8 of the Best Irish Myths and Legends

History

irish myths

The Irish are known around the world for their storytelling and folklore, from ancient sagas to tales of adventure and enchantment. But, Irish myths and legends are more than just old tales — these stories are a core part of Irish heritage, weaving together Irish history, culture, and imagination. Passed down through generations, Irish folklore offers insights into the values, beliefs, and traditions of the Irish people. 

Ready to be immersed in the magic of Irish storytelling? This blog promises just that! We are diving into the myths and legends of Ireland and will be meeting an array of eclectic characters, from heroes and gods, to mythical creatures and more!

What are the Cycles of Irish Mythology? 

It’s no secret that Irish folklore is a treasure trove of fascinating narratives. But, did you know that Irish myths and legends are actually organised into four main cycles? These are the Mythological, Ulster, Fenian, and Historical cycles. Each one offers a unique perspective on Ireland’s past and reflects different aspects of its cultural heritage.

The Mythological Cycle introduces us to the gods and goddesses of ancient Ireland, such as the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Ulster Cycle focuses on the hero Cú Chulainn and his adventures in the kingdom of Ulster, while the Fenian Cycle features the exploits of the warrior Fionn MacCumhaill and his band of warriors, the Fianna. Finally, the Historical Cycle intertwines myth and history, recounting the deeds of legendary figures like St. Patrick and the High Kings of Ireland. 

Now that we’ve covered some of the background of Irish myths and legends, let’s get into some of the best loved Irish folklore…

1. The Children of Lir


Oisin Kelly’s depiction of The Children of Lir, in the Garden of Remembrance. Parnell Square,Dublin, Ireland, symbolising rebirth and resurrection.

Passed down through generations, The Children of Lir is one of the most beloved Irish legends. The story follows the tragic fate of King Lir’s four children, who were transformed into swans by their jealous stepmother who wanted the throne. For 900 years in Co. Mayo, the Children of Lir were forced to live as swans during the day and only in the light of a full moon could take their human form, before the curse was broken by the arrival of Christianity to Ireland. 

As a tale of love, loss, and transformation, this Irish myth remains a symbol of resilience and endurance in the face of adversity in Irish culture and inspires generations with their story of love and sacrifice and was the basis for the story of the iconic ballet; Swan Lake.

2. The Tuatha Dé Danann

© John Duncan’s “Riders of the Sidhe” (1911).

According to Irish legend, the Tuatha Dé Danann were a race of supernatural beings who resided in the ‘Otherworld’ but could interact with humans in the ‘Real World’. They are said to be the ancient Gods of Ireland and are central figures in Irish mythology, often depicted as royalty, warriors, heroes, healers with supernatural powers. Some of the best known members of The Tuatha Dé Danann include Nuada Airgetlám, The Dagda, and Delbáeth.

All of the tales of The Tuatha Dé Danann are steeped in magic, mystery, and ancient wisdom, and are often associated with ancient sites in Ireland such as Newgrange, Co. Meath. They fought several battles detailed in Irish mythology. Firstly, against the mighty Fir Bolg and then against the Fomorians. The Tuatha Dé Danann were eventually conquered by the Milesians. 

3. The Salmon of Knowledge

© Justin McCarthy – Irish Literature, Vol. 8

The Salmon of Knowledge is a well known tale from Irish folklore, steeped in magic and mystery, highlighting the importance of wisdom and knowledge.

In this Irish myth, a magical salmon swims in the River Boyne, possessing all the knowledge of the world. According to prophecy, whoever eats the salmon will gain its wisdom. Fionn mac Cumhaill, a famous young Irish warrior, catches and cooks the salmon for his master, but burns his thumb while preparing it. In a twist of fate, he unknowingly ingests the salmon’s wisdom through the burn, becoming the wisest man and warrior in Ireland. In Irish mythology, the Salmon of Knowledge serves as a reminder of the power of knowledge and the unexpected ways in which it can be gained.

4. The Legend of Fionn MacCumhaill

© Fionn mac Cumhaill meets his father’s old companions in the forests of Connacht; illustration by Stephen Reid.

