These green hills are steeped in a rich tapestry of Irish myths and legends. In this article, we’re going to explore the most famous Irish myths and legends in our expansive history. As a storytelling nation, these fables were passed down through the generations by word of mouth, in story or song, often embellished over the years, but the core narrative remains the same.
What are the most famous Irish Myths and Legends?
Ireland has some of the most interesting tales of heroic warriors and magical artifacts from history that our Irish heritage is built upon. From Fionn mac Cumhaill to Cú Chulainn, Manannán mac Lir and more, let’s take a look at the 12 most famous Irish myths and legends.
I know it’s St. Patrick’s Day today, but bear with me. Patrick is featured elsewhere.
Fionn mac Cumhaill
Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool to those of you who don’t know) is most well known as one of the greatest warriors in Irish legend. But his mythology also reaches Scotland and the Isle of Man, too.
He was the leader of the Fianna, a largely independent band of travelling warriors, spoken most often in the tales from the Fenian Cycle. His birth name was Deimne but, according to the legends, he got the name Fionn, meaning ‘white’ or ‘fair’ when his hair turned white at a young age.
Fionn studied under the tutelage of druid-poet Finn Éces, who had spent years trying to catch the Salmon of Knowledge (more on that later). When it was eventually caught, Fionn was instructed in how to prepare and cook the fish, but he burnt his thumb and, upon sucking it, was imbued with the knowledge from the salmon.
Legend has it, Fionn mac Cumhaill built the Giant’s Causeway as a pathway to Scotland. He is often depicted as a giant, and a huge boot-shaped rock that stands at the Giant’s Causeway is said to be the fossilised remains of his shoe.
He is probably the most famous figure in Irish mythology.
The most famous Irish hero in our history, and probably my personal favourite, is the demigod, Cú Chulainn. Sired by the god Lugh to a mortal mother, his birth name was Sétanta (are you sensing the pattern? Perhaps to become an Irish hero, you must be given a new name! From now on, you can call me Dave).
[Aside: Setanta gets a minor mention in Book 3 of the Ailigh Wars Saga]
He got his famous alias when he killed a dog in self-defence that belonged to the smith, Culann. At Culann’s devastation, Sétanta takes the place of the guard dog at Culann’s side, thus becoming Cú Chulainn (Hound of Culann, or Culann’s Hound), until a replacement dog can be reared.
When he was 17, all the men of Ulster were cursed to suffer pains of labour, and the queen of Connacht, Medb, invades their land to steal a fertile bull. Cú Chulainn defeats her warriors singlehandedly in combat that lasted for months.
He is forced to fight against – and kill – his best friend and foster-brother, Ferdiad, when Ferdiad was bribed by Medb’s daughter. He and Cú Chulainn are often said to have been lovers. Cú Chulainn mourned Ferdiad’s death with devoted sadness.
Manannán mac Lir
Manannán mac Lir was a legendary sea-god, regarded by the Celts as the father of all fishermen, and father of Tuatha Dé Danann, after whom the entire realm of Ireland is named.
He is known as the ruler of the Otherworld, and his spectral ship, Sguaba Tuinne (meaning wave-sweeper), could navigate itself. It is often depicted as being pulled by a horse, Aonbharr, who could walk on water, and his ship would carry deceased warriors to the Otherworld.
Manannán sired many children, both gods and demigods to human mothers. It is said he appeared to a queen whose husband was at war and foretold of her king’s death if she did not sleep with him. The escapade resulted in the birth of Mongán, whom Manannán took to Tír Tairnigiri (the Land of Promise). When Mongán was returned to Ireland, he became a great warrior and king.
The Fiann (or collectively the Fianna) are warrior bands sometimes said to have been founded in 300 BCE, living as landless men who wandered across Ireland. They are legendary because of their versatility as fighters, explorers, chieftains, kingmakers and keepers of secrets. Although they are variously depicted as many Fiann tribes, the prominent tales describe them as a single unit.
The most famous leader of the Fianna was Fionn mac Cumhaill.
While many mythological legends are attributed to the Fianna, they are generally considered to be based on historical bands of warrior men.
Diarmuid Ua (literally ‘daughter of’) Duibhne, was said to be beautiful. In his late youth, he became a member of the Fianna.
While hunting, he and several of his Fianna brothers met an old man and a girl. Each of the men made to sleep with the girl, but she took only Diarmuid as her lover that night. She touched his forehead, giving him a mystical love spot, and no woman could look upon him without falling for his beauty.
Diarmuid was given to a foster-father, as all great heroes were, but unlike many, his foster-father was the god of love, Aonghus Óg.
When Fionn mac Cumhaill was in his old age, he was betrothed to a girl called Gráinne. But Gráinne had no wish to marry the old man. She placed a geis (a bond) upon Diarmuid to elope with her.
Perhaps the least known of these myths is that of Lugaid mac Daire, who was told of a prophecy that one of his sons would become the High King of Ireland. He gave each of his five sons his own name, Lugaid, so that a Lugaid would sit upon the kingseat in his name.
When the sons were out hunting one day, an old and ugly crone came to them and asked them for a kiss. She was refused by the first four sons, but when the youngest, Lugaid Loígde, agreed to kiss her, she cast off her image of an old hag and turned into the beautiful goddess, Sovranty.
She anointed him as the chosen son, and he took his place as the High King of Ireland.
There is a similar myth surround that of Niall of the Nine Hostages.
The Children of Lir
The story of the Children of Lir has its origins in Christian faith but is set in the pre-Christian era of the Tuatha dé Danann. It is the tale of the four children of Lir – Fionnghuala, Aodh, and the twins Fiachra and Conn.
