Sheean Hill – history and folklore

Daniel O'Connell

Daniel O'Connell

Across the length and breadth of Ireland, there are elevated sites that have captured the imagination of people over many centuries. Tara, Slane, and Loughcrew are some better-known examples. Croagh Patrick was on everyone's mind recently with the memorable 'Climb with Charlie' event.

At 765m, the quartzite peak has dominated Clew Bay for millennia. Druids, pilgrims, writers, artists, and photographers have all been transfixed by this enchanted mountain.

Croagh Patrick, however, is not the only raised feature in the Clew Bay area with a rich and complex history. Sheean Hill has its own long and fascinating story. Anyone who travels the road from Castlebar to Westport will be familiar with the long stretch that leads to the ascent of Sheean. The geographical summit is to the right, off the main road. Writers in past centuries felt compelled to record their first impressions of seeing the awe-inspiring 360-degree panorama from the summit.

According to one source, Sheean (An Sián ) takes its name from a fairy fort. There is a very prominent cairn (likely a burial site ) - Siodhan an áil iarach, on the hill and a possible ritual pond. Folklore tells us that fairies gathered and frolicked there. In May 1840, it was reported that 40,000 people gathered on the hill to protest against Stanley's Registration of Voters (Ireland ) Bill, the education system, the poor laws, and the tithe rent charge. In December 1840, a large pre-election rally was held there. The press recorded that the roads and fields were covered with groups moving towards Sheean. Hawkers in booths and tents offered coffee and other more potent cocktails. After mass in a house at the foot of Sheean, it was noted that the crowd of thousands ascended the hill to the cairn. John Collins of Islandeady took the chair, and the speeches commenced.

In March 1880, when news of Parnell's arrival in Ireland reached Westport, fires burned on Sheean and the surrounding hills. Croagh Patrick appeared as if it was on fire. Later, on 31 October, 2,000 tenant farmers gathered to denounce landlords and support the Land League. Before that meeting, people recalled a famous 'monster meeting' held on Sheean by Daniel O'Connell and the Repeal Movement in October 1845. A newspaper correspondent related that an old man had told him how an ancient prophecy was fulfilled at O'Connell's meeting by the catching of a live hare. The creature was caught near the platform by a man named Murray. According to the prophecy, a hare would be similarly caught at another meeting on Sheean.

Before the 1880 meeting, a hare was seen running in a nearby field with people rushing wildly after it. After a fifteen-minute chase, it was announced that the prophecy was fulfilled as a young man named Murray held up a large hare struggling with all its might to escape. From the summit of Sheean, the vast properties of the Brownes, Binghams, Palmers, and the estates of others from Clare Island to Nephin were visible on a clear day. The meeting was concerned with the future of this vast domain. Tenant farmer Thomas Duffy chaired the gathering. Those in attendance included John J Louden, John Lavelle, and other Land League members. Louden spoke about coercion, high rents, clergymen who opposed the league, and fake narratives aimed at undermining the league and Michael Davitt. John Lavell offered instructions on Boycotting.

The potent memory of past events fuelled many speeches on Sheean. In 1852, Sir Roger Palmer, with the assistance of the Royal Irish Constabulary, evicted numerous tenants between Sheean and Cloonkeen before levelling their homes. In July 1831, the military shot and killed Bridget Egan, Mary Gannon, and Michael Walsh and wounded several others at Sheean. The victims, members of an immense crowd of Palmer's starving tenants, had tried to take food from a convoy travelling to Castlebar. A similar assault in 1847 succeeded without loss of life.

Today, shadows and echoes are all that remain of Sheean's eventful past. However, the occasional solitary hare can be witnessed, perched on the hillside with one eye on the bay and the other keeping watch for anyone named Murray.


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