The Tower

Artist, sportsman, and country gentleman, JAMES REYNOLDS is a painter of murals, an expert on Palladian architecture, and a connoisseur of Irish ghosts. His beautifully illustrated volume Ghosts in Irish Houses, which combines his two loves, has met with an enthusiastic reception in this country, as has his second volume, Gallery of Ghosts, which goes further abroad to find its themes in India. Restoration England, and in Maine. Mr. Reynolds’s first novel, The Grand Wide Way, was published last winter.


ONE day a few years ago I was returning from the Kenmare Races to my house in County Kildare. The day was fine. So consistently cool and sunny had a long chain of early autumn days been, that this one might easily prove to be the last before rains set in. I turned to a stable lad who was driving for me. “Bingo, I feel the urge, so strong it is not to be denied, to return to Ballykileen by way of Inchigeelagh, following the River Lee to Macroom. I know full well that ‘auld ancient acre,’ as the bards sing of the source of the River Lee, is as favorite with you as with me. ” Bingo Lacey, who just escaped being a Gaelic bard himself by an eyelash, smiled broadly. “Ah, sir, and ye do be always rakin’ me over because ave the auld tales I like to tell. But as a spalpeen I always loved the story ave the tatarara kindled be auld Mac ave Croom. We turn off the highroad here, sir.”

For a while the car bumped over tussocks of grass and a tortuous byroad which caused Bingo to grind out between his teeth, “Be the holy, the rough side ave nature grasps ye be the throat on this divil’s switchback.” Then the car slid out of chaos into a scene as near Paradise as this earth affords.

Backed by the misty emerald reaches of the Derrynasaggart Mountains rose a tall stone tower on which highly burnished ivy clung in breeze-rippled swags. An allée of twisted bog oaks, ruddy bronze in the last blaze of autumn leaf, formed a gigantic lattice wall on either side of the pointed entrance door set in a wall facing the river source. It is at this secluded glade, shadowed by soaring plane and oak trees, that “the pleasant waters of the River Lee” become a broad, gently flowing stream meandering through farm lands into Cork Harbor. True, the river actually stems from hidden springs under the mountain-girt lough of Gougane Barra, scarcely reflects the sky at all, running silent and hidden until, as marshes, the waters spread like a burnished silver shield to mirror Inchigeelagh’s Tower.

I remember how hushed was the landscape. A legendary quiet of middle mist, where one seems suspended in time, midway between fantasy and reality. The only sound was the high-wheeling rooks, caw-caw-cawing, as they prepared to settle along the corbels of the broken battlements for the night.

Hands folded on his chest, almost I thought in an attitude of adoration, Bingo stood contemplating the tall triptych window at the top of the tower. This was the only window left wide to the elements. Centuries ago a tyrant had caused all other window or crossbow slits to be stoned up blind. Quietly, for I know Bingo Lacey’s moods full well, I waited. A few minutes passed. Then he sighed, turned, and saw me regarding him. He walked towards me. “I was thinkin’ how, fer half the years ave her life, Inchigeelagh sat at that high window, the length and breadth ave the day. Off and away she’d cast her eyes towards Kinsale and the memory ave Desmond Healy, braidin’ her fingers in longin’.”

As Bingo and I walked back to the motorcar in the shadows of approaching night, I thought deeply on what the boy had said. The way he phrased the legend was sheer poetry, surely, but then he had a great subject to play upon with imagery of words. The poignant love story of the Lady Inchigeelagh and Desmond Healy of Healy’s Pass in Kinsale has tremendous stature. A great “love death” the like of Paolo and Francesca or Tristan and Isolde. The day after my visit to the Tower of Longing at the headwater of the River Lee I drove into Macroom to consult with a man, a noted historian of the countryside. While I knew in part this epic story of thwarted love, I wanted to round out the theme. So I present it here, in all its sound and fury.


SOMETIME in the eleventh century a huge, bulllike man rode out of the glens of Antrim, in the mid of a dark, demented night of “all winds and worse weather,” to the portcullis of a castle belonging to the Bannots of Cree. A small, scraggily built, and ill-manned affair of stone and timber, the defenses soon crumbled. Within an hour after the attack by pikemen shaggily clad in animal skins, Castle Cree was reduced. Mac Croom of Croom put every living thing found within the shattered walls to the sword or flames. The rising sun after the storm looked upon hundreds of hands clearing away the debris and commencing to erect a great fortress-place which one may see today as Macroom Castle.

