The many myths and legends of Ireland form the basis of early Irish history and the structure of Gaelic society. Yet unlike much Celtic mythology, the mythology of Ireland, it's legends, its folklore and mythical figures, have stood the test of time informing elements of Irish culture throughout its history.
The survival of Irish mythology and folklore owes much to the Romans and the fact that they decided Ireland was too distant a territory to conquer and left the country alone. This allowed the Celts of Ireland to develop a Gaelic society of their own that even with the conversion to Christianity, held a certain autonomy from the rest of Christian Europe. Indeed, though they altered the religious significance of the mythologies, the religious clerics of the Dark Ages and Medieval Period transformed much of Ireland's ancient oral history into texts such as the Annals of the Four Masters and the Book of Leinster, which are found at Trinity College.
Irish mythology, folk tales and history is separated into four cycles - the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle. These cycles define important events in Irish history, from the Invasions of Ireland by the various Celtic tribes, to the division of the country into the five Gaelic provinces of Ulster, Leinster, Meath, Connacht and Munster, which (with the exception of Meath) are still used in the administration of Ireland. Within the early cycles are the stories of legendary heroes such as Cu Chulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhaill, while the historical cycle outlines the lineage of the High Kings of Ireland up to Brian Boru in the 11th Century.
As well as illustrating the origins of Irish History many of the legends and folktales have influenced the writings of some of Ireland's most prominent literary figures such as W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney and even today the folktales and legends of old are taught in Ireland's schools.
Here's a collection of popular Irish Folk tales and Legends:
Cu Chulainn was a mythical Irish warrior and champion of Ulster, also referred to as Cuchulainn, Cuchullain and Setanta
The great Irish hero Cu Chulainn is to Irish Mythology, what Achilles is to Greek Mythology. Both brave warriors were undefeatable in battle and both were demi-gods. Cu Chulainn was the most prominent of Hero of Ulster and his story is told largely in within the Ulster Cycle of Irish Mythology.
The legend of Cu Chulainn tells how he was the son of the God Lugh and was born at Newgrange, Ireland's most prominent Neolithic monument. The most famous of Cu Chulainn's legends is the Cattle Raid of Cooley as told in the Tain. In this tale Cu Chulainn, single-handed fought the armies of Queen Mebh of Connacht. After the army of Ulster had been put to sleep by Queen Mebh's magic, Cu Chulainn was left to defend Ulster's lands taking on champions after champion one in single combat that lasted months.
Cu Chulainn was eventually killed after Queen Mebh contrived with his enemies to bring him to battle. She put a spell on the mighty warrior and he became mortally wounded by the spear of Lugaid. But Cuchulainn fought on causing his enemies to retreat. Cu Chulainn then tied himself to a rock to keep himself standing so that his enemies wouldn't think he was wounded. The ploy almost worked, when a raven landed on his shoulder. Cu Chulainn's enemies returned to finish him off but not before Cu Chulainn was able to deliver a fatal blow to Lugaid.
Today Cu Chulainn is still hailed as one of Ireland's great heroes. In Ulster he is hailed as a hero by both Irish Nationalists and Ulster Unionists and is regularly depicted in poetry, literature and other art forms in Ireland.
Fionn Mac Cumhail
Fionn Mac Cumhail or Finn MacCool was the legendary Irish warrior/hunter who led the band of Irish warriors known as the Fianna and created the Giants Causeway.
Fionn is connected to many of the legends of the Fenian Cycle. He first came to prominence after catching and eating the Salmon of Knowledge. Another important legend tells how Fionn met his first wife Sadbh while hunting. She had been transformed into a deer by a druid and after Fionn, caught her she turned into a beautiful woman. She bore Fionn a child, Oisin, before befing transformed again into a deer and separating Fionn from his son for many years. Another tale tells of how Fionn in a jealous rage, pursued the lovers Grainne and Diarmuid across Ireland after they had eloped together.But the most famous legend of Fionn Mac Cumhail surrounds the Giants Causeway in Country Antrim.
The story goes that Fionn built the causeway to get to Scotland and battle with a rival giant called Benandonner. When he got there he found that the Scottish giant was asleep but also far bigger than himself, so Fionn returned back across the causeway. When Benandonner woke up he came across the causeway intent on fighting Fionn. Fionn's wife dressed up her husband as a baby and when Benandonner arrived she said Fionn wasn't home and to be quiet not to wake up the baby. When Benandonner saw the baby he decided that if the baby was that big, Fionn must be massive. So he turned tail and fled back across the causeway ripping it up as he went. All that remains are the ends, here at the Giant's Causeway and on the island of Staffa in Scotland where similar formations are found.
Oisin was the son of the legendary warrior Fionn Mac Cumhail. Oisin was a poet and one of the Fianna warriors, who recounted the tales and legends of the Fianna.
