Ben Bulben: An Irish Site that Inspires the Imagination
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. ( 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.
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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. ( 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 ( 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. ( 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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In another version of the legend, Fionn gave up the chase eventually, and allowed the pair to settle down. Years later, Fionn invited Diarmuid to a boar hunt at Ben Bulben, where the warrior was fatally wounded by a boar. The only way that Diarmuid could be saved was for him to drink water from Fionn’s cupped hands. Although the Fianna begged Fionn to save Diarmuid, he refused to do so, and only changed his mind when his son, Oisin, threatened to fight him. By then, however, Diarmuid had died.
Diarmuid and Grainne's cave, on the back of the Gleniff Horseshoe, is one of the highest caves in Ireland. ( Martin Byrne )
St. Columba and the Battle of the Books
One last story with Ben Bulben as its setting is that of St. Columba and the Battle of the Books. According to this story, St. Columba had secretly copied a Psalter belonging to Abbot Finian of Moville and a dispute arose as to who owned this copy, i.e. the copier or the owner of the original.
The case was judged by the High King, who is said to have declared that “to every cow her calf, to every book its copy”. Dissatisfied with this ruling, St. Columba raised a rebellion, and a battle was fought on the slopes of Ben Bulben in or around 560 AD.
Ben Bulben, County Silgo, Ireland. The Battle of the Books (instigated by St. Columba) reportedly took place on the slopes of Ben Bulben in 560 AD. ( Public Domain )
It is recorded that 3000 men were slain, and St. Columba, remorseful for his actions, sought to convert more souls than were lost in that battle. As a result, he founded a number of monasteries, the most famous of which being located on the Scottish island of Iona.
Saint Columba shown in a stained glass window at Iona Abbey, Scotland. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )
These legends depict how Ben Bulben is a site that has inspired many creative individuals over the ages. Today it continues to enthuse the modern visitors who are willing to make the trek to see the mountain’s marvelous views.
Featured image: Ben Bulben, Sligo County, Ireland. ( CC BY NC ND 2.0 ) Insert: Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things. By Sophie Gengembre Anderson ( Public Domain )
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