“Irish legends are characterized by a mystical and symbolic content typical of the Celtic culture. Its main characters are usually magical, divine or mythological beings with supernatural powers, who coexist with humans in different ways. 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 contents 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 narrations to understand past and present of this attractive country. The following list gathers 10 typical Irish legends.
1. Osn de Tirnanoge
In Irish mythology, Tir na nÓg or Tirnanoge is an island where time seems to stop at times. If name means “Land of Youth” and is the place where the tribe of the gods lived (the Tuatha Dé Danann) after leaving Ireland. They say that it is an almost inaccessible island, it is only possible to arrive after a long way, or, under the invitation of a fairy.
It has been described as a beautiful place where there is no disease and to which monks and heroes from different periods 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 he returned to Ireland on a horse, he found that his hair and skin were suddenly old: three hundred years had passed since his departure. It was found by Saint Patrick, to whom he told his adventures in the Land of youth.
2. The conversion of Macaldus
They say that some bandits wanted to make a joke to Saint Patrick. One of them, named Macaldus, pretends to be dead and the others ask the saint to resuscitate 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 in earnest, to resuscitate him.
The saint decides to help them, but he also imposes a punishment on them: he wraps Macaldus in chains with a padlock, throws the key into the sea, and sends him in a solitary boat. Eventually, the boat arrives at the port of Man, where villagers rescue Macaldus. While on the island, the bandit receives training to be a priest, and on the day of ordination comes one of the cooks, who brought with him a key that he had just found inside a fish. With pleasure, Macaldus recognizes that it is the key that would finally free him from his chains.
3. Hag’s Head
Near the Burren region, in Ireland, there are the Cliffs of Moher, a place famous for its castles, its caves and its mythology. In these cliffs is a set of rocks arranged in a peculiar way. It is a rock formation that seems to be the face of a person looking towards the sea.
They say that it is the head of the old witch Mal, who fell in love with Cu Chulainn (Irish hero). After chasing him through Irish woods and castles, one day Cú Chulainn jumped off the cliff. Mal does the same, but does not succeed: hit the cliff and his head was forever portrayed on the rocks.
4. The festivals of fire
They say that in the county of Westmeath, in the town of Uisneach, there is the gateway to the ultraworld. It is about the place where kings and queens are buried. Surrounded by a lake, on the top of a hill, this town is home to a festival known as the “fire parties”.
They say that in this place ended the life of Lugh, the sun god. However, it continued to exist in the form of comments that it seems every May in the same area. For this reason, in the festivals of fire dances, music and fire are dedicated as an offering.
5. The ghost of Malahide
Near Dublin there is a castle named Malahide. Legend has it that in this room the spirit of a man named Anthony wanders. In life, he was the man in charge of protecting the daughter of Richard Talbot, an Irish count of the fifteenth century. One night, the count’s daughter suffered an attack, of which the court unfairly blamed Anthony. In spite of not having been in the scene of the aggression, the man was condemned to the gallows. They say that from that day, 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 the Irish gods (Tuatha Dé Danaan). These gods were able to control the sunlight and were direct descendants of the creator gods. Over time, historians and archaeologists have studied what lies beneath this temple.
Among other things, an oval monument more than 100 meters wide has been discovered inside the hill of Tara. Surrounding this structure, and as if it were a crown, there are 300 holes 2 meters wide each. This suggests that there were once 300 columns around the hill, and not only that, but in the subsoil there must be treasures to be discovered.
7. Oweynagat, the cave of cats
In Roscommon County it is famous for the rocky chains 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
The leprechauns are mythological beings and tiny, with green suit and beard redhead. 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 bad character and that in the past they were inhabitants of Ireland (it is believed that they were the first to arrive). They also tell that they appear in forests and valleys, sometimes carrying a pot with gold coins. The ambitious usually follow them and try to steal them, which can make them angry very easily.
9. The banshees
Just like the leprechauns, the 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 die).
It usually takes the form of a woman wrapped in a cloak that covers it completely. Other versions tell that the banshees appear as a beautiful young woman, or as a midwife. In addition, it is present through a lament that can begin as a whisper and advance to a loud cry, which is the final augury 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. In the course of the race, Crunn assured that his wife was faster than some of the competitors, even when she was pregnant. The king of Conchobor asked that the wife demonstrate this and, to the surprise of all, she did so. Later she gave birth to two children, one of whom was called Cuchulainn.
In spite of having grown up with the expectation of always being in the shadow of others; very young, Cuchulainn managed to kill an animal that nobody could beat. He was since then known as a hero who emerges victorious from every battle and bearer of the best weapons. In fact, around the legend of hero Cuchulainn, many other stories have developed.