Ireland is one of those places that feels as old as time itself. From ancient Dublin pubs where twinkly-eyed narrators spin yarns over a pint of Guinness to a homestead on the edge of a peat bog where a seanchaí(traditional Irish storyteller) tells you the tale of a puca– the fairy capable of morphing into a cat. With this Irish myths and folktales article, the Emerald Isle will come alive for you.
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Defining Fact From Fiction With Irish Mythology
Sometimes as modern people binging on releases from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we forget that at one point the likes of Thor and Odin were real for inhabitants of Scandinavia.
The same is true of the Ancient Greek heroes. More than likely there was a real man called Hercules, but could he really have killed the Nemean Lion and the Lernaean Hydra?
Much the same is true of Irish myths and folktales. It can be difficult to discern the line between fact and fiction.
Irish Mythology And Folk Tales- The Basics
Generally speaking, we measure stories in what is called the mythological cycle- the Ulster Cycle and the Fenian Cycle etc.
You might also hear Irish mythology described as Celtic mythology.
The problem with defining myths and legends is that they’re often very closely related to religion- and are at times indistinguishable.
Celtic mythology is even more complicated because Christian scribes first wrote it down- and what’s certain is that they probably tinkered with it a little.
The central characters in Irish stories are the Tuatha De Danann- god-like creatures, as well as the Fomorians- monsters who were the natural enemies of the Tuatha de Dannann.
Irish Mythology And Folk Tales- What Are Some Of The Best?
Táin Bó Cúailnge- The Irish Iliad
Throughout Celtic folklore, Irish heroes don’t come much better than Cu Chulainn.
His most famous story goes like this:
Queen Medb is a ruler jealous of her husband’s white bull- a divine creature with tremendous strength. She sets out to capture the brown bull of Ulster- the only animal that can compare.
The King of Ulster has his own problems. He’s playing games with a pregnant goddess who strikes down his entire army with stomach cramps that resemble childbirth.
The only person left unaffected is Cu Chulainn, the 17-year-old warrior. He now must face the entire army of Queen Medb, and he knows his only chance is to demand that each warrior fight him individually- a process that goes on for many months.
Cu Chulainn is perhaps strong enough to defeat the entire army; however, his old training partner and best friend Ferdiad has pledged his allegiance to Queen Medb, and The Queen leaves Ferdiad no choice but to fight his best friend, Cu Chulainn.
The two great warriors are equally matched for two days, and then on the third day, Ferdiad begins to get an advantage over his foe/friend (who wouldn’t be tired after fighting an entire army alone for months!?)
Just as Cu Chulainn is about to be slain, he remembers what their old teacher taught him. He could call forth a magical spear from the bottom of the ocean made from the bones of sea monsters.
In the nick of time, the spear appears on the battlefield, and Cu Chulainn uses it to kill Ferdiad.
By this point, he was too exhausted to continue, even though he’d been victorious. Medb used this as her opportunity to surge forward with her army and capture the brown bull.
Now, it was the turn of the white bull and the brown bull to fight, and they did, destroying large parts of Ireland in the process.
The brown bull was victorious but died of a broken heart after seeing all the death and destruction caused by the fight and Queen Medb’s futile wars.
Queen Medb would meet her end in a bathing pool in Inchcleraun when a former foe kills her with a piece of cheese fired from a slingshot (I’m honestly not making that up).
Giants Causeway: What Is The Legend Behind The Site?
Probably one of my favourite Irish tales.
As you’ll already know if you’ve read our blogs on Irish National symbols, Giants Causeway is a natural phenomenon in the North of Ireland consisting of basalt columns caused by the cooling of molten lava.
Or is that the reason? Not if you take Irish Legends and Folklore seriously.
The story begins with marital bliss between the giant Finn Macool and his wife, Oonagh.
However, a bit like when you buy your dream house and discover your next-door neighbors play drill music until 3 am, the happy couple had a noisy neighbour over on the Scottish coast, an abusive giant called Benandonner (the red man).
So how do two giants separated by a narrow sea show their displeasure at each other? By throwing giant rocks! These rocks eventually became so numerous that they were stepping stones connecting the two countries which Finn bounded across.
However, when he saw his enemy Benandonner, he realised that up close, he was much bigger than he’d looked compared to over from Ireland. Finn retreated quickly with Benandonner in pursuit.
The terrified couple needed to come up with a plan. When Benandonner arrived, they needed to make Finn look bigger than he was.
