Bookmans Recommends: Top Ten Irish Folktales
‘Tis the month of the Irish! In March we wear our green, try out their own Irish accents, and enjoy a pint of Guinness. Irish culture is very interesting, we at Bookmans recommend these ten Irish folktales*.
10. Midhir and Étain
Being similar to the Greek story of “Eros and Psyche,” Midhir was a member of the Tuatha dé Danann who fell in love with a mortal woman named Étain and made her his bride. His first wife and a witch of the Tuatha dé Danann, Fúamnach, grew jealous and transformed Étain into a butterfly. Fúamnach then forced Étain from the land of the Ever Young with a strong wind. For years Midhir searched for Étain, and when he found her she was once again a mortal, but she was married to a High King.
How did she turn back to a mortal, you ask? She fell into a Queen’s cup when she was a butterfly and was drank down, causing her to be reborn nine months later. Midhir challenged Étain’s husband to a game of chess. When he won the third round, he requested the King to let him have one kiss from Étain. The King tried to trick Midhir and told him in one month’s time he could earn his kiss. When that time came, he had his kingdom surrounded to ensure Midhir could not have Étain. But Midhir was able to appear in the banquet hall and retrieve Étain. When the High King and his men went out of the castle to get the queen, “all they could see were two white swans circling in the starry sky above the palace.”
9. Cú Chulainn
Sometimes referred to as the Irish Hulk (because of the rage transformation he goes through called a ríastrad), Cú Chulainn is similar to other cultures’ super strength demigods. One popular tale is how Cú Chulainn earned his name. Being named Sétanta at his birth, he gained his name at the age of eleven. While playing a game of hurling with some other boys, his uncle, the king of Ulster, was impressed with his skills and invited him to join him at a feast being held by a smith named Culann. The boy said he would join his uncle once he was done with his game.
When the king attended Culann’s feast, he forgot to mention his nephew’s arrival later. When Sétanta arrived, Culann released his ferocious hound on the intruder. Still holding the ball from his game, Sétanta threw the ball down the hound’s throat and smashed it against a stone. With Culann being devastated by the loss of his hound, Sétanta promised to raise him another one, but until that pup was grown he would protect the Culann’s land and home. Thus, he became known as Cú Chulainn, or “Culann’s Hound.”
8. Salmon, the Fish of Knowledge
Salmon are considered quite important in Irish mythology. In one popular tale, it is said that a salmon had eaten nine hazelnuts that fell into the Well of Wisdom from the nine trees that surrounded it. The poet Finegas had fished for seven years to gain this salmon because it was said whoever ate the flesh of the fish would gain the knowledge of the world. When he finally caught it, he gave it to his servant, Fionn mac Cumhaill, to cook; he warned the boy not to eat it.
As Fionn cooked the fish, he burned his thumb on the fish grease as he tested to see if it was done. When he sucked his thumb, he gained knowledge. Learning what happened, the poet gave the boy the rest of the fish to eat, thus Fionn gaining the knowledge of the world. From then on, if Fionn wanted to draw from his knowledge, all he had to do was suck his thumb.
Different from selkies (creatures that are seals by day and people by night), merrows are merfolk. If a human can steal away their cohuleen druith (enchanted cap or cloak), they will become obedient to that human. In the tale The Lady of Gollerus, a man named Dick Fitzgerald does just so. He longed a wife, and when he came across a green-haired Merrow on the beach near his home, he stole her cohuleen druith. She became his wife and bore him three children While Dick was away in another town on business, the Merrow wife found her cohuleen druith behind a fishing net. Once she placed it on her head, she instantly forgot her husband and children and returned to the sea. To the end of his days, Dick stayed by the shores, waiting for her to come back.
6. The Dullahan
The Dullahan might make you think of the Headless Horseman from Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow and is proof of how some cultures integrated into the American legends known today. Though there is not one specific tale for this legend, many that have been told share the same imagery. The Dullahan is a headless horseman 一sometimes a man, sometimes a woman一 that carries its head and a whip made from a human backbone.
Riding a black steed or driving a carriage drawn by six black horses, the sight of the Dullahan is the summoning of a dying person’s soul. If he is seen by someone, he rewards them by either throwing a basin of blood in their face or blinding them in one eye with his whip. The only thing that can defer the Dullahan from you is gold, so it’s always best to carry a gold coin if you plan to walk the lands of Ireland at night. If you want to know more about the Dullahan, it’s best to just look it up, since it’s not easy to pinpoint the stories or the background.
A wee little man in a green bowler hat that if you catch must give you his pot of gold… or his lucky charms. That’s what most think of when they hear about a leprechaun. In truth, these little bearded men were fairies, usually solitary, and were known to be cobblers (shoemakers) or tricksters that would either wear a red or a green coat. If a human catches them, they can grant the human three wishes if they’re allowed their freedom. Though there are a few stories about these little cobblers, the most interesting thing is that they are actually a protected species under European Union law. There’s a place in Carlingford, Ireland called Sliabh Foy Loop trail, and it’s protected land with apparently 236 leprechauns living there. Interesting, right?
