In a land far away there stands the ruins of a castle called Tierney. Before the Castle Tierney was turned to ruin it was strong and beautiful and within its fin walls lived a king with his five daughters. King Ríoghnán was a good man and a kind and just ruler. The five daughters of King Ríoghnán were the most learned and beautiful in all the land and were well loved by all the people and by the king most especially. The eldest sister was named Saerlaith. She was wise, responsible and was a good leader. The second sister was Eithne, and she was insatiably curious. She loved plants and animals, and carried a sketch book with her always, in which she pressed leaves and sketched many creatures great and small. Sadb, the third sister, was perpetually joyful and vivacious. She was known in the land for her generosity. The fourth sister, named Liadan, despite being close in age with Sadb was quite the opposite in personality. She was timid and shy and preferred not to speak with those she did not know. The fifth and youngest sister, named Caoimhe, was gentle and sweet and brought much joy to her older sisters.
When the youngest daughter, Caoimhe, was only a baby, their mother the queen died suddenly of a fever. Though they were all filled with sorrow at the loss of their mother, the girls comforted their father as best they could, and the king was grateful to them. The eldest daughter, named Saerlaith, who was only eleven years of age at the time, had then taken it upon herself to be mother and sister to the rest of the girls. The king was devastated by the illness that afflicted his wife and had stayed by her bedside in the days leading up to her death. The night that she died was a sorrowful one. They had all gathered around her, Searlaith rocking her new baby sister. Little Liadan’s tiny hands held her mother’s and King Ríoghnán kissed his wife on the brow. Their tears mingled as he pressed his cheek to hers. Then suddenly she was gone, and they all wept late into the night. Afterwards the king devoted himself wholly to his five daughters. He did not neglect his duty to govern his kingdom and manage the many matters of his sovereignty but was none the less ever attentive to the cares and needs of each of his daughters. The princesses never wanted for anything, and the king considered himself uncommonly fortunate to have daughters who were as caring and generous as they were.
Many years passed in peace and prosperity and the kingdom thrived. The five daughters of Tierney castle, as they were commonly referred to throughout the land, grew in virtue and beauty. Searlaith was tall and graceful. Her fair hair fell to her waist and she walked … She ran the household in her mother’s stead with dignity and elegance. Eithne excelled in her studies and read many books in the castle library. Her hands were often covered in ink or dirt as she sketched in her notebooks and gathered flowers in the fields. Liadan grew tall and thin with gray eyes and black hair. She was skilled at needle work and many of her sister’s dresses were embellished with her intricate designs. Sadb was plump and rosy. Her voluminous golden curls fell across her shoulders, and she was always laughing. Caoimhe, their baby sister who grew up without a mother, was none the less the sweetest and gentlest of them all. No one could bring themselves to be cross with Caoimhe and the servants smiled at her when she skipped through the halls of the castle. All of the sisters were praised by their fellow nobility as well as by their tutors and servants. They spent their days reading, writing and doing needle work by the hearth. Their days were filled with candle light and song, cozy nights and sunny days and the peaceful monotony of daily prayer.
There came a time in autumn, when the leaves were changing color, but the sun was yet warm, that the king decided to host a hunting party. For it had been reported to King Ríoghnán that a stag had been spotted in the woods to the north of Tierney castle. Saerlaith, the oldest, was then about twenty one years of age and Caoimhe, the youngest, was about ten. A day was chosen and the lords and ladies who were in the king’s favor were invited. The day of the hunt dawned and the party put on their gear and the five princesses saw them off in the early morning at the steps of the castle. The younger girls watched as one of the lords took care to wish Searlaith a fond farewell. Then they all waved as the hunting party rode out of the gates. Then the princess returned inside to break their fast. They sat at the breakfast table in their usual order, Searlaith to the right of the king’s chair, Eithne across from her, Sabh next to Searlaith, Liadan next to Eithne and little Caoimhe next to Liadan. The morning sun poured in through the tall windows and fell gently on their silver dishes. After they had eaten, they gathered a round the fire and the princesses began discussing plans for the day. It was generally agreed that they should go out on some expedition of their own while the king and his guests were gone on their hunt for the day. Eithne put forth her wish to see the lake. “The golden leaves would be reflected so beautifully in the still water of the lake today,” she said. Sadb however wanted to spend her time in the fields picking flowers. Thoughts of the hunt, however, gave them all to fix on the forest as their place of wandering and exploration for that afternoon.
Having all agreed on the forest, they informed the servants of their plans. An attendant was not sent with them for, as the girl insisted, while they were under the eye of their watchful Saerlaith, there was little cause for concern for their safety. They packed a basket of food and other odds and ends that they each wanted to bring. Sabh was the first to offer to carry it for her sisters. As the girls left the castle walls, Liadan, being very cautious, suggested that they walk in the opposite direction of the hunt in case they were mistaken for deer. The other sisters naturally agreed to do what she suggested if only so that Liadan would be at ease. They then began to walk east into the wood of birch, oak and pine.
