Gods and Robbers: Caher Roe

Southeast Ireland claims its own version of the medieval ‘Robin Hood’-styled mythical outlaw-god in the guise of a character known as ‘Caher Roe’. The name literally means the ‘Red Outlaw’ or ‘Red War-Chieftain’ (Irish, Cathair Ruadh – the ‘-th-‘ and ‘-dh’ sounds are aspirated/softened), depending on how one interprets the term ‘Cathair’. He is largely known to us in modernity through Máire MacNeill’s revelatory and seminal 1962 book ‘The Festival of Lughnasa’, in which the author collated many local traditions from across Ireland pertaining to the important hilltop Lughnasa celebrations at the start of harvest. ‘Caher Roe’s Den’ was one such site that MacNeill discusses in relation to this pagan festival of ripened summer fruits and red-tinged moons. The ‘Den’ is (like that of the Welsh ‘Twm Siôn Cati’) a rocky hillside outcrop with a supposedly blocked-up cave on Blackstairs mountain in the Blackstairs range of southern Leinster on the Wexford-Carlow border:

“…A most interesting story is told of Caher Roe’s Den. The country-people identify the Caher Roe who gave his name to it with Cathaoir na gCapall, a young man of the O’Dempsey family of Clanmaliere in Laix. His family forfeited their lands in the seventeenth century and Cathaoir turned rapparee and controlled a widespread organisation for stealing the horses of the new planter gentry, hiding them, disguising them, selling them at distant fairs, and getting money too by ‘finding’ lost animals. His organisation had ramifications through a large part of the country and specially in the lands through which the Barrow flowed. The country-people were sympathetic to him and enjoyed the stories of his adventures and ruses. He was, however, finally brought to trial and hanged at Maryboro in August 1735. Local tradition says that the Den on the slope of Blackstairs was one of his hiding-places, that its precipitate passage leads down into caverns where treasure is hidden, but few have been foolhardy enough to seek it and the entrance has been blocked upto prevent the mountain sheep from falling down into it. It is in Caher Roe’s memory, people say, that the ‘Mountain Patron’ is held. The following story* is told:

One day, when Caher was returning to his Den he met a girl with a pitcher of water. He asked her for a drink and as she was handing it to him, he caught her by the armand pulled her up on his horse. Her loud screams attracted the neighbours. They came around with sticks and pitchforks and succeeded in rescuing the young girl. They followed him to his Den on the mountain top where, after discharging his pistol to them, he sprang headforward into his Den and was not heard of for years afterwards…” ‘The Festival of Lughnasa’ by Máire MacNeill (2nd reprint, Pub. Dundalgan Press, Dublin 2008) pp.226-227 – *the source of the story is UCD Folklore Commission MS 890, pp.498-499.

Needless to say, the tale of Cathaoir na gCapall is treated by MacNeill as apocryphal, as she phrases it as told by ‘the country people’, and the identity of Charles Dempsey with a real ‘Caher Roe’ seems engineered to fit the legend of the Lughnasa site, which is evidently too well-known and visible a site at which to hide, and which is definitely not suitable for stabling horses. She rightly observes that the profile of the folktale she relates is unsympathetic to a man who would otherwise be seen as a folk-hero at any time in Ireland’s history, and the somewhat demonic Caher of this tale seems very much like ‘red-bloody’ Sawney Bean of Gallovidian legend, not mention the wider legends of the ‘fairy horse(man) ‘who abducts people away into rivers and underground caverns… Caher Roe – like Twm and Sawney – appears to be an image of this older legend, transformed in successive oral traditions to suit the religious, social and political changes of the day. Interestingly, 1735 is a date which corresponds with Britain’s passing of  its seminal final ‘Witchcraft Act’ (9 Geo. II c. 5) which was designed to strangle superstition by making it illegal to profess magical beliefs or to accuse others of them. This law was part of a broader protestant ‘enlightenment’ agenda, which had identified superstition with ‘backward’ Celtic cultures and ‘Popery’…

The ‘other’ Caher – Cathair Mór:

Ancient Irish power liked – in the same way as other medieval European dynasties – to link itself to a mythical ancestral past. As such, it sponsored the creation of books which told the stories of these supposed ancestors in order to establish its claim to majesty and rights over the land. One such ancestor was ‘Cathair Mór’ – a legendary High King of Ireland from the pseudo-historical traditions, from whom Leinster clans claimed to descend. He was succeeded in the historical traditions (Lebor Gabála Érenn) by Conn Cétchathach, who evidently shares the ‘Cathair’ title within his own cognomen and was son of Fedlimid Rechtmar, and therefore possibly Cathair’s brother. It is possible that this ‘Caher’ was closer to the legendary root from which the tales of ‘Caher Roe’ evolved.

Like the Welsh aristocracy who battled the English between the 14th and 15th centuries, the Irish Kings of Leinster were also similarly concerned, so it is entirely possible that legends of Caher Roe – like those of Twm Sion Cati extend back to at least the same era, and probably have older mythic roots in the sovereignty-bestowing gods of the pagan age – the ‘sleeping heroes’, supposed to return in times of great need. The O’Kavanagh/Cavanagh (or MacMurrough-Cavanagh) were famous kings of Leinster during the high middle-ages, notable for their ability to withstand or politically handle/acculturate the Anglo-Norman invaders, and to maintain a degree of independence for their region right up until the assaults on indigenous Gaelic culture consequent upon the Tudor invasions of the 16thC. ‘Cavanagh’ are named after St Caomhan (Kevin) of Glendalough – a saint whose legend is linked to the female deity euhemerised as ‘Cathaleen’ or ‘Caitlínn’ in the saint’s mythology – an incarnation of the celtic sovereignty-goddess (otherwise ‘fairy queen’) of whom I have written a fair amount…

Overview:

‘Caher Roe’ appears to be linked to the legends of a number of similar legendary outlaw-figures from the British and Irish islands. These seem to have a curious affinity to the colour red, to inhabit caves associated with heights, and to have a connection to or claim to the sovereignty of the land. They are either heroic or demonic, depending on the political and polemical needs of the era of their tales’ telling…

3 thoughts on “Gods and Robbers: Caher Roe

    • I appreciate the encouraging comments from a fellow writer! Stories are old and change down the ages to fit the needs of people in their day to explain why things are. Irish saints are as interesting as Irish villains, and frequently the two combine – I guess that propaganda commandeers story and determines who is the saint and who is the sinner. Propaganda employs a great deal of effort to ‘make it so’, whereas story often just ‘is’ and makes little judgement…

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