Steeped in fairy-tale, mystery and a somewhat bloody history – Ireland naturally has its fair share of chilling stories, murdered spirits and friendly ghosts. Fortunately, the Emerald Isle has never suffered much from the interference of modern ways when it comes to traditional folklore.
Ireland’s ancient societies, the Druids and the Celtics, believed in the power of magic and many of these beliefs spread to modern day legends told again and again across the country. Stories of warriors with all the knowledge of the world, fairies playing pranks on farm owners and leprechauns hiding their gold at the end of a rainbow add to the mysterious appeal of Ireland.
These stories have been, and still are told around the fire by an inspiring Shanachie (Irish Story Teller).
These tales take many forms and vary from family to family as each household will have their own personal tale to tell. Families all across Ireland will gather round an older family member and listen wide eyed as they are taken on an epic adventure full of danger and excitement.
The following legends represent some of Ireland’s most popular stories.
The three green leaves of the Shamrock is more than the unofficial symbol of Ireland and one of the marshmallows in Lucky Charms. The Shamrock has held meaning to most of Ireland’s historic cultures.
- The Druids believed the Shamrock was a sacred plant that could ward off evil.
- The Celts believed the Shamrock had mystical properties due to the plant’s three heart-shaped leaves.
- The Celts believed three was a sacred number.
Christians believed the shamrock had special meaning. The three leaves represent the Holy Trinity — the Christian idea that there is one God but three Persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Stories tell of how St. Patrick used the shamrock in his teachings. Preaching about God and the Trinity, and illustrating the meaning of the Three in One by plucking a shamrock from the grass. Just as the shamrock is one leaf with three parts, so God is one entity with three Persons. Patrick was probably well aware of the significance of the shamrock as a teaching tool.
It should be said that the color of St. Patrick was not actually green, but blue. In the 19th century, however, green came to be used as a symbol of Ireland. Thanks to plentiful rain and mists, the “Emerald Isle” is indeed green all the year ’round, which is probably the inspiration for the national color. Although many people would presume that the shamrock is also the national emblem of Ireland, this also is not so. The national symbol of Ireland is the harp.
The History of The Shamrock
In written English, the first reference to the shamrock dates from 1571. In written Irish, it first appears as seamrog, from 1707.
As a badge to be worn on the label on the Saint’s feast day, it is referred to for the first time as late as 1681.
The shamrock was also used as an emblem by the Irish volunteers during the era of Grattan’s parliament in the 1770’s before 98 and The Act of Union. So rebellious did the wearing of the shamrock eventually appear, that in Queen Victoria’s time Irish regiments were forbidden to display it. At that time it became the custom for civilians to wear a little paper cross colored red and green.
Ye brave young sons of Erin’s isle
I hope you will attend a while
To the wrongs of dear old Ireland I’m going to relate
‘Twas black and cursed was the day
That our Parliament was taken away
And all our grief and suffering commences from that day
Our hearty sons and daughters fair
To other countries must repair
And leave their native lands behind in sorrow to deplore
For to seek employment they must roam
Far far away from their native home
From that sore oppressed island that they call the Shamrock Shore
Now Ireland is with plenty blessed
But the people they are sore oppressed
All by those cursed tyrants we are forced for to obey
Some haughty landlords for to please
Our houses and our lands they’ll seize
To put fifty farms into one and take us all away
Regardless of the widow’s cries
The mother’s tears and the orphan’s sighs
In thousands we are driven from home
which grieves our hearts full sore
We are fraught by famine and disease
We emigrated across the seas
From that sore oppressed island that they call the Shamrock Shore
Our sustenance is taken away
Our tithes and taxes for to pay
To support that law-protected church to which they do adhere
And our Irish gentry, well you know
To other countries they do go
And the money from all Ireland is squandered here and there
But if those squires would stay at home
And not to other countries roam
But to build mills and factories here to employ the laboring core
For if we had trade and commerce fair
To me no nation could compare
To that sore oppressed island that they call the Shamrock Shore
John Bull he boasts and he laughs with scorn
And he says that Irish man is born
To be always discontented for at home he cannot agree
But we’ll banish discord from our land
And in harmony like brothers stand
To demand the rights of Ireland let us all united be!
