There are few figures in Irish mythology that capture my imagination quite like the Goddess Clíodhna.
Said to have been the most beautiful woman in the world, Clíodhna is a Goddess of love, and Queen of the Banshees in Ireland. She herself is considered a powerful Banshee, and her realm is in South Munster, particularly County Cork where the tales of her deeds are deeply rooted in the folklore of the area.
The stories of Clíodhna are fascinating in their contrasting tones, and really add to the sense of intrigue that surrounds her. In some she is a loving figure, while in others she is dark and dangerous. This mixture of representations makes her one of the most interesting Irish mythological figures.
The Three Birds of Clíodhna
Clíodhna lived in the divine realm of Tír na nÓg and had three brightly coloured birds that surrounded her at all times. The birds were in possession of magical healing powers, having eaten apples from one of the sacred trees in Tír na nÓg. The story goes that if you were afflicted with sickness or injury, the birds would sing to you and lull you to sleep. Upon awakening, your ailments would be healed.
I have seen these birds in illustrations of Clíodhna represented as parrots or other exotic birds. However, I prefer to think of them as colourful little songbirds that are common in the Irish countryside. I have represented them in my illustration as a robin, a blue tit and a goldfinch.
Clíodhna and Ciabhán
Of course, no tale from Irish mythology would be complete without a tragic love story, and this one is no different.
Clíodhna fell deeply in love with a mortal man named Ciabhán (of the Curling Locks). In an incredible act of sacrifice and love, she left the Otherworld where she dwelt with her people, The Tuatha Dé Danann, for a life with him in the mortal realm.
The story goes that when Ciabhán went away hunting, Clíodhna would wait for him at the seashore. One day, she fell asleep on the shore where she was waiting. Manannán Mac Lir, a King of the Tuatha Dé Danann, summoned a huge wave with his music that swept Clíodhna away to sea, where she drowned.
To this day, the incoming tide in Glandore, County Cork is known as ‘Tonn Chlíodhna’ or ‘Clíodhna’s Wave’. And it is said that there is a prophecy in which one day she would summon a huge wave that would swallow all of Munster.
Clíodhna and The Blarney Stone
One of the most famous of Clíodhna’s tales is the legend of the Blarney Stone, one of Ireland’s most important heritage sites.
In this tale, Cormac McCarthy was building his castle when he became involved in a lawsuit. He was at a loss for what to do, and begged Clíodhna to help him get out of the mess. Taking pity on him, she came to him in a dream and instructed him to kiss the first stone that he found in the morning as he made his way to court.
Cormac did as he was told and made his way to the court. Here, he pleaded his case with such eloquence and plausibility that he won easily. Thus, the impartment of the so called ‘gift of the gab’ became the power of the Blarney Stone. McCarthy was so pleased that he had the stone set in the wall at Blarney Castle, where to this day thousands of people visit every year to kiss the stone and get Clíodhna’s gift for themselves.
There are plenty of other tales in Clíodhna’s rich mythology. She is said to have lured countless young men to their death, using her beauty to entice them down to the seashore where they drowned. This may have given rise to the superstition that it was unlucky to see a woman before you set out to sea.
Clíodhna is also associated with many of the old families of Munster such as the McCarthys, the O’Donovans and the O’Collins. It is thought that these old families are the only ones that might hear her wail as a Banshee upon their death, though this is said not to have happened for many generations.