Madhlion Ealla

By Éilis Hourigan


‘At night when the cottagers calm repose

And silent the grove and green,

Fair Meelan is oft at that dark hours close.

While swells the sad tale of her fate and woes.

Near her rock of enchantment seen!’


Edward Walsh


To the south west of the town of Newmarket, on the steep slopes of Shreelawn wood, a small cave can be found overlooking the river Dalua.  It bears carvings of many names, with dates going back many years.  It is a place of peace and solitude, an ancient site, whose significance is being slowly forgotten.  This is the cave of Moylan: “Meelan’s Rock”, Carraig Mhaidhlion.

There are many names for this mysterious being, Meelin, Meelan, Moylan, Maidhlion, Mylon or Maoilin.  Meelan is a term often used locally.  Not to be confused with the nearby village of Meelin, whose name derives from the particular shape of Hill that rises above  the picturesque village.  Although there is  folklore which links her to that area also.  The oldest version of the name on record is Madhlion (pronounced my-lon), and for that reason she will be referred to as such from here on out..

The earliest mention from an authentic source is where she is mentioned  in the “caoineadh” (or lament) by the famous Sliabh Luachra poet, Eoin Rua Ó Súilleabháin (1748 -1784): “Is Fíor Trím Aisling”:


“Níor b’fada dúinn fá smúit n-ar n-aonar

Gur gháir scaoth go caoineadh taobh linn -

Aoibhill Chraige ‘s a scata ban aosta,

Madhlion Ealla is ceann beanna-chnuic gréine”

We were not long in sorrow alone,

When a swarm of voices lamented all around us,

Aoibheall of the rock, and a company of ancient women

Maidhlion of Ealla and the one from Grian’s peaked hill”

The poet calls on these otherworldly women to lament the passing of a priest.  To be lamented by three Banshee was a high honour indeed according to Patricia Lysaght in her book ‘The Banshee’:

“When more than one banshee is present and they

Wail and sing in chorus, it is for the death of

Someone holy or a great one”


That Eoin Rua invoked her with Aoibheall and Grian shows that she was seen as an important figure.  Aoibheall was the protectress of the Dal gCais Sept (later known as the O’Brien’s).  She is particularly associated with the rock called Carraig Liath, near Killaloe, Co. Clare).  It seems likely that she was originally the patroness of the general area of East Clare and North Western Tipperary (Ó hÓgáin).  Grian was the goddess who dwelt in the síd of Cnoc Gréine, a hill near Pallas Green about seven miles from Knockainy (O’Rahilly)

Maidhlion’s title of “Maidhlion Ealla” is significant.  It suggests that a large area of Dúth Ealla (Duhallow) was under her protection. And that the lands of Clanawley (the ancient territories of the McAuliffe Clan) were much more extensive in ancient times.

The Banshee was not an ‘evil being’ but a ‘messenger of death’ and to have one associated with a family was an indication of that family’s importance and standing.  It is clear that  the McAuliffes would have been ‘followed’ by Madhlion.  As the lords of Clanawley it would only have been right and proper.  To be followed by a Banshee was only for the true Irish:

“Éistig, éistig, a cheannaithe an chnósaig!

Ní baol díbhse, ach is eaglach dóibh siúd.

Níor chaoin bean sí riabh ‘úr sortsa”

“Listen, listen you hoarding traders,

You are not in danger, but they have need to fear,

A banshee never keened your kind”


The use of the verb leanúint with regard to how the Banshee followed a family, is linked by Lysaght to the Old Norse being, the Fylgja, whose name means “follower”.  This being also “followed a family” in the sense of “accompanying” and “attending” a family.  Lysaght suggests that the banshee belief is most likely the result of a process of the narrowing and the specialisation of the role of these ancient female beings; that these beings held a more important and broader role in the distant past.

