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Irish Women You Should Know: Ireland's Black Widow

Máire Rua (1616 – 1686)

Máire Rua O’Brien is a pretty infamous Irish woman and happens to hail from the lovely County Clare, where your two esteemed "The Uncurriculum" founders (and infamous women-in-the-making) also hail from.

Unfortunately, once you reach a certain level of infamy, it becomes harder to separate truth from legend. But to be honest, the legend is so interesting it would be a shame not to explore it.

Let’s start with what we do know:

Máire Rua, so-called due to her red hair and fiery temper (Rua = Red in Irish) seems, on the surface, like a fairly typical noblewoman of her time. The daughter of the Lord of East Corcabaskin*, Máire married Daniel Neylon and lived in Dysert-O’Dea Castle. Máire and Daniel had a couple of kids before Daniel died, after which, Máire married again had a couple more kids, became widowed again, married for the last time, and had yet more kids.

Picture courtesy of Clare County Library, OS map of Corcobaiscinn - 1841 by J. O’Donovan

Máire’s second husband was her cousin, Conor O’Brien. After their marriage, they built Leamaneh Castle in the north of County Clare, a rugged and wind-swept area on the edge of The Burren, (an unusual and beautiful region of limestone rock, Arctic, Alpine and Mediterranean flora and fauna, and of course traditional music galore). On the side of the castle, an inscription still stands that gives credit to both O’Brien and Máire Rua: “This was built in the year of Our Lord 1648 by Conor O'Brien and Mary Ní Mahon alias Brien wife to the said Conor".

O’Brien was the head of a militia that raided the plantations of English settlers during the Irish Confederate Wars (a rebellion that fought for greater Irish governance and to end anti-Catholic discrimination), and it was said that Máire Rua would join her husband on some of the raids. It was also said by some of the victims of the raids that Máire Rua was in fact a witch… (although that might have been a witch with a capital B if you know what we mean...).

It was on one of these raids that Conor O’Brien was fatally wounded. When he was brought back to Máire, thinking he was dead, she said "What do I want with dead men here?". However, hearing he was still alive she lovingly tended to him in his final hours. After his death, fearing it would mean seizure of her lands, Máire Rua rode to the Cromwellian camp in Limerick and said she would marry any man there. John Cooper stood up to the plate. She married him and kept control of her lands for a time but ultimately lost Leamaneh Castle when it became a Garrison for the Cromwellian forces. Sources claim that she died in her son’s home of Dromoland Castle.

Picture courtesy of Dromoland Castle

Now onto the legend.

Máire was said to be a particularly cruel woman, who would terrorise people just for the hell of it (but then, who amongst us has not thought about doing this?). When displeased, she would hang her male servants by the neck and the female ones by their hair. She is also reported to have cut off their breasts (not cool Máire!). Other stories paint her as this black widow-type character. It is said she would kill all of her lovers with a kick to the stomach. (I guess it gives new meaning to the phrase “kicked out of bed”).

In an attempt to blacken her reputation, it was claimed she married up to 25 Cromwellian officers, although there is no proof of this and most historians believe this might have been more akin to the number of lovers she had taken (the absolute legend!).

In his book, Defiant Irish Women, folklorist Eddie Lenihan tells the story of her marriage to three Cromewellian officers, each of them dying in mysterious circumstances. The first slit his own throat while shaving**, the second jumped from the battlements of Leamaneh Castle, and the third died when Máire Rua, with a whistle, caused the horse he was riding to throw him over the Cliffs of Moher.

Another story claims that she sent Terence O’Loughlin, a man whom she had a disagreement with, on a stallion to the Cliffs of Moher, hoping he would be thrown off. His elderly father had advised him to be prepared with a bit and reign that would keep the horse from throwing him. This worked and O’Loughlin survived. In a fit of rage, Máire Rua hung every man over the age of 60 that she could get her hands on as an act of revenge against old men and the wisdom they held.

Picture courtesy of Mark Lawson Leamaneh Castle

As a child, when we would pass by Leamaneh Castle, my parents would tell me the story of the queen who kicked her husband out of the top-floor window. In fact, they would point out the window to me. With fascination, I would wonder about who this woman was. This wild, red-haired, femme fatale who took lovers and just as quickly took their lives. I think even then I was in awe of her. Not for her cruelty, but for her legend.

Whatever is true of Máire Rua, it's clear that she has earned a place in the folklore of her home county. Ask any Clare woman these days - we know all about Máire Rua and her ill-fated lovers.

Perhaps men should take that into consideration before crossing us women who hail from the Banner county?

*I obviously am not an etymologist but I do love this word - if my calculations are right (which they rarely are) this translates to purple basins... which is possibly in reference to a valley or lake or something?

**As two people who recently made the shift to using safety razors and accidentally skelped ourselves, I think Alex and I can both say that this isn't entirely beyond the realms of possibility...

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