Monday, February 3, 2020

Mary MacMahon (Máire Rua MacMahon, Red Mary), Legendary Serial Killer – Ireland, 1686

Folklore makes “Red Mary” out to be a serial killer:

“It is said that if a servant were foolish enough to displease her, they would be hung out of one of the castle windows, the men by their necks and the women by their hair. If the maids did not learn to bend to her will, she would punish them by cutting off their breasts.” Presumably, the asserted punishment resulted in death.

“Her that murdered two husbands and dide at last of the curse of a poor widow woman she wronged.” [archaic spelling and grammar retained]


According to folklore, there are any number of haunted Irish castles, but surely among the most famous of these is Leamaneh Castle. Both the castle and Red Mary, this most famous of all its inhabitants, are well known in Irish folk culture for their notoriously bloody past.

~ The Grand Leamaneh Castle ~

Although now little more than a shell, Leamaneh Castle was once a fine building situated between Inchiquin and Kilfenora on the edge of the Burren in County Clare.

A stronghold of the O’Brien clan, it was inherited some time in the 1630s by Conor O’Brien. He and his wife, Mary MacMahon, also known as Máire Rua MacMahon or Red Mary, added various extensions and outbuildings until the castle become one of the grandest in the country.

These extensive works were possible due to her considerable wealth, which she inherited after the death of her first husband, Daniel Neylon. She and Daniel had three sons, but after his passing she married Conor and bore him several more children. Together they made the castle into a truly magnificent residence.

Today it is abandoned, empty and known as one of the most haunted Irish castles. However, it stands proudly isolated, and it is easy to imagine how imposing it must have been all those years ago.

~ A Fiery Lady ! ~

Mary was aptly named, not just for her flaming red hair but also her foul temper, which was legendary. It is said that if a servant were foolish enough to displease her, they would be hung out of one of the castle windows, the men by their necks and the women by their hair. If the maids did not learn to bend to her will, she would punish them by cutting off their breasts.

Another story tells that she kept a stallion in her stables and would challenge visitors to ride it. Once the beast was released from its bridle, it would run wild, galloping towards the Cliffs of Moher, where it would suddenly stop, hurling its poor victims over the cliff to their death. The word Leamaneh even translates as ‘horse’s leap.’

~ Unforeseen Tragedy ~

Even her husband did not escape her wrath.

Mary would often ride with her husband at the head of his troops, but when one skirmish went tragically wrong, she displayed more steel than anyone could imagine possible. O’Brien was extremely vocal in his criticism of Cromwell, leading Parliamentarian General Henry Ireton, also Cromwell’s son-in-law, to send five men to shoot him. Although the attack was not fatal, Conor was wounded. Mary retaliated by ordering the man to be captured, after which she had him hanged.

Perhaps mindful of the dangers of provoking such a powerful enemy, she advised her sons to surrender to Parliament, but Conor once again made a move against Ireton. A battle at the pass of Inchecroghnan resulted in Conor being wounded severely. As his soldiers brought him back to the castle, Mary is said to have shut the gates. It is recorded that far from showing sympathy, Mary shouted at them from the top of the tower, saying, ‘What do I want with dead men here?’

She is later said to have relented and nursed the mortally wounded Conor until he died. But realising that she might now lose her home, the ever-practical Mary was forced to go on the offensive.
Dressing herself in silver and blue, she called for her coach and proceeded to travel to Ireton’s outpost in Limerick. Stopped at the gate, she cursed and screamed until Ireton appeared. He demanded to know why she was there, and Mary replied that she had been Conor’s wife the day before but was his widow now. Ireton was disbelieving, so in order to prove her claim Mary offered to marry any one of his officers who would take her.

Captain John Cooper took her at her word, enabling her to secure her property for her sons’ future.

~ The Much-Married Widow ~

This union with the brave (or foolhardy) Cooper was not without its difficulties, the most serious of which apparently occurred when Cooper made a disparaging comment early one morning about her former husband. Mary was allegedly so furious that she leapt out of bed and kicked him in the stomach, and he died.
There are so many stories about Máire Rua and Leamaneh Castle that it is impossible to separate fact from fiction. Whilst it seems likely that she had at least three husbands, it is less easy to verify how many others there were. It is said that after John Cooper died she went on to marry a further 25 men, each for just a year and a day. After this time, each of them could divorce the other. Some stories say that she merely put each unwanted husband into a house with a servant and banned them from entering the marital property, whilst other tales tell that Red Mary simply killed each man once he had outlived his usefulness. It is hardly surprising then that Leamaneh is said to one of many Haunted Irish Castles.