As the sisters made their way into the line of trees, they split up and wandered in several directions following each their own fancies. Eithne picked leaves and flowers to press into her books, Caoimhe chased after toads and Liadan gathered stones to polish. Sadb crashed noisily through the underbrush a little way away and Saerlaith walked slowly and unseeingly as she thought about a certain young man who had come for the king’s hunting party. They rambled in this way for a while when suddenly Sadb came bounding through the trees, her fists full of something.
“Sisters, all of you must try these!” She called to her sisters. As they came near to her, she exclaimed, “I found these berries! They are so sweet!” She opened her hands to show a pile of round smooth brilliantly red berries. Her lips were already stained from their juice.
“They aren’t poisonous, are they?” Liadan eyed them suspiciously.
“They could not be if they are sweet,” responded Eithne. “I’ve only read about poisonous plants being tart and sour, never sweet.”
Sadb nodded her head, her golden curls bouncing. “Try them!”
Convinced by their sister’s enthusiasm the girls took a few berries each and ate them. Liadan waited until everyone else had eaten theirs before she put a couple of berries in her mouth. Sadb showed her sisters where she had found the berries. Eithne studies the leaves of the bush but found mothing to protest so the sisters picked more berries and ate them. Then they continued to ramble in the forest. They found a stream and waded in it, a hollow log and called to each other through it, and a fox den hole, but that they left well alone. They found many beauties in the forest and generally enjoyed them. Several hours passed, and the sisters were beginning to tire. Saerlaith called to the other girls and suggested they return home to the castle. They each agreed and with their pockets full of treasures and their fists full of berries, they started back the way they had come. As they were walking home Caoimhe tripped and fell because she was dragging her tired feet. Sadb stopped and helped her youngest sister to stand.
“We should stop and rest,” said Eithne, also slightly out of breath. “It seems as though we are all exhausted from our lively day.”
“Yes, we can rest, but only for a short time,” Saerlaith said. “It will be getting dark soon and we will not want to make Father, or our supper, wait.” Her sisters, of course, agreed and promised to only sit for a few minutes to catch their breaths.
The girls sat down and leaned against the sturdy trunks of some oak trees that had grown close together. As they sat, they thought of how nice it was to rest. They thought of the peacefulness and comfort of sleep and they each longed to be in their beds in the safety of the castle. Each of them felt her eyelids begin to sag and the girls were soon asleep, sharing the leafy bed of the forest floor. Even the setting of the sun and the chill of the coming night did not wake the king’s daughters from their deep rest.
Within the walls of Tierney castle, the handmaids and attendants were well aware of absence of their mistresses and had sent scouts outside in four directions to search for them. An attendant was sent to the king to notify him that his daughters would be late to supper. King Ríoghnán chuckled and assumed that his daughters were shy about dining with the young men who had attended the hunt that day.
“That is alright, we will start without them, but tell them they must come soon if they want to eat!” The king did not want the girls to miss an opportunity to become acquainted with the young men of character whom he had invited. The young man with blue eyes, he thought, had paid special attention to Searlaith that morning.
The evening grew into night. The king and his men were so immersed in conversation that it was not until halfway through the feast that the king realized his daughters still had not joined them. He called a servant over and asked what the matter was with the girls.
“They have not been seen or heard from Sire. Scouts were sent into the forest to look for them.”
“The forest?!” The king cried.
“Yes Sire, the ladies had decided to explore the wood for the day, Sire…” the king stood up immediately as the worst possibilities ran through his mind.
“How long ago were the riders sent out? Which way did they go? Are there men on foot as well?” the king demanded as he walked towards the door of the great hall. The servant quickly tried to answer his questions as they left. The room had become silent in response to the king’s sudden concern.
As the next morning dawned, the sun’s light made its way through the leaves of the trees and touched sweet faces of the five sisters lying on the forest floor. Caoimhe awoke first, as she usually did, and looked around at her dear sisters still asleep. She began singing a lovely song to wake them. Her song sounded something like this.
From every eye let slumber fly,
Let all before the dawn arise,
And seek by night the Eternal Light,
As bids the prophet, timely wise.
This glorious morn, time’s eldest-born,
When God Triune the world did frame,
When from the grave, uprisen save,
Our Maker and Redeemer came.
The girls couldn’t help but smile as they were awoken by the beautiful song of their youngest sister. “We spent the whole night here!” Eithne exclaimed. “Father must be worried sick,” added Liadan. The five sisters stood up and again started on the path back to the castle. The girls had not noticed that the leaves on the ground did not rustle under them as they stood and walked. Nor did they notice that their skirts did not catch at all on the branches of the low shrubs as they had many times the day before.
