Top 10 Irish Myths and Legends

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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

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.

9. Pookas

Pooka

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.

8. Changelings

Changelings

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

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 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

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 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

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.

2. Faeries

Faeries

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.

1. Leprechauns

Leprechauns

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.

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Angela Colley


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57 Comments

  1. I can’t believe that you’ve forgotten merrows and sheeries and Old Boneless! As an Irish girl those stories were hammered into me from birth!

      • You realise that St. Patrick actually was a real person and the driving snakes out of ireland was actually symbolic of him converting people to Chrisitianity, ie the snakes were the pagan religions….

        Also… the people were called Celts (pronounced “Kelts”) not Celtics, thats basketball team.

        There are a few little holes and errors in your research here.. dont believe everything the web tells you, read an actual book on Irish folklore and history.
        and fionn below is right too on your spelling of Fionn Mac Cumhaill

        • the idea of the snakes being a metaphor is a relatively new idea. Its more likely that people were actually saying he literally did it. early writings on irish saints lives was full of such tall tails. for example the loch ness monster first appears in the life of columba (who could also raise people from the dead)

        • Harlequin Wolf on

          Actually the snake was one of the most important symbols to the druids. They were often referred to as the serpent priests. Also the story of The Children of Lir was altered by the Catholic church after the Christians invaded. They did the same across the western world, stealing bits and pieces from other cultures and incorporating them into their religion.

        • Invaded? the christians never invaded Ireland, the Irish were converted, rather rapidly. however it remained very different to the roman idea of christianity, hence the synod of whitby, laudabilliter and the eventual invasion by the anglo normans. Snakes as a symbol was important to druid culture in Gaul, its possible it may have been in Ireland too, though not definite as there is no evidence one way or the other. however the ‘miracles’ attributed to patrick follow a ‘great feat’ culture prominent in Irish myth. Early Irish monks didnt use metaphor for any writtings, they did however use fantastical and mad claims to show how great their saints were as good as or better than cu chullainn or the fianna or balor etc

        • Hi I’m a history and archeology graduate from ireland

          .Actually St Pat was not a real person. He is a composite of three bishop’s who tried to convert Ireland to christianity the most well known of which was Palladius. He was the son of a wealthy Roman stationed in wales. According to historical record St Patrick died three times and also performed other miracles that were so ridiculous that they were omitted from the Christian churches account by medieval times (like many other saint).

          Religion has a habit of saying its claims are true until it is blatantly obvious that they are wrong. Then the stories are said to be ‘symbolic’. The real reason for the story of St Patrick ridding Ireland of the snakes is because in pre-christian Ireland stories of dragons and sea-monsters and such were common. In order to create a figurehead to sell Christianity to the pagan people a superhero had to be made, and the myth of a magic man who can defeat evil reptiles was born. Other Irish saints have ridiculous stories as well like St Brigid who was based on a Celtic goddess and had a magic cloak. What did that symbolize?

        • To say St Patrick was not an actual person is misleading. As a historian, you know well that hagiography should not be regarded as biography. All saints lives are literary creations borrowing from other mythologies and tailored to address social or political needs within the environment in which they originate. In addition to being intentionally manipulated, they transform over time through confusion.

          Considering this, you should not disregard that there had been one historical St Patrick who was the first inspiration behind the current composite figure.

        • Shar'l O'Carroll on

          Does any one remember the story about the “Bitch in the Ditch”? The Statue is in Dublin.
          Thanks.

        • There are a ‘few little holes’ everywhere in history so you can expect some in ones research. Believing one possibility no matter how more likely (never be proven) instead of another does not make anyone right or wrong.

          That book of yours will be one persons perception and therefore no more ligitimate than anything you read on the web. but it is important to look at as many peoples points of view on the matter from every point in history since, to see not only how the story evolves but how our perception of the story changes.

          We have alot of work to do in order to filter through our history (ancient history) in order to fix the problems of our deluded minds, we cannot carry on with these pethedic disbutes.

          I do not know who is to blame for this (christianity)(cough) but they have screwed us over!

        • Why is it that everywhere on the internet people are hating on Catholics and what they believe in? Humph. The snakes were just a symbol, though when small children learn about it they say they were actual snakes.

