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1. Fionn mac Cumhail (Finn McCool) (County Antrim)
Fionn mac Cumhail is like Ireland’s own Superman. The renowned warrior paved roads to Scotland, hunted monsters and created entire islands. His father was a bandit outlaw; his mother, the kidnapped daughter of a druid. Fionn’s countless adventures are testament to this unusual heritage, from the time he speared a demon at the Hill of Tara, to the tale of the Salmon of Knowledge, when an enchanted fish and a sucked thumb brought him eternal wisdom. Of course, none of his exploits are more famous than the road-building, giant-battling antics that brought us the Giant’s Causeway.
Betrothed to King Mark of Cornwall, Irish princess Isolde instead fell in love with his nephew, the knight Tristan. Though the two ran away together, theirs was a doomed love; after Tristan was poisoned, Isolde died of a broken heart. They were buried beside each other, and a pair of hazel and honeysuckle trees grew, intertwined, from their graves. Today, the Dublin suburb of Chapelizod is named for the chapel of Isolde (from the Irish ‘Síopéal Iosóid’), where Tristan asked for her hand in marriage.
Son of a god and wife of a prophetess, Balor was a giant with a singular, poisonous eye on his forehead that unleashed a fiery devastation when opened.
Lured from his stronghold on Tory Island, Donegal, Balor was blinded in battle and mistakenly burned his own army to the ground. A huge hole was seared into the earth and later, filled with water, becoming Sligo’s Loch na Súil: the Lake of the Eye.
The Tuatha Dé Danann, the tribe of the gods, were mythical rulers of Ireland who arrived on dark clouds from the north and landed in the mountains of Connaught. They ruled Ireland with four talismans: the Stone of Fal, the Sword of Light, the Spear of Lugh and the Cauldron of Daghda.
After their defeat in battle, the Tuatha Dé retreated to the underworld and became the keepers of the fairy people. Their legacy lingers even today: the Irish for Ireland comes from the Tuatha Dé god, Éire.
Originally known as Setanta, our hero earned his name Cú Chulainn (meaning ‘the hound of Chulainn’) when he slayed the monstrous Ulster Hound single-handedly while still a young boy. Said to have super-human strength, Cú Chulainn was also a master of martial arts and the Irish sport of hurling. He even owned a deadly spear (the Gáe Bulg or ‘spear of mortal death’), hewn from the bone of a sea monster… but that’s a tale for another day.
The most beautiful woman in Ireland, Deirdre was engaged to the elderly King Conchobar. After seeing a raven fly over a calf being killed in the snow, she dreamed of a man with hair as black as pitch, lips as red as blood and skin as white as snow: the warrior, Naoise. The pair fell in love and went on the run together, but Naoise was killed by the vengeful King Conchobar. Forced to marry the king, Deirdre’s heart broke and she committed suicide, forever to be known as Deirdre of the Sorrows.
Born on Christmas Day, Conchobar was destined for infamy from the start. He married several daughters of the High King of Ulster, including Medb, one of Ireland’s most feared and ferocious figures. In his old age, he also married Deirdre of the Sorrows (which didn’t make her any happier as we just found out above). Often at war with kings of Ireland’s other provinces, Conchobar met a fitting and spectacular death: killed by the petrified brain of a rival, fired from a slingshot.