It is highly likely that Madhlion was a territorial goddess for the area; a female deity, symbolising the land of the family or clan to which she belonged.  More importantly she was also a symbol of “their rightful title” to it:

“The underlying tradition envisaged the goddess of being espoused to the rightful

King.  It also regarded her as the mother of such a king and the ancestress of a royal line”

Possibly the most well known legend of Madhlion is the story made popular by Edward Walsh in his poem “Meelan” which was published in the Dublin Penny Journal, April 4th, 1835.  His version tells of a bridal feast in Castle McAuliffe where the bride (Maidhlion), a daughter of the McAuliffe Chieftain is abducted by a dark stranger and taken to the rock since known as “Meelan’s Rock”.

Walsh was a folklorist and poet born near Kiskeam in 1805.  He travelled around Duhallow in the early part of the 1830s and collected “many a tuneful lay and curious legend”.  His source for this story of the abduction of Madhlion was the stories from the local area, which he then took and gave his own romantic twist.

Two things that can be deduced from this legend is that Moylan was firmly associated with the McAuliffe clan, and that she is “oft at that dark hours close … near the rock of enchantment” indicates that the role she played was a Banshee that followed the local clan.

There are other clues to the importance of Madhlion and her rock.  Brother Allen in his “A History of Newmarket” and Máire McNéill in her memorable “the festival of Lughnasa” both refer to stories told by “the old Seanchee from Glennamucklagh” (Allen) who remembered as if “in a dream” hearing people older than him, tell of a tradition of visiting Madhlion’s rock on Garland Sunday:

“Garland’s were woven and flowers strewn there and dancing, courtship and athletic sports were enjoyed.”


Garland Sunday was celebrated towards the end of July or the beginning of August and according to MacNéill has most likely descended from the ancient festival of Lughnasa.  That said, for some reason MacNéill is sceptical that these Garland Sunday celebrations related by the seanchaí were a possible Lughnasa survival.  Brother Allen is more convinced that the cave was once the site of the festival of Lughnasa.

There are many characteristics of the site that are shared with other Lughnasa sites around the country which have been described in great detail by McNeill.  The location of the site on a height, that it is overlooking a river, the celebration of garland Sunday there and also the association of an “abduction story” are all indicators of a link with Madhlion’s rock to the Lughnasa festival.

The significance of this link is that it opens up the possibility that this site has been a very special place for many centuries.  Unfortunately we have no way of knowing and are just left with tantalizing clues and snippets of folklore. As J. A. MacCulloch says:


“To summon a dead religion from it’s forgotten grave and to make it tell it’s story, would require an enchanter’s wand”


The celebration of Garland Sunday there is no longer in living memory.  As children we would visit the cave and heard stories about a female ghost and were warned that if you went around the cave three times a gateway to hell would open!  With the passage of time and with the language change much of the tradition connected with Madhlion as the protectress of the McAuliffe family and their lands has been forgotten.  But the spirit of Madhlion still lives on.

The cave still sits there overlooking the Dalua, the ancient graveyard of Clonfert and the site of Castle Mcauliffe.  The paths that lead down to it are eroding and overgrown from lack of use; but maybe at night she walks again as “the night breeze sings cold o’er Clonfert’s ancient tomb, Dallo ripples dark in his wavy woods’ gloom” (Walsh)




  1. J.A. MacCulloch, “The Religion of the Ancient Celts”, (1911)

  2. D.H. Allen “A History of Newmarket”, (1973)

  3. Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, “The Lore of Ireland”, (2006)

  4. John J. O’Riordan, “A Tragic Troubadour, Life and collected works of folklorist, poet and translator, Edward Walsh (1805 – 1850)”,  (2005)

  5. Patricia Lysaght, “The Banshee, The Irish Supernatural Death-Messenger”, (1986), Glendale Press

  6. Máire MacNeill, “The Festival of Lunasa” (1962), Dundalgan Press

  7. T. F. O’Rahilly, “Early Irish History and Mythology”, (1946), Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies


Thanks to Séamus Ó Cróinín for his advice and translations for this article.