Ireland's myths and legends

“Every field in Ireland contains a tale; there's a myth on every mountain. For legends, follow the stream of any river – and soon you'll understand why Ireland's national art form is the story...”

Children of Lir sculpture, Ballycastle
Children of Lir sculpture, Ballycastle

So says novelist, broadcaster and journalist Frank Delaney. And he would know. Once called “the most eloquent man in the world” by the National Public Radio in the US, Delaney is also the author of The Last Storyteller and has lived a life immersed in literature.

He’s not alone. Ireland has more than a few storytellers up its sleeve: James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, CS Lewis, Joseph O’Connor, Maeve Binchy, Seamus Heaney and Bernard McLaverty are just some of the greats in recent memory. But you have to go a lot further back to look at how our myths and legends have been chronicled.

Forest where leprecahuns might appear!

Thankfully, these amazing tales weren’t only passed on by the spoken word, they were written down for all to see for centuries to come. In fact, ancient tomes such as the Book of Ballymote held by the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, and the Book of Leinster, which you can see at Dublin’s Trinity College library, contain some of the first recorded versions of Ireland’s myths.

Here are just a few of our more enduring tales…

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The little folk

Where better to start on a journey into mythical Ireland than with leprechauns. Those tiny, mischievous men who are fond of hiding gold at the end of rainbows and wearing dapper green hats. Curator of the Dublin Leprechaun Museum, Tom O’Rahilly, fills us in on one or two “small” secrets.

“Leprechauns have been in Ireland for thousands of years, indeed the first recorded sighting dates back to the 8th century. What might surprise many people is that there are female leprechauns, too. As shoemakers to the fairies, leprechauns have amassed great amounts of money.”

The Children of Lir

On a grassy patch of Antrim’s Ballycastle seafront, four swans hang in the air, mid-flight. This bright white statue doesn’t depict just any swans. These are the Children of Lir – four children turned to birds by a jealous stepmother. The tale tells us that the siblings spent 300 years on Lough Derravaragh in Westmeath and the island of Inishglora off Mayo’s coast.

They also found sanctuary across from where their statue sits today: Antrim’s gorgeous Rathlin Island. Endings to the tale vary, but all agree that it was Rathlin Island where the swans returned to their human forms and breathed their last breaths.

Cú Chulainn and Ferdia

What’s in a name? In the case of Ardee in County Louth – there’s plenty. Roughly translated as “Ferdia’s ford”, this town and the River Dee were the stage for the greatest ever battle in Irish folklore. Ferdia is a Connacht warrior sent by his king and queen to the river to fight the mighty Cú Chulainn.

Here’s the twist – Ferdia and Cú Chulainn are foster brothers. Best friends. For three days they fight and by night they mend each others' wounds. At a bridge over the River Dee, a statue hints at the story’s end. Ferdia lies dead in Cú Chulainn’s arms. Mythology it may be, but that doesn’t mean the power of the story doesn’t live on.

There’s a lesson to be learned there. Ireland’s mythology doesn’t hide from sadness. It doesn’t shirk tragedy.

As much as the legends are in fantasy, the feelings are real. The places are, too. And maybe that’s what makes the stories so exciting. And, as you’ll probably already realise, these three tales are just the very tip of the mythological and legendary iceberg of stories…

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