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Irish Culture & History Series: Irish Myths & Legends

Irish Culture & History Series: Irish Myths & Legends

Irish Culture & History Series


Irish Myths & Legends


by John Slattery


Finn MacCool

Finn MacCool


I recall the day I walked into the Boulder Bookstore and found my way over to the Mythological Section. There on the shelf was the copy of Irish Myths and Legends, by Lady Gregory, that I still possess today. Nearly 20 years later, the exploration of these stories has opened up vast worlds of imagination for me, and my daughter. At the time I bought it and for many years after, I couldn’t even read it. After several attempts I put it down, not to pick it up again for many, many years. The names, place names, and people were so foreign to me. The complex lineages and lack of background made it all very difficult to comprehend at the time. And like so many uncommon or unpopular things I’ve been attracted to in my life, I thought, “why bother? who’s interested in these arcane stories anyhow?”. My book remained in a storage box for many years. 

Not being raised with any real appreciation for Irish culture (other than such references as the John Wayne film, The Quiet Man; and, of course, the self-deprecating wit) these stories of my ancestors were indeed foreign to me. But when I finally made it to Ireland, even shortly before I arrived, and my ancestors began to speak to me and live and breathe within me, these stories finally began to come alive. There was a hunger within me to know who these characters were, and what the cultural context was for the telling of their stories or the lives they may have truly lived. I began to see the stories not just as colorful imaginations, but as the expression of something real, an inheritance which is as real as the whisperings of our ancestors the quiet of the forest, or as real as the spray of the ocean mist across my face on a foggy afternoon, each echoing our origins and to where we’ll one day return. These stories began to inspire my curiosity, intellectual and imaginative, and provoke me to explore ancient pathways as if the voices of these beings from long ago... Diarmiud, Tuan mac Carill, or the mighty Dagda himself were calling me from far off in the distance to rise up, shake the dust from the crannies of my ancestral awareness, and take a dive into the abyss of uncertainty on a whim of deep inner knowing. 




The tremendously rich legacy of stories, myths, and legends within the Irish heritage is something which many of us may be unaware of, yet be entirely accustomed to. That is to say that it has seeped into our awareness not so much through its direct re-telling within our families, communities, or Hollywood entertainment, but through the selective borrowing from the rich oral tradition that has remained alive in Ireland over the centuries.

Take the early romantic tale of Tristan and Isolda as told in the Anglo-Norman literature of the 12th century. This tale, was inspired by the earlier legends of Diarmuid and Gráinne, or that of Deirdre and Naoise, both classic Irish tales. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was sculpted from his knowledge of Gaelic (Irish, Scottish) and Brythonic (Welsh, Breton, Cornish) mythology. Undoubtedly, George Lucas borrowed various elements from Druidic lore and Irish Mythology for his Star Wars trilogy. 


The realm of Irish Mythology is broken down into chronological categories. Beginning with the Mythological Cycle we meet the Tuatha Dé Danann. Much is left to the imagination in what has been recorded in writing about the “everliving ones”, although detailed accounts of distant lineages indicate the depth of knowledge and sheer antiquity of the culture. Just how much has been lost from the oral tradition?

Significant in this Cycle are the battles for the right to rule Ireland between the Tuatha Dé Danaan and the invading Gaels, or Milesians. Agreeing to the terms of battle, the Gaels set back out to sea just past the 9th wave and were required to make it back to shore despite the Tuatha Dé Danaan’s druids’ spells which create a great tempest on the sea causing much confusion. Here, the Gael’s druid, Amergin, speaks his famous ‘Song of Amergin’ to part the waves, clear the skies, and provide a safe passage to shore...


I am the wind on the sea;

I am the wave of the sea;

I am the bull of seven battles;

I am the eagle on the rock

I am a flash from the sun;

I am the most beautiful of plants;

I am a strong wild boar;

I am a salmon in the water;

I am a lake in the plain;

I am the word of knowledge;

I am the head of the spear in battle;

I am the god that puts fire in the head;

Who spreads light in the gathering on the hills?

Who can tell the ages of the moon?

Who can tell the place where the sun rests


This is said to be Amergin’s call upon the island itself, as a living being, for its assistance and its blessing that the Gael may prevail; and that they did (additionally, some recognize in these words the allusion to the logistics of sacred megalithic sites, such as Newgrange, particularly in the last 3 lines). Ultimately, however, it is the three queens of Ireland that give the Gaels permission to rule. In this we see the ancient law of the land which dictated that the divine feminine, our Earth Mother, ultimately gave the right to rule. The queen and her king, whom governed the land in human form as her representatives, could only be given the supreme right to rule the land by the Earth Mother herself. Éire spoke the words to Amergin acknowledging that the new rulership of the Emerald Isle had been bestowed to the Gaels. Her condition being that it be named after her, as well as the other two queens of Ireland at the time, Banba and Fódla (two other lesser known names for Ireland).

