Ireland has a rich tradition of weird and wonderful creatures – but it’s not just fairies and leprechauns. Some denizens of the Irish Otherworld are truly horrifying. Like these 10!
10. The Abhartach
Long before Irish novelist Bram Stoker came up with Dracula, Ireland had the blood-sucking Abhartach. Once an evil wizard king from the hills around Glenullin, Abhartach, a dwarf, was killed by his subjects and buried standing up. When he returned the next day, demanding blood from their veins, his terrorized subjects had him killed again. But it didn’t help. Abhartach kept coming back.
In desperation they sought out a hermit in the woods and asked him what to do. “Abhartach is not really alive,” he explained, he’s “one of the neamh-mhairbh [‘undead’].” In other words, he couldn’t be killed. But he could be “suspended” if slain with a sword made of yew wood and buried in the earth upside down, sprinkled with ash twigs and thorns, beneath a very large stone. Abhartach would stay there as long as the stone did, said the hermit.
The rock is still there to this day, with a tree that sprang up from the thorns. Even now, it’s considered ‘bad ground’. Eerily, the most recent attempt to clear it—in 1997—was thwarted by malfunctioning chainsaws, as well as blood loss when a chain lifting the stone broke and cut one of the workers.
Perhaps the best known ghoul from the Emerald Isle is a banshee, which in Irish (bean sí) means ‘Otherworld woman.’ Her wails and screams, heard at night, foretell a death in the family—but only if your family’s Irish. Irish poet W.B. Yeats described the banshee as “an attendant fairy that follows the old families, and none but them.” More than one is considered an honor.
The queen of the banshees, Clíodhna, was a goddess of love and beauty accompanied by birds that cured illness. But she also lured sailors to their deaths. For this, she was punished by the sea god Manaanán MacLir. When she left the Otherworld to be with her lover, a mortal, MacLir drowned her with a wave. Hence the legend in Glandore, County Cork that a loud wave belongs to Clíodhna.
The bánánach (bánánaigh) are a type of shrieking female specter drawn by combat to circle the skies over battlefields. They’re kind of like banshees, and their name may have a similar root. If not just from bán, meaning ‘white’ or ‘pale’, bánánach may come from bean/ban, meaning ‘woman’.
In early Irish texts, they usually appear alongside their male counterparts, the bocánach (bocánaigh). These “demons of the air,” as monastic scholars called them, more actively encouraged the bloodshed of war. Based on their name, from bocán (meaning ‘he-goat’), it’s assumed they had a Puck-like appearance.
In Irish mythology, there are basically two main factions—one good, the Tueatha Dé Danann, and the other evil: the Fomorians, or Fomors. The name is thought to derive from fó, meaning “from below,” and a suffix meaning “the sea,” “demons,” or “giants.”
Thought to have built Ireland’s megalithic monuments, the Fomorians are said to have been the first Irish settlers—numbering 200 men and 600 women to begin with. But their prevailing characteristic is their mutant appearance, which they themselves see as a blessing from the dark gods. Mismatched limbs, animal heads, too many eyes, and so on are common. They’re also wielders of old, earthy magic—the “power of the wyrm”—with control of the weather and plagues.
Their king, Balor of the Evil Eye, had a flaming eye so huge it took four men to lift the lid. With it, he can reduce a man to ashes and lay waste to whole regions—as he did to the islands west of Scotland. In fact, it was so dangerous that he kept seven cloaks over it at all times and never got it out among his people. Whenever the time came to use it on an enemy, the cloaks would come off one by one—the removal of the first withering ferns, the removal of the second browning grass, the third heating up trees, and so on, until the removal of the sixth and second set the land itself on fire.
6. Fear gorta
The fear gorta or ‘hungry man’ stalks Ireland during times of famine, begging from house to house for something to eat. His ancient origins are murky. According to some, he rises from the “hungry grass” (or féár gortach), which curses anyone who walks on it to starvation. Others say the fear gorta is the ghost of a man who starved to death close to a fairy mound.
Whatever his origin, the wretched fear gorta appears emaciated, dressed in rags with long, dirty fingernails and carrying (often dropping) an alms bowl. Unlike hungry grass, which you can burn, there’s no way to destroy the fear gorta. There is, however, a way to protect yourself: compassion. Those who feed him whatever they can are thanked or rewarded for the favor, while those who don’t—especially if they mock (or worse yet attack) him—are cursed with bad luck and starvation.
Hence it’s said that the fear gorta has made kings into paupers and beggars into princes. However, he’s always an omen of hard times to come.
5. The Fetch
A fetch (derived from the old Irish faíth, meaning seer) is Ireland’s answer to the doppelgänger. Depending on whether you see it in the morning or the evening, it may bring good luck or bad. But mostly the fetch is a bad thing.
