Gabriel Beranger in this 18th century picture shows on Tower Hill "The karne, or ancient burying place of the Pagan Irish Kings and Nobility

Crimthann and Howth

Eochaidh  Feidhlech was a King of Ireland in long-ago days, when it was common for brother to oust brother and son to oust father. Eochaidh was the father of Medb, later Queen Medb of Connacht, the woman at the centre of the tale of Tain Bo Cuailgne, the Cattle raid of Cooley. He also had three sons and another daughter Clothru. It so happened that Clothru became aware that her brothers were preparing to make war on their father and claim the kingdom for themselves. Fearing that her brothers would be killed without any heirs to carry on the bloodline, she seduced all three, giving birth to a boy, Lugaid Riabh nDearg. As she had foreseen, the three brothers were killed and Lugaid eventually gained the kingship (after much bloodshed and conquering of enemies).

Clothru then bore Lugaid a son, Crimthann (pronounced ‘criffin’), who in turn achieved the kingship. Crimthann had his royal residence (or dun) beside the sea at Howth, Co Dublin.  There were in Howth at the time a number of sidhe, or fairy mounds, entrances to the Otherworld where dwelt the Tuatha De Danaan, an already ancient race blessed with eternal youth and other magical  powers. Crimthann married Nár, a beautiful woman of the Tuatha De Danaan, and they journeyed to lands far beyond the realm, lands in this world and in the Otherworld. In the course of their travels, Crimthann was given precious gifts: a golden chess board, a sword inlaid with gold serpents, a gold-embroidered cloak, a shield, a spear and a sling which never missed its target. The latter gifts would have been of great benefit to Crimthann on his many raids on Roman settlements in Britain.  After sixteen years as king, in the year 9 AD Crimthann was thrown by his horse and was killed. Although Leabhar na hUidhre, an 11th century manuscript written in Clonmacnoise, suggests that he was interred in the fabled Boyne cemetery of Newgrange and Knowth,  other tales speak of his body being taken by Nár, along with the treasures, into her sidhe, where it may still rest to this day.

The location of Crimthann’s royal residence has been the subject of some disagreement in the past, with John O’Donovan, the great 19th century Celtic scholar, arguing that it was sited on the peninsula where the present Baily lighthouse now stands. Parts of the defensive banks and fosses of a peninsula fort can still be seen, but no trace remains of the “ancient circular stone fortress which encircled the apex of the rock, and of which considerable remains existed previous to the erection of the present buildings” (from The Dublin Penny Journal, over 170 years ago). The fort may have been Dun Etar, built by the Milesian chieftain Suirge the Slender and scene of a bloody battle in 646 AD. Indeed, in the course of the construction of the lighthouse  many human remains were unearthed, lending support to this theory.

Gabriel Beranger in this 18th century picture shows on Tower Hill "The karne, or ancient burying place of the Pagan Irish Kings and Nobility
Gabriel Beranger in this 18th century picture shows on Tower Hill “The karne, or ancient burying place of the Pagan Irish Kings and Nobility

The old annals suggest that Crimthann’s fort was situated on the other side of Howth: on Tower Hill, overlooking the modern Howth Harbour.  The Dindsenchas, for example,  (an early text reciting the lore of placenames) tells of Esa, who from her residence, Rath Esa, in Meath, could see the Mound of the Hostages at Tara, Newgrange, on the Boyne, and Dun Crimthann in Howth, meaning the fort had to be on the northern side of the peninsula. Gabriel Beranger, a Dutch Huguenot artist who travelled widely in Ireland in the 18th century, produced a sketch of Howth Abbey in which the remains of a large fort could be seen on Tower Hill. Unfortunately, with the building of the Martello Tower in 1804 any traces of the old fort and a later 12th century wooden castle were destroyed. The location of Crimthann’s dun, like the whereabouts of his Otherworldly treasures, is now another mystery to be solved.

Antique postcard of Tower Hill, overlooking Howth harbour.
Antique postcard of Tower Hill, overlooking Howth harbour.

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