Ireland is a country with a millenary mythology. Let’s see some of its most outstanding legends.
Irish legends are characterized by a mystical and symbolic content typical of Celtic culture. Its main characters are usually magical, divine or mythological beings with supernatural powers, who coexist with humans in different ways. The legends take place in forests and lakes, but also in worlds that are beyond human experience.
We will see in this text 10 of the most popular Irish legends, as well as their content linked to the mythology of this island.
The 10 most popular Irish legends
Legends and myths are a fundamental part of Irish culture. They allow us to know the magic of its forests and castles, as well as the fantastic beings that have inspired cinema and literature. In addition, they are important stories to understand the past and present of this attractive country. The following list brings together 10 typical legends of Ireland.
1. Osín de Tirnanoge
In Irish mythology, Tir na nÓg or Tirnanoge is an island where time seems to stop at times. Its name means “Land of Youth” and it is the place where the tribe of the gods (the Tuatha Dé Danann) lived after having left Ireland. They say that it is an almost inaccessible island, it is only possible to arrive after a long journey, or else, at the invitation of a fairy.
It has been described as a beautiful place where disease does not exist and where monks and heroes from different times have arrived. One of them was Osi, son of the mythical warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill, who was invited by Niamh Chinn Óir. They say that Osin spent three years in Tir na nög and, when she returned to Ireland on a horse, she found that her hair and skin were suddenly old: three hundred years had passed since her departure. He was found by Saint Patrick, to whom he told of his adventures in the Land of Youth.
2. The Macaldus Conversion
They say that some bandits wanted to play a joke on Saint Patrick. One of them, named Macaldus, pretends to be dead and the others ask the saint to resurrect him, without success. When they try to revive Macaldus, the bandits realize that he was really dead. At that moment they run after Saint Patrick to ask him, this time seriously, to resurrect him.
The saint decides to help them, but also imposes a punishment on them: he wraps Macaldus in padlocked chains, throws the key into the sea, and sends him off in a lonely boat. Eventually, the boat reaches the port of Man, where the villagers rescue Macaldus. While on the island, the bandit receives training to be a priest, and on the day of his ordination one of the cooks arrives, bringing with him a key that he had just found inside a fish. Macaldus gladly acknowledges that it is the key that would finally free him from his chains.
3. Hag’s Head
Near the Burren region of Ireland, there are the Cliffs of Moher, a place famous for its castles, caves and mythology. In these cliffs there is a set of rocks arranged in a peculiar way. It is a rock formation that appears to be the face of a person looking out to sea.
They say it is the head of the old witch Mal, who fell in love with Cu Chulainn (Irish hero). After chasing him through forests and Irish castles, one fine day Cú Chulainn jumped off the cliff. Mal does the same, but is unsuccessful: she crashed into the cliff and her head was forever depicted on the rocks.
4. The festivals of fire
They say that in County Westmeath, in the town of Uisneach, they find the gateway to the underworld. It is the place where kings and queens are buried. Surrounded by a lake, on top of a hill, this town is host to festivals known as the “fire festivals”. They say that in this place the life of Lugh, the sun god, ended. However, it continued to exist in the form of comments that it looks like every May in the same area. For this reason, in the fire festivals, dances, music and fire are dedicated to him as a sign of offering.
5. The ghost of Malahide
Near Dublin is a castle that is called Malahide. Legend has it that the spirit of a man named Anthony wanders in this enclosure. While alive, she was the man in charge of protecting the daughter of Richard Talbot, an Irish count of the fifteenth century. One night, the earl’s daughter suffered a seizure, for which the court unfairly blamed Anthony. Despite not having been found at the scene of the attack, the man was sentenced to hang. They say that from that day on, Anthony appears in the castle and its surroundings, seeking forgiveness and justice for his case.
6. The Hill of Tara
The Hill of Tara is the prehistoric precinct of the tribe of Irish gods (Tuatha Dé Danaan). These gods were capable of controlling sunlight and were direct descendants of the creator gods. Historians and archaeologists have long studied what lies beneath this temple.
Among other things, an oval monument more than 100 meters wide has been discovered within the hill of Tara. Surrounding this structure, and as if it were a crown, there are 300 holes of 2 meters wide each. This suggests that once there were 300 columns around the hill, and not only that, but deep underground there must be treasures to be discovered.
7. Oweynagat, the cave of cats
In County Roscommon it is famous for the rocky ranges that surround it. Historically, this place is recognized as part of the capital of the kingdom of Connacht, a place that housed characters from the Ulster Cycle, such as Queen Maeve and Ailiill de Connacht. They say that one of the caves, called Oweynagat or cave of the cats, was used as a connecting door between the world of humans and that of the gods. They also say that some destructive creatures have entered the earth through this door.
8. The leprechauns
Leprechauns are tiny, mythological beings with a green suit and a red beard. In fact, the word “leprechaun” has its origin in the Irish terminology to refer to a “small body” More than a legend, it is one of the most representative characters of Irish culture. They say they have a bad temper and that they were once inhabitants of Ireland (it is believed that they were the first to arrive). They also say that they appear in the forests and valleys, sometimes carrying a pot of gold coins. The ambitious often follow them and try to steal them, which can make them angry very easily.
9. The banshees
Like leprechauns, banshees are mythological beings. They are women or female spirits similar to fairies. In fact, the word Banshee means Woman (Ban), Fairy (Shee). Their presence does not usually indicate anything good (they say it is observed when someone is about to pass away).
It usually takes the form of a woman wrapped in a cape that completely covers her. Other versions say that the banshees appear as a beautiful young woman, or as a matron. In addition, it is present through a lament that can begin as a whisper and progress to a loud cry, which is the final omen of the tragedy.
10. The hero Cuchulainn
Legend has it that one day the warrior Crunn came to the capital of the kingdom of Conchobor to see a horse race presided over by the king. Over the course of the race, Crunn claimed that his wife was faster than some of the competitors, even when she was pregnant. The King of Conchobor asked the wife to demonstrate this and, to everyone’s surprise, she did. He later gave birth to two sons, one of whom was named Cuchulainn.
Despite having grown up with the expectation of always being in the shadow of others; very young, Cuchulainn managed to kill an animal that no one could defeat. Since then he was known as a hero who is victorious in every battle and is the bearer of the best weapons. In fact, around the legend of the hero Cuchulainn, many other stories have developed.
- Gonzáles, H. (2005). Irish traditions. A journey through its myths, legends and popular tales. Latin circle: Barcelona.