Our Parliament and College Green
For to assemble ’twill be seen
And happy days in Erin’s isle we soon will have once more
Then dear old Ireland soon will be
A great and glorious country
And peace and blessings soon will smile all ’round the Shamrock Shore!
Fairies exist in some form in mythology all over the world but hold a special importance to the Irish. The fairy society in Ireland is thought to be very much alive, and far from Peter Pan’s Tinker Bell. An Irish fairy can take any form she wishes, but will usually choose a human form. They are said to be beautiful, powerful and hard to resist, which is unfortunate because most fairies in Ireland love to bring misfortune and bad luck to the mortals who come near them.
Although in modern culture fairies are often depicted as young, sometimes winged, humanoids of small stature, they originally were depicted quite differently: tall, radiant, angelic beings or short, wizened trolls. Wings, while common in Victorian and modern artwork of fairies, are very rare in historical folklore. They have been depicted as ranging in size from very tiny up to the size of a human child. Some fairies, though normally small, were able to change their appearance to imitate humans.
Christian mythology stated that when the angles revolted, God ordered the gates shut. Those still in heaven remained angels. Those in hell became devils, those in between became fairies.
The leprechaun (a male fairy) is likely the most widely known type of fairy living in Ireland. Leprechauns have been in existence in Irish legend since the medieval times. Said to be a type of fairy, the Leprechaun is a cobbler, making the shoes of all other fairy folk. Usually depicted as an old and bearded man, Leprechauns are never female. Legend tells that when the Danes invaded Ireland, the fairies hid all their treasure from the marauding hordes. The Leprechauns were given the task of guarding the treasure. Unfortunately, the rainbow always points to the location of the leprechauns treasure, so he must constantly be moving the trove. And with the climate in Ireland and plenty of rain, the rainbows are plentiful! It is said that if you catch a Leprechaun, he must either give you his treasure or grant you three wishes. The image and legend of the Irish Leprechaun has endured the ages and is very prevalent in western society today.
As legend has it, female fairies often give birth to deformed children. Since the fairies prefer visually pleasing babies, they would go into the mortal world and swap with a healthy human baby, leaving behind a changeling. While the changeling looked like a human baby, it carried none of the same emotional characteristics. The changeling was only happy when misfortune or grief happened in the house. The changeling legend has lasted for centuries. William Shakespeare talks of a changeling in his play, “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.” Three hundred years later, Scarlett O’Hara believed Rhett Butler’s illegitimate child was a changeling in “Gone with the Wind.”
In Irish mythology, the Dagda was a high priest who had a large and beautiful harp. During a war, a rival tribe stole Dagda’s harp and took it to an abandoned castle. Dagda followed the tribe and called to the harp. The harp came to Dagda and he struck the chords.
The harp let out the Music of Tears and everyone in the castle began to cry. Dagda struck the chords again and the harp played the Music of Mirth and all the warriors began to laugh. Then, Dagda struck the chords a final time and the harp let out the Music of Sleep. Everyone but Dagda fell into a deep sleep, allowing him to escape with his magical harp unharmed.
The legend of the Selkie is very similar to the mermaid. But Selkies are brown seals by day and human by night. The legend comes from the numerous seals inhabiting the Irish coast. Sailors who caught a Selkie at night in human form married these lovely brown eyed maidens. For the rest of their lives, they would serve as patient wives, while constantly looking to the sea.
If Selkies we released by their captors, they would return to the see but would forever more guard human families while on the sea, and on land.
It is said that Watershees usually appear as either a female fairy or a beautiful woman. As a fairy, she appears as a small, delicate, attractive, female with fine silky wings. Unfortunately, her appearance is deceiving. The Watershee lures weary travellers into bogs and lakes with her appearance and mesmerizing singing. Her song begins with a soft haunting melody, which then devolves into an aggressive chordal pattern. Once a person falls into this trap, they drown and their unfortunate souls are devoured. Only the wearing of a cross (or other holy object) and saying a prayer will protect humans from her dark and evil ways.
The Cry of the Banshee
What is a Banshee?
