This is the script originally written for the podcast, rather than a transcript, so there might be a couple of variations from what was actually spoken. If you notice any discrepancies or have any questions, feel free to get in touch!
Just to let you know before we get started, this episode features a rather violent legend.
Welcome to Unreal, a podcast about Irish history, stories and tradition.
About three miles north west of the village of Borrisoleigh lie the ruins of Culohill Castle, a small two-story structure on a similarly non-descript hillock. Crumbled and overgrown castle does not resemble the seat of great deeds anymore, and indeed its fraught history has been largely forgotten in centuries past. But local legends grew up around this place – of a tyrant who ruled over Culohill Castle in Borrisoleigh, County Tipperary, inflicting violence and fear throughout the surrounding countryside. The tyrant was a woman who killed lovers nightly, who executed her own sister, and was eventually only killed herself by a lucky shot through a small window? The legend may now be almost forgotten – but people nearby still recall. For who could forget the terror of Sheela na Guira?
The legend of Sheela Dwyer, or Sheela na Guira as she became known has stayed remarkably close to the Tipperary countryside where was first told. From the 13th Century, the district of Ileigh where Culohill castle stood was ruled over by the Dwyer family, who spent the next 300 years attempting to defend it from the Burke clan, an Norman family. Both families owned large swathes of land in the surrounding countryside. Sheela’s brother Dermot resided in Cloneyharp, while the Burkes lived in a castle in Borrisoleigh, and also had holdings in Currabaha. However, Culohill castle was a prize that both families sought, and their battles to secure it were brutal and bloody.
While her brother Dermot was still living, little was heard about Sheela or the legend she would become. Dermot led his family against the Burkes for many years. The Dwyers were fierce fighters, known to commit acts of great brutality. For their most bitter enemies, it was told that the Dwyers had a large barrel studded on the inside with long iron spikes. Once, when the O’Dwyers attacked the Burke stronghold at Borrisoleigh Castle they succeeded in making the elderly Richard Burke and his wife prisoners. Richard is said to have been about ninety years of age and his wife over eighty. The Dwyers conveyed the pair to Cullohill Castle, and while his poor wife watched, old Richard Burke was forced inside of the barrel. It was then sent rolling down the steep hill on which the castle stood, an act which was repeated until the prisoner showed no sign of life. His wife then, according to the legend, was set free and allowed to return to her people to tell the tale of her husband’s awful death, and warn them against any future attempts to cross the clan. So, it’s pretty safe to say that the Dwyers were a family to fear.
However, At last the might of the Burkes had become too much for Dwyers. The clans fought a fierce and bloody battle at a place called Slievaun. The Burkes killed every last male adult of the Dwyer people. It is said that the mounds covering those who fell are still to be seen, and long afterwards, Slievaun was known as Slievaun Darrig, in remembrance of all the blood that had been spilled there.
With all the male leaders of their clan now slaughtered, the Burkes found themselves faced with Dermot’s sister, Sheela Dwyer, or Sheela na Guira. Sheela was already showing signs of the fierce woman she would be remembered as, for she continued to fight against the Burkes. The remaining Dwyers – mostly women and some young made several attempts to conquer their foes under Sheela’s leadership, but in a short time defeat and extinction stared the outnumbered clan in the face.
The chief of the Burkes at that time was Walter, a widower with two sons, Ulick and William. Some Dwyers from further afield came to Sheela’s aid and helped to negotiate between the Dwyers of Culohill and the Burkes of Borrisoleigh. The condition? Sheela would have to become the wife of Walter Bourke.
I can only imagine the hatred and fear this woman must have felt, transferred like property into the home and hands of a sworn enemy, forced to live with him as wife, and do his bidding. Ordinarily, intermarriages between warring clans were a matter regarded with utmost severity by the Dwyer family. Most of the other Dwyers fled the district into Kilnamanagh, to live in safety among their kinsmen.
For Sheela, matters were different. All she could do was bide her time. After four or five years, Walter Bourke, her husband, died. Walter bequeathed all of his possessions to his wife, thus Sheela left his castle at Borrisoleigh a rich and powerful woman, and soon after his death she moved back to her former stronghold at Culohill Castle. A new era for the Dwyers was about to begin.
