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
The Mythological Cycle
The Ulster Cycle
The Fenian Cycle
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
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
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"
the text and find the words defined below. The definitions are given in the
order of appearance.
art of foretelling the future
ability to reproduce crops or children
in a joyful way
creatures which are believed to eat dead bodies
spear used in sports
meat and vegetable soup
to see the answers
the questions in pairs or groups:
story presented in the article do you find the most interesting/mysterious?
you know any old Polish legends? Are they similar to or different from the