When the sisters reached the edge of the forest the turrets of the castle came into view. The girls walked faster, and they raised their arms when they caught sight of some of their father’s men walking towards the wood.
“We are here!” Saerlaith shouted.
“We are alright!” Caoimhe cried.
“We are so sorry to have worried you!” called Liadan.
To their shock, however, not a single servant responded to their calls.
“Can they not see us?!” Sadb cried.
As the sisters continued to shout, Eithne noticed a strange thing. Her hand did not fully block the sun’s light from her eyes. She looked quickly back at her sisters and saw how pale each of them seemed and how easily they moved among the tall grasses. Panic fluttered in her heart, and she watched in horror as the approaching servants looked right past each of them. All five of the king’s daughters fell silent as the same fear that gripped Eithne laid a hand on each of them.
In the woods, a hound let out a piercing howl and some attendants who had yet to enter the line of trees started to run. A few minutes later the girls had not moved, and they watched in utter disbelief as a scout came crashing through the trees and ran towards the castle with tears streaming down his face. The sisters followed him, each needing to hear what news he was going to deliver but each, also, not wanting to know what tragedy the servants had found in the woods. When the girls finally reached the doors of the castle, their beloved home, they found that they could not bear to enter the gate.
The five girls stood in apprehension just outside the castle doors and watched as the king’s men emerged from the forest carrying five simple stretchers on which lay five bodies, now dead. Sadb took a slow step towards the procession. As tears streamed down her face, she stretched out her arm as if to stop the sorrowful tide coming towards them. The attendants carried the bodies of their admired mistresses through the castle doors into the courtyard and the girls wept as each of their own bodies passed them. Not only did the girls weep for their own tragic fate but they wept for the sake of all the members of the king’s household and for their father especially. Their grief increased as they saw their father come down the front steps and collapse in the courtyard, overwhelmed. Two men who had stayed from the night before ran to help their sorrow-stricken host. The young man who had favored Searlaith was struck dumb by the sudden and tragic loss of his hope. King Ríoghnán could not stand, even with help, so as he knelt on the ground his attendants laid the five cots before him. Weeping and wailing filled the courtyard and loudest of all was the king. He remained on the ground, and no one dared to move him, so the king sat in vigil over the bodies of his five daughters throughout the day and into the night. The ghosts of his daughters, shimmering in the light of the torches that were lit, gathered around their father and wept with him the whole night long. When at last the sun rose on the next day, the king allowed the women and men servants to prepare the bodies of the princesses for burial. The girls watched all the proceedings in numb silence.
As the weeks went by after the death and burial of his beloved daughters, the king’s health rapidly declined. King Ríoghnán tried to apply himself, but he could not give his attention to his work. Sleep was impossible for the king. In the dark hours of the night, Ríoghnán thought he could feel that his daughters were near to him but when he reached out and called their names, he was answered only by silence and the dark void of his own sorrow. The king could barely be persuaded to eat. Over time he lost more and more weight and he became gaunt. Finally, not a full year after the death of his beloved daughters, the king lay on his own death bed, his body ruined from sorrow and exhaustion. The five sisters gathered around him, and they waited through the night. They regretted the untimeliness of their father’s death, and they remembered the days when he was lively and jovial. Despite this however, they hoped he would be happy to see them again when his ghost finally joined theirs.
“Everything will be alright, will it not?” asked Caoimhe “Father will find us here and then we will all of us go to find mother together. Where do you think she could be?”
Saerlaith nodded slightly and gave her sister a small smile that was meant to be reassuring. They waited. Then, finally, as the sun rose, the king’s last breath left his lungs, and his attendants wept and threw their hoods over their heads. Eithne leaned close to her father’s face. The women around the room began wailing and a shroud was unfolded and draped over the king’s body. The princesses looked around and called the king’s name. His ghost, however, was nowhere to be seen.
“Sing your song, Caoimhe,” Eithne said. “Maybe you need to sing your song for his ghost to join us.” Caoimhe began singing the song she had sung in the forest all those months ago.
From every eye let slumber sigh,
Let they before the night arise,
And seek by sight the Eternal Light,
As bid the prophet, timely wise.
This misty morn, time’s eldest-born,
When God Triune the world did tame,
When from the grave, uprisen came,
Our Maker and Redeemer save.
By the time she was finished, however, their father’s ghost had still not appeared.
“Maybe he is somewhere else in the castle already,” Sadb cried. The girls sailed in all different directions, but their father’s ghost was nowhere to be found.
“We are alone!” Liadan cried.