Sheela by this time had become an embittered, cruel woman. Stories of her cruelty, her wickedness, her lust and her bloodthirst abounded for many years, becoming embroiled, I’m sure into more folklore than memory. Yet they’re worth talking about all the same. Ireland has an interesting tradition of bloodthirsty female leaders – Queen Maeve of Connaught and Grainuaile the Pirate Queen being the most famous among them. Granuaile, indeed, was likely a contemporary of Sheela na Guira. Is it possible that they would have known of each other, even if they never met? I like to think so. Ireland’s distances were vast at that time, but it has always been a small island. It’s interesting to speculate how these women so captured the folkloric imagination, how they retained their rule in a culture of storytelling so often weighted towards examining the heroic deeds of men.
Perhaps rejoicing in her new-found freedom from a lover and master she detested, the stories of Sheela na Guira suggest that she wasted little time in sampling what new delights were available to her in her position of supreme authority over the district. Legend has it that she took a new man every night, and rarely did she find that her desire lasted past the following morning. There appears to have been no witty youth able to charm Sheela with stories to last a thousand and one nights. Each man she lay with was put to death the following morning, in a seemingly endless streak. Barrels feature again in the accounts of how she killed them – it’s said she forced them into barrels of molten tar, so that they were burned to death rather than impaled as they were rolled downhill.
Although she appears to have had no qualms about her own sexual behavior, Sheela treated the transgressions of those close to her with utmost severity. She had a sister called Cáit, who according to one source was described by Sheela as having had a “moral relapse”. Other legends are less coy about her sin. They say that her sister Cáit had in fact eloped Sheela’s her stepson Ulick. A Burke, you will recall, and probably regarded pretty poorly by Sheela, who was once under the mastery of him and his father. This marriage so displeased Sheela that she ordered both Cáit and Ulick be brought to her castle where she had them made prisoners. Sheela determined that the pair should be executed, and it was in a manner which certainly shows off her creative abilities. She ordered the couple to be stripped naked, and hanged from the battlement of her castle, with their heads facing downward. While in this defenceless position, the legend goes, she ordered that boiling water (or, in some stories, boiling oil) be poured upon their bodies, scalding them to death as it dripped downward. The bonds of sisterly affection did not run deep in in Sheela na Guira’s veins, let’s just leave it at that.
Another story of Sheela, one which I got from my own grandfather, was that she had a dog which she fawned over. The dog had puppies, and for Sheela, no ordinary scraps or dog milk was good enough for this brood. The women peasants in the area were already terrified of her, and likely became still more so when Sheela na Guira handed out her dog’s young puppies to each nursing woman nearby, that they might suckle on a far more princely feast than they would be likely to get in their milk dish. Maybe this story seems far-fetched to you, but actually humans nursing young animals was a far more common practice throughout the world than one might be given to believe. It was both a way to sustain the much needed livestock of farming communities, and believed to be beneficial to the women themselves. Indeed, popular home medical books in Britain, Europe and America recommended women “draw the breast” by nursing a puppy or other small animal, right up to as late as 1825. Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked by a truly fascinating piece of medical history, which you can read more about in the links on unrealpodcast.com. The stories my grandfather tells about Sheela na Guira suggest that she was rather more concerned about the welfare of her canines than she was about the peasant women over whom she ruled.
Ruling a castle and district, even one as small as Ileigh, required sizeable funds, and the means of acquiring them were seldom peaceful. Sheela though, was certainly up to this task. One day, Sheela ordered her forces to raid residence of a nearby chieftain. The loot was placed in a strongroom, and Sheela was gracious and generous in her praise that evening, awarding the raiding party the honour of joining her at breakfast the following morning. They supped heartily at her table, and when the breakfast was over, Sheela asked that the men be taken into an adjoining room. Did these men know what they were walking into? Did they think that more festivities awaited? Or had they perhaps, grown wise to Sheela’s doings by then, but saw no escape from her fearsome actions? Well, whatever they felt, they hadn’t long to feel it, for they met death in the adjoining room at Sheela’s orders. She could not risk them telling the secret of her hidden treasure.
Sheela na Guira eventually met her own demise, and it was not in battle but in the seat of her rule at Culohill, and at the hands of one of her own soldiers. One morning Sheela rose from bed. She lit a candle on the table in her room. Opposite her bed was a window, and Sheela walked over to it, to survey her lands at the opening of the day. Her window could be seen from the nearby Knockahorna hill. There, an unnamed soldier was waiting with an eagle-like aim, and as Sheela came to her window, he fired. A great cry was heard throughout the castle, and Sheela’s lifeless body was soon found. She was buried in Glenkeen cemetery, and it seems unlikely that her tyrannical ways were mourned by many of the people who had once been under her power.
