The imagination of the Irish and their talent for story-telling has ensured the survival and evolution of Ireland's myths and legends over thousands of years. Our legends embrace magical beings and strong, brave, superhuman heroes who fought and romanced, charmed and outwitted.
Even today, Irish children grow up on a diet of these tales, interweaved with the universal influences of TV, games and contemporary kids fiction. Here are some of the recurrent themes you’re bound to encounter in our landscape, art, song, stories and sense of humour:
- The legends of the former gods and origins of Ireland, chiefly the Tuatha Dé Danaan. These were the mysterious god-like people of ancient Ireland, who are said to have arrived in a cloud of smoke with four magical treasures: Dagda's Cauldron, from which no company went away unsatisfied; the spear of Lug, which defeated all battles; the sword that no-one could escape from, and the Lia Fail at Tara, County Meath, which would cry out on the arrival of a true King of Ireland.
- The heroic tales of the lives of Conchobar mac Nessa, king of Ulster, and Cú Chulainn (the hound of Culann), a true superhero who protected Culann after killing his fierce guard-dog in self-defence and single-handedly protected Ulster against the armies of Queen Medb of Connacht.
- The stories of the legendary Fionn mac Cumhaill and his band of soldiers, the Fianna. Fionn was the ultimate giant of Irish myths (at 52 feet tall!). He is said to have had, among other things, formed the Giant's Causeway in Antrim to walk to Scotland in battle; tasted the Salmon of Knowledge and, in turn, become a fountain of all knowledge, and led the Fianna – an army of warriors, druids, physicians and musicians who were protectors of Ireland.
- Tales of the lives and the genealogy of the High Kings of Ireland from mythological times right through to the historical Brian Boru , who (actually, really!) defeated the Vikings in 1014.
Ireland is also rich in folklore, and some of the characters you may encounter at the end of a rainbow, behind a tree or in the dark hours include:
- The Leprechaun: These mischievous 'little people' are perhaps the most famous of all Irish legendary characters. A type of elf, a leprechaun is a cobbler by trade who makes shoes for all the other fairy folk in the country. He (always male) is usually depicted as an old bearded man, wearing a green suit and hat. Behind every rainbow lie his hidden treasure, a crock of gold.
- The Púca: Although the Púca enjoys confusing and often terrifying humans, it is considered to be benevolent if treated with respect. The Púca has the power of human speech and has been known to give advice and lead people away from harm. On the other hand, it can assume a variety of terrifying forms, including a deformed goblin who demands its share of the crop at the end of the harvest.
- The Banshee: Not one to be messed with. The 'wailing' witch can be both an old woman or a beautiful young girl, combing her hair. Some say that when you hear the wail of the banshee, it warns of imminent death of a loved one. Myth also states that if you meet a banshee and she throws her comb at you, she's signalling your death. However, if you pick up the comb and throw it back at her, you will cheat death for the moment.
- The Dullahan: Another character best avoided, this 'headless horseman' is to be encountered around midnight on certain Irish festivals or feast days. The robed figure on a snorting steed usually carries his sneering and illuminated head under his arm, and wherever he stops, someone will die. There is no way to stop the Dullahan, and locked gates open on their own accord when it approaches. However, they are frightened of gold and even a single gold tie pin can drive a Dullahan away.