A banshee, or Bean Sidhe, is a fairy from Irish folklore whose scream was an omen of death. It is said that a banshee’s cry predicts the death of a member of one of Ireland’s five major families: the O’Grady’s, the O’Neills, the O’Briens, the O’Connors or the Kavanaghs. Over time as families blended, it was said that most Irish families had their own banshee. It is also said that the banshees followed their families as they emigrated from Ireland to other places across the globe, though some stayed behind to grieve at the original family estate.
Various versions of the banshee have been described, from a woman with long, red hair and very pale skin to an older woman with stringy, gray hair, rotten teeth and fiery red eyes.
She is often depicted with a comb in her hair and this has led to an Irish superstition that finding a comb on the ground is considered bad luck.
It is believed that a single banshee can take on any of these forms and shift between them, much like the goddesses of Celtic folklore. Other forms of the banshee include the Bean Nighe and the Washer Woman, both more attributed to Scotland than Ireland. The Bean Nighe is said to be the ghost of a woman who died during childbirth and would be seen wearing the clothes of the person about to die. The Washer Woman is dressed like a countrywoman and is cleaning bloody rags on a river shore.
Origins of a Banshee
It is unknown precisely when stories of the banshee first were told, but they can be traced back as far as the early eighth century. It is believed they were based on an old Irish tradition where women would sing a lament to signify one’s passing. This too was referred to as keening. As many keeners accepted alcohol as payment, which the church frowned upon, many have speculated it was these keeners who were punished in the eyes of God and were forced to become banshees. Another factor that likely contributed to the superstitious legend is the cry of the barn owl. In ancient battles, owls would screech and take flight if they noticed an army approaching, which would forewarn the defending army.
The Pooka (phouka, puca)
No fairy is more feared in Ireland than the pooka. This may be because it is always out and about after nightfall, creating harm and mischief, and because it can assume a variety of terrifying forms.
The guise in which it most often appears, however, is that of a sleek, dark horse with sulfurous yellow eyes and a long wild mane. In this form, it roams large areas of countryside at night, tearing down fences and gates, scattering livestock in terror, trampling crops and generally doing damage around remote farms.
In remote areas of County Down, the pooka becomes a small, deformed goblin who demands a share of the crop at the end of the harvest: for this reason several strands, known as the ‘pooka’s share’, are left behind by the reapers.
- In parts of County Laois, the pooka becomes a huge, hairy bogeyman who terrifies those abroad at night;
- In Waterford and Wexford, it appears as an eagle with a massive wingspan;
- In Roscommon, it appears as a black goat with curling horns.
The mere sight of the Pooka may prevent hens laying their eggs or cows giving milk, and it is the curse of all late night travellers as it is known to swoop them up on to its back and then throw them into muddy ditches or bog-holes. The pooka has the power of human speech, and it has been known to stop in front of certain houses and call out the names of those it wants to take upon its midnight dashes. If that person refuses, the pooka will vandalize their property because it is a very vindictive fairy.
The origins of the pooka are to some extent speculative. The name may come from the Scandinavian pook or puke, meaning ‘nature spirit’. Such beings were very capricious and had to be continually placated or they would create havoc in the countryside, destroying crops and causing illness among livestock. Alternatively, the horse cults prevalent throughout the early Celtic world may have provided the underlying motif for the nightmare steed.
Finn MacCool (Fionn Mac Cumhal)
Finn MacCool is a mythological Ulster warrior (at times described as a giant) that appears in several Irish legends. Born after his father was killed in battle, his mother (Murine) gave her child to a female druid (called Bodhmall) and a woman warrior (called Laith) to raise and teach Finn the ways of the warrior and the magical arts.
One popular story tells of a salmon that knew all of the world’s knowledge. Young Finn met a leprechaun called Finnegas near the river Boyne and decided to study under him. Finnegas had spent seven years trying to catch the salmon of knowledge, which lived in a pool on the Boyne: whoever ate the salmon would gain all the knowledge in the world. Eventually he caught it, and told young Finn to cook it for him. While cooking it Finn burned his thumb, and instinctively put his thumb in his mouth, swallowing a piece of the salmon’s skin. He instantly learned all of the knowledge the salmon carried. From then on, whenever Finn sucked his thumb he gained whatever knowledge he was seeking.