“Are we cursed to remain like this forever?” asked Caoimhe, looking up to Saerlaith who remained unmoved staring at the shrouded body of her father. Then the other girls dropped to their knees and wept.
In their grief, the sisters began disturbing the house and scaring the servants. At first it was only their crying that echoed through the halls and made everyone afraid. But before too much time passed the sisters found that they could destroy things and so they took out their grief on any object they could muster the strength to move. Some people said that a banshee had come to reside near the castle and was the cause of the horrible noises that haunted the nights. Other said an evil demon was loose and wreaking havoc in the castle. Though they were not banshees or demons, the girls did become wretched. For, as time passed, their sorrow turned to bitterness and hatred. Their constant wailing and tumult planted fear and dread in the heart of all the lords and ladies of the king’s once happy court. After a few short years, that none the less seemed like an eternity to the sisters, every living person was driven from the castle. In their solitude, the sisters, who once shared so much mutual love and affection, began to grow despondent towards one another. Overtime animosity flourished among them. The girls blamed each other for the part that each of them had played in the circumstances that had caused their deaths.
One night, Eithne rounded on Sadb. “What were you thinking picking random berries in the forest and making us eat them!” she cried.
“Make you?!” Sadb cried. “I never made you! I had no idea what they were, but they tasted fine. How was I supposed to know? It was you, Eithne, who should have known. You said they were not poisonous, but you were wrong. It was you who killed us!”
Eithne was shocked and incensed.
“If only you had remembered what your useless books had said about poisonous plants!” Sadb continued to cry. “This is all your fault!”
“It was not my fault!” Eithne screamed back, her indignation enflamed. “You were the one who saw them and thought ‘Oh! Even though I’m completely ignorant we should just eat these things we happened to find in the woods!’”
“It was not my fault!” Sadb screamed. “I did not know!”
“Well, I did not know either!”
“But you should have!”
Then Liadan joined the argument. “If only you had listened to me! I cautioned us to not eat them! Nobody minds me but I was right all along!” Liadan keenly felt the injustice done to her.
Eithne turned to her and wailed, “You were not right all along! You never knew any better. You were merely being a nervous wreck like you always are. Always cautioning us to be careful, to be safe. So worried about stepping out of your safe little castle!”
“And look where it got us!” Liadan screamed. “If we had all stayed safe at home, we would still be alive you imbecile!”
Sadb turned to her also and she and Eithne began screaming insults in return.
“You disgust me! I have never loved you!”
Each of the girls invented all the blame they could imagine and heaped it on top of each other. None of them ever claimed any responsibility for their own faults but were each content to hold themselves unjustifiably wronged. Over time the sisters forgot all about the virtuous qualities that they each possessed. Even Caoimhe, who had always been so gentle and sweet, became bitter and malicious. For a long time, she tried to help her sisters, but they treated her with contempt. They manipulated her soft heart and then scorned her weakness. It was then that she turned against her sisters, and she found the worst ways to torment them. Caoimhe watched and listened until she found the most painful ways to hurt each of them. All of the sisters spent their days wallowing in misery and in anger and their cries echoed through the empty stone halls of their once beloved home.
As the years turned into decades, and the decades turned into centuries, no one dared to venture into the castle. Eventually, it was completely neglected and as centuries passed, it fell into ruin. Many tales were spread among the people in the surrounding towns, some were false and some were only partly true but some people told the tale of the heartbreaking tragedy that had befallen the good King Ríoghnán and his five daughters. It was said that on stormy nights, horrible wailing could still be heard coming from the ghosts of the five daughters from within the accursed grounds of the Castle Tierney. To this day it is believed that the ruins remain haunted. Therefore pray, dear reader, for the souls of the daughters of Tierney Castle, that they may at last find peace.
Glossary of Names
Ríoghnán – (Pronounced RYAN) – “little king”; From Irish Gaelic ríogh “king” and diminutive suffix -an.
Saerlaith – (Pronounced SER-LA) – “noble princess”; This was an early name held by the mother of Mael Brigte mac Dornain, the abbot of Armagh.
Eithne – (Pronounced ENYA) – “kernel, grain”; This was the name of a 5th-century Irish saint, sister of Saint Fidelma and follower of Saint Patrick.
Sadb – (Pronounced SIEV) – “sweet, goodly”; Mother of Oisin in Irish mythology; Sadb was a frequent name in early Ireland. One of the many holders of the name was the daughter of Brian Boru. She died in 1048.
Liadan – (Pronounced LEE-A-DAN) – “grey lady”; Liadan was a poet and nun. She was loved by Cuirithir, the poet, who became a monk.
Caoimhe – (Prounounced QUEE-VA) – “beautiful, gentle, kind”; Derived from Gaelic caomh meaning soft.