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Rockabill sunrise myth and other stories

Ancient Story recalls astronomical event

During our research we stumbled upon an ancient story which was told in Skerries relating to Rockabill and the sun god, Balor. This story, we believe, recalls the Baltray-Rockabill solstice event and describes the sun's movement along the horizon until it gets to Rockabill, its furthest rising point.

Baltray-Rockabill illustration


A Lighthouse about seven miles north-east of Skerries. It is formed of two rocky islets of granite one larger than the other - the islets are often called the cow and calf from the following story current in the neighbourhood:-

There was a very famous cow called Glas Gablin belonging to Ulster. No matter how large the vessel used to milk her, she could fill it immediately with rich creamy milk. She lived about the time that the De Dananns were in Ireland.

Balor of the Evil Eye, one of the De Danann Chiefs, was anxious to get this wonderful cow for himself. He and his servant went to the Mourne Mountains where Glaas Gavelin was grazing with her calf. He got the servant to drive the cow and her calf to the province of Leinster - to Wicklow, where he had his stronghold. He told the man to keep the calf in front all the time so that the cow would not look back and that she would not know that she was leaving the province of Ulster. The servant did as he was told and everything went well until they crossed the River Boyne.

The Rockabill islands
The Rockabill islands pictured from Skerries.

Then the servant got careless and allowed the calf to walk behind the cow. Soon after the cow missed the calf and she looked behind her to see where she had gone. Looking back she saw the Mourne Mountains far away to the north, and knew that she was very far from her native Ulster so she gave a terrible scream the like of which was never heard before. Balor heard the roar and he understood there was something wrong.

Now Balor had only one eye and that was in the middle of his forehead. When the giant was talking to anyone he had to keep his eye covered. The eye was evil and had the power of turning to stone whatever was seen by it - animals, people and so on. When Balor turned to see what was wrong he forgot to cover the eye and immediately the cow and calf were turned into stones. The two rocks stand today as Balor left them - the cow on the south side and the calf on the north side.

GNS 1937-'38 Recorded by Mary Halligan, Strand St. Died 1906 Aged 89. From the archives of Skerries Historical Society.

The story clearly relates how everything went well 'until they crossed the River Boyne'. The fact that Balor turns, just like the rising sun does in the days after Winter Solstice, when they had crossed the Boyne, points to the location of the Baltray standing stones. From Baltray, the Mourne Mountains, which are also mentioned in the story, are easily visibile, and mark the furthest rising point of the sun as viewed from Baltray on the Summer Soltice.

For books on Irish and Celtic mythology, click here.

Inbher Colptha

The following legend about the Boyne estuary comes from an ancient story about Dublin:

When the men of Erin broke the limbs of the Matae, the monster that was slain on the Liacc Benn in the Brug of Mac Oc, they threw it limb by limb into the Boyne, and its shinbone (colptha) got to Inber Colptha ("the estuary of the Boyne"), whence "Inber Colptha" is said, and the hurdle (clíath) of its frame (i.e., its breast) went along the sea following the coast of Ireland until it reached yon ford (áth); whence "Ath Cliath" is said. Source: Ancient Irish Tales, Tom P.Cross & Clark Harris Slover, 1996, Barnes and Noble.

The drowning of Boann

This tale comes from a folklorist in Drogheda, and is a common tale in Irish mythology. Read the full account here.

The legend of the hound was that Boann was very curious and there was nobody allowed to go near the sacred well except her husband and his cup-bearers. She got curious and went to the well with her dog, Dabilla. She lifted the cover off the top of the well - it was a lid or cover of some kind - no-one was allowed to touch it except the king (Nechtain) and his cup-bearers.

The water rose up and covered them up and swept Boann and her dog from there, 70 miles all the way to the sea at Baltray. The well is located at Carbury, a small village in County Kildare, where it can still be seen today.

Moonrise at the Boyne EstuaryInver (Inbher or Inber in proper Gaelic) Colpa is the old name for Baltray. Colpa was one of the sons of Milesius. He was drowned at the Boyne where it enters the sea at Inbher Colpa.
There's a small mound there near the Protestant Church in Colpe, which has retained its name from this legend. Inver Colpa means the Inlet of Colpa.

Boann, the Queen, was married to Nechtain, who at that time was the king of Leinster.
It was only him and his cup-bearers, or his closest conifants, probably druids, who were allowed near the well. It is said that if you look out at Rockabill, it has the shape of a big hound. Dabilla was the name of the dog.

For books on Irish and Celtic mythology, click here.

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All information and photos, except where otherwise stated, copyright, © Anthony Murphy, 1999-2015
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