Another story goes that one day the fifty foot tall Ulster giant, grew angry when he heard that a Scottish giant Benandonner was mocking his fighting ability. He threw a rock across the Irish Sea to Scotland, attaching to it a challenge to the rival giant. The Scottish giant quickly threw a message tied to a rock back to Finn, stating that he would not take up the challenge because he couldn’t swim to reach Ireland. Finn swore not to let the Scottish giant off so easily and responded by tearing down the great pieces of volcanic rock that lay near the coast and stood the pieces upright, making them into pillars that formed the Giant’s Causeway stretching from County Antrim in Ireland to Scotland.
The Giant’s Causeway
The Scottish giant now had no excuse but to come to Finn’s house. MacCool, masquerading as an 18-foot baby, bit the Scottish giant’s hand and chased him back to Scotland, flinging huge lumps of earth after him. One of the large holes he created filled with water and became Lough Neagh. One large lump of earth missed the Scottish giant, fell into the Irish Sea, and is now known as the Isle of Man.
In time, Finn became the leader of the Fianna (Fenians), who were the warrior protectors of Ireland. They consisted of 50 chiefs who each had 27 men serving under them. The Fianna were not only made up of warriors. Their ranks also included Druids, Physicians and Musicians.
To join the Fianna each warrior had to endure a rigorous initiation, which included tasks like learning to recite a poet’s entire repertoire by heart and passing vigorous tests of courage and strength. Only then were they deemed worthy to join the mighty Fianna.
Other stories of Finn MacCool include the following:
- He was the biggest and the strongest giant in all Ireland.
- His voice could be heard for miles around.
- He was so strong that he could lift a hundred men in one of his enormous hands.
Accounts of Fionn’s death vary:
According to the most popular, he is not dead at all. Rather, he sleeps in a cave somewhere beneath Ireland, surrounded by the rest of the Fianna. One day they will awake and defend Ireland in the hour of her greatest need.
In another account, it is said that Finn and the Fenians will arise when the Dord Fiann (his hunting horn) is sounded three times, and they will be as strong and as well as they ever were.
Another tradition states that he is buried in the crypt of Lund Cathedral in present-day Sweden.
In Newfoundland, and some parts of Nova Scotia, “Fingal’s Rising” is spoken of in a distinct nationalistic sense.
- Made popular in songs and bars alike,
- To speak of “Fingle,” (as his name is pronounced in English versus “Fion MaCool” in Newfoundland Irish) is sometimes used as a stand-in for Newfoundland or its culture.
Geographical Features attributed to Finn:
Many geographical features in Ireland are attributed to Fionn:
- Legend has it that Finn built the Giant’s Causeway as stepping-stones to Scotland, so as not to get his feet wet;
- He also once scooped up part of Ireland to fling it at a rival, but it missed and landed in the Irish Sea —
- the clump becoming the Isle of Man,
- the pebble becoming Rockall, and
- the void becoming Lough Neagh.
- Fingal’s Cave in Scotland is also named after him, and shares the feature of hexagonal basalt columns with the nearby Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
The Children of Lir
Lir had four children: three boys and a girl whom he loved fiercely, so much so that his second wife, Aoife, became wildly jealous of their bond and plotted against them. She took the children to a lake and cast an evil spell on them, turning them into swans for 900 years. Upon hearing this, the father (Bodb Derg, king of the Tuatha Dé Dannan) of Lir’s first wife transformed Aoife into an air demon for eternity. To end the spell, they would have to be blessed by a holy man.
During their many years as swans, Ireland was converted to Christianity by Saint Patrick. During their 900 years as swans, they spent each 300 year intervals in three different lakes in different locations in Ireland. Towards the end of their 900 years, they received sanctuary in Leinster.
One version of their story tells that as the king of Leinster was leaving the sanctuary with the swans, the bell of the church tolled, releasing them from the spell. Before they died, each was baptized and then later buried in one grave.
In an alternate ending, the four suffered on the three lakes for 900 years, and then heard the bell. When they came back to the land a priest found them. The swans asked the priest to turn them back into humans, and he did, but since they were over 900 years old, they died and lived happily in heaven with their mother and father.
Deirdre of The Sorrows
When Deirdre was born, her father took her to the druids and asked them to foretell his infant’s future. The Druids told Deirdre’s father that the child would cause great trouble for the men of Ulster. She would grow up to be the most beautiful woman in Ulster, causing the death of many of Ulster’s men.