The main legend surround Oisin is the story of his journey to Tir na N'og - the mythical land of Eternal Youth. The story tells of how Ireland's ancient warriors the Fianna, where hunting on the shores of Lough Leane, when Oisin instantly fell in love with a beautiful blond riding a white horse; Niamh Cinn iir (Niamh of the Golden Hair). She invited him to her land of Tir na N'og under the waters of Lough Leane in Killarney, where nobody grew old and spring was eternal.
Though Oisin was very happy in Tir na N'og with Niamh, after what he thought to be three years, he wished to visit his family. But Niamh warned him that in the land of mortals he had been away 300 years and that if he touched the land again all those years would return to him. So Oisin set off on horse back careful not to step on the ground. He discovered the land much changed, there was no trace of the Fianna anywhere and all around the island, Saint Patrick was converting people to Christianity and churches were being built. On his return to Lough Leane, Oisin came across a group of men trying to clear a boulder from the path, along what is known locally as the Bealach Oisin Pass - Oisin's Path in the mountains close to Killarney. As one of the mighty Fianna, Oisin claimed he could move it with one hand and took up the challenge from the men. Oisin remained on his horse and to the wonder of the mortals began moving the huge rock with one hand. But as he did so, the stirrup on Oisin's horse broke sending Oisin falling to the ground and the mighty warrior was instantly transformed into an old man.
The Legend of Diarmuid & Grainne
One of the great Romantic legends of Ireland is that of Diarmuid & Grainne, similar to the Legends of King Arthur and the romance between his wife Guinevere and right hand man Sir Lancelot.
Grainne, was the most beautiful woman in Ireland, she was also the daughter of Cormac MacAirt, the High King of Ireland. Grainne was courted by Ireland's most eligible, Princes and Chieftains, including the now ageing chief Fionn MacCool, who wanted the young maid as his second wife. He asked her to marry him, she agreed and a great feast was set up to celebrate the newly engaged couple. But on that night Grainne met Diarmuid, one of Fionn's best warriors and it was love at first sight! Grainne was prepared to go to any lengths to get her man and drugged the entire party, apart from Diarmuid. With Diarmuid all to herself, Grainne confessed her love for him, but Diarmuid backed off, as he was loyal to his leader Fionn. But Grainne wasn't taking no for an answer, so she put a spell on him and he fell in love with her.
The two ran off together, hotly pursued by a very angry Fionn and his men. All across Ireland the eloping couple ran and all across Ireland there are caves, trees and all kinds of nooks and crannies, under or inside of which, local legend has it that Diarmuid and Grainne, lay together and hid. After long years on the run, Grainne fell pregnant with Diarmuid's child, but fate was about to catch up with them. One day out in the wilderness, with Fionn and his men closing in, Diarmuid and Grainne came across the heath of Benbulben in Co. Sligo, where a giant boar confronted them. This was bad news for Diarmuid, whom legend had told that the only living creature that could harm him, was a wild boar. As the boar charged, Diarmuid, protecting his heavily pregnant lover, wrestled it to the gound in a fight to the death. The warrior killed the boar with his sword, but not before the boar had gored Diarmuid, fatally wounding him.
As Fionn and his men came upon their long sought quarry, he found Diarmuid dying in a heavily pregnant Grainne's arms. A despairing Grainne knew she had just one chance to save her lover. She implored Fionn to show mercy and save his former friend by curing Diarmuid with a drink of water cupped by his magical hands. But Fionn refused, still hurt that his best friend had eloped with his betrothed. With Diarmuid dying, Fionn's men begged him to help this once great warrior to live. But still Fionn refused. It was only when Fionn's son Oisin challenged his father and threatened to kill him that Fionn agreed to help Diarmuid. But it was to late, before Fionn had got the water, Diarmuid had died.
As the last High King of Ireland, Brian Boru is a key figure in Irish legend and history. Brian Boru or to use his Irish Gaelic name Brian Borumha mac Cennetig, ruled Ireland from 1002 to 1014.
Brian Boru was born in the early 10th Century, in the ancient Irish Kingdom of Kincora, near the town of Killaloe on the banks of the River Shannon in County Clare. Boru's father was the King of Thomond and his mother was the daughter of the King of Connacht.
From the 9th Century, Ireland was under constant attack by Vikings, who ransacked churches and villages in the east and began to establish settlements in what later became the cities of Dublin, Waterford and Limerick. When he was still only a child, Brian Boru's mother, father and elder brother were killed by Vikings and Boru became king of the province of Munster.
