Carnaween

(Extract from Beglane, Meehan and Nugent 2016)

Written sources and folktales alike regularly refer to Carnaween Mountain, which overlooks the site from the north-northeast, and which at 521m is the highest mountain in the parish of Inver. The name has been variously interpreted as coming from the Irish Carn na nÉan meaning ‘mound of the birds’ or Carna Mhavin meaning ‘mound of wealth’. The latter was used by older writers, and the presence of Cruach an Airgid / Silverhill nearby suggests it to be the more likely origin[1].

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The mountain has connections with the Fianna cycle of tales, including the previously-mentioned reference to Fionn throwing a stone at the church at Disert. He is also supposed to have thrown a rock down the mountain from near the summit that landed at Eglish[2]. As noted above, the mountain has had a role in the pilgrimage traditions of Disert. This event takes place on the first Sunday of June, probably because it is the closest to the feast of St Colmcille on 9 June. The event involves individuals and groups climbing the mountain and until the 1930s groups often brought a musician along and danced sets of reels on the surface near the summit. The day also had a matchmaking element, since single people from both the Disert and Glenties sides of the mountain could meet and socialise.  The traditional climb continues to the present day, although the musical aspect is more ad-hoc.  For example, on 5 June 2016 at approximately 1pm at least 40 people of all ages and levels of fitness were present on the top of the mountain, and more groups could be seen ascending and descending (Figure 7). Similar ‘Heatherberry Sunday’ events take place at other mountainous locations around the country, more usually on the last Sunday of July or first Sunday of August, at a time when the fraughan berries are ripe for picking. The nearby mountain of Binbane was climbed on the second Sunday of June[3].

In recent years a metal cross similar to the one above the altar at Disert has been erected on Carnaween by Tommy Brogan. Some years ago he also erected a metal statue of Fionn MacCumhaill on the top of the mountain, but this was subsequently taken down, after becoming damaged during severe winter storms. There is also a metal box with a cross on the top containing a book in which walkers record their names and the dates.

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Near the summit of Carnaween is a natural cavern that was associated with the best-known tale from the Fianna Cycle i.e. the elopement of Diarmuid and Gráinne, daughter of king Cormac mac Airt. There are many sites in Ireland called ‘Diarmuid and Gráinne’s bed’, some of which are in fact Neolithic tombs, which is perhaps why Shrubsole refered to this one as a ‘cromlech’[4]. According to the tale, they came to this part of Donegal, then known as Gleneany / Gleann Eidhnigh– ‘the glen of the ivy’ as they wandered around Ireland trying to avoid the wrath of Fionn. They made their way to Carnaween carrying sand from Inver Strand and laid it under them when they slept. When Fionn sucked his thumb or ‘ordóg feasa’ he learned that they were asleep on the sand of the seashore so for several days he searched the coast around Inver in vain. He eventually made his way north towards the Bluestacks. However in the meantime Diarmaid and Gráinne had moved to the coast bringing some heather from the mountain to sleep on. When Fionn next sought information from his ‘ordóg feasa’ it was revealed to him that they were asleep on mountain heather. Fionn searched Carn and the surrounding hills for days allowing Diarmaid and Gráinne to escape from the area. Folklore attributed Fionn himself with having made the cavern by lifting a rock from there and throwing it downhill with great force to land miles away in Eglish[5].  The cave is also reputed to be the home of the Scréachán or ‘Screecher’ of Carn, a wailing monster that is sometimes said to have been in the form of a bird[6].

[1] Meehan 1997, 20

[2] Meehan 1997, 21

[3] Meehan 1997, 20

[4] Shrubsole 1908

[5] Meehan 1997, 21

[6] Meehan 2005, 690