And so, as far as one may learn, started the reign of a tyrant, a tribal chief as these men were known at the time, of such ferocity, such dark deeds of cruelty, as put even the Black O’Flaherty of Menlo to shame. Although this man styled himself The Mac of Croom he called his fortress tower, and the village which endured to become the thriving market town it is today, Macroom. The Mac ruled his family and followers by a tyranny of fear. It is said there was no torture to which he would not subject anyone who aroused his anger. Old tales say he decapitated his eldest son in one fell swoop of his sword for failing to rise from the battlefield when a glancing blow knocked him out. It was later found the youth was imprisoned to the knees in bog mud as treacherous and lethal as quicksand.

Of all men alive The Mac hated the Tribe Healy of Healy’s Pass. This powerful family had won great glory in the Battle of Clontarf and had ruled, by might of arms, most of Cork and lands along the River Lee. This power, flaunted far and wide by Colum Healy and his three sons, caused the gorge to rise in the throat of Mac of Croom to the point of choking him. He lived only to raise an army powerful enough to destroy the Tribe Healy. Twice did The Mac raid the village of Healy’s Pass which guarded the narrow entrance to the gorge of that name which shut off the Castle of Kinsale from the sea road. If ever man found an impregnable barrier to his aims it was this fortress rising on ramps of living rock, as does Dunluce Castle in the western reaches of Antrim.

After each abortive attempt to annihilate the Healys, The Mac gathered his disheartened soldiers together, limping back to Macroom to shut himself away to lick his wounds. It was during one of these periods when a dank pall of depression draped the castle and bailey, that furtive word was brought to his car that his daughter Inchigeelagh was secretly meeting Desmond Healy, youngest son of his despised enemy, in a savanna of trees which surrounded an ancient garrison tower a few miles to the west. This had been built long ago by Kel, a Danish chief, and was sometimes used by the ladies Healy as a bower, for cool breezes from off the river tempered the hot days of south Ireland summer.

When The Mac heard this gossip he strode to the ladies’ bower at Castle Croom and nearly choked the girl Inchigeelagh into confession. At first she denied this story as that conjured by some jealous malcontent. “ You lie,” thundered The Mac. “Your beauty is a lure. You are to be shut away where no man can see it.” But that night when The Mac sent men-at-arms to imprison his daughter they found that she, accompanied by a tirewoman, had fled his demesne. Had Inchigeelagh ridden straight to Healy’s Pass it is probable there would never have been this story. But she rode to the tower where Desmond was to meet her with armed escort. Under a starry sky, now and then darkened by scudding clouds, the women rode in blind fear until, on the slight rise of ground, they came to the dark tower where Inchigeelagh had spent long hours of ecstasy with Desmond. But to her dismay no Desmond Healy waited for her. All was silent and dreadly lone. She turned to Garda, the tirewoman. “We must wait for a time. If Desmond does not come soon, we will ride along the road to Kinsale to meet him.”

“Ah, lady, ‘tis a clutch at me heart ave an old foreboding that I have. Listen — listen. Barking dogs and hoofs on the flinty road.” The woman commenced to sob.

At a sweeping gallop was borne the sound of many horses. The listening women sensed that the sound came from the west, not the road that Desmond would take, but from the direction of Macroom. In frantic haste the women remounted, urging their horses along the sea road to Healy’s Pass. Scarcely had they settled into the saddle before they were overtaken by The Mac and his men. In silence the mouths of Inchigeelagh and Garda were sealed against outcry with scarves torn from their wimples. Then The Mac pushed the two women into the shadow of the tower. Turning to his men-at-arms he bade them deploy to ambush among the thick spinney of alders fringing the road.

Wide-eyed, aching with watching for the approach of her lover, whom she knew her father planned to murder, Inchigeelagh wept through the night. As the sun rose on a still morning, the sound of horses’ hoofs clacked sharply from the direction of Kinsale. Suddenly the loud harking of a boarhound, followed by sharp cries to silence the brute, caught the wary ear of an outrider scouting ahead of Desmond Healy’s retinue. Instantly the gallowglass wheeled his horse as pikemen leapt from ambush to drag him down. His warning cry was heard. Desmond reined his horse on a knoll, taking in ihe number of men wildly breaking cover. Not seeing any sign of Inchigeelagh, captive in the lower part of the tower, he shouted to his followers: “To me, to me! A Healy, a Healy! Fly to Kinsale, we are outnumbered.” Hearing this battle cry, the heart of Inchigeelagh seemed turned to stone.

