The witch and ghost hurlers of the only lake in Kilkenny

Sean Keane


Sean Keane


The only lake in Kilkenny

Lough Cullen also known as Holly Lake

Witches, wells, piseogs, pike, curses, Fionn Mac Cumhaill and ghost hurlers all form part of the rich heritage surrounding Kilkenny’s only lake, Lough Cullen.
Having read the various accounts of what was supposed to have gone on there in prehistoric times, you would be almost afraid to go anywhere near it.

It is also known by its English name, Holly Lake and amazingly there has never been a major feature written on what I found to be a little piece of heaven situated in the heart of South Kilkenny.
My favourite myth surrounding the lake is the tale that when there is a full moon, ghost hurlers come out and play on top of the shimmering surface of the lake.
According to the Journal of The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, the hurlers, after a protracted and violent struggle, unleash unearthly shouts, which float in wild reverberations around the distant hills with the lake becoming unusually agitated. The hurlers are then engulfed and a witch, disguised as an old woman lets out venomous wails of destruction and cries out in a loud voice, “An luachair, an luachair (the rushes, the rushes.)
This ties in with the local superstition of how Lough Cullen was formed and the following story was written down by John O’Donovan from Slieverue who did so much work on Irish place names proves this.
“A wicked witch wished to destroy a number of young men who were hurling on the plain over which the waters of Lough Cullen spreads itself,” he wrote.
“One of the hurlers turned off the hurling green (faithche) to quench his thirst but not finding any water, he wandered about in search of a well.
“He was met by the witch in disguise, who told him that there was no well near at hand but that if he went over to a tuft of rushes which she pointed out, and pulled one rush, a well would issue from the earth.
“He did what she suggested and forthwith a deluge of water issued from the earth, which overflowed the plain, drowned the thirsty youth and all his companions on the green.”
Getting to Lough Cullen is simple. Just go to Mullinavat and take the R448 which will bring you out on to the Fahee road out of Kilmacow
It is located on the tip of Kilmacow parish and is closely associated with Big Wood, Mullinavat and with Gracedieu, Kells, Kilmacow.
John Fitzgerald
John Fitzgerald has lived his whole life close to Lough Cullen.
His childhood was spent exploring the lake, its shore and the bog and natural habitat surrounding it.
While other people went to Tramore, John and his friends made do with swimming at ‘Dan’s Hole’ where they spent endless afternoons and evenings.
Alas, that has all stopped and all the fish that were in the lake have vanished.
The lake is fed by The Cat’s Rock stream and was home to trout and pike none of which remain.
John, a keen environmentalist, has noted that the wild iris flower, once common around Lough Cullen and especially along the water’s edge, is completely gone.
He feels that in terms of size and quality, the lake he has always loved, has deteriorated. He blames Ireland’s entry into the EEC (now EU) in 1973 for leading to more intensive farming practices as a reason for its current state.
Gaul’s Castle
The Burkes or Gauls of Gaulstown in the parish of Lower Kilmacow were descended from William de Burgh, grandson of Edmond na feasoige de Burgh of Clanwilliam and ancestor of Walter de Burgh of (Ardmayle on the Suir), Co Tipperary, and who came to Kilmacow after 1370,
They built a castle, which became a ruin over looking Holly Lake, but is now gone.
Locals maintain that the remains of this castle still can be seen in a field between the road which leads from Gaulstown to Charlestown, and at the stream from Holly Lake, which flows between both places, nearer to the road than the stream.
Ringville National School was part of a project operated by Dúchas and now retained for posterity in the National Folklore Collection. It centred on a man, called Laurence Roche who was handed down this story by his father.
“About five miles north east of my house two miles from the village of Ballinerea, and three fields from O’Neills of Fahee, is a lake which is called Holly Lake.
“It is said that a man was going along the fields and he saw a woman with a pail of water in her hand. He asked her for a drink and she said pull up that rush and put it back the same way.
“The man pulled up the rush, got the drink, but he could not put it back so the water gushed up and formed into a lake, and the lake is there still.
“It is said that the woman was a witch and that there is no bottom to the lake,” Mr Roche told a volunteer in the project overseen by teacher, Síle de Paor. “One time it was frozen and people came and skated and burled on it with holly burls. This is the reason they called it Holly Lake, ”he said.
Fionn mac Cumhaill
The final story about Lough Cullen involves Fionn Mac Cumhaill, leader of the Fianna.
We are indebted to the late John O’Donovan, the Irish scholar and topographer for this tale: “Fionn was staying close to the lake and to make a long story short, saw a hare with a golden coat on one side and a shiny, silver coat on the other pass by.
“He and his dog, Bran gave chase. After days and days, they found the hare, which had turned into a beautiful woman, crying by the water’s edge because she had lost her golden ring in the lake.
Being chivalrous, Fionn eventually found the ring at the bottom of the lake and when he presented it to her, she took his hand and he immediately found himself ‘‘metamorphosised’’ into a wizened old man, near death.
Eventually, the Fianna found the witch who was living on Tory Hill. They started to dig up the hill and throw it into the lake.
Suddenly she appeared as they were demolishing the hill and asked them to stop, restoring Fionn to full health for doing so.
She disclosed her name as Grinn and said that the hill was her; ‘habitation and the lake my power.’
Fionn replied to her: “We shall always know you by Cuillinn Grinn and this hill will be known as Sliabh Cuillinn to the end of time.”
Thanks to Mick Walsh of Slieverue for alerting me to the existence of the lake.