When the Red Branch Knights heard the druid’s prediction, they wanted the child killed. They journeyed to the King of Ulster (Conor MacNessa) and urged him to take action. King Connor was reluctant to deny the child’s life and came up with an alternate plan. He decreed that Deirdre would be reared far away and when she came of age, he would make her his bride. With the Red Branch Knights satisfied with the solution, King Connor sent her deep into the forest to stay with a wise old woman, who would care for and teach her.
As foretold by the druids, Deirdre grew to be a beautiful young woman. As she grew older, Deirdre began dreaming of a dark-haired warrior. When she described him to the old woman as being tall and handsome with raven-black hair, skin as snow-white, and fearless in battle, the old woman recognized Naoise, one of the sons of Uisneach, from this description. After telling Deirdre who he was, the old woman warned her not mention this dream to a soul, since she was soon to be married to King Connor.
Deirdre begged the old woman to send for Naoise so that she might at least meet the man of her dreams. Refusing at first, the old woman relented upon seeing how unhappy she was. Deirdre and Naoise met and fell in love at once. Realizing that she could no longer marry King Connor, she convinced Naoise that the two should flee Ulster. They set off and travelled all over Ireland but no one would help them, fearing the wrath of King Connor. Finally, they set sail and settled on an island off the coast of Scotland.
They lived happily on the island for five years until one autumnal evening, a messenger arrived from the King. The messenger conveyed King Connor’s forgiveness and asked Deirdre and Naoise to return home. Deirdre didn’t trust the King and wanted to stay on the island. However, Naoise believed the news and began to prepare for the journey home. They set off shortly afterwards with his brothers. But feeling that something bad was going to happen, she begged Naoise to turn back. Promising that everything would be fine, Naoise convinced Deirdre to continue on their journey. When they arrived, they were sent to the fortress of the Red Branch Knights instead of directly to the castle. Deirdre was convinced they were walking into a trap.
No sooner had they entered the fortress than they were surrounded. Naoise and his brothers fought bravely but they were outnumbered. They were captured and brought before the King, who asked one of those present to kill these traitors. None of the Red Branch Knights would kill a fellow knight. Suddenly an unknown warrior from another kingdom stepped forward and cut the heads off Naoise and his brothers with a single sweep of his sword. So great was Deirdre’s sorrow that her heart broke and she fell upon Naoise’s body joining him in death. Deirdre’s father left Ulster for Connaught and joined Queen Maeve in many bloody battles against the Red Branch Knights. Deirdre had brought sorrow and trouble to Ulster just as the druids foretold.
Finn MacCool (Fionn Mac Cumhal)
There was a time in Irelands history when chivalry and chieftainry ruled the land. When the country was occupied by bands of warriors who spoke only their native tongue and who cherished their heritage and civilization.
During this time, an Ulster king called Conor MacNessa had warriors called the Red Branch Knights. He trained them to be strong men. King Conor also had a nephew called Setanta who wanted to be a Red Branch Knight. From a very early age he showed superhuman qualities of wisdom, warfare, magic and poetry.
When he told his mother that he wanted to be a Red Branch Knight, she said he was too young.
Setanta enjoyed playing the game of hurling [the national sport of Ireland – like lacrosse or field hockey] with his friends. Not only did he play extremely well, his team always won. At the age of ten, Setanta once again made a plea to join the Red Branch Knights. This time he directed his request to his father, who felt that he was still too young. So Setanta remained at home milking cows, fetching water, and chopping wood.
One night a seanachie (a person responsible for recounting the deeds of times past, a chronicler of the ages) came to their house. He told many stories about King Conor and his knights. That night, while everyone was asleep, Setanta took his hurling stick and ball and left for King Conor’s castle.
Following his long trip to the King’s stronghold, he arrived while a hurling match was taking place. Setanta joined in. He so outplayed the other youths that his future greatness could be seen by all of the Court. After meeting King Conor, he was told that he could stay and became the king’s foster son.
Some days later, the king invited Setanta to accompany him to a gathering at Culain’s. Do to an upcoming Hurling Match, Setanta informed the king that he would arrive after the match ended.