This is where things get weird, although not as weird as being killed by a lump of cheddar.
Finn disguised himself as a giant baby, and his wife invited the angry Scottish giant into the house for a snack. She presented him with some bread, but when he bit into it, it shattered his teeth because rocks were baked into the middle. Oonagh told the distressed giant that her husband made easy work of the bread, so why wasn’t Benandonner?
Further doubt was stoked in his mind when he noticed the giant baby in the corner and figured if the baby was that size, how big must the father be?
Benandoner beat a hasty retreat tearing up the rocks that had connected Ireland with Scotland. The only remaining stones are in North Antrim today or what we call giant’s causeway.
Oisin And Living Forever
Oisin is one of the most famous Irish Legends. He was a fearless warrior who rode the country, getting into adventures with his loyal band of friends.
On one of these adventures, he and his faithful men came across an immortal princess called Niamh. The two fell in love and rode all the way to the Irish sea on horseback.
They kept riding into the golden haze of the horizon and eventually found themselves in the land of our old friends, the Tuatha De Danann- the ancient gods.
The couple were married and lived the good life- all the things you’d expect in a fairytale land- endless banquets, lute-playing master musicians, and the prospect of never growing old.
Oisin had been a mortal man when he lived in Ireland, but now in the god kingdom, he found that he could not be hurt as long as he held his wife close to him at night.
But like all good adventurers, Oisin began to yearn for the open road and only the kind of real danger possible outside the land of the immortals. He left his wife, Niamh, but she warned him that if he returned to Ireland, he must always stay on the back of his horse because if he didn’t, something terrible would happen.
Oisin had only been in the land of the immortals for three years, but time had moved differently in the real world. The land was dark, and his family home had been reduced to rubble.
One day Oisin was riding through a field when a peasant asked him to remove a boulder. Ignoring Niamh’s warning, Oisin leapt down from his horse and easily picked up the stone. However, disaster struck when he made contact with the bare earth. Time, held at bay in the land of the immortals, caught up with him, and Oisin collapsed to the ground, now an old man.
He asked the peasant about his friends and family, but their names were only spoken of in legend- they’d been dead for 300 years. Oisin had lived as a god, and now he must die as an old man.
Some say now that if you cast your eye out over the Irish horizon on a misty morning, you might catch a glance of the immortal Princess Niamh on her white horse, waiting for her true love to return.
Why Are Leprechauns So Popular In Ireland?
The truth is, they aren’t. They barely show up in Irish history.
Leprechauns are part of a whole plethora of mythical creatures. Until the 19th century, nobody paid them much attention. Then Irish people began to emigrate to America. The image of the leprechaun was taken up by writers of Irish folk tales who wanted a non-threatening symbolic image of the Irish people. (At the time, there was a lot of racism towards the Irish in America).
A universal trope of mythic creatures is that there are small people who often live underground or have fairy-like powers. Think Snow White and The seven dwarfs or the hobbits from Lord of the Rings.
Leprechauns first appear in Irish folklore as luchorpán, which translates to small body. They have the power to grant people wishes.
Contrary to popular belief, original leprechauns are depicted as wearing red. Depictions of them wearing green were a much later invention, much like the Coca-Cola version of Santa Claus- originally Saint Nicklaus.
Ancient depictions of leprechaun-type creatures have them as being relatively vicious territorial creatures who cause mayhem around your house if you annoy one. In one account, a leprechaun steals a baby and replaces it with a creature called a changeling.
So how do the tales say you should attempt to catch a leprechaun? Easy, sneak up behind them when they’re cobbling shoes- leprechauns always seem to be making and mending shoes. Of course, once you catch the leprechaun- that’s when you get his pot of gold!
But why would leprechauns even have gold in the first place? The tale goes that the gods who first conquered Ireland left it for safekeeping with the leprechauns.
Learn Irish With Ling
So what was your favourite Irish myth?
One thing that is a fact is that for a truly enriching reading of these myths, speaking Gaelic Irish is a must. Even learning how to say the characters’ names properly enhances the story’s authenticity and allows you to burrow deeper (leprechaun-like) into Irish culture and stories that have become Irish legend.
Ling has lessons on everything from Irish religion to spaceship vocabulary in Irish! If you have a field of interest, you can almost be guaranteed Ling has something for you.
Just let us know if you’d like another article on our other favourite folk stories. Or perhaps you’d like something that focuses on documented early Irish history. No problem! Leave a comment.
Thanks for reading.