Top 10 Irish Myths and Legends
Ireland’s long history is riddled with ancient mythology and 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.
10. The Banshee
The Banshee was a woman who carried with her an omen of death. Sometimes you saw the Banshee as an old woman dressed in rags, sometimes you saw her as a young and beautiful girl and sometimes you saw her as a wash woman, ringing out bloody clothing. Whenever she was seen, she let out a horrible cry and legend has it this cry brought death to any family that heard it. King James I of Scotland thought he was approached by a Banshee. Shortly after, he died at the Earl of Atholl.
The Pookas are a certain type of fairy- one bent on creating havoc in the mortal world. The Pooka appeared at night across rural Ireland and the seaboard. On a good day, the Pooka would cause destruction on a farm- tearing down fences and disrupting the animals. On a bad day, the Pooka would stand outside the farmhouse and call the people outside by name. If anyone came out, the Pooka would carry them away. The Pookas also loved to mess with the ships pulling away from Ireland, and were blamed for many shipwrecks along the rocky coast.
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.”
7. Dagda’s Harp
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.
6. The Children of Lir
The story of the Children of Lir comes from the Irish Mythological Cycle. Lir was the lord of the sea. He had a wife and four children. When Lir’s wife died, he married his wife’s sister, Aoife. Aoife was jealous of Lir’s children and wanted to be rid of them. One day Aoife took the children to a lake. While they were swimming she performed a spell on them and turned them into swans. Under the spell the children were to remain swans until they heard the sound of a Christian bell. The swans swam from lake, to river to stream for years waiting for the sound of that bell, but it wasn’t until St. Patrick came to Ireland that the children could be free of the curse- 900 years later.
5. St. Patrick
To most people, St. Patrick is the man who brought a day of good times and green beer to pubs across the world. In reality, St. Patrick wasn’t made a saint until centuries after his death and he wasn’t even Irish. St. Patrick was born in Britain to a wealthy family. During his childhood, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Ireland. During his years in slavery he converted to Christianity and once freed he did spend the rest of his life teaching the Irish about the Christian religion, but he was soon forgotten after his death. It wasn’t until many years later that monks began telling the tale of St. Patrick forcing all the snakes out of Ireland. Something he never could have done as there never were any snakes in Ireland.
4. The Shamrock
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 Celtics believed the Shamrock had mystical properties due to the plant’s three heart-shaped leaves. The Celtics believed three was a sacred number. Some Christians also believed the Shamrock had special meaning- the three leaves representing the Holy Trinity.
3. Finn MacCool
Finn MacCool is a mythological warrior that appears in several Irish legends. One popular story tells of a salmon that knew all of the world’s knowledge. Finn decided to eat the Salmon to gain the knowledge. As he was cooking the fish, juice squirted out and burned Finn’s thumb. Finn stuck his thumb in his mouth to stop the pain and instantly learned the knowledge the salmon carried. From then on, anytime Finn sucked his thumb he gained whatever knowledge he was seeking.
Faeries 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.
The leprechaun is likely the most widely known type of fairy living in Ireland. Leprechauns have been in existence in Irish legend since the medieval times. Traditionally, leprechauns are tall fairies and often appear to humans as an old man – much different from the modern view of a small, childlike fairy in a green suit. As legend holds, Leprechauns love to collect gold, which they store in a pot and hide at the end of a rainbow. If a human catches a leprechaun, the fairy must grant the human three-wishes before he can be released.
by Angela Colley