So began one of the strangest of recorded imprisonments of a human being. Ruthless beyond belief or reason, The Mac of Croom set immediately about his plan to torture, by parting item, his daughter and the son of his mortal enemy. First he had Inchigeelagh and Garda taken to the top of the tower. Then every window or doorway in the walls was sealed with stone, leaving only the tall pointed window, forming a triple opening, which gave a clear view off and away to the opening of Healy’s Pass. He then set up a garrison of fifty men to guard his daughler. When all work was done, The Mac stood well away from the foot of the tower. Wrapping himself in a thick homespun mantle against the cold, wet wind raking up the valley, he called loudly.

“Come to the window, Inchigeelagh of the Longings, as you will be called from this day out. Never again shall you leave this tower. You and your tirewoman are walled up against rescue. Fifty gallowglasses, strongly armed, will stand always in readiness. Food and clothing will be hoisted to you. You must not starve nor die from cold. A long life of waiting and watching for a lover who will never come will bow your deceitful head and break your heart. But it will pleasure me to watch. For it will be long and lone that you will hope.”

And so, old chroniclers wrote, did the wayward daughter of The Mac of Croom live for twenty years imprisoned in the tower. Daily, food was lifted to her bower by a rope. In winter warm mantles and gowns of heavy stuffs were given her. No fire was allowed her. Only a cold empty hearth to sit beside. After a few years Garda died. From then out Inchigeelagh looked after herself. As her father had predicted, hope of release by Desmond sustained the woman in her dreadful loneliness. Sometimes he would appear with a band of armed followers. A fierce skirmish would ensue, but always the powerful, heavily armed gallowglasses of The Mac routed Desmond and his men. Then he set a new plan to let Inchigeelagh know he was steadfast, that his great love for her had not waned. Sometimes at night, in the radiance of a full moon, the man would appear on the knoll overlooking the tower. Across the withers of his mount was a bronze shield upon which he would beat out a message. As time went on, Inchigeelagh learned to understand that Desmond sounded his undying love in this shield music. Often he was interrupted by forays from the garrison, but ibis infrequent message was all she had to hearten the endless monotony of her days.


THE years dragged on. Border wars of varying moment were fought up and down the coast road and over the undulating fields bordering the lovely Lee. It was the days of the baronies. Every baron was a robber, a usurper of another’s lands. Only the strong survived or kept their holding intact. The Mac of Croom, ensconced in his river-girl castle, was the strongest baron for many miles.

By the same token the Healys were weak in fighting men. The ancient pile called Kinsale Keep, rising so stark from troubled water, was strong in itself; but once the Healy banner of a yellow leopard coursing a green field appeared outside the bailey walls it was more by the speed of stouthearted horses that they were able to escape their enemies than by fighting strength.

Famine was rife in the south counties because of a barley and millet blight from mold which had appeared first in Waterford soon after the defeat of the Danes at Clontarf. Ranks of men-at-arms were decimated by this hunger scourge. Children died without reaching baptism. An old boding, foretold in 800 by a monk called Ennisfa the Prophesier, that bloodshed and famine, unholily linked, would exterminate the Gael, seemed about to be fulfilled.

Then one day the old gods seemed to look with compassion upon Desmond Healy and his once lovely Inchigeelagh, now withering in beauty and racked wilh ague. A violent storm swept the south coast of Ireland, casting many ships upon the shaley beach of Kinsale Head. The Healys saved hundreds of mariners. Many stayed on to settle in the fertile land just now emerging from famine. In gratitude to Gain Healy, eldest of Desmond’s brothers, head of the tribe, the men agreed to fight for him, to forever reduce the Tribe Macroom.

A few weeks after the storm, word was secretly brought to Desmond that The Mae of Croom had been set upon in a surprise attack by gallowglasses in the pay of Brian O’Moyle of Muckross Abbey in the reaches of Killarney Water. The Mac was heavily engaged defending his own stronghold as well as trying to reduce the Abbey, which he had long coveted. When a second message was relayed by Healy spies that the victorious Mac had planted his black and crimson banner on O’Moyle’s battlements, at terrible cost in loss of men, Desmond reached a quick decision. With the aid of his brother Gain he impounded every able-bodied man in the demesne of Kinsale. With the hundred-odd mariners from Brittany and his own stalwart farmers to swell the ranks of standing garrison, Desmond believed he had an army worthy to confound the depleted ranks of The Mac.