    • And what about Cú Chulainn? The Irish hero who’d become so furious in battle he wouldn’t know friend from foe, but could fight whole armies?

    • And that he didn’t mean to eat the fish at all. Finegas the poet, who Fionn lived with, was supposed to. Burning his finger was an accident.

  2. Um actually the Dagda was a god in Irish mythology and was considered a “father-figure” and high king of the Tuatha De Danan not a priest or druid as they were known.

  3. What about Wilie John McBride, there is a modern Irish legend for you! Happy St.Patrick’s day from here in Australia.

  4. Ergot? Too much whiskey? No pot in Ireland, so what gives? Love to dream, love the mysticism, unfortunately, born with an Anglo-Saxon mind, can only see in blwck and white, and suffer greatly for this!

  5. Referring to Saint Patrick
    Him getting rid of the” snakes from Ireland ” was the term used for him removing protestant religion from Ireland. Not a nice thing though, but good list =D

        • rugbyplayer18 on

          Im a catholic/taeg/provo or whatever u want to call it. Id much rather be a catholic than a sour orange b*****d which u appear to be

        • St Patrick was not ‘getting rid of protestants’ – the Reformation had not happened then, he was trying to bring christianity and get rid of pagans. Not everything about Ireland is about protestants and catholics

        • whatever you are, you clearly don’t know your history. The Reformation hadn’t happened when St Patrick chased all the snakes out, it was the pagans he was trying to get rid of by converting them to christianity. Keep the sectarianism out of a nice site about celtic myths

    • Great synopsis. Personally i cant stand leprechauns. Some other great ones are

      The Dullahan: the original headless horseman who would ride a black horse, carry his head in one hand and whip made of a human spine in the other. He delivers instant death to anyone whos name he mentioned

      Cú Chulainn: the greatest warrior in Irish myth. Single handedly took on all the armies of Ireland i single combat while his ulster comrades were under a curse of pregnancy pains. see the Tán Bó Cullaige

      not to mention Balor of the evil eye, Na neamh maribh (zombies created by the daghda), the morrigan (shape hipting goddess of war)

  6. Well now Protestantism didnt start til Martin Luther in Germany, over a thousand years after St Patrick

    also theres Plenty of Pot in Ireland if you know where to look 😉

  7. Another little problem with the Fionn Mac Cumhaill story… he didnt decide to eat the salmon of knowledge, it was another old guy. fionn stuck his finger in the salmon to see if it was cooked, Got burned, and put his finger in his mouth. Thus he was the first to eat of the Salmon, and and so he got all the knowledge before the old man.

    • and you could add a bit in about the banshee’s comb. my granny used to say to never pick up a comb on a beach because it belonged to the banshee and it would encourage death and at the very least bad luck in your house.

      In fairness a lot of what we do encourages bad luck apparently. my granny freaks if you cut your toe nails on a sunday!
      she truly believes in it. i think the younger generation take it as a bit of fun and good stories. but there is that little tiny bit you that doesnt want to tempt fate!

  8. I’m Irish, and this is an Americans vision of Irish “myths”. NONE of us Irish believe in this stuff. Its all what foreign people think we believe. Sites like this annoy me SO MUCH.

      • meow meow cats on

        i am full irish and i heard a banshee in ireland once and then like a month later my great grandma died mysteriously

    • Ruth,

      Modern Ireland and Ireland up until the turn of the 20th century are very, very different. While you might be right when it comes to modern Ireland, the people of Ireland, up until the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th century did indeed believe these myths to be completely true. There are still some old-timers who believe in these myths, and if you look for them, they will give you tours of fairy circles, for instance (I’ve been shown the locations– and no, it was no rouse). You may call these people eccentrics then, but you have to remember that they came of age in a different time and place. Modernization and urbanization seriously change a country. Remember, back then, Ireland was mostly a rural country. Today, one of Ireland’s biggest industries is technology. Times change. And I can totally see where you are coming from– many of my friends that live in Ireland are quite ambiguous about these stories– but you have to admit these myths and legends are incredibly unique and help to set Ireland apart from other countries of the world. I think it’s something to be proud of, though the commercialization and exploitation of these beliefs hurts them, and is what I think you are complaining about mostly. I am of course biased, I am Irish, but still. That is all.

