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    The Folklore of Ireland

    Irish Myths, Legends & Folklore

    Ireland is an old country… a very old country. It is a place simply brimming with myths and legends. Famous for its oral stories, Ireland has so many stories that have been passed down through each generation, with various versions of each.

    These stories are often linked to landscapes – either a specific spot like the Giant’s Causeway, or else many places like Diarmuid and Grainne and their various caves.

    From giants to selkies, from tragic lovers to witches, from magical bulls to humans turned to swans, join us on this series to learn the unique myths and legends of Ireland.

    Characters of Irish Folklore

    Finn McCool: The Giant of the Giant's Causeway

    Once upon a time, there was a magical emerald land called Ireland. In the northern stretches of this land, there lived an Irish giant called Fionn McCool (or in Irish, Fionn Mac Cumhaill).

    Fionn McCool is one of Ireland’s most prominent mythological characters, and yes he is who’s credited with building the Giant’s Causeway. It was built as a result of a proposed fistfight with a Scottish giant that never actually happened because Fionn and his wife tricked him instead. It ended with Fionn’s wife cleverly disguising her husband as a baby.

    Supposedly, his Scottish rival ran away in terror at what surely must be a massive giant if his baby was that big, tearing up the causeway behind him.

    But… it’s better to read the whole story.

    Meet Fionn McCool

    The Hag of Beara: The Winter Witch

    No, we’re not talking about the winter witch of Narnia – though C.S. Lewis has admitted that he was inspired by Ireland when writing The Chronicles of Narnia (read more about Narina and Ireland here).

    But the Hag of Beara is an under-appreciated character of Irish folklore. She is supposedly the goddess of winter or the witch of the winter, and it is her who is in charge of turning the clock from Summer to Winter.

    Legend says that you have to head outside on February 1st (St Brigid’s Day, the first day of spring on the Gaelic calendar). If the weather is poor, it means that the Hag of Beara is asleep and winter will soon end. However, if the day is bright, she’s awake and collecting firewood to make winter last longer. February 1st is the one day a year that people hope the weather will stay poor…

    Learn more about the Hag of Beara, Ireland’s winter witch. 

    Meet the Hag of Beara

    Diarmuid & Grainne: Ireland's Tragic Lovers

    Keash Caves Sligo

    Tales of tragic lovers exist in many cultures – most famously, Shakespeare’s doomed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. Ireland has its own pair of tragic and doomed loved, Diarmuid and Grainne.

    The story goes that Diarmuid stole his chieftain Fionn McCool’s intended bride, Grainne, after the couple fell in love. Their love was so strong that Diarmuid and Grainne decided to escape together and went on the run indefinitely.

    Legend has it that Diarmuid and Grainne never slept in the same place twice and across Ireland, there are dozens – perhaps hundreds – of “Diarmuid and Grainne beds” – caves, nooks, rocks, dolmans, Neolithic tombs, boulders, glacial erratics, and other standout geological formations where the couple supposedly spent a night while on the run.

    Until their luck ran out, and they were caught. Find out more about the doomed Diarmuid and Grainne.

    The Children of Lir

    The mighty Lir was once a great king of Ireland. With his first wife, he had four lovely children. But after her untimely death, King Lir remarried a new queen, and like any proper fairytale, the stepmother did not have her new children’s best interests at heart. And unfortunately for them, his new wife grew increasingly jealous of Lir’s attention to his children, and that she dabbled in magic.

    Essentially, the myth of the Children of Lir is the story of the jealous stepmother. The evil queen took her revenge upon the four children for taking up so much of King Lir’s time and love by turning them into four white swans.

    As swans, the evil queen cursed the four children of Lir to wander Ireland as swans for 900 years.

    Granuaile, Ireland's Pirate Queen

    In the 1600s, a fierce and formidable Pirate Queen known as Grace O’Malley ruled the west coast of Ireland.

    For 3o years, Grace ruled over Clew Bay and Galway Bay, demanding tribute from passing ships. She built castles and forts, robbed the passing ships, and collected enemies along Ireland’s rugged western shores – and even lied to the Queen face to face. Read more about this great Irish legend.

    Meet the Pirate Queen

    Cuchulain, Hound of Ulster

    Meet the great hero Cuchulain, born as the boy Setanta and later known as the Hound of Ulster, who became one of Ireland’s most legendary and fearsome warriors.

    The colourful life and times of the mighty Cú Chulainn (pronounced ‘Coo Hull-in’) have long been relayed throughout many tales, and sites across Ireland are associated with the epic hero. Read more about this powerful warrior and his many deeds below.

    Meet Cuchulain

    The Puca Fairies

    One of Ireland’s darker folklore creatures, the Púca are shape-shifting fairy troublemakers. Legends say that the púca can change into horses, goats, cats, donkeys, bulls, dogs, foxes, wolves, and hares, though always with jet-black fur. Horses bearing sleek coats, wild manes and flaming eyes are the most common animal shape of these mischievous fairies. When in human form, these fairies still bear animalistic characteristics.

    Though stories about the púca are vague and varied, one common similarity is the púca’s love of mischief. They are particularly associated with Halloween night (an ancient Irish pagan holiday known as Samhain) and November 1st.

    Learn more about these devious shape-shifting creatures, their origins and legends, and when you’re most likely to encounter such fairies.

    Meet the Puca

    St Brigid

    St Brigid’s crosses are an example of how these two feminist figures have fused.

    St Brigid… saint or pagan princess?

    Most of the “history” of St Brigid of Kildare has been based more on myth and legend than actual historical records. In fact, there is some debate exists over whether she was even a real person. Brigid (or Brigit, as it is sometimes spelled) is also the name of a Celtic goddess from pre-Christain early medieval Ireland. She is an established member of Irish mythology as part of the ancient mythical race of fairies, the Tuatha Dé Danann.

    Sharing a feast day – February 1st, Ireland’s newest bank holiday – similar attributes, the same name and falling at a similar time in history, it’s impossible not to connect these two impressive female figures – and many historians and folklorists have done so over the years.

    So who was she – a saint or a goddess?

    Learn more about Brigid below.

    Niamh Cinn Oir

    Niamh is a formidable and daring figure. She is probably the most renowned female character from Tír na nÓg, a magical island off the west coast of Ireland. Hailing from the mythological Tuatha De Danaan tribe, this group was revered as divine, ethereal beings inhabiting a realm beyond our own.

    The Tuatha De Danaan hold a central role as the chief deities in pre-Christian Ireland. Niamh’s presence symbolizes the divine feminine, reflecting the ancient Celtic belief in the sanctity of both genders as sacred and divine entities.

    Read more about Niamh in our folklore blog.

    Meet Niamh

    The Goddess Ériu

    Goddess Sculpture atop the sacred Hills of Uisneach

    Goddess Sculpture atop the sacred Hills of Uisneach.

    The Irish goddess Ériu, now more commonly known as Éire, is the origin of the name, Ireland. The name of our country was bestowed in honour of this formidable goddess.

    Alongside her goddess-sisters Banba and Fódla, Ériu and her siblings collectively hold the title of Goddesses of Sovereignty. Given this prestigious role and heritage, Ériu is a befitting name for Ireland.

    Meet Éiru

    Discover Ireland

    Visit Ireland to Discover its Stories

    As Recommended By...

    You'll be in good company on a Wilderness Ireland Trip. Some of the biggest and best known names in the business have recommended us.

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