A victorious Finn stands on one of three burial cairns atop Sheemore, Co. Leitrim. ©Marcie Miller
While visitors to Ireland are often enamored with the myths and legends of the “Emerald Isle,” modern day Irish people are often too busy with their day to day lives to be bothered with tales from the mystic past.
Case in point, yesterday a friend, Claire, invited me to go for a walk “up a little hill,” which turned out to be Sheemore, one of the most important locations in Irish mythology, as possibly the burial place of legendary hero, Finn Mac Cumhail (pronounced McCool). And the walk was an adjunct to the main event of the day—driving her husband to the neighboring county so he could pick up a vintage VW Beetle.
Along for the ride were Claire’s two youngest children, Katy, 3, and Finn, 6. As we stood in the yard of the Beetle owner, Claire pointed to a nearby small hill, topped with a large white cross. She asked the homeowner if she had ever been to the top.
“Sheemore? Oh no, sure I’ve lived here 30 years but never been up there,” she said in a raspy, smoker’s voice.
Wait, I thought. Sheemore? “As in Sheebeag Sheemore?” I asked. Blank looks. Sheebeag Sheemore is the first tune written by 17th century blind itinerant Irish harper Turlough O’Carolan. It’s based on the legend of a battle between rival bands of fairies that took place on the plains between the two hills (Sheemore: Big Fairy Hill and Sheebeag: Little Fairy Hill). Sheebeag is also reputed to be the burial place of Finn Mac Cumhail (details are murky), and a 20th century excavation revealed the bones of a man and woman, buried standing up and facing the Hill of Tara, the seat of power in ancient Ireland. Historians don’t know who these real-life skeletons might have been.
Sheemore is topped with three burial cairns which have not been excavated. It’s said that at Halloween, or Samhain (Saw-when), the fairies under the hill come out to play. I wondered what twisted logic went into erecting a 30-foot tall, illuminated cross on top of the main burial mound, in 1950’s “Holy Year.”
A cross was mounted in 1951 atop the ancient pagan burial mound crowning Sheemore. ©Marcie Miller
We stopped at a gas station in Lietrim to get sweets and ask directions. Claire asked the young clerk if he knew the story of the hill, and he said it was “something about Finn MacCool’s dog being buried up there.” “You’re supposed to take a stone, make a wish and place it on the pile,” he added helpfully, shrugging his shoulders. I haven’t found any reference to this being the burial site of either of Finn’s hounds.
As we went up the main road and turned left, then right, then right again at the fork, we passed a large monument to the “Ambush at Sheemore,” which marked the site of an ambush of British Black and Tan troops by the IRA in 1921 during the battle for Irish independence. The IRA volunteers fired down on the Black and Tans from the steep cliffside of Sheemore, killing one and injuring many. The Black and Tans retaliated by burning and looting nearby Carrick-on-Shannon. And so it goes.
There didn’t seem to be a parking area or marked trail up the gentler, grass-covered side of the hill, so Claire squeezed the mini-van onto a dirt shoulder and we headed up the hill. Six-year-old Finn clambered over a metal gate, three-year-old Katy right behind him. Her tomboy determination reminded me of myself at that age, wanting to do whatever my brothers did, no clue that I might be too little for their adventures.
Finn’s “landmarks” on the way up Sheemore. ©Marcie Miller
Finn boldly led the way, and I couldn’t help feeling a connection between the Irish hero and this small boy who carried his name. I did wonder about his guide skills though, when he declared he was using sheep as landmarks.
As we reached the top, the panoramic view over three counties was impressive. The Shannon river wound to the west and south, with Lough Eidin in the distance, while the green rolling hills and fields dotted with cows and horses stretched in all directions. This was the midlands, the central core of Ireland that is seldom visited as tourists rush from one coast to the other. I am guilty of that myself, but standing on top of Sheemore, I could see what a shame it is that this area is overlooked.
View from the top of Sheemore. ©Marcie Miller
As I looked across the grassy hilltop I marveled at the simple piles of stone that carried so much mythical baggage. What had happened here so long ago? In the lichen-covered stones beside the white concrete base of the cross, a large flat stone was held up by a group of smaller stones, leaving a small cave-like space.
“That looks like a wedge tomb, or a portal,” I said, pointing it out to Claire. “A what?” she said.
“A place where they might have buried people. This could have been a burial cairn,” I said. Was she suppressing an urge to shudder? Or cross herself?
“You have to wonder if the stones were put here on purpose or just piled up to clear the land,” she offered, voicing the opinion of many modern Irish people.
Finn and Katy had already headed off toward a cairn—or pile of rocks— across the flat top from the high point. Could this be the burial place of one of Finn’s bewitched hounds? Claire picked up a rock and placed it on the pile.
Little Finn climbed on top of a large flat stone, raising his arms as if in victory, every bit a hero.