Ben Bulben, Sligo County, Ireland.

Ben Bulben: An Irish Site that Inspires the Imagination

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The name Ben Bulben, also spelt as Benbulbin or Benbulben, is said to be an anglicized version of the Irish Binn-Gulbain, meaning ‘Gulban’s Peak.’ This jaw-shaped rock formation (the word ‘gulban’ may be translated as ‘jaw’) is part of the Dartry Mountains, and is located in County Sligo in northwestern Ireland.

Ben Bulben’s Famous Literary Connection

In Ireland, Ben Bulben is also popularly known as ‘County Sligo’s Table Mountain.’ One of Ben Bulben’s claims to fame is its association with the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats. One of the last poems that Yeats wrote was entitled Under Ben Bulben . As a result of the area’s connection with Yeats, this part of Ireland is sometimes known as ‘Yeats Country.’ In addition to its association with this famous literary figure, Ben Bulben is also well-known for being the setting of several Irish legends.

The Formation of Ben Bulben

According to geologists, Ben Bulben was formed during the Ice Age, when moving glaciers cut into the earth creating the present shape of the rock formation. Ben Bulben is reported to be composed of layers of limestone on mudstone. Its lower parts, which contain deposits of shale, is referred to as the ‘Ben Bulben Shale formation.’ From the top of Ben Bulben, one is able to obtain a panoramic view of the surrounding area. Apart from the natural scenery, one may also be able to spot a number of megalithic structures strewn on the foot of the Dartry Mountains.

Remains of one of the megalithic sites on the north side of Ben Bulben, County Sligo, Ireland.

Remains of one of the megalithic sites on the north side of Ben Bulben, County Sligo, Ireland. ( Martin Byrne )

The Fairy Door at Ben Bulben

One of the legends surrounding Ben Bulben is the claim that this is this is the only place in Ireland where fairies, also known as ‘gentry’, are visible to mortals. In the east side of Ben Bulben’s north face is a “black patch on a bare hollow” referred to by the people of the area as the ‘Fairy Door,’ It is believed by the locals that whenever the door opens, the weather is bound to be good for the next few days.

The Fianna and Ben Bulben

Ben Bulben is also said to be one of the favorite hunting grounds of the Fianna, a mythical band of Irish warriors. One legend involving Ben Bulben is about Fionn MacCumhail, the leader of the Fianna. In this tale, Fionn fell in love with Siadbh, a woman who was changed into a deer by a malevolent druid.

Illustration of Fionn MacCumhail. (1932) Stephen Reid.

Illustration of Fionn MacCumhail. (1932) Stephen Reid. ( Public Domain )

It seems that Fionn’s land was the one place where Siadbh could regain her human form. The pair got married, lived together, and soon Siadbh became pregnant. The druid, however, came back for Siadbh whilst she was pregnant, and transformed her into a deer again when her husband was away.

Fionn spent years searching for his wife, but his efforts were futile. Nonetheless, whilst hunting on Ben Bulben one day, he came upon a fawn, who turned out to be his son Oisin. This child would eventually become one of the most renowned figures of the Fianna.

Oisin (Ossian) on the Bank of the Lora, Invoking the Gods to the Strains of a Harp. (1801) François Gérard

Oisin (Ossian) on the Bank of the Lora, Invoking the Gods to the Strains of a Harp. (1801) François Gérard ( Public Domain )

The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne

Fionn appears in another legend called The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne . In this story, however, Fionn is not its protagonist, but its antagonist. In this tale, Gráinne, the most beautiful woman in Ireland, and the daughter of Cormac MacAirt, the High King of Ireland, was betrothed to the aging Fionn.

However, the princess fell in love with Diarmuid, one of the Fianna, when she first saw him. During the wedding feast, Gráinne drugged the entire party, with the exception of Diarmuid, and confessed her love for him. Diarmuid, however, was loyal to his leader, and did not reciprocate her love. Gráinne then put a spell on Diarmuid to make him fall in love with her and the pair ran away. When Fionn realized what had happened, he pursued the pair all over Ireland.

Diarmuid and Grainne.

Diarmuid and Grainne. ( Jim Fitzpatrick )

In one version of the legend, Diarmuid and Gráinne came across the heath of Ben Bulben, where the pair was confronted by a giant boar, the only creature that could harm Diarmuid. The warrior fought with the beast to protect Gráinne, and though he managed to kill it, was mortally wounded by it as well.

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