As so often happens in cases of this kind, the malcontent, the malingerer over real or fancied insults, spoils the best-laid plans. A jailer at the tower, called Morto Garry, had one day breached the doorway leading from the top of the steps to the tower room. When he had tried to force his attentions upon her, Inchigeelagh had stabbed Morto in the thigh. Soon after this he was relieved of his post by the captain of t he garrison. Swearing vengeance the man slunk away. Before he left he arranged the stones at the breached door loosely, hoping the prisoner would escape. But Inchigeelagh, worn by imprisonment, had not the strength. In disguise Morto had joined Gain Healy’s ranks. Always casting his fortunes in the highest quarter of advantage, Morto overheard a group of drunken bowmen discussing the impending raid. He slipped silently from the guardroom and, stealing one of the horses tethered in the paddock, rode breakneck to tell The Mac what he knew.

Desmond, believing his enemy to be still engaged, agreed with his brother that the time had come to march to the Tower of Longing. Nearly one thousand men-at-arms, on horse and afoot, set out. Horses were ridden cross-country so that this time no sound of hoofs slamming on flint would herald the arrival. Bow and pike men, feet wrapped in folds of sacking, followed the bohireens on either side of the road. So deep were these ditches that a skulking man was effectively concealed. Forewarned by Morto Garry, The Mac, followed by a weary, battle-scarred few thousand men, moved stealthily towards the tower from the opposite direction.

The battle that took place this windy night was terrible to behold. Down the centuries it has been extolled in rune by bards singing at the crossroads or traveling the roads of Ireland. Women in lone coteens have crouched over cradles singing softly of the splendor of lnchigeelagh’s last sleep. Comeall-ye’s, the intriguing narrative poems sung at village gatherings, set to whatever tune the singer wishes to carry, have come down the centuries by word of mouth.

For a space of hours the tides of battle eddied back and forth. First a transient victory would go to The Mac of Croom. Then down would fall his banner of crimson displaying a black boar. Springing up against the sky, the yellow leopard would flaunt triumph for Gain and Desmond Healy. Although The Mac constantly brought up fresh detachments of archers and swordsmen, Gain Healy was able, by dexterous advances and withdrawals, to keep them at bay. As false dawn painted the east with brightness, Desmond gathered half a hundred swordsmen about him and succeeded in entering the tower. Swiftly he sped up the crumbling stone steps which clung to the angles of the wall. Up to the loosely piled stones which had once sealed the only door to the top of the tower. It was only when he bore a fainting Inchigeelagh in his arms, and leaned out of the window to signal to his men, that Desmond saw he had been trapped. Warily The Mac had waited, withdrawn, in a small clump of alders. He had summoned a group of reserve swordsmen to stand at the ready, for he had anticipated and carefully planned the maneuver which would decoy his enemy into a false sense that Macroom forces were bested. Now he swung mightily into action. Bronze armor gleaming dully in the early morning light, crimson banner whipping like flowing blood against the opal sky, The Mac challenged Healy men at the foot of the tower stairs. Dreadful was the carnage wrought by great two-handed swords. The dead sprawled on every hand. Most of the dead were Healys, for Macroom swords cut them down the like of scythed wheat.

Gain Healy lay clutching his blood-streaked banner; and with the sight of their leader whipped away out of life, the spirits of his men fled down the wind. The last that Desmond, shouting from the battlements, saw of his scattered forces, they were haring it in desperate retreat along the sea road towards the Pass.

Then came the triumph of The Mac’s longwaited revenge. Roaring orders right and left, he caused huge bundles of faggots and bundles of logs which had been hidden for his purpose in the woods to be piled about four sides of the tower. When this grim task was done, he grabbed a torch from the hand of a retainer. With feverish impatience he strode round and about the tower base setting the dry wood alight.

As false dawn faded and night fell darkly for the few minutes before sunrise, the flames leapt higher and higher, the like of bloody fingers, to clasp the two lovers in the tower even as they, silent in reunion, clasped each other. The sun rose on an angry scene. Dirt-grimed, hollow-eyed survivors of The Mac’s garrison were appalled by the horror of watching this gigantic pyre. That a father could be such a monster seemed, even to their dull brains, to be tempting the chancy gods. Dreadful and drear were the omens of such a deed. Fearfully ihe men slunk away into the forest.