  9. I’m Irish too, and of course we don’t believe in this anymore! No one says we do, even here. Sites like this do their best to keep the old legends alive.

    • I loved this movie growing up. It was probably my first exposure to some of the beliefs of the Irish (I was born in America, but my father is from Ireland). Actually, the director of Darby O’Gill was a friend of my father. Never met him, but I met his brother, who was an actor. This film was Sean Connery’s first film actually, and is worth noting for that reason alone!

  10. While none of you may actually believe it, if it weren’t for such sites, people like me who have a genuine interest in folklore wouldn’t have much opportunity to learn it. Not all of us were lucky enough to be born in Ireland or hear the tales as kids!

  11. Many people are regarding saint Patrick as either “myth” “legend” and “real” or “not real”. I did my history project on him a few years ago and the “true” stories are something of a completely different area. Apparently, Patrick was born in Wales 100 years before the stories said he was born and at young age committed a sin (most likely murder due to later on scenarios), got sold into slavery (true) and only converted to Christianity as a mark of rebellion or due to ease his loneliness. When he tried to escape by boat, the people there refused to let him on without first greeting them in a much perverse act of friendship – by sucking their tits -. Patrick refused (surprise, surprise) and was the sold into slavery again in France where a Christian archbishop saw him and took him under his wing. After many years of study he applied to be a bishop and at first was deemed unfit after his friend betrayed him and told the order about his “sinful” act as a child. But after a while he was let in and was sent to Ireland (not returning to Wales) with a mission to convert to “barbarians” a.k.a Pagans. He did so by killing all the druids first (chasing all the “snakes” out of Ireland) so that the Celts (Celtic was the name of the era. Iron age is acceptable too) could only follow one religion, Christianity. He then basically flipped the birdie at the Christian religion and did it half-assed. Converting he Pagans only half way into Chritisan-Paganism, He fought off all other invaders such as the Prince of England at the time and stopped the Christian church from meddling in his affairs until the time that he died (yet again 100 years before the bedtime story states).

    Other than that, it’s a pretty good list. =D

    • I’d take issue with a lot of this and ask for references for all of it.

      The idea that Patrick ‘killed all the druids’ is ludicrous, not only is there no evidence of it being a violent conversion, he could hardly have single handedly have killed them. Even if he did have an army of converts to help him out.

      By interpreting the driving of the snakes as a metaphor for killing druids you have fallen for a modern interpretation. The fact is that people writing the lives of saints in the medieval period made up ludicrous tales about them to continue the ‘great feat’ tradition in Irish story telling, the lives of St Columba and Bridgit are equally full of such tall tales, from bringing people back from the dead to fighting the loch ness monster. They are simply stories to make the early christian missionaries look more impressive than their pagan counter parts.

      And what English prince or other invaders did he fight off

  12. i live in irland i think i was a very interisting list i all ways had an fascination about faries and ghost mostly because were i live i supposed to be haunted because a devil worshiper owned it and grew up with a fairy tree in one of m dads field thanks found it very interisting lol thaannnkkkkkkkssssss

  13. Angel Trower on

    hay im 11 and i love this site. and it is really interesting. we r searching up myths and legends for our school projet. i think that all students should use these sites like this

    • Mike Watchman on

      who cares that you are 11? anybody asked for that? btw no student should EVER use a top ten site. I mean NEVER EVER. lol really are you kidding?

    • Katherine Grace on

      I don’t think that TopTenz would be a good resource for a school project. Then again you’re only 11 so you probably don’t have to cite your resources yet, or do you? If you do then I kindly suggest don’t use websites like these. You can use them to get ideas (which is what I did haha) but don’t use them for like writing a paragraph.

  14. I´m a teacher from the Canary Islands and I will be in Ireland campsiting with a group of students aged 12. I was reading about Irish myths in order to tell the kids a couple of stories, fairies, banshees…during the firecamps.
    Any suggestion (clear and simple) regarding websites where to search?
    Thanks a lot!

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