Later that evening he set off on the long trip. When he arrived at the fort, he found a wolfhound guarding the entrance. Setanta hit the ball with his hurly and killed Culain’s hound. The man heard the dog’s cry and ran out. Although sad to see his dog dead, Culain was glad that the King’s nephew was okay. However, Culain was concerned as to who was going to guard his house. Setanta announced that since he had killed Culain’s dog, it was only fitting that he serve as Culain’s guard dog until he could replace the hound. He therefore took the name of “CuChulain” — (The Hound of Culain).
Setanta (now called Cuchulainn) became Culain’s best guard of all. Eventually the warriors of the Red Branch, acknowledging Cuchulainn as a blood relative of the King, accepted him as a fellow knight. When inducted into the Knights, the men heard Cuchulainn proclaim before the Druids in the Hall of Heroes: “I care not whether I die tomorrow or next year, if only my deeds live after me.” Cuchulainn became the most famous of these knights.
As is the way with such heroes, Cuchulainn died on the battlefield. He was propped against a large rock whilst dead, with a spear in his hand and a buckler on his arm, and with such a defiant attitude was able to strike fear into his enemies even after death.
All of the warrior bands had their own Seanachie, a chronicler of the ages. Cuchulainn was their most famous subject. Hundreds of tales of his heroic deeds, both real and imagined, have survived to this day.
The Blarney Stone
The Blarney Stone is a single block of carboniferous limestone (bluestone), the same material as the megaliths of Stonehenge. The castle is located approximately 5 miles from Cork, Ireland.
True to it’s name, the Blarney Stone is surrounded by tall tales and myths. According to legend, kissing the stone endows the kisser with the gift of the gab (great eloquence or skill at flattery). Some stories are steeped in the history and geology of ages long gone. Others are vivid imaginings regarding the crowning of kings and queens.
One story explains that Cormac Laidir MacCarthy (builder of the castle) was involved in a lawsuit. Appealing to a goddess for help, he was instructed to kiss the first stone he found in the morning on his way to court. He did so and was able to plead his case with great eloquence and won. MacCarthy then incorporated the stone into the parapet of his castle. This is the top barrier of the exterior wall that continues above the line of the roof surface. The barrier were used to defend buildings from military attack. It enabled defenders to shoot downwards or pour hot oil onto the attackers.
Some people believe the Blarney Stone is half of the original Stone of Scone upon which the first King of Scots was seated during his coronation in 847. It is said that part of this stone was presented to Cormac MacCarthy (the Lord of Blarney) by Robert the Bruce in 1314. It was his gift to the Irish for supporting the Scots in the Battle of Bannockburn.
Family members who are still connected with Blarney Castle have many stories about the Blarney Stone and its magic powers. Most of them begin with the assumption that the Blarney Stone was originally from Ireland. For as many reasons as there are stories, the Stone ended up in Scotland and was then returned to Ireland in the year 1314.
Among some of the more colorful tales concerning its origins include the following:
- The Stone was used by Jacob for his pillow and was brought to Ireland by the prophet Jeremiah;
- David hid behind the Stone while running from King Saul. (The Stone was then returned to Ireland during the Crusades);
- The Blarney Stone is the very rock Moses struck with his staff to supply the Israelites with water as they fled slavery in Egypt.
Regardless of how the Stone found its way to Ireland, there are stories that claim it was originally known as Lia Fáil or the Stone of Destiny, and its mysterious powers were first revealed to the MacCarthy family by a witch they had saved from drowning.
Here is one fact that all historians agree upon:
Queen Elizabeth 1, daughter of Henry VIII, not only reigned over England, she also proclaimed herself Queen of Ireland. Elizabeth decided that the Irish chiefs should agree to occupy their own lands under title from her. Cormac MacCarthy, the Lord of Blarney, received requests from her to title his land over. With grace and good humor, he always replied that he was glad to pledge his loyalty to the Queen. His letters were subtle and so well put, she finally realized that he was keeping her happy without giving in. At one point, after receiving another of his charming messages, she flung down his letter and said, “Oh! He’s just giving me a lot more blarney!!!”
Thus the Blarney Stone came to signify the gift of speaking with eloquence and with good luck.
Sources of Information