Their stepmother, who felt that they took all of their father’s love and left none for her, swept the children away from him with a view to killing them. When she could not go through with the act, she took them to a lough and cast a spell upon them, turning them into white swans while they bathed.
For 900 years they were destined to live as swans. As time wore on and St. Patrick came to Ireland with Christianity, the swans were heard to sing by a holy man, Mochaomhóg. He asked that he could bind them with pure silver chains, and they were happy for him to do so, for they did not fear the holy man.
Soon, the story of the singing swans reached the ears of Deoch, wife of Lairgnen, who sought to obtain the swans for herself. When Lairgnen tried to snatch the swans, their feathers fell away to reveal the children, now grown up and ancient. The four Children of Lir were baptised in the Christian faith by the holy man before they died.
The Salmon of Knowledge
Fionn mac Cumhaill makes a return to our list in this story of the Salmon of Knowledge. The story, featuring in The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn, tells us that an unremarkable salmon ate nine hazelnuts from nine trees and ingested all the knowledge from the world.
Fionn, during his time studying under the druid-poet Finn Éces, noted that the poet had spent seven years searching for the fish. When he finally caught it, he instructed Fionn in how to cook it, and during the process, Fionn burnt his thumb on the fish’s flesh. When he sucked it to cool his thumb, he was granted the salmon’s knowledge.
From then on, whenever Fionn needed to call upon that knowledge, he could do so by sucking or biting on his thumb.
No list of the most popular Irish myths and legends would be complete without the inclusion of Nuada of the Silver Hand. He was known as the leader of the Tuatha dé Danann, the god figures of Irish lore that lived in Ireland before the advent of the Milesians (humans).
When the Tuatha dé Danann first arrived on Ireland’s shores, they were met by the Fir Bolg who lived there before them. In the first battle of Mag Tuired, Nuada lost his hand and, because he was now blemished, had to relinquish his kingship of the dé Danann.
The god Dian Cécht made Nuada a hand of silver to replace the shorn extremity, and later, Dian Cécht’s son, Miach, replaced the silver hand with one of flesh and blood.
Nuada regained his position as king and he was later slain in the second battle of Mag Tuired by Balor of the Evil Eye.
The Children of Tuireann
As far as Irish myths and legends go, few stories are as adventurous as that of the children of Tuireann. The sons of Tuireann – Brían, Iuchar and Iucharba – were born to the goddess Brigid. In a fight against their father’s enemy, Cian, Lugh’s father, the three siblings slew him and angered Lugh.
Lugh, as compensation, demanded that the sons of Tuireann fulfil eight tasks. They were to get three apples from the Garden of Hesperides; a poisoned spear from Pisear of Persia; a pig-skin from the king of Greece; a chariot and two horses from the king of Sicily; two pigs from the king of the Golder Pillars; a hound owned by king Lugh Lámhfhada of the Ioruiadh; a cooking spit from the women of Fianchuibhe from the bottom of the sea; and final they were to utter three shouts from the top of the Hill of Miodchaoin.
The Children of Tuireann succeeded in their quest, but returned to Ireland in bad shape, wounded and near death. Lugh refused to heal them.
The tale is often likened to Jason and the Argonauts.
Deirdre of the Sorrows
Bring tissues. This is one of the most tragic of love stories in ancient Irish myths and legends. When Deirdre was born, her father, Felim mac Dall, was entertaining Conchobhar mac Nessa, the King of Ulster.
The king’s druid cast her fortune and said that she would be beautiful and would grow up to wed a king – however, because of her, death and ruin would come upon the land. King Conchobhar saved the baby from his warriors who sought her immediate death, and he said he would wed her when she was of age so that no other king would suffer.
But when the time came, Deirdre, now a young woman, had no interest in marriage to such an old king. When she met and fell in love with Naoise, son of Usna, they eloped together to live happily in Glen Etibhe.
But Conchobhar, incensed, feigned his acceptance of the arrangement between Naoise and Deirdre, pretending that he forgave them. In a surprise attack on route, Naoise was slain and Deirdre was forced to wed the old king. For a year, she remained at his side, never smiling, and the sorrow at the loss of her love was palpable.
Conchobhar asked Deirdre who she hated most in the world, and she replied her hatred was directed at him and the man who killed Naoise. Bound at the wrists, she was sent to Eoghan mac Duracht – Naoise’s killed – to be his wife for a year, but she jumped from the carbad (chariot), dashing her head upon a rock.
From her grave grew a tall pine tree, and from Naoise’s grave a second pine tree grew. Their branches entwined above their graves and could never be separated.
I couldn’t let this one slide. I personally love the Morrígan because her name is so similar to my surname. But aside from that, she’s an important figure in Irish myths and legends.
She was the goddess of war, death and slaughter. Is is often interchangeable with Macha, Badb and Nemain. The Morrígan was a shapeshifting goddess whose most popular form was as a crow or raven. She helped the dé Danann at the first and second battle of Mag Tuired.
In the tales of Cú Chulainn, the Morrígan made attempts to get him to sleep with her, but when he refused, they fought and Cú Chulainn wounded her. Later, when he was eventually killed, she appeared to him in the form of a crow and drank his blood.
It is the Morrígan, in part, that perpetuates the trope of crows as portents of danger or evil in modern storytelling.
Bonus Legend: King Arthur
Although the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is British in origin, did you know that he appears in ancient Irish myths and legends, too?
In Irish Celtic tales, he appears as the son of the king of Britain who journeys to Ireland to steal the hounds belonging to Fionn mac Cumhaill, Bran and Sceolan. Fionn and his Fianna pursue Prince Arthur to Britain to retrieve their hounds and Arthur swears loyalty to Fionn mac Cumhaill.
Which is these myths are your favourite? You can drop us an email to let us know.