Assuming the form of someone whose death is impending, this shapeshifting spirit appears either to them or their loved ones as an omen. What sets it apart from a regular doppelgänger is the fetch’s tendency to hint at the cause of coming death—showing burns if it’s fire, clutching its chest for a heart attack, etc. Also it doesn’t have a shadow. Needless to say, this all makes the fetch look more terrifying.
A fetch might also appear after the death, walking among loved ones at the funeral with a distant look on their face. Apparently, if you follow one a while it’ll disappear in a dark corner or vanish behind a tree.
Sluaghs are monsters with a taste for human souls—especially souls in true love. According to the ancients, sluaghs are faeries gone “amuck,” “warped and twisted, without fear, reason or mercy.” Later, Christians explained them as the souls of sinners doomed to wander the land dragging souls with them to Hell. They’re said to be especially active at Halloween, when all fires were traditionally forbidden so as not to attract their attention. But whatever day of the year it is, there’s an old Irish tradition of keeping west-facing windows shut tight to keep the sluaghs at bay. (They were said to fly in from the west after dusk.)
Sluaghs also snare mortals as slaves, commanding them to do their bidding. If the sluaghs are denied a soul they crave, for instance, they’ll get their slaves to slaughter cattle, sheep, and pets. This is because the sluaghs themselves have no corporeal presence, typically appearing as undulating shadow resembling a great flock of ravens. In fact, the word sluagh means ‘host’.
So feared was the sluagh in times gone by that people favored death as their fate.
Otters—with the hand-holding, the pouch they keep their stuff in, the fluffiness, and so on—are impossible not to feel good looking at. They’re basically the penguins of the northern hemisphere; you can’t help but smile when you see them. But trust Ireland to make them scary.
The dobhar-chú is a kind of otter from Hell, a vampire with “gargantuan fangs.” It was first encountered on the shores of Glenade Lake in County Leitrim, lying fast asleep on the blood-soaked body of one Grace Connolly. At the sight of the creature, her husband Terence McLoughlin ran home, got his gun, returned and shot the creature—which let out a terrifying shriek like a death rattle. In response, another dobhar-chú emerged from the lake and had to be slain by the man. Creepily, both Connolly and McLoughlin have carvings of the creatures on their gravestones.
They weren’t the only encounters, though. The dobhar-chú—or “Irish crocodile,” as it’s sometimes called—has allegedly been in scuffles with others. It’s also been seen and photographed as recently as 2000. According to photographer Sean Corcoran, who spotted the creature on Omey Island, Connemara, it swam across the lake within seconds, leapt onto a boulder, and gave the “most haunting screech.”
We’ve all heard of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, but what does the old legend mean? Well, scholars aren’t exactly sure but it may have something to do with a breed of giant, worm-like monsters. Likened to dragons, olliphéisteanna (singular, olliphéist: from oll, ‘great’, and péist, ‘worm’, ‘beast’, ‘reptile’) are so massive that their snaking around carves rivers into the landscape. The River Shannon is said to have formed this way, left in the wake of an olliphéist fleeing St. Patrick.
Otherwise, they’re said to bide their time in deep lakes, underground caverns, and especially marshes and swamps. Even their blood is toxic. Hence when the healer of the gods, Dian Cécht, removed three olliphéisteanna that had been growing inside a baby’s breast, he burned them to ashes and cast the ashes into a river. But even then, the river stopped flowing and the water turned black—killing everything in it. Another tale has an olliphéist crawling from a witch’s broken thigh bone, growing full size, and devouring Ireland’s cattle. The warrior Conán leapt into its mouth to slay it from within, but its blood forever stained the County Donegal lake Lough Derg red.
The greatest of all the olliphéisteanna was Caoránach, mother of all worms and demons. She is still thought to inhabit Lough Derg.
1. The Dullahan
Long before The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Ireland had its own headless horseman. The Dullahan (meaning ‘dark man’) is a black-robed decapitatee, a harbinger of death who “thunders through the night” on horseback, using a human spine as a whip. Alternatively, he might ride his enormous black coach—the “coach-a-bower”—pulled so incredibly fast by six headless horses that it sets the roadside ablaze.
Traditionally, the Dullahan is a manifestation of the pagan fertility god Crom Dubh—whose sacrificial blood rites involved decapitation. He keeps his head close to hand, despite its resemblance to a lump of mouldy cheese. By holding it up, the Dullahan can see for miles around the countryside in his midnight pursuit of the dying. It also serves as a lantern—its decaying phosphorescence enough for his vision.
All gates fly open for the Dullahan, locked or not. So it’s no use resisting. You don’t want to be too eager, though. Folk tales abound of those who watch from their windows for a glimpse of the Dullahan only to get blood in their eyes.