The Gaels divide Ireland into two parts, the north and the south with two brothers, sons of Míl Espáne, each taking half. However, in short time one overthrows the other and kills his other brothers to take control of the whole island. Yes, this is the modern legacy of Ireland, and this sets the stage for continuous in-fighting up until the moment the Normans and Saxons are able to begin gaining control of Ireland in the 12th century by utilizing this ages-old behavior to their favor when one regional king seeks their support in the attempt to overthrow another regional king. Sadly, it continues to this day.

As I’ve said many times in my classes on the rich traditions and history of Ireland, this robust and gifted culture, its people, could never have been overthrown had it not betrayed itself from within. Yet, seemingly, that was the tragic destiny of the Emerald Isle, after centuries, or millennia, of a golden epoch. For one must become lost, in order to find one’s way home again.


The Ulster, or Red Branch, Cycle pertains to the region of what is now comprised of counties Armagh, Down, and Louth. These stories are said to have occurred before the 1st century AD and are centered around the kingship of Conchobar mac Nessa, and the heroic deeds of Cú Chulainn (cu HOO-lan), Conchobar’s nephew. Named Sétanta at birth, he gains his new name (“Culann’s Hound”) by easily slaying the ferocious hound of Conchobar when unexpectedly attacked, in defense of himself. Interestingly, close similarities are found amongst the Persion hero, Rostam, the Germanic, Lay of Hildebrand, and the Greek, Heracles. As Heracles is the son of Zeus, Cú Chulainn is the son of Lugh, an immortal being of the Tuatha Dé Danann, making Cú Chulainn half immortal himself. Lugh is celebrated on the 1st of August in the cross quarter day of Lughnasa. Similar to other Celtic fire festivals, but focused on Lugh, the harbinger of light, marking the beginning of summer’s descent into autumn. Lugh was a master of all arts, a fearsome warrior (who slayed Balor the Evil Eye, and drove out the oppressive Fomori), and often referred to as the God of Light, for when he appeared from over the western horizon many men grew astonished believing they were viewing the sun rise on the opposite side of the Earth. As Irish Gaelic (gaeilge) is an ancient language, it appears to me that his name is perhaps our source for the Latin, lux, or the Spanish, luz, both meaning “light”. 

The longest tale, and perhaps the most famous amongst all the Cycles, is the Cattle Raid of Cooley (Táin Bó Cúailnge). Despite Cú Chulainn’s incredibly astounding feats and singular prowess as a warrior, perhaps even more impressive is the character Queen Maeve (Medb). As the queen of Connacht, she invades Ulster to steal the prized Bull of Cooley. Arising from a dispute with her husband, Aillil, the king (who had previously been her chief bodyguard, and lover), as to who was the weathier between them, Queen Maeve puts her mind to gaining the best bull in all the land and she stops at nothing, including sacrificing her own son to Cú Chulainn’s blows, to gain this prized bull. A truly wasteful conflict, perhaps showing the Sovereignty Goddess’ (represented by Queen Maeve) primacy despite the abusive patriarchal rule of Ireland at the time. Queen Medb is perhaps the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Queen Mab, who like other once robust and majestic Irish characters (i.e. leprechauns), is made into a diminutive sprite “delivering the fancies of sleeping men” - a far cry from the ambitious and fearsome Queen Medb.


Queen Maeve's tomb in county Sligo, Knocknarea

Queen Maeve's tomb in county Sligo, Knocknarea


The third cycle is called the Fenian, or Ossianic, Cycle. Fionn mac Cumhaill (fin ma-COOL) is the hero of this cycle, however, his son, Oísin (Oh-SHEEN) is the narrator of the tales, thus, it’s also referred to as the Ossianic Cycle. The Fianna were the highly conditioned and courageous warrior clan entrusted with protecting the island of Ireland. Here, too, we find the classic tale of Diarmuid and Gráinne, the tale of tragic lovers relentlessly pursued throughout Ireland by Fionn and his retinue of warriors. Diarmuid was a highly skilled and well-loved member of the Fianna. More importantly, he was of immortal blood as the son of Aenghus Óg (Tuatha Dé Danann god of love and creativity) and possessed a “love spot” on his forehead which, upon sight, would cause any woman alive to instantly fall in love with him. Cautiously, and wisely, Diarmuid kept this spot covered, always. However, upon sudden accident Gráinne was able to catch sight of Diarmuid’s love spot and quickly fell in love. Perhaps young enough to be Fionn’s granddaughter she lost little love for him, but was now unrequited in her love and adoration for Diarmuid due to his relationship to Fionn and the Fianna. However, they soon fled together, but were quickly cursed by Fionn such that they could not spend more than one night in the same location. This pursuit went on for several years before Fionn acquiesced and Diarmuid and Gráinne settled to make a home and raise a family. To this day, the countryside is filled with the “beds of Diarmuid and Gráinne” testifying to the arduous trek which they took to so that their love may know one more night of grace.