The Banshee, or bean sidhe (woman of the hills) in Gaelic, is supposed to be a forewarning of death. Originally only being able to cry for five major Irish families, marriages out of the families made to where almost anyone could hear her cry. If seen, she is usually disguised as a young woman or an old crone, and it is certain that you or a family will soon die.
Pronounced pooka, these little shape-shifting fairies are known to be mischievous tricksters. Usually seen around farmlands and quiet country roads, a púca can take the form of any animal but can be known by its black fur or hair, red or golden glowing eyes, and its ability to speak the human tongue. If you’d like to know more about this little creature that actually has a day set aside for him, I would recommend watching a few videos such as this one here and decide for yourself whether the púca is malevolent in nature or not (because they don’t always seem to be bad).
2. Tuatha dé Danann
This race of people were the main deities before Christianity spread throughout Ireland. Being named after the goddess Danu, this tribe came to Ireland. They came to Ireland through a mist that was dark and covered the sun for two or three days. After living in and ruling Ireland for almost two hundred years, they were fought and defeated by the Milesians, the ancestors of modern Irish people. But the Milesians allowed the Tuatha dé Danann to stay in Ireland, but only underground; thus, they became the keepers of the fairies and were called “Aes sidhe,” the “People of the Mounds.” To this day, they are still respected.
1. Children of Lir
There are three stories of sorrow in Ireland, and the “Children of Lir” is the second one. Thought to be some inspiration for “Swan Lake,” this story is about the four children of the High King/Sea God Lir. They are turned into swans by their stepmother Oifa, who was jealous of the love their father had for them. So, she transformed them into swans in order to have Lir all to herself. She told them as they cried and asked her when their curse would end that it would in nine hundred years. When Lir found out what happened to his sons and daughter, he told their grandfather, who then had transformed Oifa into an air-demon, lost in the mist to this day.
By the time the children’s cursed had ended, Ireland had been converted to Christianity. It is said when a man betrothed to a princess came to capture the swans for her, they shed their feathers and became human again. But instead of being children, they were withered and old people. Being close to death, Saint Patrick himself baptized the children of Lir before they passed away.
Bonus: The myth and truth of Saint Patrick.
Bet you know the myth of how Saint Patrick chased the snakes out of Ireland. But the truth is the climate on the Green Isle is too cold for snakes. More than likely, the “snakes” represented the Druids and paganism in Ireland. Also, he’s not from Ireland. He was taken from his home in Britain and was a slave in Ireland for six years. After his escape, he joined the clergy, and then returned to Ireland years later. We can also thank him for shamrocks being popularized with the holiday. He is said to have used a shamrock to define the Christian Trinity to the people of Ireland. Though this saint served only one god, tales of him have leaked into the old tales of Erin. That makes him just as much a part of Irish folklore as the Tuatha dé Danann and fairies are.
We hope you enjoy this list or Irish folktales and legends. We here at Bookmans find them exciting and adventurous. Check for any of these titles at your favorite Bookmans location.
We end this with an Irish saying we think we all can relate to – An té a bhíonn siúlach bíonn scéalach (He who travels has stories to tell).
This blog is by guest writer Sky D. of Bookmans Mesa!
Bookmans Recommends: Top Ten Irish Folktales* Sources
- “Midir and Etain.” Irish Sagas and Folk Tales, by Eileen O’Faolain, Poolbeg P., 2005, pp. 23–26.
- “Cú Chulainn: The Legend of the Irish Hulk.” Mythology & Fiction Explained, director. YouTube. YouTube, YouTube, 27 Apr. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgHBGFL9v7s.
- “Salmon of Knowledge.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 6 Mar. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salmon_of_Knowledge.
- Crocker, T. Crofton. “Irish Fairy and Folk Tales.” Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, by William Allingham, Fall River Press, 2014, pp. 14–23.
- “Myth of the Leprechaun.” Edited by Steven Forsyth, Myth of the Leprechaun, Celtic Wedding Rings, www.celtic-weddingrings.com/myth-of-the-leprechaun.
- MokongX3M, director. The Legend of the Púca. YouTube, YouTube, 29 Oct. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Z39_RBA0xs.
- “Irish Legends: The Tuatha De Danann – Ireland’s Greatest Tribe.” IrelandInformation.com, www.ireland-information.com/irish-mythology/tuatha-de-danann-irish-legend.html.
- The Exploring Series, director. Exploring Celtic Mythology: Children of Lir. YouTube, YouTube, 18 June 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=hROVjj0fX84.
- “Saint Patrick.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Mar. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Patri