfilled


             © Tony Dowd 2024