But death was not necessarily the last we heard of the great Sheela na Guira. In some of the stories, so bloody and heinous were Sheela’s deeds, that they could not help but seep into the pores of all that she touched. Some say that the mortar in the castle itself is mixed with blood, and all around the castle, the meadows are filled with humped ridges in the ground, said to be the resting site of many of her savagely slaughtered victims. People often suspected that Sheela had buried treasure, and many have dug near the castle, but when they do so, the water nearby runs red, and people stopped digging, for fear of finding human bones.
I think we can agree that Sheela na Guira was a fascinating character. Her deeds, though terrible, surely deserve to have been better remembered. It’s a mark of both the incredible power of oral history that we have any recollection of the life of the Burkes and Dwyers who ruled this area at all, and the fatal limitations of oral history that mean we can never fully grasp the whole story in its true detail. Sheela na Guira’s legend is an example of an oral story which hasn’t spread, it has remained tied to the district of its origins, lasting through centuries yet staying close to home. And as the people who told it pass on, the tales themselves move closer and closer to extinction. Why though, is so little known about this terrible but fascinating ruler? How did such a dark and twisted tale all but die out in the mouths of the old in Borrisoleigh?
Well, one reason, I think, is that Sheela na Guira and Culohill castle are not actually that uncommon as names. There have been several famous Irish Sheelas throughout time, and to be honest, all of their stories are worth telling. There is a Sheela na Geira recorded in Canadian folklore as an Connaught princess who was kidnapped by pirates on her way to a French convent. She married her pirate kidnapper, Gilbert Pike, and they settled in Newfoundland. Again in Connaught, there was a Sheela ni Gadhra, also of noble birth, and who has been recorded in songs that ache for Ireland – the Cathleen ni Houlihan of music at that time. Our own Sheela na Guira spawned ballads as well of course, which were heard often in cities and fairs throughout munster until at least the mid nineteenth century. However, the songs were so seditious that travelling musicians were often arrested for singing them! Unsurprising. There is even another Culohill castle, in County Laois, which itself contains a Sheela, though one of stone rather than life. It bears one of the best Irish examples of the grotesque carving known as a Sheela-na-gig. The podcast Our Sexual History did an excellent episode on Sheela na Gigs a while back; well worth a listen if you’re interested in learning more.
There’s also the more mundane possibility – maybe Sheela na Guira, as we knew her anyway, simply never existed. While oral sources suggest as I have done tht the fighting between the Burkes and the Dwyers continued right up until Sheela’s marriage to Walter Burke, written records suggest the truce happened long before then. Sheela and Walter’s marriage may even have been a happy one, the myths of her cruelty merely stories dreamt up by those who detested seeing a woman in power.
Whatever may have happened to bring about a truce between these warring clans, the Burkes and the Dwyers stood together in later battles for Irish and Catholic freedom, along with the other families around the area – the Ryans, the Meaghars, the Carrolls and the Kennedys. They were of course, more than equally met by the stern opponent of Cromwell, and when the Commonwealth Acts, and the Acts of Settlement and Explanation of 1650s and 60s were applied, land confiscation and spoil took a drastic toll on Tipperary, and the land which had formed the subject of so much infighting in years before was removed from Irish control for many years to come.
So perhaps the simple fact is that there were too many Sheelas, in too eventful a period of Irish history, at a time when too many people relied on the easily confused oral tradition for their records. Sheela was simply subsumed, Irelands allegiance to the powerful and violent feminine manifesting in more easily recognizable figures such as Granuaile and Queen Maeve of Connaught. But that’s why I like the story. It crystallises so much about what’s incredible about the richness of Irish mythology – it is so compressed, so stuffed with tales of heroes and heroines, villains and victims, that sometimes even stories as good as these can become lost, only to emerge like bright gems for one willing to peer close enough, catching you by surprise as you uncover yet another fold of mystery in the land you think you know.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unreal. I’d like to thank Eugene Shortt, Derek Ryan who runs The Tipperary Antiquarian Blog and facebook page, and my grandfather Con Ryan, for their invaluable help in researching the elusive tales of Sheela na Guira. You can find links to sources and further reading on Unrealpodcast.com. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing leaving a rating or review on iTunes, and you can keep up to date at Unreal Pod on twitter or facebook. The theme song is The Butterfly by Sláinte, and you can find links to the music from today’s episode on my website. I’ll be back in two weeks time with another fascinating legend, and until then, go néirí an bóthar leat.