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Irish Myths and Legends


Countless works have been written on the subject of Irish myths and legends. Irish history is rich in stories and sages about heroes, fairies, gods, wars and romances. The ancient stories can be divided into four circles of tales:
 
  1. The Mythological Cycle
  2. The Ulster Cycle
  3. The Fenian Cycle
  4. The Cycle of Kings


Most of what we know about pagan Ireland comes from the Mythological Cycle. The stories tell of a land inhabited by ancient spirits and fairies. The 'Tuatha Dé Danann' are said to be the Irish equivalent of the Greek and Roman gods. Legend claims that they arrived in Ireland about 350 BC from the north Islands of Greece where they had learned their druidry, prophecy and magic. The Dagda was the leader of the Irish pantheon of gods, the father of all. He is said to have carried a harp, a club and a cauldron. The harp may be said to represent the music and poetry of Ireland, the club may stand for war and the cauldron represents the Celtic spirit. It was also the pot from which the Dagda drank and ate before copulating with female gods. Therefore it was aslo a symbol of fertility.

The Tuatha Dé Danann were driven underground by invaders and thereafter inhabited the dark underworld of the hills and mountains., which were already full of fairies. Halloween (October 31st) was the night when the hills opened up and the spirits and the gods poured forth, led by flocks of red birds and a three-headed vulture.

Crom was the god of corn or agriculture. The people were terrified of Crom and offered fresh sacrifices of first-born animals and babies in return for a plentiful harvest. On the night (Halloween) the sacrifices were made, the hills burned brightly and fear reigned in the hearts of all. This night was a night of sacrifice and fertility when the gods cavorted freely and roamed the land.

Nowadays in contemporary Ireland, Halloween is still associated with ghouls and spirits. Bonfires are lit and children dress up in colourful costumes. 'Spirits' who call at the doors of homes are offered fruit and nuts. For many Halloween is still a night full of superstition and supernatural fears.

The Ulster Cycle is mostly concerned with tales of the Red Branch Knights who existed in the first century of the Christian era. This cycle largely evolves around the hero Cúchulainn. His birth name was Setanta but as a boy he killed a fierce hound belonging to a man called Culann. This guard dog was so big and savage that it took three chains to hold him and at the end of each chain there were three men. The hound is said to have been as big as a horse. He tried to attack Setanta but Setanta was too clever for him and quickly killed him. Culann the hound's owner was inconsolable but Setanta offered himself in place of the hound he had slain; thus he got the name of the hound of Culann - Cúchulainn.

The stories about Cúchulainn and his exploits and endeavours are extraordinary. He was famous for his strength and courage. He was said to have had the 'Gae Bulga', the spear of Bulga. Bulga was the God of lightning. This spear was similar to a modern-day javelin. Anybody who had 'Gae Bulga' was strengthened in battle.

Cúchulainn died around 12 BC. Finally exhausted and beaten from battle, he wished to die standing. He washed himself and went to a stone pillar and tied himself to it. At first his enemies were afraid to approach him. However, eventually a raven perched on his shoulder and started to peck at his eyes. The great Cúchulainn was dead. His death also marked the end of the dominance of the Red branch Knights. Cúchulainn has remained a major force in the Irish imagination and mythology. In the General Post Office in Dublin there is a bronze statue by Oliver Sheppard which depicts the death of Cúchulainn. He is said to be a symbol of unity and a reminder of a time when Ireland was proud and free.

The Fenian Cycle is set in the 3rd century of the Christian calendar. These tales revolve around the Fianna, a group of warriors famous for their bravery and skill at battle. They operated in units - a group of six warriors was known as a 'fian', thus the name Fianna came about. The Fianna only accepted men after they had undergone a series of tests to determine their abilities. If a man passed these tests he had to swear loyalty to the High King. If he was killed, his honour was defended by his fellow brothers-in-arms. Finn MacCunaill is the central character of this cycle. One of the most famous stories about him is how he acquired his great knowledge.

A druid was one of Finn's teachers. There was a salmon in the River Boyne which was the salmon of knowledge. Whoever ate this salmon would know everything that would happen in Ireland. The druid caught this fish but as Finn prepared it for him, some fat spat out from the fire and blistered his thumb. Finn licked it and immediately gained wisdom and second sight. With this power, Finn is supposed to have foretold the coming of the Danes.

The Cycle of Kings is a mixture of genuine history with symbolic fiction. Eminent scholars feel that some of the great personages depicted in the Cycle of Kings really did not exist and are actually literary characters. Tara, a hill located in County Meath, was the centre of ancient Ireland and the seat of the kings from the earliest times to the sixth century. The Tatra Feis was held every three years at Halloween. During this time all the kings met for six days, three days before October 31st and three days after. When a new king has been chosen, they held a bull feast, called 'Terbfes'. A white bull was killed and one of the druids took the meat and drank the broth from the bull. He slept while four druids chanted over him. While he slept he dreamt about the future king. When the druid woke, his dream was analysed and the new king was chosen.

This is but a brief outline of a world rich in sinister spirits, daring athletes, heroism and magic. These stories have been told in Ireland for over a thousand years or more and some were written down in ancient manuscripts which are housed in places like Trinity College Dublin.

Myth or history, fact or fiction? While academic interpretations may vary, the legends certainly make for fascinating reading.

by Deirdre Brennan of The International Study Centre, Dublin
published by kind permission of "The World of English"



Task 1

Read the text and find the words defined below. The definitions are given in the order of appearance.

 

the art of foretelling the future

the ability to reproduce crops or children

ruled, dominated

jumped in a joyful way

ghostly creatures which are believed to eat dead bodies

killed brutally

hard to comfort

a spear used in sports

gained

blew out

a meat and vegetable soup

 

Click here to see the answers

 

Task 2

Discuss the questions in pairs or groups:

 

1.       Which story presented in the article do you find the most interesting/mysterious?

2.       Do you know any old Polish legends? Are they similar to or different from the Irish ones?  

 


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