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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Aoibheall, Fairy Queen of Clare

Many of the Irish Fairy Queens were once Goddesses and we know this because they are listed among the ranks of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Gods of Ireland. However not all of them are so easily traced back to deities, although there may be an argument that they all have their roots in previous land and sovereignty Goddesses. One such more obscure Fairy queen is Aoibheall of Clare, whose folklore goes back to at least the 11th century but who is not found directly among the Tuatha De Danann. 

Bonfire at the Morrigan's Call Retreat 2016

Her name is from the Old Irish word oibell for 'spark, flame, heat' and as an adjective means 'bright or merry'. There are many variants of the spelling of her name including Aoibhell, Aoibhil, Aíbell, Aebill, Eevell, and Ibhell; it is pronounced roughly 'EEval'. By some accounts her name was once Aoibheann [EEvan], which is said to mean beautiful or lovely, from the Old Irish oíbhan 'little beauty'. Understanding the meaning of her name gives us the first clue as to her nature and temperament. 

She is not found named among the lists of the Tuatha Dé Danann, but we may perhaps see a connection there as by some accounts her sister is Clíona, and while folklore does not tell us about Aoibheall's parentage we do know that Clíona's father was Gabann, a druid of Manannán mac Lir. The two are also rivals, specifically over the affections of a man named Caomh; because of this rivalry at one point Clíona turned Aoibheall into a white cat. In folklore Aoibheall was said to have control over the weather and she possesses a magical harp whose music kills those who hear it. Her harp may be why she is considered by some in more recent folklore to be an omen of death.

She was likely originally a territory and sovereignty goddess of Clare, associated with mortal kingship and succession, and is later known as a fairy queen and bean sí. Her sí is at Craig Liath [Craglea] which is also called Craig Aoibheall [Crageevel]. Nearby there is a well associated with her called Tobhar Aoibill. Her presence is connected to the area of Slieve Bearnagh and more generally around Killaloe. One later bit of folklore says that Aoibheall left the area after the wood around Craig Laith was cut down. She is often called the Fairy Queen of Tuamhain [Thomond] which was a historic territory of the Dál cCais that is now modern day Clare, Limerick, and some of Tipperary. 

She is known as the protector of the Dál gCais, and so the O'Briens, and she is called both their bean sí and the banfáidh ó mBriain [prophetess or seeress of the O'Brien's]. It is said that she appeared to Brain Boru in 1014 the night before the battle of Clontarf and predicted his death as well as who his successor would be; she was also said to be the lover of one of his sons. Her involvement with the king, predicting his death, and naming his successor, may all be seen as functions of a territorial or sovereignty Goddess.

She appears as the judge in Merriman's 18th century poem An Cuirt an Mhéan Oíche, hearing the complaint of women that men do them wrong in not marrying them and taking advantage of them. In that poem she is called "the truthful" and "all-seeing". She sides with the women, ruling that men must marry by 21 or are open to women's reprisals. She also appears in the folk song An Buachaill Caol Dubh where she asks the spirit of alcohol, personified as a 'dark, slim boy', to release a person under his sway.

Aoibheall is a complex folkloric figure. If she was once a Goddess the proof of it has now been lost although hints remain in her powers and activities. Her actions in poem and song seem benevolent, yet in folklore she is associated with death, both through its prediction and causing it with her harp music. Like many Fairy Queens she takes human lovers, and we might associate her with cats, especially white ones, and with fire. Like the flame itself she is named beautiful, yet can be either terribly destructive or a great blessing. Ultimately she is as much mystery as certainty. 

Marshall, R., (2013). Clare Folk tales
MacKillop, J., (1998) A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
O hOgain, D., (2006) Lore of Ireland
Westropp, T., (1910). Folklore of Clare
Merriman, B., (2006) The Midnight Court - translated by Ciaran Carson
An Buachaill Caol Dubh - folk song

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