The fire died down to embers. Acrid smoke spiraled high only to drift away on the wind. A black-maned man, arms folded across his breastplate, stood alone regarding the tower. Much later, when the riven stones had cooled enough to allow his entering the tower, The Mac of Croom, tyrant and double murderer, slowly climbed the steps. Muttering to himself, he gazed vengefully upon the smoke-blackened bodies of the lovers he had so long persecuted. A wind from off water rose, soughing among the battlements. The musk and amber of revenge lay sweet upon his tongue. Kicking charred rooks’ nests out of his path, The Mac descended slowly, leapt into the saddle, and rode, shifty-eyed, ever watchful, back to his castle of Macroom.


COUPLED with notable Irish imagination as well as a curious illusion, somewhat similar to mirages seen in the vast stretches of the Hungarian Puszta, the flames of The Mac of Croom’s revenge seem never to totally die out. All manner of tales are related by farmers or villagers, even travelers who visit the source of the River Lee and environs. The version most often heard is that always at sunrise and again at sunset Inchigeelagh’s Tower glows with red-gold light as if reflecting devouring flames. I have seen this at sunset, particularly after what had been a demented day of high wind and lowering weather. Red, gold, livid yellow, the sun’s rays shot up against dissolving inky clouds. Whether it is the reflected image of the tower in the misty atmosphere of flat water spread in front, or the clearness of air in the valley of the Lee, I cannot say. In any case the tower vibrates in shimmering flame color. Let the moon flood the valley with cool rays and the tower becomes remote, silent, silvered stone, starkly confronting the centuries.

Once I was told that two archaeologists were spending the night at a farmhouse a quarter of a mile from the tower. At sunset the two set out to see the effect created by sun rays on the stone. Sunset was a particularly magnificent pageant put on by Helios as he drove his fiery chariot downward to escape descending night. Here I will tell this as it was told to me.

“We stood a few hundred feet away from the tower, watching the undulaling play of radiance on the ivied stone. Suddenly, when the brilliance was almost unbearable for the naked eye to watch, a sound of shrill crying seemed to issue from the arched window just under the corbels. Mingled with the cry of a woman, actually a sound of glad reunion we thought, was the commanding shouting of a man. Then as the color commenced to recede we were conscious of the silhouetted figures of a man and woman in ancient garments swaying in the window, close in embrace. We learned, when returning to the farmhouse, that this phenomenon of dark figures framed in light was often seen.”

A few years ago I chanced to be out of Ireland in Italy. A letter was forwarded to me from a friend in Pennsylvania. This letter said my friend planned to come to Ireland from the Continent later in the summer but, alas, had only five days to spend before she embarked at Cobh to return to America. What trip could I suggest for her to take wherein she would see as much of Gaelic Ireland as possible? I immediately answered: “In Dublin hire a motorcar and follow the sea road out of County Dublin into Wexford, Carlow, along the dramatic cliffs of Waterford. Then strike inland to Cork. Visit Gougane Barra, following the River Lee to Belvelly Castle and so to Cobh.”

A few weeks later I received an enthusiastic letter from this woman. Words of wonder spilled out of the pages. “Never would I believe I could have seen so much of interest and beauty of countryside as in those four days motoring over the landscape you told me of. My greatest moment was when, at sunset, after a day of light rain and mist, my driver look me to an ancient tower. A prison, I believe, for some unhappy Gaelic queen or other. The sun set in tremendous color, and I was sure I heard shouting. Cries of anguish or surprise, I could scarcely make out which. There high in the tower, I was convinced, I saw two figures embracing one another. As we drove away when the sun had set, I distinctly heard the sound of battle at the foot of the lower. Swords clashing, and angry shouts of men. My head was in a whirl.”

A year or so later I saw this friend in Philadelphia. We were discussing her trip to Ireland. She said, “I never told you of the rather odd thing that was said to me when I arrived at my hotel in Cork after visiting Inchigeelagh’s Tower. It was much later than I had wired I would arrive. I explained my tardiness to the manageress of the Victoria Hotel, saving I had gone to the ‘haunted tower at Lee source. The woman eyed me quizzically, her pen balanced in mid-air.

“ ‘And you saw?' she inquired.

“ ‘I believed for a moment the tower was in flames and that a battle was in progress at its foot. Though I saw no one other than two shadowy figures in a high window. All most odd,’I replied.

“Looking at me through half-closed eyes the manageress nodded her head sagely. So - the old Mac of Croom and the Healys were at it hammer and tongs again. It’s a great class of lather the two stir up. I’m glad they do, for it entertains foreign visitors to County Cork. And that,’she smiled engagingly, ‘is good for my business, surely. Ye’ll be in Room 16.’ ”