In 1002, Brian Boru established himself as High King of Ireland after successfully challenging the reigning king to the title and defeating him in battle at the Hill of Tara. As King, Brian Boru sought to rebuild the churches plundered by the Vikings and reorganize the church in Ireland with the Armagh Cathedral at its head. Boru managed to do what no other High King of Ireland had done, he established himself as King of Ireland in more than just name, by forcing all other challengers to swear allegiance to him during a ten-year campaign.
But Boru faced rebellion from a Leinster king based around Dublin. By both land and sea, Boru set out to attack the rebels in Dublin, who were bolstered by Viking mercenaries from Orkney, the Western Isles and the Isle of Man. On Good Friday 1014, the two armies met at the Battle of Clontarf. Boru's forces greatly outnumbered those of the rebels and after a daylong battle, the rebels were routed.
But the victory was short lived, for as Brian Boru was praying in his tent, he was murdered by a group of retreating Vikings. According to the annals, the losses of the Battle of Clontarf were very heavy. 6,000 Vikings and rebels were killed, including all their leaders, while Irish losses were around 3,000. But the greater loss to the Irish was that of Brian Boru and his sons, with them passed the last High King of Ireland.
Grace O'Malley - Granuaile
The Pirate Queen Grace O'Malley, also known as Granuaile and by her Irish Gaelic name Grainne Ni Mhaille, is one of Ireland's foremost heroines, whose life was the stuff of Irish legend.
Grace O'Malley's extraordinary life centres around the 16th Century Tudor conquest of Ireland under Queen Elizabeth I. Grace was the daughter of the O'Malley Clan chieftain who controlled the south west of County Mayo and its coast from their castle on Clare Island. They were a renowned seafaring family who controlled the sea routes along the west coast of Ireland, charging a tax to fishermen and traders.
In 1546 Grace was married at a young age to the head of the O'Flaherty Clan, but when he was killed in battle, Grace became the head of the O'Flaherty's as well. Grace later remarried another powerful Irish Chief Richard Burke, but divorced him after one year under the ancient Brehon Laws and got to keep his title and Rockfleet Castle near Newport in Co. Mayo.
As England steadily gained control of Ireland, Grace came under increasing pressure to relent to the English crown. An expedition from Galway attacked Grace in her castle on Clare Island, so Grace turned to piracy, blockading the port of Galway and attacking English ships in Galway Bay.
When the English governor of Connaught, Sir Richard Bingham captured Grace O'Malley's two sons, she set sail for England to speak to Queen Elizabeth I face to face. Her ships sailed up the River Thames in London, where Grace met Queen Elizabeth at Greenwich. On meeting the Queen, Grace refused to bow, stating that she herself was a Queen of her land and not a subject of the Queen of England. The two, who were roughly the same age apparently, admired each other, and reached a truce; Grace would stop switch from attacking English ships to attacking Spanish ones and her sons were returned to her.
Grace O'Malley died at Rockfleet Castle in 1603, the same year as Queen Elizabeth.
Leprechauns are key figures in Irish mythology and if you find one of the little people of Ireland, then according to folklore, you may find his pot of gold.
In Irish folklore a Leprechaun is one of the faerie folk and are often associated with faerie forts, the ancient Celtic settlements. According to popular belief, this small elf like figure is pictured wearing traditional emerald green clothes and is often sporting a beard and smoking a pipe.
The Leprechaun is a cobbler by trade, but he has a secret stash of gold that he must reveal if you can capture him. But by his nature the Leprechaun is cunning and mischievous and will try anything not to hand over his gold.
In one tale, a young farmer captures a Leprechaun and forces him to hand over his gold. The Leprechaun says that the gold is hidden beneath a tree in the woods and shows him which one it is. The farmer ties his red scarf around the tree and after making the Leprechaun promise not to remove the scarf he heads to his farm to get a shovel. But when the farmer returns he finds that the Leprechaun has tied a red scarf around every tree in the woods.
The name Leprechaun is thought to have a number of origins, from the Irish Gaelic for shoemaker leath bhrogan to the Irish for pigmy, leipreachan.
The Children of Lir
The legend of the Children of Lir has long been told in Ireland, and this Irish myth forms the basis of the famous ballet; Swan Lake.
According to the story, long ago there was an Irish King called Lir with four beautiful children. Their mother died when the children were very young and King Lir eventually remarried. But the new Queen was a devious woman of witchcraft who wanted the throne to herself, and saw the children as a threat to her plans.
One day, the Queen took the children down to the lake to teach them to swim, but once the children got into the water, the evil Queen cast a spell on them, turning them into Swans.
For 900 years the Children of Lir were doomed to live as swans by daylight and only in the light of a full moon could they take their human form. They lived on lake Davra, the sea of Moyle and the lake Isle of Glora in Mayo, before their spell was broken with the arrival of Christianity to Ireland.
When the Children of Lir heard the sound of bells ringing out from a church, they flew down to investigate and as they entered the church their feathers fell away and they once again became human.