A Grim End for Red Mary

With so many ongoing feuds, it’s no wonder that Red Mary reputedly came to a very bad end. After the death of her last husband, it is alleged that she was captured by a group of her enemies and taken to a hollow tree. Here she was fastened up and left to die of starvation.

It is not clear exactly where she was buried, but her red-haired ghost is said to appear in two different places. One of these is a Druid’s Altar near Clare Castle, whilst others say she walks the halls of Leamaneh Castle, giving it the reputation as being one of the most haunted Irish castles.

[Fergus, “Red Mary – The Ghost of Leamaneh Castle,” The Irish Place: Explore the Emerald Island, Nov. 20, 2015]



Maire Rua was born in 1615, or possibly 1616. Her father was Torlach Rua MacMahon, Lord of Clonderlaw and her mother was Mary O'Brien, daughter of the third Earl of Thomond. Her place of birth is unclear. An elegy composed for her gives Bunratty as her birthplace but local tradition claims that she was born at Clonderlaw.

Her first husband was Daniel Neylon of Dysert O'Dea in north Clare. They had three sons, William, Daniel and Michael. William was the father of Baron Francis Patrick O'Neillan. It seems that a fourth son was born but died in infancy. When Daniel Neylon died Maire Rua gained control of the estate.
Around 1639 Maire Rua married Conor O'Brien of Leamaneh. From State documents about Leamaneh it seems that he got a £1,000 fortune with her. In 1648 they built a more comfortable mansion on to the original fifteenth century tower house at Leamaneh. Only the four walls with their mullioned windows are left in what must have been Clare's most magnificent seventeenth century house. Conor and Maire had eight children, Donough (or Donat) ,Teige, Turlough, Murrough, Honora, Mary and two daughters who may have died of the plague that had raged in the Limerick district in the year of the siege.

Conor was killed in 1651 at the Pass of Inchicronan while leading his men against the Cromwellians. There are varied reports of Maire Rua's reaction to Conor's death. One report is that he was taken home in a very weak condition by his followers and that Maire Rua nursed him until he died at nightfall. She would have realised that the punishment for Conor's rebellion was forfeiture of his property. It is reported that immediately after Conor's death she went, richly dressed, to Limerick. In a bid to retain her lands and estates she offered to marry immediately any Cromwellian officer who was willing. This is refuted in other versions of the story which state that Maire Rua didn't marry until 1653, two years after Conor's death.

In either case her third husband was Cornet John Cooper, a Cromwellian soldier. They had a son, Harry (or Henry), and possibly a daughter also. Through this marriage of expediency Maire Rua succeeded in keeping her estates intact for her children. John Cooper left the army and became wealthy through land and property speculation, though he later ran into financial difficulty resulting in the mortgaging of Leamaneh.

In fact and in fable Maire Rua was a formidable woman. Legends have grown up around her, many of them exaggerated with the passage of time and many of them simply untrue. In 1664 she was granted a royal pardon on murder charges brought against her two years previously. These charges related to her supposed involvement with Conor O'Brien's raiding parties in the 1640's. Without doubt, she was a tough, forceful and determined woman but there is no evidence to support the story of her throwing her third husband out of the window of Leamaneh, or of her forcing him to ride his horse over the Cliffs of Moher. In fact, it seems that financially and legally the marriage of convenience lasted for many years although they perhaps lived separate lives later on. She spent the final years of her life at Dromoland Castle. Her son, Donough, had moved the family seat from Leamaneh to Dromoland. He was brought up as a protestant and eventually became the "richest commoner in Ireland."

It is claimed by some that Maire Rua is buried at Coad church in Kilnaboy parish. Her two daughters are buried there and it is thought that Maire had constructed the church there following a dispute with the Rector at Kilnaboy.

Legends about Maire Rua may be exaggerated but documented history shows that she was indeed a remarkable and fearless character.

[Clare County Library, Maire Rua (1615 - 1686)]


From a syndicated travel column:

EXCERPT: A few miles out, turn left to Corofin. This takes you through the wild and beautiful stony Burren country, past Red Mary’s ruined Lemenagh Castle.  “Her that murdered two husbands and died at last of the curse of a poor widow woman she wronged.”

[Stan Delaplane, “Around the World . . . In Ireland.” The Calgary Herald (Canada), Jan. 13, 1979, p. E2]


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