Story telling is a hugely important part of Irish culture and heritage. So many of our playwrights, novelists and poets are literary greats, and our musicians and filmmakers are highly successful too; all of which are, not so coincidentally, mediums where story telling is paramount. Irish people are a naturally sociable race so storytelling is an inherent part of interactions between the natives, whether in the form of a joke or a longer account of an event or situation.
Before our society was a literate one, the tradition was even more important as recounting stories of an evening was how young children learned important life lessons, how family histories were passed down to new generations, and how the various myths and folklore of the country stayed alive. Even today, children still hear of some of these stories in school or in Irish fairytale books. We’ve picked out a few of our favourite Irish folklore stories that have been passed down for centuries.
Children of Lir
The Children of Lir is a well known legend that can be recounted by ay Irish school child and most adults too. Lir was an ancient king and ruler of the sea, and was married to a beautiful and kind woman named Eva. Eva gave him four children; the eldest son Aodh, a daughter called Fionnula and twin boys, Fiachra and Conn. Sadly, she died while giving birth to the twins, so to ease his broken heart Lir eventually married Eva’s sister Aoife. Aoife, who had magical powers, became increasingly jealous of the time Lir was spending with his four children. The children were especially close to one another and to their father, and feeling more and more isolated from the family unit, she plotted to destroy the children.
Knowing that if she killed them they would come back to haunt her forever, she instead took them down to the lake near their castle. She transformed them into swans and bound them to spend 300 years in Lake Derravaragh, 300 years on the Straits of Moyle and 300 years on the Isle of Inish Glora. Only when they heard a bell tolling for the new god would the spell be broken. Aoife returned to Lir and told them his children had all drowned. Devastated, he went to the lake where Fionnuala in her swan form approached him and told him what happened (apparently Aoife’s magic was not so powerful that the children lost the ability to speak or sing).
Naturally, Lir was appalled at what his wife had done and banished her, spending the rest of his days down by the lake with his children. The swans served their 300 years on each of the designated lakes, passing the time by singing and flying. Before long they were well known all across Ireland, with everyone wishing to see and hear them for themselves. One day they heard a bell toll and knew their time under the spell was coming to an end. They returned to the shore and met a priest there who blessed them, and they transformed back into their now withered and elderly human bodies. In some versions of the ending, they died immediately after their transformation, although in others they lived long enough to be baptised first.
The Harp of Dagda
Of the four stories listed here, the tale of the Harp of Dagda is probably the least well known, mostly because of its simplicity and the fact that it is one of the oldest folklore stories in Ireland – and considering all of these legends date back at least a thousand years, that’s really saying something! Dagda was one of the primary gods of Irish mythology, said to have been the father and protector of the first tribe that journeyed to and settled on the island, known as the Tuatha de Danann. Like the rest of his tribe he was superhuman and had exceptional powers and weapons (although in some texts he is depicted as a crude, oafish figure). Funnily enough, Lir of the Children of Lir was his brother.
Among other things, he used a magical harp made from rare wood, gold and jewels. This harp would sound its music only for Dagda, and the notes he played held people spell-bound – literally as well as figuratively. He played it before battles to rally his men, after battles to soothe them, at feasts to create all night celebrations, and so on – each time, no matter what the men and women were feeling before, once they heard the music of the harp they were transformed. There was only one slight problem with the Tuatha de Dannan’s situation; they were not the first people to inhabit the island. A tribe known as the Fomorians had been there first, so of course there was plenty of warfare between the two as they fought for ownership of the land. In one particularly time consuming battle the great hall of the Tuatha de Dannan, where they assembled before and after battles and on other special occasions, was left unguarded since every single tribe member was off fighting or aiding the fight.
The Fomorians saw an opportunity and entered the hall, stealing Dagda’s harp from the wall where it hung so they could play it and bend their opponents to their own will. Since the harp only answered to Dagda, this was obviously unsuccessful, and the Tuatha de Dannan swiftly figured out their plan and chased them down. In the Fomorian’s great hall, they had hung Dagda’s harp in triumph on the wall and were feasting below it.
Dagda barged in during the feast and called to his harp, which promptly leapt off the wall and into his arms (it’s a magical harp, remember?). He struck three chords; the first played the Music of Tears and made every man, woman and child in the hall weep and wail with incomparable sorrow. The second chord played the Music of Mirth, making them laugh hysterically and maniacally. The final chord was the Music of Sleep, which made each and every Fomorian in the hall fall into a deep and long lasting slumber. Although not defeated forever, their enemies would be unable to trouble them for some time, and the Tuatha de Dannan were free to roam as they pleased.
