Everybody is familiar with the myths and legends of the gods and heroes from Ancient Greece or the stories of the Vikings in the Scandinavian countries. But every country has its own stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. Ireland is of course no exception with many ancient stories that are unknown outside the island. I’ve always thought that the best way to get to know a culture is through its stories. As such, I thought I would very quickly share some of the more famous, ancient stories from Ireland.
The Giant’s Causeway
The story of the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland is one that’s particularly interesting because you can visit where the story is said to have taken place*. For those of you who don’t know, the Giant’s Causeway is a geographical formation of basalt columns that is noteworthy* because of their hexagonal shape. In reality they were formed thousands of years ago by a volcanic eruption.
That’s the truth. The legend, however, says that the Irish giant Finn MacCool built the causeway as a bridge to Scotland after he was challenged to fight by a Scottish giant called Benandonner. When the Scottish giant came to fight, Finn realised Brenandoner was much bigger than him so Finn’s wife disguised him as a baby. When Benandonner saw the baby he got scared thinking if that was the size of the baby, how big would Finn be? When running back to Scotland he ripped the causeway apart*, leaving the stones that can be seen today.
The Children of Lir
Magic is very common in the Irish stories and this well-loved tale is full of it. The story starts when a man called Bodb Derg is elected as the head of a supernatural race of people* called the Tuatha Dé Danann. Another man named Lir was annoyed by this and so, to keep Lir happy, Bodb gave him one of his daughters Aoibh in marriage. Aoibh and Lir had four children called: Fionnuala, Aodh, Fiachra and Conn.
Unfortunately Aoibh dies and so Bodb gives him another one of his daughters Aoife (women’s rights hadn’t quite reached Ireland a few thousand years ago). Aoife was very jealous of the children and tried to have them killed but nobody would do it. So instead, as any logical person would do, she turned them into swans.
Lir, unsurprisingly, was very angry and turned Aoife into an air daemon for eternity. Things didn’t improve for the children though who had to spend 900 years on different seas and lakes – 300 years on each.
How Cú Chulainn got his name
The last story I will briefly tell you is about one of the most famous heroes in Irish mythology. There are many stories about this character from his miraculous birth to his bloody death but one I’ve always liked is about how he got his name.
Originally Cú Chulainn was named Sétanta and the story says he was invited to a feast at the house of a man called Culann. However, Sétanta is playing the Irish sport hurling with other children. Hurling is a game played with a long stick called a ‘hurley’ and a ball called a ‘sliotar’. He promises to come later but Culann forgets and puts the guard dog or ‘hound’ out as protection.
When Sétanta arrives the dog attacks him so he hits the sliotar down the hound’s throat, killing him. To make up for* killing the guard dog, Sétanta promises to protect Culann’s house until a new dog is raised. From that time on he was named ‘Cu Chulainn’ which in English means ‘The Hound of Culann’.
These are just a few very short examples of ancient Irish stories with many details missing. If all the strange and difficult to pronounce names haven’t scared you away* there are many more to read. Collections of the stories, written both for adults and children with varying difficulty levels can be found online. So, if you happen to have an interest in myths and legends from different countries, why not take some time to read what Ireland has to offer.