The White Horsemen of Aileach

Patrick MacGill, The Rat-Pit, Chapter VIII, The Tragedy, III

“Long, long ago, when the red-haired strangers came to Ireland, they put nearly everybody to the sword; the old and young, the fit and feeble, and mind you, Ireland was in worse than bad way. Ireland was a great place in those days with castles and kings. There were five of them, now there isn’t even one in the four corners of the country. But the red-haired strangers came like a storm from the sea and there was no standing before them. Red were their swords, red as their hair, but not with rust but with the blood of men, women and children. And the chieftains of Ireland and the men of Ireland could make no stand against the enemy atall. ‘What am I to do?’ cried the Ardrigh, the top king of the whole country, speaking from the door of his own castle. ‘There will soon be no Ireland belonging to me, it will all go to the red-haired strangers.’ Then up spoke an old withered stick of a man, that nobody knew, and who had been listening to the words of the king.

“Have you asked the chieftain of the White Horsemen for help?”

“I never met him, decent stranger,’ answered the King. ‘I know him not.’

‘Go to the sea when it strikes in storm on the coast of Tir Conail,’ said the old man to the King, ‘and call out to Maanan MacLir for aid and he’ll send to your help his ten score and ten white horsemen. You’ll see the white horses far out, rearing on the top of the waves, every steed pawing the ocean and all mad for the fight before them.’

The King did as he was told and called to the White Horsemen to come and help him, and they came, ten score of them and ten, with their shields shining like polished silver and lances bright as frosty stars. Down from the North the rode, driving the foe on in front of them, and never was seen such a rout, neither in the days that went before nor the days that came after. The White Horsemen cut their way right though mountains in their haste to get to the other side; for nothing could go as quickly as them, not even the red-haired strangers who were in such a hurry to get out of their way.

And when the victory was theirs, the White Horsemen came back here to Tir Conail again and stood on the verge of the ocean while Maanan MacLir headed his horse out on the waves. But lo and behold! the steed could no longer gallop across the water. The poor animal sank into the sea and the chieftain was nearly drowned. At that moment a voice, nobody knew where it came from, called to Maanan MacLir:

‘Long enough has the sea called for the rest and quiet that was not given to it by the white horses of MacLir. Never more will the sea bend under them; now it will break apart and let them through!’

When they heard these words the White Horsemen turned away from the sea and went galloping to the foot of the Mountain of Aileach. When they arrived there the mountain raised itself upon one side just like the lid of a kettle and Maanan MacLir and his White Horsemen disappeared under it. Since that day they have never been seen again.

They’ll come out again when the great war comes. And that will be when there are roads round every mountain like frills round the cap of an old woman. It will start, the great war, when the nights lengthen and the year grows brown, between the seasons of scythe and sickle; murder and slaughter, madder than cattle in the heat of summer, will run through the land, and the young men will be killed and the middle-aged men and the old. The very crutches of the cripples will be taken out to arm the fighters, and the bed-ridden will be turned three times in their beds to see if they are fit to go into the field of battle. Death will take them all, for that is how it is to be; that way and no other. And when they’re all gone it will be the turn of the White Horsemen, who have been waiting for the great war ever since they chased the red-haired strangers from the country. They’ll come out from under Aileach when the day arrives, ten score and ten of them with silver shields and spears, bright as stars on a frosty night. They’ll fight the foe and win and victory will come to Ireland. These are the words of the great saint, Columbkille.”

This is a much better version of the otherwise rather tame and grey legend of the sleeping warriors inside Greenan Hill, who will come to Ireland’s aid in her hour of greatest despair, with no explanation who they are nor where the came from. It is also for the first time that I read of Manannán mac Lir’s association with Aileach. In the story of O’Donnell’s Kern this connection goes even further: “In Aileach na righ or ‘Ellach of the kings’ I was born.”.

Although it still doesn’t solve any of the more historical questions surrounding Aileach’s past, it does contain the memory of a people banished into the hills, or in the case of the lost kingdom in The conversation of Colum Cille and the youth at Carn Eolairg and in The conversation of Bran’s druid and Febul’s prophetess above Loch Febuil into the sea/Lough Foyle. And in doing so holding on to the last trace of people displaced, once the might and pride, in the waves of history. Fortunately that also means returning and history has this rather stubborn habit to repeat itself in principle. Something or someone, embodying the White Horsemen, may just ride again across Aileach.



4 thoughts

  1. No idea. I have not been able to trace anymore of this story or its origin. But my guess would be, that there is a chance of being as old as The conversation of Colum Cille and the youth at Carn Eolairg and The conversation of Bran’s druid and Febul’s prophetess above Loch Febuil, which makes it about 8th/9th century.

  2. Well there’s no mention of Donegal and Columcille is spelt Columbkille which would place it fairly early, possibly just after the Viking invasions, if they are meant by the red haired ones, or earlier if they are not, so yes probably 9th century + Reminds me a bit of the tale from Brittany of the king riding the waves on his horse when his land drowns..

    Interesting though that there are sleeping warriors waiting to arise and save the people, much like King Arthur in his cave waiting to come again lol…

  3. According to legend 1000 warriors sleep in a cave inside Greenan Hill, armed and on horseback, so they will rise in the hour of Erin’s need.
    The invaders, ‘strangers’, in the story came from the sea, which means they could have come at any given time in the history of Ireland and therefore would not necessary be of Scandinavian origin.

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