On the southern shore of Galway Bay sits the lonely shape of Dunguaire Castle. It was built in 1520 on the site of the palace of the legendary King Guaire’s palace, for which it was named. The castle was built by the Hynes clan, who were fighting fiercely against the encroachment of the Normans and English. Little is known of its construction, indeed even the name of the Hynes chieftain who built it is forgotten. History is written by the victors, and a hundred years after it was built the English took the castle and gifted it to a local man, Oliver Martyn, who had shown his loyalty to the crown. Little is known of the time that the Hynes clan owned the castle, but it is they who gave it its name, a name that hearkened back to an earlier time before the Sassenach.
Guaire Aidne mac Colmáin was king of Uí Fiachrach Aidhne, a kingdom in southern Galway that included the Ó hEidhin clan, who would become the Hynes. He succeeded to the throne in 622AD, and ruled for over 40 years, also becoming the over-king of Connacht. Many legends are told of King Guaire, and he is often held up as a pinnacle of Irish generosity. A road leading from his castle into the mountains was known as “Bohar na Mias”, or “the road of dishes”, after the various cups and depressions formed into it. Several legends attempt to explain this, the most popular of which states that Saint Mocua, a brother of the king, was keeping Lenten fast with a fellow monk in the mountains. At the conclusion of the fast on Easter Sunday the other monk was nearly dead with hunger, and Saint Mocua prayed, causing the food on the King’s table for his Easter feast to rise up into the air. When the King and his men followed it, they found the dishes laid out before the two monks. The saint prayed again, and the hooves of the horses and feet of the men were seized by the stones, causing the holes in the road. After the two monks had eaten, the King was released, and asked the saint’s forgiveness for leaving him to go hungry while he had feasted. The king and his men then ate the remainder of the food with the monks, before returning to the castle. It was this, says the story, that prompted the king’s legendary generosity thereafter – there is even a story that when a beggar visited the king’s grave to lament that he could not receive his help, the king’s skeletal hand came up out of the ground holding a gold coin.
In the saga Scéla Cano meic Gartnáin (The Story of Cano mac Gartnain) the exiled prince of Dalriada comes to live at his court for a while where Guaire’s daughter Créide falls in love with him. Creide however was married to Marcán mac Tommáin, the king of the Ui Maine. According to the old tale called Tromdámh Guaire (The Heavy Company of Guaire) or Imtheacht na Tromdhaimhe (The Proceedings of the Great Bardic Institution), Guaire was visited by the Chief Ollam of Ireland, Senchán Torpéist who was accompanied by one hundred and fifty other poets, one hundred and fifty pupils “with a corresponding number of women-servants, dogs, etc”. The king was at first honoured to receive them, but as the story states, after they had been there “a year, a quarter and a month” he was somewhat less pleased. He hatched a ploy to get them to leave, and sent a messenger to the bard asking if any of his company could recite the entire saga of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the great saga of Cúchulainn. However at this time no one bard knew the whole of the work, so Senchán was forced to leave the castle, singing praises of the king’s generosity while promising (in a vaguely threatening tone) to return and visit again. As a result of this, the legend continues, he gathered together all the poets of Ireland to reconstruct all the fragments of the epic known by each of them, only to find it incomplete. He and his son Murgen then went out in search of the epic, which Murgen eventually gained by speaking with the ghost of Fergus mac Róich, one of the characters from the epic.
Guaire ruled as over-king of Connacht until his death in 663. He was buried at Clonmacnoise.
In the following centuries the Ui Fiachrach lost power to the Uí Briúin, who ever after were kings of Connacht. To the south, in what is now Co Clare, the Déisi Tuisceart would in the 700’s annexe Thomond permanently to Munster.
Guaire’s descendants include, Mícheál Ó Cléirigh, main compiler of the Annals of the Four Masters and Diana, Princess of Wales, as well as both of her children Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry.
Photo: Dunguaire Castle built on the site of Guaire’s original residence, photo by David Noton