The Story of how Loop Head was named
Michael O’Connell’s version interpreted from the great scholars, such as Eugene O’Curry and folklorists of the Corca Baiscinn region, who made sure our rich heritage was passed on for future generations to enjoy.
Cuchulainn the Hound of Ulster and leader of The Red Branch Knights, the men who protected the province of Ulster from all invaders, was a great hero amongst his people. When he and his men were not fighting battles they would go on long hunting expeditions around Ireland. On one of those trips, Cuchulainn and his men ran into a wise woman (a cailleach) and one thing she had was plenty of strong magic. Unfortunately for Cuchulainn the wise woman took a fancy to him and his friends advised him to run from her and not fight, for if she touched him he would be in her power forever.
So Cuchulainn wisely decided a good run was better than a bad stand and took off with his men, chased by the Cailleach all over Ireland finally ending up in the land west of the Shannon in what is now modern Co Clare. Instead of heading north towards Co. Galway, he headed south west to the Corca Baiscinn district to escape from the magic woman. As we all know, he was soon going to run out of territory and after a great day’s hunting with his men they found themselves on a headland on the north side of the Shannon Estuary with the great Atlantic before them.
Thinking that the wise woman would not find them in this spot, they were about to settle down for the night when they heard an almighty screech and there was the Cailleach on her horse coming towards them from the direction of Carrigaholt. Having no time to saddle up, Cuchulainn looked around for an escape route when he spotted a long narrow island about fifty feet from the headland. Without saying another word he took a mighty leap and landed on the southern end of the rock island just as the wise woman reached the headland. In her younger days it seems she was a bit of an athlete herself so she took a mighty leap and landed on the rock very close to him but not close enough. He again took off running to the north end of the rock island and leaping back on to the headland he landed safely many feet from the edge.
The Cailleach duly jumped and landed on the green sward at the edge of headland cliff. Cuchulainn and his men were already on their horses when they heard mighty scream. The green sward had given away and the Cailleach crashed on to the rocks and sea, two hundred feet below. One could easily relate this to the Coyote in the Road Runner series of modern cartoons as he fell of many a cliff due to miscalculations on his part. When they looked over the edge there was no sign of her but they hung around for a few days to check if the sea would give up the remains. Three days later her head washed ashore at a headland north of Kilkee which became known as Hag’s Head and nine days later the rest of her remains came ashore near Quilty. The bay took the name of Malbay after the Cailleach whose name was Mal. In time the headland where the tragedy occurred became known as Ceann Léime (léim is the Gaelic for jump or leap), which meant Jump, or Leap Head. Leap Head later became known as “Loop head”… as they say lost in translations.
So why did Cuchulainn survive and Mal did not? Well Cuchulainn landed well in from the edge of the cliff but poor Mal landed on the edge, on solid ground as she thought, but really it was an overhang, which is part and parcel of all cliffs on the coastline. On many a cliff a few feet clay held by grass will hang out over the edge, the rock and clay having been eroded away underneath leaving no support.
The local rulers at the time had no health and safety policy, so Mal wasn’t to know that one should stay well back from edge, as wise people do nowadays… we hope.
And what about Cuchulainn? Well he and his men made their way back to Cuige Uladh, but didn’t leave Clare without a hurling match with the great Dalcassians and some more hunting. But if Cuchulainn thought he would have no more trouble with powerful women, he was badly mistaken. He and his men had to defend their province against the mighty Queen Maebh ruler of Connaught who was trying to take a prize bull from the Ulstermen. He lost his life in the great battle between Ferdia his friend and champion of Connaught but that’s another story.
Of Ceann Léime and the island rock, which is host to a great colony for breeding seabirds, some would say if you are there late at night and you hear the screaming of the seabirds and you feel a little shudder, beware it could be the ghost of Mal screaming for help. Stay well back and be on your way…