Tain Bo Cuailgne
The Tain Bo Cuailgne (or Cattle Raid of Cooley) is a sprawling story that has had many details added, subtracted, distorted, and completely rewritten over the years. It details an epic battle between several mythological figures and the complex (And often nonsensical) events that lead up to it. The three main characters are Medb (or Maeve), the wilful and passionate Queen of Connacht; her wealthy and powerful husband Ailill Mac Mata; and the legendary hero and warrior, Cu Chulainn. At the time of the story, Ireland had not yet developed into the functioning society as we know it.
The country was divided into the five provinces of Ulster, Connacht, Munster, Leinster and Meath, each with its own king who ruled numerous smaller tribes. Wealth wasn’t measured in money, because there was no such thing. Instead, it was determined by the amount of land and animals a person owned. This was what started off an argument between the King and Queen of Connacht, Maeve and Ailill. Maeve was a highly intelligent and ambitious woman who constantly strived to be her husband’s equal. She was disgusted to learn that she was just one cow short of being as wealthy as him, and sought to find an animal of equal or better value to his most prized bull, Finnbhennach.
To make matters even worse, this bull had originally been born into Maeve’s herd, but independently joined Ailill’s instead – in some versions of the story the bull did this because he didn’t want to be ruled by a woman! Maeve set her sights on a magnificent bull named Donn Cualigne, from the herd of an Ulsterman. When negotiations to buy or rent the bull failed, she decided to raid the land and take it for herself. She assembled a huge army using her own men and those of her allies, and struck at a strategic time when most of the men of Ulster were suffering from a mysterious illness.
The only person fit enough to defend Ulster was – you guessed it – Cu Chulainn himself. For months on end, he took on each Connacht solider one by one in single combat, including his foster father and brother (who Maeve deliberately sent to unnerve him). Although forced to kill his brother, he managed to come to an agreement with his father; he would lay down his arms this time if next time they met, his father would lay down his. He survived with some significant wounds, just in time for the Ulster men to recover and begin the real battle.
Once recovered, Cu Chulainn rejoined the battle and ordered his father to retreat. He did, taking a significant section of the Connacht soldiers with him. Maeve’s remaining allies panicked and retreated too, leaving her defeated, but not before she had captured the bull herself. She lead it back to her own land where it fought Ailill’s bull and killed it, leaving Maeve as the more wealthy and powerful of the two. In one ending of the story, Maeve’s bull was severely wounded in the attack, and was only fit to spend the rest of its days wandering around Ireland giving out placenames to towns and villages.
Tir na nOg
Tir na nOg (or ‘land of the young’) is an otherworldly realm in Irish mythology whose inhabitants are gifted with everlasting youth, beauty, health and happiness. It was said to be the home of the Tuath De, the ancient gods, as well as the fairies, and forbidden from mortal humans. The only way a mortal man or woman could enter the land was by invitation, since it was not part of their own world. Tir na nOg features in many Irish stories, but the most famous one stars Oisin, son of the mythological hero and leader of the Fianna, Fionn MacCumhaill.
Oisin was out hunting with the Fianna one day when they noticed something rapidly moving across the ocean on the crest of a wave. Fearing an invasion, they hurried to the coast and prepared for a battle, only to find the most beautiful woman any of them had ever seen galloping along the waves on a pristine white horse. She approached the men and introduced herself as Niamh, daughter of the God of the Sea, and said she had travelled from Tir na nOg. Many of the men feared her as they believed her to be a fairy woman, but Oisin introduced himself.
The two instantly fell in love and were inseparable for days on end, travelling around Connemara together. However, Niamh was bound to return to Tir na nOg. Unable to bear leaving her beloved Oisin, she invited him to come back with her. Oisin was so in love that he couldn’t possibly refuse, and jumped on top of the white horse without much thought, leaving his family and fellow warriors behind.
Once they crossed back over the sea to the realm of Tir na nOg, Oisin received all of the gifts it was famous for; everlasting beauty, health, and of course, the ultimate happiness with his new love. After a few months however, he began to miss the family he left behind. The ever caring Niamh gave him her horse so he could travel back to see them, but warned him not to touch the ground or he would become mortal again and would not be able to make the journey back. Oisin galloped across the water and straight to his former home, only to find it empty.
He searched for his fellow Fenians too, but could find nobody he knew. Eventually he came across three men attempting to move a great boulder down a road. He asked them where his people were, and they told him they had all died many years ago. Realising that time passes much slower in Tir na nOg than on earth and that he had in fact been away for centuries, Oisin became despondent. He fell from the horse, hit the ground, and instantly aged into a bent over old man. Trapped in an unfamiliar land where he knew nobody and was unable to travel back to his love in the other realm, poor Oisin died of a broken heart soon after. His horse galloped back to Tir na nOg where his wife Niamh would learn that he was never coming back.