The  legend of Fionn MacCumhaill, one of the best loved heroes of Irish mythology, chronicles the extraordinary life of this renowned warrior, leader, and poet. Born into the mythical Fianna tribe, Fionn embodies the spirit of courage, wisdom, and resilience that defines the Irish hero and rises to prominence through exceptional bravery and cunning intellect, earning him a place among the greatest heroes of Ireland. 

From his fateful encounter with the Salmon of Knowledge to his leadership of the Fianna in defence of the kingdom, Fionn’s numerous exploits are steeped in legend and folklore. Despite facing numerous trials and tribulations, Fionn’s spirit and unwavering determination enable him to overcome every obstacle, cementing his legacy as an iconic figure in Irish mythology.

5. Tír na nÓg

© Oisín and Niamh travelling to Tír na nÓg, illustration by Stephen Reid in T. W. Rolleston‘s The High Deeds of Finn (1910)

One of the most famous of the Irish myths and legends is the tale of Tír na nÓg. The story is of Oisín, a brave warrior and the son of Fionn MacCumhaill, as he falls in love with Niamh, a beautiful princess from the mystical land of Tír na nÓg. Entranced by Niamh, Oisín follows her to Tír na nÓg, where time stands still, and nobody aged. 

Despite the allure of eternal youth, Oisín eventually longs to return to his homeland and Niamh allows him, explaining that he can return but once his feet do not touch the ground. On his return, Oisín discovers that centuries have passed in the mortal world and his father had died years before. Having stepped off his horse, Oisín was unable to return to Tír na nÓg and died, but not before he shared legends and stories of Fianna, his father, the great Fionn MacCumhaill, and the land of eternal youth, Tír Na nÓg. And today in Irish folklore, these legends live on.

6. The Banshee

© Bunworth BansheeFairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825

The Banshee, also known as the “Bean Sídhe” in Irish Gaelic, is a supernatural being from Irish mythology associated with death and the afterlife. According to legend, the Banshee appears as a female spirit, often depicted as a woman with long hair and wearing a flowing white gown. The Banshee’s wailing cry, scream, or shriek can be heard on dark nights and is said to signal the imminent death of a family member or of those who hear it. In some Irish myths and legends, the Banshee appears as a harbinger of death, appearing to those who are about to die or to those who are mourning the loss of a loved one.

Despite her fearsome reputation, the Banshee is not always considered malevolent. Instead, in Irish folklore she is often seen as a guardian spirit, guiding the souls of the departed to the afterlife and providing comfort to those who are grieving. In Irish mythology, the Banshee acts as a reminder of the circle of life and death, serving as a connection between the mortal world and the realm of the spirits.

7. The Giant’s Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway is a famous natural rock formation located on the coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland, and is steeped in myth and legend. According to Irish folklore, the Giant’s Causeway was created by the mythical giant Finn McCool, who built the causeway as a pathway to Scotland to confront his rival, the Scottish giant, Benandonner. The two giants engaged in a series of challenges across the causeway, each trying to outdo the other in feats of strength and cunning. The legend goes that following one of their fearsome meetings, Benandonner ripped up the causeway as he fled back to Scotland, leaving the Giant’s Causeway you’ll find there today.

8. The Voyage of St. Brendan

© Unknown mediaeval scribe. – University of Applied Sciences, Augsburg, Germany

The Voyage of St. Brendan is a mediaeval Irish legend which has inspired adventurers for centuries, by recounting the legendary voyage of the Irish monk St. Brendan and his companions across the Atlantic Ocean in search of the “Isle of the Blessed”. 

According to the legend, St. Brendan and his fellow monks set sail from Ireland in a small currach, or boat made of animal skins stretched over a wooden frame. Over the course of seven years, they encountered numerous mythical creatures and mystical islands, including a land of giant birds and an island inhabited by a holy hermit. After many trials and tribulations, St. Brendan and his companions finally reached the fabled Isle of the Blessed. There, they encountered the Promised Land, a place of eternal happiness and tranquillity.

Irish myths and legends play a crucial role in preserving Ireland’s rich cultural heritage and act as a window into our past. These ancient tales are not just entertaining but also offer valuable insights into the beliefs, values, and traditions of Irish people throughout history. 

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