Finally, the Historical Cycle, or the Cycle of the Kings, contains stories of the legendary kings of Ireland spanning a time from the 5th century BC, to the 11th century AD. Included is the story of Brian Ború, the founder of the O’Brien lineage. He first became king of Munster which includes the modern counties Clare, Limerick, Tipperary, Kerry, Cork, and Waterford. In east Clare, one can find the Brian Ború oak (Quercus robur) that is said to be the oldest oak in Ireland dating back to the lifetime of Brian Ború in the 11th century AD. 


Brian Ború oak in County Clare

Brian Ború oak in County Clare


Within this cycle (taken from the Book of the Dun Cow) we encounter a very fascinating story which tells the tale of the ancient meeting the emerging modernity. Tuan mac Cairill has been alive and conscious since the first days of the initial invaders on Ireland following the Great Flood. He proceeds to tell the story of the 5 invasions of Ireland. This is a story of shape-shifting, ancient lineages, and the culture’s relationship to the power and wisdom of wild animals. This is the ancient Ireland, inherited from where we know not. But the earliest “invaders” was known as Partholon, the Middle Age scripts tell us, hailing from Greece. These colonizers eventually perished in one short week, all 5,000 of them, falling to a wretched and sudden illness; but for one. 


Tuan mac Cairill watching the next wave of invaders roll in (illustration: J. Fitzpatrick)

Tuan mac Cairill watching the next wave of invaders roll in (illustration: J. Fitzpatrick)


Tuan remained on the island by himself for ages escaping wolves and wild cats, slowly becoming animal himself. As he watched Nemed’s forces appear, great warriors they were, he began shape-shifting into a great stag. As a stag, he reigned over all the herds of Ireland, yet he was pursued relentlessly and tirelessly by the great hunters of Nemed, but never was caught. Until he went to sleep before a cave and changed his form yet again, this time into a terrifying wild boar. A terrifying beast which knew no fear amongst all creatures of the land he tore through the landscape with fearsome power and might. Speaking initially of his days amongst men, with Partholon, Tuan states:


Sweet was my brilliant judgment

Among the women with beauty,

Stately was my fair chariot,

Sweet was my song across a dark road.


Swift was my step without straying

In battles at the onset,

Fair was my face, there was a day,

Though to-day I am a boar.


This shape-shifting continued as a hawk, soaring high above all the lands of Ireland, seeing all, knowing all. Then into the form of a mighty salmon, knowing freedom of movement like he had never known venturing out into the vast and open sea. Over time, he began to feel a tremendous urge to return to the island. Upon arriving, swimming up river, he could feel his body begin to grow weaker and as if it was disintegrating. Here he was caught by a fisherman of King Carill, then grilled and fed to the Queen. He entered her womb and began growing as a fetus within her. He was aware of all happenings around him, all that was said, all within his memory from here forward. Born as a seer, Tuan, son of Carill, entered human form once again and remained in this form for many centuries hence.   

These stories are being told, by Tuan, to Finnian, an Abbot from Donegal, thereby transferring the custody of Ireland’s ancient lore from the nearly extinct Druidic lineages (which Tuan represented), to the Christian era of civilization. The Medieval Christian scribes put these stories down on paper to keep them for the ages, so, undoubtedly, aspects of the stories had been perhaps misinterpreted, or at least interpreted from the Christian perspective for that was the perspective they likely carried. Although, these Christian scribes so often referred to were likely of Irish stock. Which leads me to wonder... where were they raised, and how? That is, which elements of Irish culture had been instilled within them as children that religious or colonial education would not eliminate? Had not these elements been maintained within the transfer of this oral tradition from the voice to the pen? 


This is a vast treasure of tales and legends which has volumes written on it, in both English and Irish. I offer this to you as an introduction, a brief overview, to perhaps inspire you to explore it further, if you feel compelled to do so.


One parting thought I’d like to explore bridging off of the tale of Tuan the Immortal is that it’s often stated that the Medieval transcription of Irish oral history to written form was excessively influenced by Christianity. However, this was done by Irish Christians. It is also stated that Irish Christianity was heavily influenced by the “pagan” traditions present in Ireland. Setting the stage, perhaps, for a future post on this broader subject, I’d like to pose the notion that perhaps Christianity, or a different non-Roman, perhaps pre-Roman, form existed in Ireland (and elsewhere in Britain) prior to Rome itself. 

I know. This sounds preposterous when considered in light of the sanctioned history of academia and the Catholic church. However, upon encountering such authors as Conor MacDari, and Ralph Ellis, for example, I’ve found there are completely different ways to view our history. That is to say that our ‘history’ becomes history as it is told, not so much as it happens. Once a story has been told and begins to encompass centuries, if not millennia, it begins to affect how we view everything related to it. Assumptions are then formed around and built upon what we “know”. It only takes one major assumption about the formation of our world, the history of our ancestors and our civilizations, to begin to bury our true history deep in the past.   


Seek the truth within and without.